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Pope Benedict XVI’s document Summorum Pontificum, easing restrictions for the celebration of the Old Latin Mass, was released on July 7.
“What earlier generations held as sacred remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful,” the Pope wrote.
The Pope’s move is an effort to heal a rift within the Catholic Church since Pope Paul VI’s introduction of the New Mass in 1969.
Thousands of Catholics the world over reacted against the New Mass, arguing that it is not merely an English translation of the traditional Mass, but an entirely new liturgy containing disturbing liberal elements.
The most well-known of these “traditionalist” Catholics is the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. In 1970, the Archbishop founded the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) in response to the requests of seminarians who wanted to be formed according to the traditional doctrine and liturgy of the Catholic Church. The SSPX was established as an international organization and now hundreds-of-thousands of adherents around the globe support the SSPX.
In 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without Vatican approval. Pope John Paul II labeled the consecration a schismatic act and said that the Archbishop and the four bishops he consecrated had excommunicated themselves.
Lefebvre and his followers — arguing from Church tradition and Canon Law — insist they are neither schismatic nor excommunicated, but remain faithful to what the Church always taught and practiced. Such fidelity, they maintain, compels them (according to the Catholic Doctors of the Church, e.g. St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine) to resist many of the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council, such as ecumenism.
In 1988, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, led the discussions with the Society of St. Pius X in an effort to effect reconciliation. Since then, the Vatican has continued its conversation with the leadership of the Society of St. Pius X in an ongoing effort to heal the rift. On August 29, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI met with Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the SSPX.
Recently Vatican Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos stated that the Society is not in formal schism, though many issues remain unresolved.
Pope Benedict XVI has voiced his own reservations about the New Mass of Paul VI. Years ago, then-Cardinal Ratzinger lamented that he had hoped the liturgical reforms of Vatican II would draw from the riches of liturgical tradition, instead, he said, we “can only stand, deeply sorrowing, before the ruins of the very things that(we) were concerned for.”
Of the New Mass, Cardinal Ratzinger said, “in the place of liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over the centuries and replaced it — as in a manufacturing process — with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product.”
This was not the first time a Vatican Cardinal spoke negatively of the liturgical reform.
In 1969, before Paul VI released the New Liturgy, Vatican Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci sent Pope Paul VI a letter that accompanied a brief Critical Study of the New Mass. Here the Cardinals said the New Mass “represents, both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Session 22 of the Council of Trent,” and would produce an agonizing crisis of conscience for numerous priests.
The Critical Study also said that the New Mass “would gladden the heart of the most modernist Protestant”.
Pope Benedict XVI’s new Motu Proprio does not acknowledge the doctrinal problems with the New Mass. Traditional Catholics have already sadly noted that this is a deficiency in the document.
Before becoming Pope, Benedict XVI favored lifting the restrictions on celebrating the Latin Mass. In his 1997 interview-book Salt of the Earth, he said, “A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden and when it makes longing for it seem downright indecent.” He continued, “the old rite should be granted much more generously to all who desire it.”
Those Catholics “who desire it” have insisted for decades that the Old Mass was never forbidden.
In 1986, Pope John Paul II convened a commission of nine Vatican Cardinals to provide answers to two questions: 1) Did Pope Paul VI or any other competent authority ever forbid the celebration of the traditional Mass? 2) Does the priest have the right to celebrate the traditional Mass even against the will of his bishop?
Vatican Cardinal Alfons Stickler, at a 1995 Christi Fidelis conference in Fort Lee, New Jersey, related that he was one of the Cardinals on the Commission. Cardinal Stickler said, “the answer given by the nine cardinals in 1986 was ‘No, the Mass of Saint Pius V (the Tridentine Mass) has never been suppressed’.”
The Cardinal went on to explain that Pope John Paul II had a decree drawn up relating this fact but did not sign it due to the opposition of various Cardinals and bishops.
In answer to the second question, Cardinal Stickler said, “the nine Cardinals unanimously agreed that no bishop may forbid a Catholic priest from saying the Tridentine Mass.”
Cardinal Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — was also a member of the 1986 nine-Cardinal Commission.
Not much has changed since 1986. Many bishops, particularly in France and Germany, are not well disposed towards the Old Latin Mass, and had voiced objections to the Pope’s Motu Proprio prior to its release. These bishops see the revival of the Latin Mass as a threat to their modern reforms — reforms, incidentally, that have virtually emptied their churches.
For traditional Catholics, the most important section of the new document is Pope Benedict XVI’s words: “Hence it is licit to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass in accordance with the typical edition of the Roman Missal promulgated by Blessed John XXIII in 1962 and never abrogated…”
On Sunday, July 8, Father Robert Pasley, pastor of Mater Ecclesia, a diocesan approved Latin Mass parish in Berlin, New Jersey, said in his homily “We are living through and are part of a major, fundamental, awesome reaffirmation of the traditions of our Faith.”
Father Pasley also noted that with this new papal document, those who worked for decades against seemingly impossible odds for the restoration of the Old Mass “have been affirmed and vindicated.”
Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X, issued a statement on July 7 saying, “By the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI has reinstated the Tridentine Mass in its rights, and clearly affirmed that the Roman Missal promulgated by Saint Pius V had never been abrogated. The Priestly Society of Saint Pius X rejoices to see the Church thus regain her liturgical Tradition, and give the possibility of a free access to the treasure of the Traditional Mass for the glory of God, the good of the Church and the salvation of souls, to the priests and faithful who had so far been deprived of it. The Priestly Society of Saint Pius X extends its deep gratitude to the Sovereign Pontiff for this great spiritual benefit.”
Bishop Fellay continued, “The letter which accompanies the Motu Proprio does not hide however the difficulties that still remain. The Society of Saint Pius X wishes that the favorable climate established by the new dispositions of the Holy See will make it possible — after the decree of excommunication which still affects its bishops has been withdrawn — to consider more serenely the disputed doctrinal issues.”