For nearly 20 years, those who supported the return of the old liturgy (now the “Extraordinary Form” of the Roman rite) scoured the news for the rare bishop who used the 1962 Missal on such-and-such occasion, favorable comments by someone — anyone — about the traditional liturgy, or indeed any reference to the old Mass at all. The single year since the release of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum last July 7, on the other hand, has been so full of firsts and about-faces that one can hardly keep track of them all.
This is all to the good. For as Pope Benedict XVI says, the Extraordinary Form is a great treasure of the Church, and “must be given due honor for its ancient and venerable usage.” Even non-Catholics once understood this: Nearly four decades ago, when it looked as if the traditional Mass would be permanently supplanted by the new, a petition drawn up by Catholic and non-Catholic cultural luminaries in England and Wales declared,
The signatories of this appeal, which is entirely ecumenical and nonpolitical, have been drawn from every branch of modern culture in Europe and elsewhere. They wish to call to the attention of the Holy See, the appalling responsibility it would incur in the history of the human spirit were it to refuse to allow the traditional Mass to survive.
The pope’s initiative has already borne much fruit, and interest in the Extraordinary Form continues to grow despite the cold if predictable indifference of so much of the episcopate. The Fraternity of St. Peter, the first of the orders of priests established by Pope John Paul II to offer the traditional liturgy, has been offering well-attended training seminars for priests interested in learning the Extraordinary Form. Word is that one thousand priests have requested the training DVD that the Fraternity prepared with EWTN.
Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, secretary of the Congregation for Worship, has said that those bishops who obstruct the implementation of the motu proprio are allowing themselves to be used as instruments of the devil. And reaction among the bishops has indeed been mixed: Some have been cooperative, aware of how intent Benedict is on seeing this through. Others have attempted to block Benedict’s move by tendentious interpretations of certain phrases in the relevant documents. The pope’s observation that the celebrating priest should have some competence in Latin has been used as the basis for making priests take Latin exams prior to receiving authorization (the very concept of episcopal authorization being at odds with the document’s intent) to offer the Extraordinary Form. The Latin original suggests only that priests, at a minimum, be able to pronounce the words — though, naturally, the more Latin they can learn, the better.
Summorum Pontificum‘s reference to a “stable group” of faithful making a request for the Extraordinary Form has been transformed in some dioceses into a requirement (in terms of numbers of faithful, etc.) that is extremely difficult to satisfy and that has disqualified countless lay inquiries. On the other hand, we learn from Castrillón Cardinal Hoyos, president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei and former prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, that a “stable group” may consist of as few as three or four people, who need not even be from the same parish. With a clarifying note on Summorum Pontificum expected from the Holy See at any time, some observers are convinced that Cardinal Hoyos’s comments reflect the contents of that forthcoming document.
Although the pope was gentle where possible in his fraternal letter to the bishops, he was extremely bold where it counted, both in the letter and in the motu proprio itself. For example, Benedict officially declared — as some had argued in vain for decades — that the old liturgy was “never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted.”
That’s not what those who specialize in divining the innermost thoughts of the popes told us all these years: A well-known 1982 book by two authors at pains to refute traditionalists declared, “We cannot conclude other than that the celebration of the Tridentine Mass is forbidden except where ecclesiastical law specifically allows it (aged or infirm priests celebrating sine populo) or under special circumstances where a papal indult applies (as in England and Wales under special circumstances).” According to Benedict, that conclusion is dead wrong, but such baseless theorizing was routinely used to marginalize and demonize Catholics in good standing.
The Catholic world has changed so much since July 7, 2007, that it is almost hard to believe that people devoted to the Faith were once relegated to the margins of the Church (when their opponents were feeling generous) for saying precisely what Benedict has made a career out of saying. Benedict has not merely declared his sympathies for the old Missal — that would be one thing. He has said that it is not normal for a brand new liturgical book to be introduced into the life of the Church, and that such a rupture (1) had never been seen before in Church history, and (2) is “absolutely contrary to the laws of liturgical growth.” He has criticized not merely the abuses we associate with the new liturgy but even the new liturgical books themselves, which “occasionally show far too many signs of being drawn up by academics and reinforce the notion that a liturgical book can be ‘made’ like any other book.” The new Missal, he says, “was published as if it were a book put together by professors, not a phase in a continual growth process.”
He goes on to say that the
formulae of the [new] Missal in fact give official sanction to creativity; the priest feels almost obliged to change the wording, to show that he is creative, that he is giving this Liturgy immediacy, making it present for his congregation; and with this false creativity, which transforms the Liturgy into a catechetical exercise for this congregation, the liturgical unity and the ecclesiality of the Liturgy [are] being destroyed.
I’ve written in much greater detail on this very site about Benedict’s liturgical thought. No longer must the faithful walk on eggshells: With such a man as pope we can at last speak frankly about the liturgical crisis in the Church. And, as I’ve discovered many times over the past year or more, it has now become possible on Catholic radio to make commonsensical observations about liturgical issues that in the old days they would have hung up on you for.
In recent weeks, Cardinal Hoyos has made clear just how ambitious Benedict’s expectations are. The cardinal made headlines when, in response to a journalist’s inquiry as to whether the pope wanted to see the Extraordinary Form in “many ordinary parishes,” he replied, “All the parishes. Not many — all the parishes, because this is a gift of God.” “This kind of worship is so noble, so beautiful,” he said.
According to Cardinal Hoyos, the Ecclesia Dei Commission is instructing seminaries to teach seminarians not only the Extraordinary Form itself but also the theology and language of the old Missal. He suggests that parishes hold classes to prepare their people for the traditional liturgy, so they might “appreciate the power of the silence, the power of the sacred way in front of God, the deep theology, to discover how and why the priest represents the person of Christ and to pray with the priest.”
I never expected to live to see this.
The traditional liturgy is of great pedagogical value to a world that knows nothing of reverence or of respect for tradition, and that takes for granted that all institutions of whatever provenance or antiquity are to be adapted and updated to suit modern man. That modern man might not in fact be the apogee of human civilization, and could perhaps stand to conform his own behavior to something outside himself instead of thoughtlessly vandalizing everything around him, is a message the modern West just might need to hear. Long live Pope Benedict.