Sudden rumors that Pope Francis may issue possible restrictions on his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum has caused an uproar among devotees of the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). Eric Sammons highlighted here at Crisis the growth and passionate desire among some of the faithful for the traditional form of the liturgy, and he noted that the practical impact of the rumored actions is unclear.
This wouldn’t be the first time Rome interfered with a traditional form of liturgy.
My ancestors were among the Early Christians who first settled in present-day Iraq and later migrated to South India in AD 345. They lived among the descendants of the St. Thomas Christians, and over time the growing community worshipped according to the liturgy of the Assyrian Church of the East, presently known as the Chaldean Rite.
Fast-forward 12 centuries: the Portuguese established themselves in South India and sought to challenge the Faith practices of the St. Thomas Christians, even though the latter’s history in the Faith long predated the former’s. In 1599, the Latin Rite Archbishop of Goa, Alexis de Menezes, convoked the Synod of Diamper. The six-day synod aimed to Latinize the liturgy of the St. Thomas Christians and to correct supposed errors. For instance, the synod falsely accused the St. Thomas Christians of Nestorianism.
In protest, many of the Indian clergy refused to attend the synod. Because adherence to the synod was under the threat of excommunication, an estimated half of the St. Thomas Christians left the Church, publicly opposing this Latin imposition at an event known as the Coonan Cross Oath. These Indian Christians swore they would not submit to Rome, and instead they aligned themselves with the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch.
More than three centuries later, Rome attempted to correct this misstep. On December 21, 1923, Pope Pius XI established the Syro-Malabar hierarchy (“Syro” to capture the Syrian Christian influence, and “Malabar” to denote the state of Kerala in South India where the St. Thomas Christians lived) in his issuance of the Apostolic Constitution Romani Pontifices. This provided the momentum to restore the liturgical practices of the St. Thomas Christians. In 1957, Pope Pius XII officially recognized the Syro-Malabar Rite among the various Eastern Rites.
On December 16, 1992, Pope St. John Paul II raised the Syro-Malabar Church to the status of Major Archiepiscopal sui iuris Church. In 2004, the pope granted the Syro-Malabar Church full administrative powers, including the power to elect bishops.
The history of the present-day Syro-Malabar Catholics reveals the sad aftermath of a liturgy interrupted. While there was a modest albeit incomplete return to the liturgical practices pre-Latinization, the lasting damage over and above the liturgical imposition was the loss of members of the clergy and the faithful following the Synod of Diamper.
In light of this history, and juxtaposed with the present experience of confusion and outrage of TLM devotees over the rumored restrictions of the celebration of the Tridentine Mass, we experience the temptation toward despair and discouragement. However, as Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila wisely counsels, faith is the “antidote to despair.” Therefore, I would like to offer the following suggestions:
- Our faith is in Jesus Christ. Nothing can separate us from God’s love (cf. Romans 8:38) and all things work for good for those who love God (cf. Romans 8:28). Regardless of what is or isn’t happening with the TLM, our eyes ought to always be on Christ. When we give in to anxiety, we lose this gaze and then we become susceptible to bitterness and resentment. While there is justified anger at the potential for restrictions on TLM, the liturgy is a means to worship the Holy Trinity and not an end in itself. We are called by our baptism to share in the divine nature (cf. 2 Peter 1:4), but bitterness weighs us down and prevents us from abiding peacefully in the Trinity. Resentment impedes the abundant life (cf. John 20:20) that Christ offers us.
- Take heed to the encouraging words from Crisis Contributing Editor Austin Ruse in his new book Under Siege: No Finer Time to Be a Faithful Catholic: ”…there has never been a finer time to be a faithful Catholic” (147). I recommend reading this book, as does Catholic author Robert R. Reilly. Ruse exhorts Catholics not to give into despair but to respond to the Spirit’s call to become saints in the face of growing threats to the Faith. This same exhortation applies to TLM Catholics to embrace hope amid potential challenges to their favored liturgy.
- Given the experience of the Syro-Malabar Catholics, I believe there is a lot in common between TLM attendees and Eastern Catholics. Both groups appreciate liturgy with deep historical roots and are often misunderstood by mainstream Catholics. TLM and Eastern Catholics do not take the sacredness of the liturgy for granted and devote themselves to the Sabbath generously, with Masses that typically surpass in duration relative to the Novus Ordo liturgy. Additionally, I believe TLM devotees may find more in common with Eastern Catholics than Novus Ordo devotees, especially in terms of conservative theological positions and traditional family values.
I would encourage TLM attendees to consider getting to know a local Eastern Catholic community. This would provide an opportunity to experience the catholicity of the Church while deepening the appreciation for an older liturgy. Some Eastern Catholic communities are small and might not offer the full liturgical experience as would a larger community. That being said, I used to attend a small Melkite Greek Catholic Church before my children were born, and I deeply enjoyed participating in the liturgy, the thought-provoking homilies, and the community fellowship after the liturgy. I also used to attend a Syro-Malankara liturgy on Sunday afternoons that utilized a tiny chapel at the North Hollywood parish that Cardinal Roger Mahoney resides at. This three-hour liturgy with ancient Syriac prayers was moving and unforgettable.
- Continue attending TLM. Any potential forthcoming changes to TLM would likely not affect current TLM offerings, which are expected to be grandfathered in. Additionally, the insight from the Serenity Prayer denotes letting go of that which we cannot change. There is tremendous freedom with this disposition. Lastly, remain in the present because that is where we meet God, and there are no restrictions to TLM in the present.
Therefore, even if TLM liturgy is interrupted, we should not let that interrupt our faith in Christ and our desire to be united with Him in Heaven. Rather, let us pray unceasingly (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:17) and worship in the manner that brings us closer to God.
[Photo Credit: Mar Gregory Karotemprel CMI, Bishop Emeritus of Rajkot (provided by author)]