Restoring Tradition

Editor’s Note: This is an exclusive excerpt from Joseph Pearce’s forthcoming book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith.

In May 2011, Georg Ratzinger, the pope’s brother, was asked during an interview what he considered to be the “focal points” of Benedict’s pontificate. Without hesitation, he singled out the pope’s efforts to restore the traditional liturgy:

He is of course very concerned that the liturgy should be celebrated worthily and that it be celebrated correctly. Indeed, that is a genuine problem. Our diocesan music director recently said that it is by no means easy nowadays to find a church where the pastor celebrates his Mass according to the regulations of the Church. There are so many priests who think they have to add something here and change something there. So my brother wants an orderly, good liturgy that moves people interiorly and is understood as a call from God.   

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These words, coming as they do from the man who knew the pope better than anyone, should be considered carefully and treated with the gravitas that they warrant. 

Since it is clear that Georg Ratzinger remained the pope’s closest and most intimate confidant, it is reasonable to assume that he spoke personally and frankly with him, This being so, it is telling that Georg Ratzinger, upon being asked what he considered the focal points of Benedict’s pontificate, answered immediately that the liturgy was the pope’s most pressing concern. Indeed it was the only focal point that Georg Ratzinger felt moved to mention in responding to the question. One imagines that his reply was given as a result of the many conversations that he and Benedict had on the subject of the liturgy in the quiet time that they shared together. 

If it is really true, as his brother insisted, that the restoration of the traditional integrity of the liturgy was Pope Benedict’s principal and most pressing concern it becomes clear that the issuing of his Apostolic Letter, Summorum Pontificum, given Motu Proprio, can be seen as one of the defining moments, and perhaps as the defining moment, of his whole pontificate. This Letter, issued on July 7, 2007, had been long and eagerly awaited by the millions of Catholics around the world who had been marginalized, demonized and ghettoized by modernist bishops and clergy for the “crime” of desiring the Traditional Latin Mass. 

Considering the Motu Proprio’s undoubted importance, it will do well to dwell on its contents, summarizing its reasoning and its decrees.

As is decorous for a supreme pontiff of the Church, Benedict began with an appeal to tradition, stating that the popes throughout the ages have shown a great concern for the liturgy, through which the Church offers “worthy worship to the Divine Majesty”. 

Citing the “eminent” example of St. Gregory the Great who had “sought to hand on to the new peoples of Europe both the Catholic faith and the treasures of worship and culture amassed by the Romans in preceding centuries”, Benedict praised his great predecessor for his defining and preserving of the form of the sacred liturgy, both the Mass and the Divine Office, and for his spreading of this uniform and unifying Roman liturgy, via the Benedictine Order, throughout the Christian world. “In this way the sacred liturgy, celebrated according to the Roman usage, enriched the faith and piety, as well as the culture, of numerous peoples.  It is well known that in every century of the Christian era the Church’s Latin liturgy in its various forms has inspired countless saints in their spiritual life, confirmed many peoples in the virtue of religion and enriched their devotion.”

Following the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Mass by Paul VI in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict observed that “not a few of the faithful continued to be attached with such love and affection to the earlier liturgical forms which had deeply shaped their culture and spirit” that his predecessor, St. John Paul II, was “concerned for their pastoral care”. Such concern led John Paul II, in 1984, to grant a special indult Quattuor Abhinc Annos, issued by the Congregation of Divine Worship, permitting the use of the pre-Vatican II Missal. Four years later, in 1988, John Paul II issued Ecclesia Dei, a Motu Proprio exhorting bishops to make “broad and generous use” of the 1984 indult “on behalf of all the faithful who sought it”.

Almost twenty years after John Paul II’s Motu Proprio, his successor’s own Motu Proprio was being written in light of “the continued requests of these members of the faithful, long deliberated upon by our predecessor”. Implicit in Benedict’s discussion of John Paul II’s efforts to succor and support tradition-oriented Catholics is the failure of most bishops to respond to his predecessor’s indult and exhortation. It was clearly the shameful and woeful neglect of the traditionalist faithful by most of the world’s bishops, in defiance of the wishes of John Paul II, that had prompted Benedict to act with his own Motu Proprio, which effectively bypassed the bishops, thereby liberating tradition-oriented priests and millions of traditionalist Catholics from the indigent indifference or obstructive hostility of lukewarm or modernist members of the hierarchy. 

Whereas John Paul II had invested the pastoral care of the traditionalist faithful to their local bishops, Benedict effectively took traditional Catholics under his own wing, guaranteeing their right to the Traditional Mass with the papal seal of authority. Thus the Motu Proprio effectively placed the Traditional Mass on the same footing as the post-conciliar Novus Ordo Mass, the latter being designated the Ordinary Form and the former the Extraordinary Form. 

Having stressed that the Traditional Mass was “never abrogated” he sought to ensure the freedom of the faithful to be present at the celebration of the Mass by replacing John Paul II’s earlier indult and Motu Proprio, which had relied on the good faith of the bishops, with a new set of decrees which gave all priests the right to celebrate the Traditional Mass and all the faithful the right to attend it, without the necessity of seeking permission from the bishop in order to do so. Furthermore, the pope instructed parish priests to provide the faithful with the Traditional Latin Mass whenever and wherever a group of parishioners desired it: “In parishes where a group of the faithful attached to the previous liturgical tradition stably exists, the parish priest should willingly accede to their requests to celebrate Holy Mass according to the rite of the 1962 Roman Missal.” 

In a further move to end the marginalization of the Traditional Mass, Benedict also decreed that it could be celebrated on Sundays and Feast Days and was not to be restricted to midweek Masses that few attend. In similar vein, he decreed that “the pastor should allow celebrations in this extraordinary form also in special circumstances such as marriages, funerals or occasional celebrations, e.g. pilgrimages”, whenever this was requested by either priests or laity.

Well aware that many priests and bishops had willfully ignored or defied John Paul II’s request that they be indulgent and charitable towards the traditionalist members of their flocks, Benedict decreed that the faithful could ultimately appeal to Rome itself in cases where their wishes were being thwarted by recalcitrant pastors or bishops. In effect, traditionalist Catholics now had the right to appeal directly to the pope if their local bishops sought to ignore or defy the new status of equality given to the Traditional Mass. 

The issuing of Summorum Pontificum was received with great jubilation by the millions of traditionalist Catholics around the world who were finally being welcomed with loving arms by the Holy Father after experiencing decades in the wilderness, ostracized by modernists and treated as pariahs. In this sense, Summorum Pontificum can be seen as the loving response of a good shepherd to the persecution of a significant portion of his flock. Not surprisingly, Summorum Pontificum was greeted with outrage by those modernists who, as wolves in sheep’s clothing, had been preying on the flock disguised as “reformers”. These modernist wolves attacked the pope’s Letter for being “reactionary” in the pejorative sense of its being a knee-jerk response which would have retrogressive consequences, whereas it was, in fact, reactionary in the positive sense of being a restoration of true order and tradition after the destruction and deconstruction of several decades of liturgical modernism. It was the healthy reaction of a pope who was fully alive to the truth of tradition. This sort of reaction is not only healthy, it is a sign of the life of the spirit within the Church. A healthy organism always reacts; only a corpse is not reactionary!

  • Joseph Pearce

    Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, is newly published by TAN Books. His website is jpearce.co.

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