The dust is settling a little after Pope Francis’s Traditionis Custodes. This is not to say that the matter is over. Rather, we await the process of implementation with uncertainty about how bishops will apply the Motu proprio and how it will be received by those members of the faithful devoted to the Tridentine Mass.[1] Hopefully, the former will apply it in accord with the Pope’s guidance but also with kindness and deference to traditionalists. Hopefully, the latter will receive this teaching and this governance with fidelity and obedience. For this to happen requires a fuller understanding of Traditiones Custodes as a text meant to foster unity and guard the full tradition of the Church.

Much of the attention on Traditionis Custodes has focused on Francis’s concern that the Tridentine Mass has been used to “widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements.” Francis is interpreted as suppressing the rite because some percentage of its adherents have schismatic tendencies. This leaves Francis open to the critique that he is acting unjustly by punishing all because of the ill deeds of some. Such a communal punishment—as shown in the dialogue between Abraham and God regarding Sodom—is deeply unfair. Even if many are acting schismatically, this does not justify a restriction that affects those who attend the Tridentine rite but remain faithful.

However, having two Roman rites is itself the source of division. It is not incidental that divergences have arisen, nor is it incidental that some claim the mantel of the True Church while denying Vatican II. Having two rites attracts and fosters division and having a rite that is pre-Vatican II lends itself to the rejection of Vatican II. As Francis states, “I intend to re-establish [unity] throughout the Church of the Roman Rite.” The unity of Roman rite tradition is fostered by the unity of our rite. Francis is not ‘punishing’ the many because of some. Rather, he sees the gaps, divisions, and disagreements as a consequence of allowing two Roman rites. He is correcting those who have gone astray and protecting those who may be led astray by the practice of two Rites. He is performing an essential office of the papacy and working that “all may be one” (John 12:21). The oneness of the Roman rite is expressed in the oneness of its liturgy, thus the Vatican II liturgy is “the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” Its uniqueness is the foundation of the unity that is per se undermined by having two rites.[2]

There is, however, a more important principle at work in the letter as shown in its title: Guardians of Tradition. Some commentators claim Francis is “uncomfortable with the tradition of the Church” and lacks devotion to “the complete fullness of Catholicism.” In truth, Francis is acting as a guardian of tradition and is summoning all the faithful to participate in this work. While the document is a ‘no’ to the continuing celebration of the Tridentine rite, it is, more importantly, a ‘yes’ to the full tradition of the Church in its support of Vatican II and the Roman Rite. We need then to see that the liturgy of the Second Vatican Council is better than the Tridentine liturgy and so is properly the Roman Rite. (Better means both rites are good, but the Vatican II liturgy more fully expresses the faith.) To see the Vatican II liturgy as better is to recognize its place in the deepening, broadening, and developing of the Church on its pilgrimage to God. To be devoted to it is to be devoted to the “complete fullness of Catholicism.” It is not to denigrate the Tridentine rite but to recognize how it is taken up and elevated in the Vatican II liturgy and so into that complete fullness.

To see this, I want to offer a simplified history of the Church’s development to show that the liturgy of Vatican II expresses the full ecclesial breadth of the life of the Church. To trace the history of the Church is to see the broadening activation of the whole People of God. Increasingly, all Christians have been called to holiness and active mission. Correspondingly, there have been developments in prayer and liturgy that have led to greater participation in the life of the Church as a community of prayer in which all are active. If we consider the early Middle Ages, the Church was marked by its rich monastic life. Saints, theologians, popes, and reform movements came from monasteries. The liturgy was most fully celebrated in those monasteries. As the Church developed, it brought the monastery to the people. In the early 13th Century the mendicant orders brought these rich liturgical practices to the cities drawing more people into the liturgical life.

Trent, and its accompanying reforms, accelerated this broadening. The genius of Trent was activating the full clergy beyond the Monastics and the Mendicants through major reforms in the formation of priests. Expectations arose for priests to be educated, know Latin, and be able to preach. If the early medieval Church’s liturgy centered on monasteries and the late medieval centered on priories, the Tridentine liturgy centered on a cleric in a parish. All liturgical ministries are conducted by the one celebrant along with other clerics or altar servers dressed in clerical garb. The laity had little role—hearing little and saying less. Nevertheless, the Tridentine reforms recentered the liturgical life of the Church on the parish, and so in intimate relation to the laity.

We are now living within the lay moment of the Church, which means we are living in a fuller ecclesiology. Vatican II offered an ecclesial theology of the laity as active ministers in the life of the Church with a mission proper to them. The Council Fathers called for a liturgical reform that recognizes and fosters the active ministry of the laity in the world and so in the liturgy. This does not end the monastic, mendicant, or clerical realities. However, growth does mean change especially when it entails activating the whole People of God. The liturgy expresses this not only in the sense that the law of prayer is the law of faith but also that our ecclesial practice must correspond with our liturgical practice. A liturgy in which the laity has no active role cannot express the ecclesial reality that the members of the laity do have active roles in virtue of Baptism and Confirmation. Thus the shift to vernacular, the communal sign of peace, the richer scriptural readings, and the lay roles of server, reader, and Eucharistic minister are so important. Most importantly, the Vatican II liturgy restores and reunites the Mass as sacrifice and sacred meal (Sacrum Convivium) which is obscured in the Tridentine rite. Finally, this broadening and activating of the whole Body of Christ correspond with the globalization of Catholicism. The liturgy of Vatican II fosters this by drawing all human languages into her liturgy. As Augustine taught, the Church lives as a pilgrim city, “a pilgrim on this earth, who summons citizens of all nations and every tongue.” In the Roman Rite, the Church now summons all nations and all languages in a way not possible in the Tridentine Rite.

The liturgy of the Second Vatican Council is better because it is suited to this era of the Church. More importantly, it activates the full Body of Christ. In fully involving the laity (in the roles proper to them), Vatican II activated the whole Church. Thus Sacrosanctum Concilium calls for the “full, active, and conscious participation” of the laity because Lumen Gentium declares that “the apostolate of the laity is a sharing in the church’s saving mission” and Apostolicam Actuositatem states “it is by the Lord himself that they are assigned to the apostolate.” To separate the active apostolate from the active liturgical practice is to foster an ecclesial incoherence. The Roman Rite, in contrast, fosters the full coherence of the Church by summoning all to active engagement in the liturgy in ways impossible in the Tridentine Rite. This does not take away from the essential role of the priest who alone can offer the sacrifice of the Mass. The broadening of the liturgy is not a founding of a new liturgy. It is an expansion and actualization of the Roman Rite so that what was fitting and good about the liturgy is carried forward but what was itself too clerical has been reformed.

Francis, as custodian of the tradition, maintains the full tradition as it has developed according to the Council and the Magisterium. In affirming the one Roman rite, he is affirming the full tradition against those who deny the tradition as defined by Vatican II. In other words, the positive message of Traditions Custodes is that Vatican II and its liturgy is the expression of the tradition as activated in the life of the whole people of God. This fullness of the Catholic tradition is being undermined by the celebration of two rites—one which implicitly rejects the full practice of the liturgy by the whole people of God and one which fully inhabits the tradition by activating the whole Body of Christ in prayer and mission.

Where then do we go from here? I do wish Francis, in this document and elsewhere, was more committed to liturgical reform. He writes to the bishops, “I ask you to be vigilant in ensuring that every liturgy be celebrated with decorum and fidelity to the liturgical books promulgated after Vatican Council II, without the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses.” We need the Pope to do more than ask. We need to overcome post-Vatican II clericalism. This clericalism lies in priests deciding to make things up, disregard the liturgical texts, and import modern accretions. If we are to guard the tradition, we need to guard the liturgy, celebrate it reverently, and commit to the full teaching of the Church. To commit to the liturgy of Vatican II requires the actual celebration of the liturgy as a theocentric event not something a priest, parish council, or musical director decides to make up.

Further, I hope Francis and the bishops support the rich celebration of the Vatican II liturgy in Latin. Traditional parishes should be supported in the celebrations of the Roman rite in Latin. While most parishes will continue to celebrate in the vernacular, they should do so with proper liturgical garments, fully celebrated liturgies, processions, and yes smells and bells. If Traditionis Custodes leads to the full celebration of the Roman rite, a deepened commitment to Vatican II, and a fuller engagement of the whole Church then much good will come of this Motu proprio. For that to take place, we must all respond to the summons of Pope Francis to be guardians of the full tradition. We must all commit to the active life of liturgical prayer and the active work of ministry in the Church and to the world. If the Church and her liturgy are always in need of purification and renewal then the true reform of the reform will lead to a liturgical celebration that is richly traditional, centered on the priests offering of the sacrifice at the shared altar, and drawing upon the full engagement of the whole people of God. That is a tradition well worth guarding.


[1] For clarity, I will refer to the Tridentine Rite and the Vatican II liturgy. There are numerous ways to refer to these two historical expressions of the Roman Rite. I find these two clearest. Of note, Francis is summoning us to refer to the Vatican II liturgy as the Roman Rite. This is the goal of his Moto propio; our job is to live out and foster this liturgical unity.

[2] I focus here on the Roman Rite because this is a debate about the Roman Rite. The unity of the Rites of the whole Catholic Church lies in the sacraments, the doctrine and dogma of the Church, and the fidelity of the faithful to the Petrine Office. Nothing I am saying here is meant to indicate any disunity between the Rites nor is it meant to indicate any inferiority of the other Catholic Rites.

Image: Vatican News

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