In his post yesterday, Adam Rasmussen explained the theological and ecclesiological reasons for Pope Francis’s motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes. In the midst of all the controversy, there is much hope to be found in this rather bold decision. I don’t say this to be patronizing or condescending toward those who prefer the older form of the Roman rite, nor do I mean to delegitimize the very real suffering that people feel following this decision. In this context, what I mean by “hope” is the hope for a more unified Church. More practically, it is also the hope for more reverent and faithful liturgy. We have good reason to believe that Benedict XVI’s vision for the enrichment of the Church’s liturgy might now be fully realized—although probably not in the exact way he had intended or envisioned.
It’s first important to understand why Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum in the first place, his motu proprio expanding the celebration of the Mass celebrated according to the 1962 Missal. Benedict recognized and was quite critical of the widespread liturgical abuse that spread in the immediate post-Vatican II era. If you are Catholic, it’s likely that you have seen such abuses in one form or another. In Benedict’s thinking, the love and attachment to the 1962 Missal was in many ways born of frustration with the way that many priests and bishops imposed their own will on the rubrics of the Mass. He wrote,
Many people who clearly accepted the binding character of the Second Vatican Council, and were faithful to the Pope and the Bishops, nonetheless also desired to recover the form of the sacred liturgy that was dear to them. This occurred above all because in many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear. I am speaking from experience, since I too lived through that period with all its hopes and its confusion. And I have seen how arbitrary deformations of the liturgy caused deep pain to individuals totally rooted in the faith of the Church.
Benedict saw Summorum Pontificum as a way to open up a rich tradition of liturgy for more frequent celebration. By doing so, he hoped to nourish communities attached to its power and mystery, who would, in turn, inform the liturgy of the Church as a whole. It’s clear that Benedict wanted what he called the ordinary form and the extraordinary form of the Roman rite to be “mutually enriching.” He desired that those who loved and were devoted to reverent liturgy in the extraordinary form to be a positive force for the reform of the liturgy in the ordinary form, and likewise for the ordinary form to “demonstrate, more powerfully than has been the case hitherto, the sacrality which attracts many people to the former usage.”
In retrospect, and in light of Traditionis Custodes, we can point out two key miscalculations Benedict made. First, he assumed that the use of the 1962 Missal would remain fairly uncommon and would only be celebrated by priests and people who had an existing attachment to it. Instead, in many Catholic communities the celebration of the usus antiquior has expanded and has become an increasingly powerful draw—particularly for young Catholics—even from great distances. Indeed, this has been one of the arguments made for more widespread celebration of the older form.
There are two forms of growth, however: organic growth and growth by acquisition. Many have attested to how the 1962 Missal has been a source of joy, a profound inbreaking of the divine in the midst of daily life. Many converts, therefore, can speak to the “organic growth” the old form has produced, not to mention the children raised in the tradition. But this growth has not come without costs.
For one thing, parish dynamics have deteriorated. Ordinary parishes celebrating according to the 1970 Missal have been negatively impacted by the absence of faithful Catholics who have left in order to attend the older form, often traveling great distances to join personal parishes. The loss of even one or two young, devoted families can be devastating to parish life.
Moreover, where Benedict envisioned a lively interaction between the two forms—how else could the two forms be “mutually enriching”?—what we’ve seen is the development of segregated Catholic cultures. Catholics have become separated not only by liturgical preference but also ideas about Catholic living and understandings of the Catholic faith. Rather than one united Church celebrating two forms of the same rite, we have two separate communities with different attitudes and beliefs. These negative developments are expressly in conflict with Benedict’s expectations.
Benedict’s second miscalculation is that—assuming any negative developments did occur—he thought episcopal oversight and review would prevent major concerns. He wrote to the bishops in his accompanying letter, “It is true that there have been exaggerations and at times social aspects unduly linked to the attitude of the faithful attached to the ancient Latin liturgical tradition. Your charity and pastoral prudence will be an incentive and guide for improving these.”
Sadly, over the last fifteen years, many bishops have even been caught up in the very “social aspects” that Benedict laments—namely a Lefebvrian-like resistance to Vatican II. Among both the laity and the hierarchy, these attitudes have only become further entrenched during Francis’s papacy, which has challenged their assumptions about the faith. More Catholics now openly oppose the Council, in whole or in part.
Although Benedict erred in judgment, there is hope that this new motu proprio can help the Church move forward on two of his key goals: the continual reform of the Mass celebrated according to the 1970 Missal and the unity of the Catholic faithful. Seen in this light, Traditionis Custodes is not so much a punishment for bad actors, but—recognizing present social realities—a new phase of the implementation of Benedict’s plan. To this point, Francis prays that the bishops’ “care and vigilance express communion even in the unity of one, single Rite, in which is preserved the great richness of the Roman liturgical tradition.”
Regarding the form of the Mass, Francis makes clear that he agrees with Benedict regarding the liturgical abuses that have crept in over time. He quotes his predecessor directly in this regard, adding, “I am saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides.” But whereas Benedict intended for the celebration of two forms of the same rite to be “mutually enriching,” Francis advocates another path. Specifically he points out, “Whoever wishes to celebrate with devotion according to earlier forms of the liturgy can find in the reformed Roman Missal according to Vatican Council II all the elements of the Roman Rite, in particular the Roman Canon which constitutes one of its more distinctive elements.” This and other comments from his accompanying letter to bishops are an invitation to those attached to the usus antiquior to not simply set aside their liturgical preferences going forward. Where Summorum Pontificum unfortunately led to greater division over liturgy after its promulgation, Francis’s decision will compel these two groups into greater interaction.
This, potentially, can be an opportunity to increase the reverence of the liturgy for all Catholics, which will only be possible with the cooperation by those who understand and love liturgical tradition. The lackadaisical way that many priests follow the rubrics can detract from the sacred atmosphere of the Mass. Innovations and novelties introduced by priests can be truly frustrating and have no place in the universal prayer of the Church. The Mass should have power, both spiritually and in our minds and bodies. Accordingly, in his accompanying letter to the bishops, Francis asks them “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.”
Likewise, this motu proprio is a new opportunity for unity in the Church, which is something Benedict always intended. While it likely will not happen all at once or even in the near future, ultimately this could lead to more of us attending Mass together. True unity, however, will demand that those who have been celebrating according to the 1970 missal, perhaps having become desensitized to liturgical aberrations, be willing to listen to those who are frustrated with their experiences of irreverence and novelty at Mass. Our pastors and liturgical leaders often do not listen to the input of those devoted to reverent liturgy. Regretfully, many of us in the pews have not listened to their concerns either, and we have made them feel isolated.
Working towards a unified Church will undoubtedly be a challenge. Although the 1962 Missal was often the occasion for many ideologies opposed to Vatican II and the Living Magisterium of the Church, it did not produce them. So we must realize that the strength and pull of ideologies are not simply proportional to the frequency with which the older form of the Mass is celebrated. To work for unity, we must never cease engaging in dialogue. Fortunately, in this regard, unity and reverence are mutually reinforcing and are achieved simultaneously; our success in one area facilitates success in the other. We have an opportunity to allow ourselves to be informed by each other and enriched by the perspective of others, in the hope of a more profound unity in Christ.
Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.