Beyond languageMark Francis
- 14 July 2007
Pope Benedict's sanction for wider use of the Tridentine Mass is an unprecedented change in the Church's liturgical life. But as this professor of liturgy argues, it also has troubling theological and pastoral consequences
The long-expected motu proprio of Pope Benedict XVI, permitting a wider use of the 1962 edition of the "Missal of Pius V" - the so-called Tridentine Mass - has finally been published, containing elements that are sure to displease traditionalists and progressives alike.
Understandably, the majority of Catholics "in the middle" may wonder what the fuss is all about since only a small minority has voiced an ardent desire to return to the old rite. It is very unlikely that Catholics will flock en masse to their local parishes to demand that altars be turned back to the wall and that money be set aside for the purchase of new baroque chasubles with matching maniples, pax boards, and the reinstallation of communion rails.
Nevertheless, publication of "Summorum Pontificum" is troubling. Given the negative reaction that the possibility of this motu proprio provoked among many bishops - especially in France - and despite Benedict XVI's repeated statements in support of collegiality, it is disappointing that he seems to have given greater weight to a small group of advisers (and perhaps to his own personal piety) rather than to bishops who are more in touch with the pastoral life of the church.
Until now, the Pope, who is not a trained liturgist, has shown interest and sensitivity in liturgical matters. The motu proprio, though, seems to betray a real misunderstanding of liturgy's role in the life of the Church. It is ironic that, given the Pope's often-voiced antipathy toward relativism as both the bane of modern life and a threat to the integrity of the faith, he himself seems to have succumbed to the very relativism that he has so often denounced. It is legitimate to wonder, given liturgical history, theology, canon law, and pastoral practicalities, whether the liturgy is being taken seriously by this motu proprio or being treated as just another choice available in the "Catholic cafeteria".
A logical place to start any discussion is the designation of the Tridentine Rite in the apostolic letter as the "extraordinary Roman Rite". Such a designation has no precedent in the liturgical history of the Church and is based on the debatable presumption that the use of the Tridentine Rite was not abrogated by the publication of the liturgical books mandated by Vatican II.
From 1970, when the Missal of Paul VI was promulgated, to 1984 when the Congregation for Divine Worship issued an indult to allow a local bishop to permit celebrations of the old rite, the abrogation of the Tridentine Missal was taken for granted. In 1988 Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei adflicta called for a "generous application of the directives" already stipulated in the 1984 indult. Again it emphasised that permission to use the old rite is a pastoral concession to those spiritually unable to adapt themselves to the new rite, provided that this did not imply a rejection of the Second Vatican Council or the validity of the liturgical reform. The use of the old rite was not presented in either of these documents as "normative" in any way.
In the context of this rather ambiguous disciplinary situation, it is helpful to reflect on the nature of a "rite" within the Church. The Roman Rite is one of 23 recognised "rites" of the Catholic Church. The term "rite" encompasses not only the Order of Mass and - at least traditionally speaking - is a way to describe how a given group of Christians expresses their faith in life and worship. It goes beyond issues of language, rubrics or ceremonial directives of the Mass to differences in designating liturgical time, the assignment of particular saints' days, the particular style of liturgical prayer employed in all of the sacramental rites, along with distinctive gestures and movements used in these liturgical celebrations.
The adoption of a new calendar that altered the liturgical year and modified the relative importance of certain feasts and memorials, the removal of saints from sanctoral cycle that were deemed unhistorical, the revision of the celebration of funerals, the re-introduction of the adult catechumenate, all significantly changed the liturgy, no matter how much the Pope may argue for continuity between the old and new Roman Rites.
Historical precedent also demonstrates that the "Tridentine Rite" was meant to be abrogated in 1970. It simply cannot be argued, for example, that after the sixteenth century there were two officially recognised ways of celebrating the Roman Rite. Designating the old and new rites "uses" within the same rite is an attempt at canonical sleight of hand and does not solve the problem. While it is true that when the "Missal of Pius V" was promulgated, there were local medieval "usages" in France, such as the rite of the City of Lyon, these were permitted as a concession to centuries-old territorial custom. Nor can it be reasonably argued that the "Tridentine Rite" ought to be accorded the same status as one of the Oriental rites, since the ancient rites of the Eastern Churches are the expression of Christianity lived over centuries by a given nation or ethnic group within a limited geographical territory.
It also seems clear that Pope Paul VI intended to replace the previous Missal and wanted to restore the liturgy by returning "to the original norm of the holy Fathers" (general introduction to the 1970 Roman Missal). The sixteenth-century framers of the "Missal of Pius V", which dates from 1570, were unable to do so because they lacked adequate historical resources, for they were unable to refer to manuscripts dating earlier than the pontificate of Innocent III, around 1216. As a result much of the Tridentine Rite is a hybrid of medieval Franco-Germanic elements fused to a Roman core that dates from the late sixth century.
That is why Paul VI's novus ordo is closer to "the original norm of the holy Fathers" than the Tridentine Rite. Article Six of the Preamble to the General Instruction of the "Missal of Paul VI" implies as much by stating that there was something that was incomplete about the old missal since "the older Roman Missal [that of Pius V] is brought to fulfilment in the new" [that of Paul VI].
As a product of the sixteenth century and compiled during the height of the Reformation, the "Missal of Pius V" reflects the Church's antagonistic relationship to a larger world that was seen as opposing its authority and traditions. This can be easily seen in some of the Ad diversa Mass formulas which maintain earlier, medieval texts - for example, a Mass "Against the Pagans".
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the "Tridentine Rite" is its treatment of Judaism. While the adjective "perfidious" describing the Jews was removed from the 1962 edition of the Missal there are still prayers that call for their conversion in direct contradiction to Vatican II's "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" (see Nostra Aetate 4). In much the same vein, the Missal refers to Christians of other Churches as heretics and schismatics - descriptions of fellow Christians that are unlikely to promote much ecumenical dialogue. And since the lectionary attached to this Missal proposes practically no readings from the Old Testament it represents a deficient liturgical presentation of God's Word - a problem that the Council fathers sought to remedy (see Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 51).
The ecclesiology expressed by the old rite reflects the very limited liturgical attention the Counter-Reformation Church gave to the baptised faithful. It was the role of the ordained that was highlighted, and the gathered assembly is not even mentioned in the introductory material and rubrics of the "Missal of Pius V", thereby reducing their role to mute spectators.
In addition to the ecclesiological problems, another weakness of the "Tridentine Rite" is its anaemic pneumatology - or theology of the Holy Spirit. While the faith of the Church expressed in the liturgy is in the Triune God - we pray to the Father, with the Son, in the Holy Spirit - try as you may, it is difficult to discern an epiclesis (an invocation of the Holy Spirit over the gifts and people) in the Roman Canon; an element commonly agreed in East and West to be as an important element for a theologically complete Eucharistic Prayer.
All of the new Eucharistic Prayers composed for the "Missal of Paul VI" have such an invocation. Reverting to a pneumatologically weak formulation of the central act of the Church's worship (the Roman Canon being the only Eucharistic Prayer in the "Missal of Pius V") clearly impoverishes the worship of those who would exclusively use this Missal.
While the theological problems of the "Tridentine Rite" are at odds with the teachings of the Council, the pastoral difficulties that will accompany the implementation of this motu proprio may prove to be an even greater problem, starting with the priests themselves. Where will competent priests, willing to celebrate the Mass and other sacraments according to the old rite, come from? Are we now to offer Latin and liturgy courses in seminaries to train our new priests to offer the Rite of Mass and the sacraments of the Medieval Rite on demand along with the liturgical rites mandated by Vatican II?
The official proclamation that this medieval rite is "extraordinary" compromises the coherence of the Church's self-understanding and threatens to reduce the liturgy to a simple matter of individual "taste" rather than what it is meant to be: an accurate reflection of what we believe as Catholic Christians who live in the twenty-first century. Although cited several times in the document, the hallowed patristic axiom lex orandi, lex credendi (how we pray, so we believe) has been seriously ignored in this motu proprio.
In short, "Summorum Pontificum" weakens the unity of the Church by failing to support the foundational insights of the Second Vatican Council.