Pope Francis has issued sweeping new restrictions on celebrations of the Old Rite, saying that it has been used to fuel division and reject the Second Vatican Council.
Francis’ intervention overturns Benedict XVI’s 2007 legislation Summorum Pontificum allowing greater use of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass and sets out a series of tough new conditions which gives more authority to local bishops. Benedict's ruling had allowed for celebrations of the Old Rite wherever it was requested by a group of believers.
But with the latest ruling each priest celebrating the Old Rite must now get permission from their bishop to continue to do so, while any priest ordained after the latest ruling must submit a formal request to his local bishop who in turn must consult with the Holy See. Francis’ intervention is designed to make the Tridentine liturgy the exception, rather than the norm, and to clamp down on younger, traditionalist priests wanting to say the Old Rite.
His ruling also counters the argument which has developed in some church circles and among certain cardinals that the old rite, known as the “Extraordinary Form”, can co-exist alongside and influence the ordinary celebrations of the liturgy.
Francis, however, has ruled that the liturgy which emerged following the reforms of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council is the “unique expression” of the Roman Rite, and does not use the phrase “Extraordinary Form.” He also states that one of the conditions for the celebration of the pre-Vatican II Mass is that “groups do not deny the validity and the legitimacy of the liturgical reform, dictated by Vatican Council II.”
The Old Rite requires priests to say the prayers of the Mass in Latin, often inaudibly, and while facing ad orientem (with his back to the people). Although many are drawn to its contemplative, otherworldly style, the Old Rite has also become a rallying point for dissent from the Francis pontificate and opposition to Vatican II.
Francis has been saddened, he explains in a letter to bishops accompanying his Motu Proprio Traditionis Custodes, that the Tridentine Mass has been “characterised by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church’.”
The Pope says that to doubt the council is “to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church,” arguing that the Church’s liturgy has been “adapted many times over the course of the centuries according to the needs of the day, not only [to] be preserved but renewed ‘in faithful observance of the Tradition’.”
Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis explained, had sought to “recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities” by making provisions for the celebrations of the Old Rite.
But Francis says their attempts to bring about unity were “exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.”
He added that the decision to make his ruling had been informed by a worldwide survey of celebrations of the Tridentine liturgy which “reveal a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene”. Responding to the requests of the bishops, Francis says “I take the firm decision to abrogate all the norms, instructions, permissions and customs” that precede the present ruling.
Although it had been speculated for some weeks, the 84-year-old Pope’s ruling took Church observers by surprise given the definitive way it overturned a ruling from his predecessor.
Traditionalists responded to the news with anger, with one website, Rorate Caeli, describing it as “shocking and terrifying” while accusing Francis of being “an Anti-Christical figure of this age.”
The Pope's decision on the traditional Latin Mass, however, is in line with the position of Pope St Paul VI, who guided Vatican II to its conclusion and sought to implement its reforms. Paul VI, according to a Vatican liturgy official, only envisaged the Old Rite for dying or sick priests.