Pope Francis Sets His Sights on the Latin Mass

The rumors appear to be true: Pope Francis is planning to rescind Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio liberalizing the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass (TLM), which Benedict dubbed the “Extraordinary Form” of the Latin Rite. This at a time when the TLM has been flourishing while most of the Church is experiencing significant declines. Before exploring why Pope Francis is considering this radical move, it might be helpful to briefly review the history of the TLM over the past 60+ years. 

In the mid-20th century, many leading Catholics believed in a need for “liturgical reform.” How exactly that reform would play out was hotly debated, but most Catholic liturgists and theologians agreed that some changes were needed. 

Pope Pius XII, responding to this desire, authorized a few changes to the Mass in the 1950’s. These were relatively minor, and for pew-sitting Catholics, the reforms were, on a whole, barely noticed. Then, in the early 1960’s the Second Vatican Council essentially declared that, yes, the Church should make more reforms to the Mass. This led to wholesale changes in the liturgy with the institution of the “Novus Ordo Missae” (the “New Order of the Mass”) promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969. This of course is the Mass said in almost every Latin Catholic parish in the world today, and which Pope Benedict called the “Ordinary Form” of the Latin Rite.

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However, the changes were not accepted by all Catholics. A small number of Catholics, led by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, fought to keep celebrating what was dubbed the “traditional Latin Mass”—i.e., the Mass as celebrated before the Novus Ordo. This led to serious conflict between Lefebvre and the Vatican, and many Church leaders of the time argued that the traditional Latin Mass had been abrogated, meaning that celebrating it was no longer lawful. There was no going back, according to this view.

But devotees of the TLM did not give up. Pockets in the Church still celebrated the TLM, and, after more than a decade of conflict, Pope John Paul II in 1984 granted an “indult”—permission for the traditional Latin Mass to be celebrated as long as certain conditions applied, including permission from the local bishop. For the next two decades, this indult was in effect, and the TLM remained a relatively fringe part of the Catholic Church during this time. 

However, by the mid-2000’s the TLM, while still attended only by a small portion of Catholics, was growing in popularity, particularly among younger, faithful Catholics. And the growth was not just in numbers, but in enthusiasm—more books, websites, and other resources were dedicated to the TLM. In response, in 2007 Pope Benedict XVI issued Summorum Pontificum, which declared: (1) any priest could celebrate the TLM without explicit permission of his bishop; and (2) the TLM was never abrogated. The pope wrote that “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” 

With the release of Summorum Pontificum, the floodgates were opened. TLM’s began to be celebrated in more and more parishes throughout the world, and many young Catholics flocked to it. While in comparison to the global membership of the Church the percentage of Catholics attending the TLM remained quite small, a growing and passionate desire among many of the faithful for this traditional form of the liturgy grew. 

This takes us back to the present. If the rumors are true (and many reliable sources are reporting they are true), then Francis essentially wants to return to the pre-Summorum Pontificum days when priests had to receive an indult from their bishop in order to celebrate the TLM. 

The practical impact of this action is unclear. Currently, although a priest is technically free to celebrate the TLM without episcopal approval, most priests know that they need permission anyway if they don’t want to be banished to the nether reaches of their diocese. Bishops can make a priest’s life difficult if he steps out of line. So the process for a priest to celebrate a TLM likely would remain essentially the same in most dioceses.

However, it’s not outlandish to assume that revoking Summorum Pontificum could result in a sea change in attitude among bishops. Whereas before only the most adamantly anti-TLM bishops have prevented its celebration in their dioceses, now many bishops who privately don’t prefer it could see that their prejudices have been confirmed by the Vatican and become emboldened to deny permission where earlier it would have been granted. 

Likewise, young seminarians and priests might guess which way the wind is blowing and hesitate to learn the TLM, for fear of being ostracized for being too extreme. As anyone who has been employed by the Church will tell you, there are many unwritten rules of ecclesial work, and bishops aren’t afraid to take even a suggestion from the Vatican and transform it into a hard and draconian diocesan rule. Although the TLM is already a political issue in many chanceries, this act from the pope could tip the scales considerably to the anti-TLM side.

No matter what we guess the impact might be, the question remains: Why would Pope Francis do this? If a CEO decided to shut down the fastest-growing division in his company, it would be a head-scratcher for sure. So why would Pope Francis look to limit the reach of what is, in terms of growth, the most successful movement in the Church today? 

The most likely answer is that he and other Vatican officials behind this move realize that the growth of TLM communities is not just about the way the Mass is celebrated. In many ways it represents a repudiation of the entire post-Vatican II project into which Church leaders up to Francis have invested so much. 

Imagine if the NFL decided to change the sport of football in order to “improve” it—using a soccer ball rather than a football, adding five players to each side, allowing players to go out of bounds and then back in. Then they spend years and millions of dollars to promote this new change. However, instead of bringing in new fans, these “reforms” result in people flocking to an upstart league that plays football the old way. 

Humble leaders would acknowledge their mistake and return to the original (insert your New Coke comparisons here), but all too often leaders in this situation dig in and, instead of scrapping their bad ideas, they attack those who want to return to the original. Sadly, it looks like our Church leaders, including Pope Francis, might be opting for the latter option.

For Catholics attached to the TLM, this move by the Vatican could lead to a lot of hard questions. It looks for now like the change will grandfather in priests and communities already celebrating the TLM, but what happens when a bishop decides to rescind permission, under the “spirit” of the new indult? Should a priest continue to celebrate it anyway? Should lay Catholics seek out canonically-irregular communities such as the SSPX that will celebrate it?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and I don’t pretend to have them. My prayer is that it never comes to that—that the pope realizes the growth of the TLM is the best thing happening in the Church today and he should do all he can to promote and encourage it. If he doesn’t, he might one day find that the only Catholics left will be those who need to turn off the lights and lock the doors, since everyone has already left the building for good.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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