Pope Francis Doubles Down As He Further Plays His Hand

A RESPONSE FROM ME to some of the traditionalist critics of the papal motu proprio Traditionis custodes (TC) has been politely requested. Not because I am in any sense an expert, but out of sheer courtesy, I will do so, and I am working up to it. Perhaps my fallible voice is sought because I sit in a liturgical no-man’s land, neither in the trenches of 1962 nor of 1970. 1970 (well, its 2008 iteration to be precise, or its 2011 English iteration to be even more precise) provides my daily Mass. Yet, to hold the new Mass as legitimately expressing a totally new departure from liturgical tradition—a rupture with the previous tradition to employ a current term—is to deny a fundamental mark of the Church, its teaching and its liturgy: it does not change, but it grows and takes on clearer shape and more detailed form. Thus, to hold 1962, and the centuries-old tradition it grew within, is somehow a closed chapter of little relevance today, is self-defeating from a Catholic point of view, especially evangelically and apologetically. Either the Church’s teaching and liturgy is, and always has been, and always will be, true; or it is not, in which case, why should anyone listen to us?

1970 is imperfect; it embodies a very marked departure from the decrees of Vatican II; it has been attended by a laxity in rubrical observance and enforcement that is almost, surely, unparalleled historically; its use has been contiguous with a precipitous decline in Catholic practice and affiliation. Yet, the Council clearly, and almost unanimously, called for a revisiting of the Church’s liturgy. It sought a streamlining, a tidying up, an opening up to some vernacular in the Mass and the other sacraments—it wanted to people to love their liturgy even more, and to participate in it even more rather than just attend it—hear it—however devoutly. The Mass, after all, is offered not only for them but, to some (real) degree, by them. Moreover, the congregation offers itself, in each of its individual members, with Christ to the Father; hear St Paul to the Romans: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (12:1)

So sticking with 1962 as it was, itself a revised Missal, was not really a long-term option. 1970 is valid but flawed. Much of what gave power to the traditionalist programme to adhere to 1962, what made it all the more attractive to those not versed in the finer points of liturgy, was the woeful celebration of 1970 in so many places, and for a time perhaps in all places. The chaos of a circus liturgy, subject to the whim of a pastor, attended by wholesale rubrical abandonment, inevitably made the rubrical order and unmistakable divine focus of 1962 all the attractive, a port in a storm.

That is why I sit roughly in the reform-of-the-reform camp. Even more, I look to the Order of Mass of 1965 (OM65) as embodying a liturgy both organically traditional and yet manifestly a fruit of the decrees of Vatican II. More than any liturgy that came after it, OM65 can lay the best claim to being the “Mass of Vatican II.” The indult granted at the request of Cardinal Heenan—aka the Agatha Christie indult—by the Miss Marple-loving Paul VI in response to a public appeal by the great and the good, not all of them Catholics (notably including Agatha Christie), to preserve the substance and ethos of the Church’s liturgy, did not permit use of 1962—it permitted the use of OM65 with the modifications made in 1967. This liturgy was in clear identity with the Church’s liturgical tradition in a way that 1970 was manifestly not. Archbishop Lefebvre himself celebrated OM65 even as he broke with Paul VI and set in motion his Society of St Pius X.

The greatest mistake—on the level of strategy at least—was the decision to forbid totally the celebration of the old liturgy. Totally, that is, except for the English able to make use of the Agatha Christie indult and some ageing clerics to whom some solicitude (grudging though it was) was shown. Tactically it was intended to ensure that everyone engaged with and, hopefully, learned to love (or at least tolerate) the new liturgy. But strategically, the prohibition so immediate and so exhaustive, it broke many a bruised reed. If the new Mass was so wonderful, it would have been able to stand on its own and win the recalcitrant from continuing celebrations of OM65. The prohibition betrays a telling lack of confidence in the product by its vendors.

Thus we have two great strategic mistakes in the liturgical reform:
the prohibition of the Mass in place before 1969, and the anarchic celebration of the Mass that followed 1969.

It seems Pope Francis intends to double down on this old strategic error.

In a little noted address on 13 August, Pope Francis, under cover of chiding (yet again) religious men and women who do not laugh enough—“It is so sad to see consecrated men and women who have no sense of humor, who take everything seriously”—and in the immediate context of the need to adapt to local cultures, he said this:

We have seen this, for example, in the misuse of the liturgy. What becomes important is ideology and not the reality of the people, and that is not the Gospel. Do not forget the pairing: inculturate the faith and evangelize the culture…

It is a good idea to renounce the criterion of numbers and efficiency, since otherwise it can turn religious into fearful disciples, trapped in the past and suffering from nostalgia. This nostalgia is fundamentally the siren song of religious life.

Video message to the Latin American Confederation of Religious gathering on 13 August

The attachment (to employ TC’s vocabulary) to the 1962 liturgy is thus equated implicitly to joylessness, nostalgia, ideology, fear. The nostalgia is not, as he sees it, benign, but at best a nostalgie de la boue. Of course, he does not mention 1962, but in the context of the massive controversy following TC’s publication, 1962 is clearly in his sights.

In an Aug. 13, 2021, video message to a virtual conference of religious men and women from Latin America and the Caribbean, Pope Francis urged them to offer a joyful witness to the people they serve. (CNS screenshot/Vatican Media)

In effect, he has doubled down on his intentions with TC, and he has signalled to consecrated men and women who are attached to the pre-conciliar rites that they are also in his sights. It is all of a piece with similar sentiments expressed since he became pope. However, TC gives them a much sharpened edge and focus. It is hard not to see in this a thinly-veiled warning to all religious congregations who adhere solely to the pre-conciliar liturgy: Traditionalism is the siren song of religious life, and it is he who will be the rocks against which it will dash them.

Let them hear who have ears to do so, and see, who have eyes to behold it. I fear things are going to get messy rather soon. The sad and sorry tale of Silverstream will no doubt be grist to the papal mill.

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  1. Well said, though it is perhaps also the moment to point out that by forbidding missals “antecedent to” the 1970 Missal, the pope has forbidden the 1965 Missal, and therefore he has forbidden/severely restricted/pre-announced the death of the ‘Mass of Vatican II.’ Therefore, unless he corrects himself, he puts himself at odds with the Second Vatican Council.

    1. Please note, as I have been at pains to point out: 1965 is not a missal, it is an Order of Mass (Ordo Missae). The “missal,” i.e. Missale Romanum editio typica, antecedent to 1970 is 1962.

  2. Thank you for the correction. This was the first article of yours I have ever seen, so I was unaware of your previous explanations. I do not understand the distinction you mention here, but I trust you and will look into it. Again, thank you for the correction.

    1. I’m very keen on the Order of Mass 1965 so I read and reread TC several times to see if I could justify celebrating it! And my reading is that TC does (probably inadvertently) allow it.

      Art 1 says the “liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite”. This definition would include the Ordo Missae 1965 and the update in 1967, plus all the reforms up to the Novus Ordo (for example the weekday lectionaries approved for many countries after 1965).

      The references to the restrictions on the use of the Missal “antecedent to the reform of 1970” come in Art 3 which is aimed only at arrangements made for specific groups of the faithful rather than general use. And in § 3 of Art 3 it defines the Missal antecedent to the reform of 1970 more specifically as “the Roman Missal promulgated by St John XXIII in 1962”.

      Certainly, TC doesn’t contain a positive declaration in favour of the 1965 Order of Mass, but at the very least it’s got loopholes which allow it!

  3. Yet, the Council clearly, and almost unanimously, called for a revisiting of the Church’s liturgy. It sought a streamlining, a tidying up, an opening up to some vernacular in the Mass and the other sacraments

    And what of it? Calls for liturgical reform aren’t infallible, and indeed liturgical reforms have been undone in the past (Pius XII’s new Psalter barely outlived him, for example). Plus, Vatican 2 aimed explicitly at preaching the Gospel to the “modern world” of the 1960s, but that world no longer exists, and consequently there’s no reason to assume that its recommendations would still be useful today, even if they would have been back in 1965. Catholics are under no obligation to enslave our minds to the fallible recommendations of an outdated pastoral council.

    More than any liturgy that came after it, OM65 can lay the best claim to being the “Mass of Vatican II.”

    More than the Novus Ordo we actually got, perhaps, but the ’65 was never intended to be the final point of the reforms (as Inter Oecumenici says, the ’65 revision simply “authorizes or mandates that those measures that are practicable before revision of the liturgical books go into effect”), nor, apart from the use of the vernacular, do any of its other major changes (saying more silent prayers aloud, abolition of the Judica, Last Gospel, and Leonine Prayers, encouragement of Mass versus populum) find direct support from any of the Council’s documents, nor again does it embody all the changes called for by the Council (it still keeps a single-year lectionary, for example).

    If you want a Mass which actually embodies what Vatican 2 called for, I think the Divine Worship missal used by the Ordinariates would be your best bet (since it has the vernacular and multi-year lectionary, as Vat 2 called for, and hasn’t got rid of things which Vat 2 didn’t order abolished); although, as I said above, I don’t think we’re obliged as Catholics to support Vatican 2’s calls for reform.


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