Five years after Pope Benedict XVI lifted most restrictions on celebration of the Tridentine Mass, a senior Vatican official says that much work remains to make the traditional liturgy fully accessible to the faithful, and to bring its influence to bear on the form of the Mass most Catholics attend.
“There’s no question that there remains in certain places a resistance to what the Holy Father has asked, and that’s sad,” says Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, prefect of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature and a former archbishop of St. Louis.
“It’s sometimes even an expression of disagreement with the Holy Father’s discipline and even an expression that this is harmful for the church.”
With his apostolic letter “Summorum Pontificum,” issued July 7, 2007, Pope Benedict allowed priests to offer the Tridentine Mass without special permission from their bishops. The decree also provided for the establishment of “personal parishes” dedicated to the traditional liturgy, which had passed out of use amid the modernizing changes that followed the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965.
“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,” the pope wrote at the time in a letter presenting his announcement to the world’s bishops.
Pope Benedict made it clear that he was acting in part to promote reconciliation with the disaffected traditionalists of the Society of St. Pius X, who had broken from Rome to protest some of the teachings of Vatican II and subsequent changes to the liturgy.
Last month, following three years of on-again, off-again talks, the Vatican announced that the traditionalists had been offered formal terms of reconciliation. Though the SSPX has warned of persistent “doctrinal difficulties” that could prolong negotiations, Cardinal Burke has said that he believes a reunion will ultimately take place.
But satisfying the demands of the traditionalists was not Pope Benedict’s only purpose in issuing “Summorum Pontificum.” The pope wrote that he acted in order to “preserve the riches which have developed in the church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.
In the same letter, the pope also affirmed that the older and newer versions of the Mass could be “mutually enriching.” For Cardinal Burke, such mutual enrichment is part of the so-called “reform of the reform,” the process of repairing the deficiencies of the liturgy introduced under Pope Paul VI.
The reform of the Roman Missal in the period following Vatican II was “too radical,” and “went beyond, and in some senses perhaps not completely coherently with, what the council fathers had set forth,” the cardinal says.
“There was a stripping away, a changing of the form of the rite that in my judgment was too much,” he says. “You can’t take a living reality, the worship of God as God has desired that we worship him, and tamper with it without doing violence and without in some way damaging the faith life of the people.”
The use of Latin was far from the most important loss, the cardinal says, noting that even the newer form of the Mass is still regularly celebrated in the church’s universal language.
Among the other elements of tradition that Cardinal Burke hopes the church eventually will restore to the Mass in its newer version are the opening prayers at the foot of the altar, which he says provide an “immediate tie-in” to the liturgy’s Jewish heritage: the psalms once sung by the high priest as he entered the temple in Jerusalem.
Other features of the Tridentine Mass that the cardinal would welcome in the newer liturgy include the priest softly reciting the prayers before Communion, a period of near-silence that, he explains, “draws our attention to this most sacred part of the Holy Mass”; and the closing recitation of the prologue of the Gospel of St. John, a “hymn to the redemptive incarnation” that “sets in your mind once again the great reality which you have encountered and in which you have participated.”
On the other hand, Cardinal Burke says, the practice of reading scriptural passages in modern languages has been a “tremendous gift” of the post-Vatican II liturgy that should be incorporated in the Tridentine Mass. And he said that the newer version of the Mass, in which the priest typically faces the congregation, can encourage a deeper appreciation of the “transparent devotion” with which priests should celebrate both forms of the liturgy.
Of course, for the two forms of the Mass to enrich each other, both must be available. But after half-century of neglect, the cardinal notes, there is a shortage of priests with any knowledge of Latin, not to mention experience with the older liturgy, a problem which he says calls for revising seminary curricula.
In the meantime, the cardinal counsels patience to traditionalists who feel “embattled” when well-meaning bishops cannot satisfy their demands quickly enough.
“It would be improper and even offensive to our Lord,” he says,” to have someone offering the Mass who doesn’t know what he’s saying or doesn’t even know how to say it.”