ROME — The Vatican congregation in charge of religious life has issued a decree appointing a commissioner with the approval of Pope Francis to resolve the internal divisions plaguing the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate (FFI) but has touched off a firestorm of controversy by restricting the order’s celebration of the Mass in the extraordinary form.
However, FFI leaders dispute allegations that Pope Francis is rolling back Pope Benedict’s liturgical reforms, and they say the decree is a necessary, temporary measure.
“More than 80% of the friars appreciate the intervention of the Church,” Father Alfonso Bruno, a spokesman for the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, told Catholic News Agency.
Father Bruno explained that the FFI’s problem “is not the Holy Mass usus antiquior [the Mass celebrated according to the 1962 Roman Missal].” He said celebrating the extraordinary form of the Mass in the community represented “only the tip of the iceberg.”
The real concern, Father Bruno said, is over a “small group in power” within the religious congregation, which is under the influence of Mother Francesca Perillo, who oversees the FFI sisters who live in hermitages. Mother Francesca, he alleged, has “very close” ties with groups that take the positions of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), who taught both the Second Vatican Council and the Roman rite promulgated by Pope Paul VI contain grave theological errors.
Father Bruno said the FFI is concerned that Mother Francesca and her followers could fall into “heresy and disobedience.”
Mother Francesca could not be reached to respond to the allegations before publication time.
The Society of St. Pius X holds no canonical status in the Church. Renewed dialogue between the SSPX and the Vatican appeared to hit another impasse in June, with the society’s declaration that their founder’s reasons for his illicit consecrations of four bishops — which incurred automatic excommunication — still “retain their full justification.” The excommunications were lifted by Benedict XVI in 2009 in a conciliatory effort to facilitate the SSPX’s full integration within the life of the Church.
Contradicting Benedict XVI?
The news of the July 11 decree regarding the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, from the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, was first reported by the veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister, who described the congregation’s move as “astonishing” and the first time that Pope Francis has contradicted his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
The declaration’s final paragraph reads:
“In addition to the above, the Holy Father Francis has directed that every religious of the congregation of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate is required to celebrate the liturgy according to the ordinary rite and that, if the occasion should arise, the use of the extraordinary form (vetus ordo) must be explicitly authorized by the competent authorities for every religious and/or community that makes the request.”
The decree was signed by the Vatican congregation’s prefect, Cardinal Joao Braz de Viz, and its secretary, Archbishop José Rodrìguez Carballo. The decree goes into effect Aug. 12 and names Capuchin Father Fidenzio Volpi as the FFI commissioner, who will have to submit a written report every six months to the Vatican department.
“The astonishment stems from the fact that what is decreed contradicts the dispositions given by Benedict XVI, which, for the celebration of the Mass in the ancient rite sine populo [without the people], demand no previous request for authorization whatsoever,” Magister said.
However, Father Angelo Geiger,* former general delegate of the FFI in the United States, rejected Magister’s allegations, saying the Italian journalist was “sensationalizing something he can only speculate about.”
“The restrictions on our community are specific to us and have been put in place for reasons specific to us,” Father Geiger stated through his Mary Victrix blog.
He also disputed Magister’s allegation that Pope Francis had contradicted his predecessor.
“Pope Francis has not contradicted Pope Benedict,” he said. “The visitation of our community began under Pope Benedict, and the commission was recommended by Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, who was appointed to the congregation by Pope Benedict.”
According to Article 3 of Summorum Pontificum, "Communities of Institutes of consecrated life and of Societies of apostolic life, of either pontifical or diocesan right, wishing to celebrate Mass in accordance with the edition of the Roman Missal promulgated in 1962, for conventual or "community" celebration in their oratories, may do so." Benedict's motu proprio goes on to state, "If an individual community or an entire Institute or Society wishes to undertake such celebrations often, habitually or permanently, the decision must be taken by the Superiors Major, in accordance with the law and following their own specific decrees and statues."
Father Geiger said, “What is being reported in the press and what has actually transpired within our community over the course of a number of years are two different things."
Still, news of the decree has sparked a strong debate in the blogosphere among traditionalist Catholics about the decision's implications.
The blog Rorate Caeli said in a four-point response that the decree is “a clear indication that [the traditional Latin Mass] is seen as something problematic, something that must be excised from the life of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate.”
The blog disputed the charge that “FFI’s application of Summorum Pontificum had caused discord in many communities and that the traditional Latin Mass was ‘imposed’ brutally on priests who did not want it.” Instead, the blog stated that it had been “closely observing the FFI since 2008 [and] can affirm that the opposite is the case: Summorum was applied in a very gradual manner.”
Father Z’s Take
However, Father John Zuhlsdorf, who blogs as “Fr. Z” at What Does the Prayer Really Say?, pointed out that the FFI is not an extraordinary-form community like the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which recently marked its 25th anniversary.
He added that Pope Francis was a Jesuit provincial with experience in handling a community’s internal divisions, and he said the decree “probably has more to do with a matter internal to a religious community than it does with the older form of Mass.”
“Takeovers happen when something is not working,” Father Zuhlsdorf said. However, he added that the decree, for some traditionalist Catholics, will be “a setback for their morale” and that it will hurt other laypeople who depend on the FFIs for their access to the Mass in the extraordinary form.
“We shall see what happens when FFIs start asking for permissions from competent authorities for pastoral reasons,” he said.
From the FFI’s perspective, Father Bruno said the order was happy to have the decree, while its members work with the Vatican to resolve their internal disputes.
“We are in peace because we are in the hands of our mother Church,” he said, “by a Pope that we love and appreciate so much.”
[Editor's note: The story was updated from its original form to include information quoted directly from Summorum Pontificum.]
*[Correction: The article orginally stated that Father Geiger was the general delegate for the FFI to the United States. Father Geiger is the former general delegate. The current general delegate is his successor, Father Ignatius Manfredonia.]
– Register staff contributed to this report.