The Vatican has issued a directive to a Polish diocese that emphasizes the freedom of priests to celebrate Mass in the extraordinary form whenever they choose.

The Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei made the clarification in January in a series of responses to questions from a Polish diocese, which sought clarification regarding the use of the traditional Latin Mass. The answers, which came to public attention in mid-February, concerned Pope Benedict’s 2007 apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, issued “motu proprio” (on his own initiative).

However, the Vatican stresses that the clarification is addressed to a particular group and is “not a set of guidelines.” Officials are still working on a comprehensive set of guidelines on Summorum Pontificum, which are expected to be published soon.

Two points of the ruling are considered most significant: A Mass in the extraordinary form “may replace a regularly scheduled Mass in the ordinary form,” and a parish priest “may schedule a public Mass in the extraordinary form on his own accord.”

Another response also stipulates that the calendar, readings or prefaces of the 1970 Roman Missal “may not be substituted for those of the 1962 Roman Missal in Masses in the extraordinary form.”

Michael Dunnigan, chairman of Una Voce America, said the commission’s response “forcefully reaffirms both the plain meaning of Summorum Pontificum and also the rights of the laity and clergy who are devoted to the traditional Mass.”

The first response begins: “If there is no other possibility, because for instance in all churches of a diocese the liturgies of the Easter triduum are already being celebrated in the ordinary form, the liturgies of the Easter triduum may, in the same church in which they are already celebrated in the ordinary form, be additionally celebrated in the extraordinary form, if the local ordinary allows.”

The second response clarifies that a Mass in the usus antiquior (extraordinary form) “may replace a regularly scheduled Mass in the ordinary form.” The question contextualizes that in many churches Sunday Masses are more or less scheduled continually, leaving free only very inconvenient mid-afternoon slots, but this is merely context, the question posed being general. The answer leaves the matter “to the prudent judgment of the parish priest,” since a stable group enjoys “the right to assist at Mass in the extraordinary form.”

In the third response, it states that a parish priest “may schedule a public Mass in the extraordinary form on his own accord (i.e. without the request of a group of faithful) for the benefit of the faithful including those unfamiliar with the usus antiquior.” The response of the commission here is identical to No. 2.

Fourth, it adds that “the calendar, readings or prefaces of the 1970 Missale Romanum may not be substituted for those of the 1962 Missale Romanum in Masses in the extraordinary form.”

Lastly, it states: “While the liturgical readings (epistle and Gospel) themselves have to be read by the priest (or deacon/subdeacon) as foreseen by the rubrics, a translation to the vernacular may afterwards be read also by a layperson.”

Regarding the second and third responses, Dunnigan said that, strictly speaking, they should “not have been necessary at all, because the language of Summorum Pontificum already was clear.” However, he added that in the United States the faithful have experienced the same type of obstruction to celebration of the traditional Latin Mass as has happened in Poland.

“Some leaders in the Church seem determined to relegate the traditional Mass to second-class status by restricting the pastor’s prerogative to revise his parish’s Mass schedule,” said Dunnigan. “I am grateful to the commission for making clear that these obstacles find no support in Summorum Pontificum and amount to unjust restrictions on the rights of the faithful.”

The last two responses may not be as rigid as they seem. A committee of Ecclesia Dei is currently studying what parts of the new Missal can be used in the extraordinary form and, although not yet certain, it is probable that saints canonized since 1962 will be incorporated into the 1962 Missal. (There are already communities where the 1970 sanctoral cycle is followed with the commission’s tacit approval, such as the Abbey of Fontgombault in France and all its daughterhouses, including Clear Creek in Hulbert, Okla.)

This means, for instance, that the two forms of the Mass could celebrate saints on the same days, something which would be in line with Pope Benedict XVI’s accompanying letter to Summorum Pontificum.

The Holy Father wrote: “The two forms of the usage of the Roman rite can be mutually enriching: New saints and some of the new prefaces can and should be inserted in the old missal.”

The directive on liturgical readings may also be looser than it might appear in these responses, as there are already communities using the traditional Latin Mass with the new lectionary in the vernacular.

The Vatican has long been concerned about resistance to allowing stable groups of faithful and priests to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass.

Although it believes these obstructions are beginning to die down, Ecclesia Dei still plans on issuing a “clarification document” on Summorum Pontificum.

Rumors have long circulated that the Vatican has been drawing up such a document and that it was delayed because some officials found problems with the drafts. These recent responses, apparently issued with minimal consultation, are therefore not meant to replace the forthcoming document.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.