American Archbishop Raymond Burke made history Oct. 18 when he became the first priest in 40 years to celebrate a solemn High Mass according to the 1962 Missal in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The archbishop, originally from Richland Center, Wis., and now the prefect of the Apostolic Signatura (the Church’s equivalent of the Supreme Court), was joined by about 70 priests for the Eucharistic celebration. Also present were between 200 and 400 other worshippers in the basilica’s Blessed Sacrament Chapel.

The priests were mainly diocesan and from various institutions that place an emphasis on traditional liturgy. The singing was provided by choirs from the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate Conception and a large number of Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate. Also in attendance was the grand master of the Order of Malta.

The beauty of the liturgy made a deep impression on those in attendance. Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican, reported on one worshipper who told him the choir made it seem as if “we were immersed in choirs of angels. The presence of the celestial dimension of the rite was almost tangible. Believe me, I am not exaggerating.”

The Mass was made possible thanks to Benedict XVI’s 2007 apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, issued “motu proprio” (on his own initiative), that aimed to foster “an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church” with traditional Catholics. As one traditionalist observer somewhat controversially put it: “The Mass of apostolic times returns home after 40 years of exile in the desert.”

Archbishop Burke, whose home was in St. Louis until last year, was dressed in green vestments with gold braid trim. He gave a homily on a passage from the Gospel of St. Luke.

“The physical healing we read about in Luke’s Gospel is a sign of a deeper, spiritual healing, which Jesus brings,” he said. “It is a sign of the healing of sin, and of the most profound effect of sin: death eternal.”

“We too can be healed,” Archbishop Burke continued. “Just as the young ruler believed the word Jesus spoke to him, and his son was healed, as he later learned, ‘at that very moment,’ so too we should believe the word Jesus speaks to us, and that word can be the beginning of our own healing.”

He also explained the importance of Summorum Pontificum.

The Holy Father, he said, “made it clear that the old rite, now called the extraordinary form of the Latin rite, cannot be rejected or regarded as dangerous in any way.” The ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Latin rite are “a gift to the Church,” he said. “The two forms will mutually enrich each other.”

The Mass was principally held for those attending a nearby conference on the extraordinary form which was timed to coincide with the second anniversary of Summorum Pontificum.

But this was not expected to be the last time that a solemn High Mass in the extraordinary form will be celebrated in the basilica.

“I would say it represents another barrier that has come down,” said Alberto Carosa, a freelance correspondent specializing in the traditional liturgy, adding that without Summorum Pontificum, “it would have been unthinkable.”

The apostolic letter also aimed at healing divisions that emerged after the Second Vatican Council, emphasizing that there was no break with tradition following the conciliar reforms of the 1960s.

“This shows the aims of Summorum Pontificum are progressing slowly but surely,” said Carosa. “The next step will be to have it in a larger chapel, perhaps in the nave and, just possibly, celebrated by the Pope. The sky is the limit.”

The hope is that regulations put in place in 2003 by the Vatican Secretariat of State for the celebration of Masses in the basilica using the 1962 Missal may be adjusted to reflect the current times. One of the norms forbade the celebration of the older form in the main body of the basilica.

Some basilica officials seemed to take those rules further: Many worshippers were irritated by their apparent unwillingness to allow the Mass to proceed smoothly. The Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament was far too small for the many who wished to attend, and many were turned away.

“It was a miracle so many fit in,” said Carosa. “They should have expected lots of people to come — and have chosen somewhere bigger.”

The Mass was also rescheduled from 10 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. at short notice, upsetting those who had come from a long distance.

Nevertheless, many savored the beauty of the High Mass and saw it as a sign of things to come.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.