Benedict XVI to Publicly Celebrate Tridentine Mass in November?

Poster advertising the 'Coetus Internationalis Summorum Pontificum' pilgrimage to Rome in November.
Poster advertising the 'Coetus Internationalis Summorum Pontificum' pilgrimage to Rome in November. (photo: CISP)

For some weeks, a rumor has been circulating in Rome that this coming November Pope Benedict XVI will, for the first time during his pontificate, publicly celebrate a Pontifical Mass in the Old Rite.

The speculated date is Nov. 3rd when thousands of pilgrims from all over the world are expected to attend a Tridentine Rite Mass in St. Peter’s basilica.

The pilgrimage and Mass, organized by 'Coetus Internationalis Pro Summorum Pontificum', a group of various traditionalist Catholic organizations, is being held principally in thanksgiving for the promulgation of Pope Benedict’s 2007 Motu Proprio 'Summorum Pontificum' which granted greater freedom for the faithful to celebrate the Old Rite.

Organizers say the Mass in the Old Rite, or Extraordinary Form, will also serve to demonstrate loyalty to Peter and love for the Church, offer an opportunity to pray for the Holy Father, and be an expression of participation in the Mission of the Church, in particular the New Evangelization and the Year of Faith.

The Roman parish of Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, directed by the traditionalist Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, is also involved in the event.

So far, the principal celebrant hasn’t yet been announced, but commentators predict the pilgrimage will “go down in Church history” if talk of the Pope’s participation proves to be correct. The German Church website claims that several major television networks are already preparing to cover the Mass, among them 'CNN', 'Fox News', 'BBC', and even the Arabic broadcaster 'Al Jazeera'.

For the Pope to preside at a Solemn Pontifical Mass in the basilica would send a further strong signal to those who favour the Old Rite that it is a perfectly valid form of the Mass, and its celebration should be encouraged. It would also serve to underline the Holy Father’s “hermeneutic of continuity” – his conviction there was no rupture with Tradition on account of the Second Vatican Council. 

The rumor first came to light in August through a reliably informed senior Vatican official who had discussed in intricate detail the Holy Father’s participation in the Mass. But when I asked Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi last month, he firmly denied it saying such speculation was “completely false” and that the person circulating it should be told as much. Similarly, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who two years ago celebrated the first Solemn Pontifical Mass in St. Peter’s basilica since the 1960s, told me Sept. 9 he had “no knowledge” of the event, nor did he know who would be organizing it.

Fr. Lombardi restated his denial again this week. “As every year, the Pope celebrates Mass in St. Peter’s on November 3rd for deceased Cardinals and Bishops, and it will be done in the Ordinary Form, as always,” he said. He added he was not aware of the pilgrims’ plans, nor who would celebrate their Mass, but that it would "certainly not be the Pope.”

The organizers posted a notification Sept. 19 on their website announcing that the time of their Mass in the basilica had to be changed to the afternoon.

But even if the Nov. 3rd Mass with the Pope is off the table, the fact that Benedict XVI hasn’t yet publicly presided at an Old Rite Mass remains something of a mystery. It has led some commentators to wondering whether he genuinely accepts Mass in the Tridentine Rite, or if the motu proprio was merely a gesture, or just part of a strategy to win back the breakaway Society of St. Pius X.

Benjamin Harnwell, a Rome-based lobbyist known for his support for the Old Rite, argues that although Benedict XVI has never been impulsive but rather prayerfully deliberates over his actions, he also doesn’t delay when he sees a need for decisive action. The time for such decisiveness, he believes, may be now or very soon.

“My instinct," he said, "is that the Holy Father may well see this year - the 50th Anniversary of the opening  of the Second Vatican Council, the year he himself designated as the Year of Faith, the year he has established the Pontificia Academia Latinitatis [a new Pontifical Academy for Latin] - as a symbolic moment to publicly offer a Mass in the Extraordinary Form, and in doing so publicly summon the Old Rite like a phoenix out of the ashes of post-concilliar liturgical reform."

Regarding the Nov. 3rd possibility, he said: “Who knows?  It could well be the moment. Oremus."