Cardinal Sarah Joins Calls to Withdraw Rules Suppressing Individual Masses in St. Peter’s Basilica

The cardinal recalled how many saints, visiting the basilica over the centuries, have “perpetuated this beautiful tradition” and that now it is no longer possible for priests to individually celebrate Masses on altars over the tombs of saints, leaving the altars as “mere works of art.”

Cardinal Sarah Pentin
Cardinal Sarah Pentin (photo: Edward Pentin/NCRegister)

Cardinal Robert Sarah has become the latest cardinal to publicly oppose recent norms suppressing individual Masses in St. Peter’s Basilica, explaining in a seven-point appeal to Pope Francis why he believes they are a mistake and calling on the Holy Father to withdraw them.

Published Monday on the blog of Italian journalist Sandro Magister, the prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments cited in his appeal previous papal documents underlining the importance of Masses celebrated individually while also criticizing what he sees as the un-catholic nature of the norms and its various breaches of Church law and tradition. 

“I humbly beg the Holy Father to order the withdrawal of the recent norms issued by the secretariat of state,” the cardinal wrote. They are, he added, “lacking in justice as in love, do not correspond to the truth or the law, do not facilitate but rather endanger the decorum of the celebration, devout participation in the Mass, and the freedom of the children of God.” 

Since March 22, individual celebrations have been “suppressed” at the side altars of St. Peter’s, changing centuries of tradition for the basilica. 

The new norms were announced through a letter from the Secretariat of State to the administrators of the basilica and pinned to the door of the basilica sacristy on March 12. The letter stated that the measures were to ensure “an atmosphere of recollection and liturgical decorum” in the basilica but no further reasons was given. The Register has asked the Vatican for clarification on the directive but has thus far received no response. 

Cardinal Sarah began his appeal by saying he wanted to “spontaneously add” his voice to those of Cardinals Raymond Burke, Gerhard Müller, and Walter Brandmüller who have all criticized the directive. Concerned that it could be a trial balloon for possible future decisions affecting the Church, Cardinal Sarah said it is “even more necessary” that he and others make their opposition known.  

Quoting various conciliar and papal documents, he noted that communal celebration of the Mass is preferred, but “individual celebration by a priest remains the work of Christ and the Church.” Cardinal Sarah also referred to two schools of theological thought: one that says it makes no difference to the gift of grace whether Masses are concelebrated, and the other, referring to St. Thomas Aquinas and Pope Pius XII, which believes that “grace is reduced” in the concelebration of a single Mass. 

This latter point, he wrote, “should not be ignored,” and he added that reducing the number of Masses celebrated would result in “at least the possibility” of a “decrease in the gift of grace given to the Church and to the world” and, if so, “the spiritual damage would be incalculable.”

Cardinal Sarah went on to criticize the “peremptory tone” of the Secretariat of State directive and particularly its use of the word “suppressed” which, he said, “one perceives” as a “sort of unusual violence.” He also questioned the imposition of concelebration, asking if that represented “the welcoming spirit of the Church” and was reflective of the symbolism of Bernini’s colonnade that represents the open arms of Mother Church. 

“Why does it no longer want to welcome [priests on a pilgrimage] unless they accept the imposition of concelebration?” he asked, and pointed out that, according to Paul VI’s liturgical reforms, concelebration should be of presbyters and their bishop, not only presbyters. 

Cardinal Sarah further questioned the prudence of such a decision during the COVID-19 crisis and wondered what priests, who don’t know Italian, should do now given that the directive is restricting Masses in the upper basilica to concelebrations in the language. 

He also agreed with the three other cardinals opposed to the norms that the directive breaches canon law, particularly the right of the priest to celebrate the Eucharist individually. 

“St. Peter's Basilica should be an example for the liturgy of the whole Church,” Cardinal Sarah wrote, “but these new rules impose criteria that would not be tolerated in any other place, in that they violate common sense as much as they do the laws of the Church.”

But this is not only about laws or “mere formalism,” Cardinal Sarah continued, adding that what is at stake is the “good of the Church” and respect for a priest’s wish not to concelebrate. 

The cardinal also highlighted problems with confining the Extraordinary Form of the Rome rite to a small chapel in the grotto underneath the basilica, saying that among other problems with the move, it limits expansion of the form and that by limiting it to “authorized priests,” it fails to respect Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. 

Calling individual Masses celebrated in the basilica an “ancient and venerable custom,” he asked if it was “really necessary to break it” and whether it would produce a “greater decorum” in the liturgy. The cardinal recalled how many saints, visiting the basilica over the centuries, have “perpetuated this beautiful tradition” and that now it is no longer possible for priests to individually celebrate Masses on altars over the tombs of saints, leaving the altars as “mere works of art.”  

Cardinal Sarah also made a point that the directive runs counter to Pope Francis’ frequent appeals against injustice in today’s world, and he wondered what priests of other rites are now meant to do as they cannot concelebrate. “St. Peter’s Basilica represents the center of catholicity, so it comes naturally to think that such a celebration would be allowed,” he wrote.

He ended by calling on the Pope, along with a “boundless number of baptized persons (many of whom do not want to or cannot express their thoughts),” to withdraw the norms “for all these reasons set out here and for yet others.”