Cardinal Zen: ‘I Agree with Archbishop Gänswein on Traditionis Custodes’

In an interview with an Italian newspaper, the Chinese cardinal criticized what he called ‘tendentious generalizations’ in Pope Francis’ 2021 decree restricting the traditional liturgy.

Cardinal Joseph Zen (top) arrives Jan. 5 at the funeral Mass of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square.
Cardinal Joseph Zen (top) arrives Jan. 5 at the funeral Mass of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square. (photo: Alberto Pizzoli / AFP via Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun has said Pope Francis’ 2021 decree Traditions Custodes that severely restricted the traditional liturgy contains “tendentious generalizations” that have “hurt the hearts of many people.”

In an interview with the Milan daily newspaper ll Giornale published Tuesday, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong was asked about “revived disagreements between traditionalists and progressives” in a new book called Nothing But the Truth by Benedict XVI’s former personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein.

Cardinal Zen said he had not yet read the book but added, “I agree with Msgr. Gänswein on the issue of the Latin Mass. The tendentious generalizations in Francis’ Traditionis Custodes have hurt the hearts of many people.”

“Reading the motu proprio and the Pope’s letter to the bishops, one notices a ‘facileness’ and ‘tendentiousness’ in linking the desire to use the extraordinary form of the Mass with a negative judgment on the ordinary form of the Mass, or a tendency to link the refusal to accept the liturgical reform with a total and profound rejection of the Second Vatican Council.

“Can’t the Vatican’s anti-Ratzingers wait patiently for the Tridentine Mass to die along with the death of Benedict XVI, instead of humiliating him in this way?” he said.

In his letter to bishops that accompanied Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of Tradition), the Pope said that “instrumental use” of the pre-reformed 1962 Roman Missal “is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’”

The decree itself imposed sweeping restrictions on the celebration of the old form of the Mass celebrated before the liturgical reforms of Pope St. Paul VI in 1970, reversing previous papal decrees such as Pope Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum that had liberalized use of the 1962 Roman Missal. Among its restrictions was a ban on bishops allowing celebration of the traditional Mass “in the parochial churches and without the erection of new personal parishes.” 

Cardinal Zen, who was recently given permission by Hong Kong authorities to visit Rome for Benedict XVI’s funeral, made similar comments about Traditionis Custodes in 2021 after the motu proprio was published. He also said at that time that he believed parts of the decree seemed to “clearly hope for the death” of groups devoted to the pre-conciliar liturgy. 


What Archbishop Gänswein Wrote

In a pre-recorded interview with Der Tagespost, published the day Benedict died, Archbishop Gänswein said he believed Pope Benedict read Traditionis Custodes “with pain in his heart, because he wanted to help those who had found a place in the old Mass, to lead them away from [Archbishop] Lefebvre, and for them to find inner peace, also liturgical peace.”

In his book, Benedict’s former personal secretary expanded on Benedict’s reaction and revealed that Benedict XVI first discovered Traditionis Custodes “leafing through that afternoon's L'Osservatore Romano.” 

“When I asked him for his opinion,” Archbishop Gänswein wrote, “he reiterated that the reigning Pontiff has the responsibility for decisions such as this and must act according to what he sees as the good of the Church. 

“But on a personal level, he found a definite change of course and considered it a mistake, since it jeopardized the attempt at pacification that had been made fourteen years earlier.”

Archbishop Gänswein added, “Benedict in particular felt it was wrong to prohibit the celebration of Mass in the ancient rite in parish churches, as it is always dangerous to corner a group of faithful so as to make them feel persecuted and to inspire in them a sense of having to safeguard their identity at all costs in the face of the ‘enemy.’”

He also recalled that the Pope Emeritus “furrowed his brow” at Francis’ words to Jesuits in Bratislava in September 2021, when he said, “Now I hope that with the decision to stop the automatism of the ancient rite we can return to the true intentions of Benedict XVI and John Paul II. My decision is the result of a consultation with all the bishops of the world made last year.” 

Archbishop Gänswein said Benedict showed “even less appreciation” for the anecdote Francis then recounted to the Slovakian Jesuits. Francis added, “A cardinal told me that two newly-ordained priests came to him asking him for permission to study Latin so as to celebrate well. With a sense of humor he replied: ‘But there are many Hispanics in the diocese! Study Spanish to be able to preach. Then, when you have studied Spanish, come back to me and I’ll tell you how many Vietnamese there are in the diocese, and I’ll ask you to study Vietnamese. Then, when you have learned Vietnamese, I will give you permission to study Latin.’ So he made them ‘land’; he made them return to earth.”

Archbishop Gänswein recalled that as an expert on Vatican II, Benedict “remembered well how the Council had instead insisted that ‘the use of the Latin language, except for particular rites, be preserved in the Latin rites’” and that all seminarians should learn it. 

He also recalled that Benedict had issued a motu proprio in 2012 called Latina Lingua in which “not for nothing” Benedict noted that “the liturgical books of the Roman rite, the most important documents of the Pontifical Magisterium, and the most solemn official acts of the Roman Pontiffs [are] written in that language in their official form, precisely in order to highlight the universal character of the Church.” 

Stressing the importance of the liturgy to Benedict in his writings, such as The Feast of the Faith (1984) and The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000), its centrality to any reform of the Church, and the danger of the liturgy “becoming a battleground for opposing sides,” Archbishop Gänswein said that with Summorum Pontificum, “he wanted to make it easier for a priest to celebrate the ancient rite, overcoming the need to refer to the diocesan bishop and granting competence to the ‘Ecclesia Dei’ Commission” — a curial body established by Pope St. John Paul II tasked with trying to return traditional Catholics who had separated from Rome into full communion with the Church.

“It remained, however, always clear to him that there was only one rite, albeit with the co-presence of the ordinary and the extraordinary,” Archbishop Gänswein continued. “His only motivation was the desire to repair the great wound that had gradually been created, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

“It was not an operation carried out clandestinely, as even some in bad faith have claimed,” he continued. “It was in fact the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that dealt with the text of the [Summorum Pontificum] motu proprio, with the involvement of the members of the feria quarta and the plenary. Benedict constantly followed the progress of the text through updates given to him by Cardinal Prefect [William] Levada” and through “always positive” feedback during ad limina visits.


Benedict’s Intentions

“That is why, to Pope Ratzinger, that reference to his ‘true intentions’ seemed incongruous,” Archbishop Gänswein said, referencing a passage in Light of the World, a book interview with Peter Seewald published in 2010. 

The passage quotes Benedict saying he had wanted “to make the ancient form more easily accessible above all in order to preserve the deep and unbroken link that exists in the history of the Church.” 

“We cannot say: it was all wrong before, but now it is all right,” Benedict continued. “Indeed, in a community in which prayer and the Eucharist are the most important things, what used to be considered the most sacred thing cannot be considered entirely wrong. It was about reconciliation with one’s past, about the internal continuity of faith and prayer in the Church.”

Archbishop Gänswein also said it “remained mysterious to Benedict” why the results of a Vatican consultation of bishops ahead of the publication of Traditionis Custodes, which Pope Francis said in his letter to bishops “reveal a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene,” were not disclosed. 

To see the results, Benedict believed, “would have allowed a more precise understanding of every implication of Pope Francis’ decision.”

Archbishop Gänswein also said it was “surprising” in Traditionis Custodes that the authority for handling matters regarding to the extraordinary form of the Roman rite should be transferred from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and split between the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.