Vatican Liturgy Chief: Traditional Latin Mass ‘Abrogated by Pope St. Paul VI’

Archbishop Roche, the 71-year-old former bishop of Leeds, northern England, was appointed prefect of the Vatican’s liturgy department in May, succeeding Cardinal Robert Sarah.

Archbishop Arthur Roche at the Vatican press office on Feb. 10, 2015.
Archbishop Arthur Roche at the Vatican press office on Feb. 10, 2015. (photo: Bohumil Petrik/CNA / EWTN)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s liturgy chief has said that the Traditional Latin Mass was “abrogated by Pope Saint Paul VI.”

Archbishop Arthur Roche made the comment in a letter dated Aug. 4 to the English Cardinal Vincent Nichols.

The prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments was replying to a letter from the cardinal dated July 28, regarding the application of Pope Francis’ motu proprio Traditionis custodes in England and Wales.

A spokesman for Cardinal Nichols confirmed in a email to CNA on Nov. 8 that the correspondence, published on Nov. 5 by the website, was genuine.

The motu proprio, which came into force on July 16, the day it was released, said that it is a bishop’s “exclusive competence” to authorize Traditional Latin Masses in his diocese. 

The document, accompanied by a letter to bishops, made sweeping changes to Benedict XVI’s 2007 apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, which had acknowledged the right of all priests to say Mass using the Roman Missal of 1962 without having to seek their bishop’s permission.

Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal is referred to variously as the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, the Tridentine Mass, the Traditional Latin Mass, the usus antiquior, and the Vetus Ordo.

Emphasizing that his response was “of a personal nature” as the Congregation had not yet issued guidelines on interpreting the document, Roche wrote: “Clearly, this is a moment which demands of pastors a delicacy of care and direction towards those who are most affected by the laws now in force.” 

“The use of antecedent liturgical texts has been regulated and not suppressed. The reasons for this are clearly outlined in the Pope’s letter.” 

“The misinterpretation and promotion of the use of these texts, after only limited concessions by previous Pontiffs, has been used to encourage a liturgy at variance with Conciliar reform (and which, in fact, was abrogated by Pope Saint Paul VI), and an ecclesiology that is not part of the Church’s Magisterium.”

In a letter to the world’s bishops accompanying Summorum Pontificum, Benedict XVI wrote that the pre-conciliar liturgy was “never juridically abrogated.”

“As for the use of the 1962 Missal as a Forma extraordinaria [extraordinary form] of the liturgy of the Mass, I would like to draw attention to the fact that this Missal was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted,” he said in the letter dated July 7, 2007.

Cardinal Nichols, archbishop of Westminster and president of the English and Welsh bishops’ conference, asked Archbishop Roche six questions regarding Traditionis custodes. They included whether the Vatican would issue further guidance on the motu proprio’s application, if the document applied to other sacraments such as baptism, and how the term “groups” should be understood. 

He wrote: “Although the Motu Proprio has come into immediate effect, we are aware that its correct and lasting application will take time.” 

“From the combination of the Motu Proprio text and its accompanying letter, it is clear that the Holy Father wishes a unity of liturgical prayer, expressed through ‘the unique expression of the lex orandi [law of prayer] of the Roman Rite.’” 

“In pastoral attentiveness, we will have to accompany people who are firmly attached to the Missal of 1962 towards the Missal of Popes Saints Paul VI and John Paul II.”

Archbishop Roche, the 71-year-old former bishop of Leeds, northern England, was appointed prefect of the Vatican’s liturgy department in May, succeeding Cardinal Robert Sarah. 

In the letter also signed by the congregation’s secretary, Archbishop Vittorio Francesco Viola, Archbishop Roche told Cardinal Nichols that his congregation was still “attentively studying the implications of the Motu Proprio,” but he was nevertheless happy to “share with you our present understanding regarding the matters you raise.”

“It is clear that the principal commentary on the new law governing the granting of the use of antecedents liturgical texts, by way of exceptional concession, and not by way of promotion, is the accompanying letter from Pope Francis to the Bishops,” he wrote. 

“It is also evident that these exceptional concessions should only be granted to those who accept the validity and legitimacy of the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council and the Magisterium of the Supreme Pontiffs. All that is in the new law is oriented to the return and stabilization of the liturgy as decreed by the Second Vatican Council.”

He confirmed that the motu proprio transferred responsibility for matters related to the Traditional Latin Mass from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life.

“They alone now exercise competence within their given fields,” he wrote.

Regarding whether the document applied to all other sacraments, he said it was clear “that the new law abrogates what was previously given by way of exceptional and limited concession.” 

“Pastoral prudence, however, may determine for a very limited time only, and with a view to increased ecclesial communion, a full implementation of the Motu Proprio, but which would require careful monitoring and clear guidance towards that end,” he wrote. 

Traditionis custodes speaks only of the use of the Missale Romanam [Roman Missal] of 1962 and Eucharistic celebrations. There has been considerable misinterpretation of previous provisions with growing practices, developments, and promotion, which in no small part has encouraged a growth that was not foreseen or sanctioned by previous Pontiffs.” 

“A former underplaying of the Second Vatican Council's role of the Local Ordinary as moderator, promotor, and guardian of the liturgy has proved to be unhelpful in this matter for which reason the Holy Father now stresses the importance of the Bishop’s role in fully applying the new law.”

Archbishop Roche clarified that the term “groups” in the motu proprio referred “to the personal parishes that were previously erected for the concessionary use of the antecedent liturgy, and to those gatherings of people who have been regularly meeting for the celebration of the Eucharist using the Missale Romanum of 1962.” 

The correspondence between Cardinal Nichols and Archbishop Roche also touched on the so-called “Agatha Christie indult,” with which Pope Paul VI granted permission for the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass in England and Wales following the revision of the Mass after the Second Vatican Council.

Cardinal Nichols noted that the indult was granted to Cardinal John Heenan, the then archbishop of Westminster, in 1971. Heenan is believed to have made the request after a petition in favor of an indult was signed by cultural luminaries such as art historian Kenneth Clark, pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, poet Robert Graves, and detective novelist Agatha Christie.

Paul VI reputedly saw the novelist’s name accompanying the request, said “Ah, Agatha Christie,” and granted permission.

But Archbishop Roche said that a search of his congregation’s archives had “found nothing that corresponds to this.”

“If Your Eminence has seen this indult I would be grateful if you would share it and all relevant correspondence with this Congregation,” he wrote. 

“In any case, note needs to be taken of Traditionis custodes no. 8, which abrogates all previous norms, instructions, permissions, and customs that do not conform to the present law. A previous indult would certainly fall under this proscription.”

The text of the indult is published on the website of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales, a group also discussed in the correspondence between the cardinal and archbishop.

Cardinal Nichols, 76, issued guidance to priests of Westminster diocese regarding Traditionis custodes in an email dated July 22, days before his letter to Roche. 

He said that many of them had asked to continue celebrating Mass according to the 1962 Missal.

“My intention is to grant faculties for these requests, as long as it is clear that the conditions of the Motu Proprio are fulfilled and the intentions of the Holy Father fully accepted,” he said.