Why Benedict XVI Wrote ‘Summorum Pontificum’

COMMENTARY: It’s the faithful, not the rubrics, which determine the fruitfulness of a liturgy, extraordinary or otherwise.

(photo: Unsplash)

Ten years ago, Pope Benedict XVI issued his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which liberalized the use of the traditional Latin Mass and addressed a number of concerns about its use.

Nonetheless, many still have questions about Summorum Pontificum and its implications. A helpful yet often underemphasized read of this document sees it not as an analysis of rites and rubrics, but as a call to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the liturgy’s power and efficacy.

Following Pope Benedict’s 2007 letter, the two missals, that of Paul VI (1970) and that of John XXIII (1962), were named the “Ordinary Form” and “Extraordinary Form,” respectively. Further, between these “two usages of the one Roman rite,” Pope Benedict saw an opportunity for a “mutual enrichment.”

Since the Missal of St. John XXIII was “never juridically abrogated,” the Pope wrote, any “qualified priest” of the “Latin rite” may celebrate it without special permission.

As crucial as these points from Summorum Pontificum are for our understanding of the document and the liturgical life of the Church, they all have one thing in common: Each of them addresses missals, ministers, rites and rubrics. But these elements of the Mass’ celebration, while the most obvious to see, are not the only ones to consider from the 2007 motu proprio.

In fact, they may not even be the most important for the faithful who live out their faith in the pews, the family dinner table and around the water cooler.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, easily the most prominent supporter of Summorum Pontificum among the Church’s hierarchy, offers another insight into Summorum Pontificum, one especially salient for the “Catholic in the pew.”

In remarks to the March 29 colloquium “The Source of the Future,” the cardinal explains Pope Benedict’s letter within the context of the liturgical movement that began before the Second Vatican Council and culminated in the Council’s work on the liturgy.

This 20th-century liturgical movement, Cardinal Sarah recalled, was initiated officially by Pope St. Pius X. Desiring to “Restore all things in Christ” (his papal motto), Pius X encouraged the laity to “assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this [true Christian] spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church” (1903 letter, Tra le Sollecitudini).

Sixty years later, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council approved the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which invokes Pius X’s notion of “active participation” in the sacramental work of Jesus as the “aim to be considered before all others” in the reform and restoration of the sacred liturgy.

As Cardinal Sarah put it, the Council’s constitution was “one of the finest fruits” of the liturgical movement begun by Pope Pius X. This same liturgical movement “continues in our days following the new impetus given to it by Pope Benedict XVI,” Cardinal Sarah explains in his Summorum Pontificum address.

But what is this “liturgical movement,” and why does Cardinal Sarah see it as essential to understanding Summorum Pontificum?

Furthermore, how can the liturgical movement give Catholics greater insight into both the ordinary form and extraordinary form of the Mass?

These answers are found in the early figures of the liturgical movement. Dom Virgil Michel, a Benedictine monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and a “founding father” of the American liturgical movement, said succinctly in 1929 that “the true significance of the liturgical movement lies just in this: that it tries to lead men back to the ‘primary and indispensable source of the true Christian spirit.’”

The liturgical movement championed by Pope Pius X and Dom Virgil Michel, and experienced by the young Joseph Ratzinger, thus sought to inspire the faithful to enter into the depths of the liturgy. In other words — and here is where Summorum Pontificum becomes more legible — what moves and changes in a liturgical celebration of any form is the heart of the participant.

It is tempting and even reasonable to let discussions of Summorum Pontificum center exclusively on rituals and missals. By reading Summorum Pontificum in the context of the liturgical movement, Cardinal Sarah lets us see Pope Benedict’s letter in a larger framework, one that reminds us that the liturgy’s primary change, restoration and enrichment is of participants.

Whether or not the language is changed from Latin to English, for example, the people of God are changed by either missal.

In the letter to the Church’s bishops that accompanied Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict suggested this same dynamic of change, restoration and enrichment.

Explaining why some of the faithful were still attached to the old missal, he credits “the liturgical movement [that] had provided many people with a notable liturgical formation and a deep, personal familiarity with the earlier form of the liturgical celebration” (italics added).

In other words, the early 20th-century movement formed the people; it did not reform the rites. The grace of Christ has always flowed from the liturgical spring, and the liturgically minded pastor of the 1930s taught his people how to drink from it.

Even at the Second Vatican Council, during which the rites themselves became the subject of reform, any future changes were to move hearts.

“The liturgy,” the constitution says, “moves the faithful, filled with ‘the paschal sacraments,’ to be ‘one in holiness’” (10).

While the ink was still drying on the document, a pioneer of the pre-conciliar liturgical reform, Father Romano Guardini, would write in 1964 that if the faithful were not equipped and receptive to liturgical transformation, “reforms of rites and texts will not help much.” In other words, as the Council affirmed and Father Guardini confirmed, it’s the faithful, not the rubrics, which determine the fruitfulness of a liturgy, extraordinary or otherwise.

Today, 10 years after Summorum Pontificum, Cardinal Sarah claims that “the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium is the context in which we ought to consider the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.” Put differently, Summorum Pontificum isn’t ultimately about ritual usage and the potential enrichment between missals, although this element is, as Pope Benedict notes, vital. Rather, the document seeks primarily to facilitate the change of the Catholic faithful.

Thus, to read Summorum Pontificum with an eye not only on ritual books, but also on the participants they are meant to perfect, is to read this document according to the depth it invites.

To be sure, Cardinal Sarah’s own remarks on Summorum Pontificum hit upon ritual change.

“The liturgy,” he says, “must therefore always be reformed so as to be more faithful to its mystical essence.” Indeed, the two forms should peacefully coexist to allow for “the possibility of perfecting them by emphasizing the best features that characterize [each of] them.”

Still, Cardinal Sarah’s last word on the subject is a road map for all Catholics to move deeper into the liturgical source through silence, adoration and solid formation, while he says little about how rites — old or new — should adapt themselves to those in the pew.

Whether the priest faces east or not, participants must orient their hearts toward the Rising Son.

It is undeniably true that a praying soul’s path to holiness is easier to follow when the corresponding ritual allows for moments of silence, directs it toward God’s adoration, and prayerfully expresses the Church’s belief in the Risen One. Yet the cardinal’s road to liturgical renewal falls in large part to each of us.

Our own “enrichment” unto God’s glory is the goal of both the ordinary form and extraordinary form of the Mass, however these forms may mutually enrich each other. We are each called to adapt ourselves to the eternal Mystery the Mass contains, regardless of how the missals adapt to the needs of the present time.

The true perfection sought by Summorum Pontificum is that of each and every Catholic soul, even as the peaceful coexistence of the two missals affirmed by Summorum Pontificum may lead to the perfection of both books.

The results of this kind of liturgical movement, as Pope Benedict, Cardinal Sarah and Father Virgil Michel would all concur, will be nothing less than extraordinary.


Christopher Carstens is the director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin,

the editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, and visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, Illinois.