After Outcry, Vatican Eases Restrictions on Individual Masses in St. Peter’s Basilica

In a note issued today, Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, the archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, clarified some of the controversial restrictions that were imposed in March.

Since the rules came into force on March 22, the number of Masses celebrated each morning, often by priests who work as officials in the Vatican, plummeted from as many as 75 to less than 10.
Since the rules came into force on March 22, the number of Masses celebrated each morning, often by priests who work as officials in the Vatican, plummeted from as many as 75 to less than 10. (photo: Edward Pentin)

VATICAN CITY — The archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica has made concessions to widen opportunities for priests to celebrate individual daily morning Masses in the basilica, but also has stressed that concelebrated Masses must nevertheless remain the norm there.

In a three-page note issued on Tuesday (see English translation here), Cardinal Mauro Gambetti acknowledged that exceptions need to be made for a priest to celebrate individual Masses “in which the benefit to the faithful does not require, or advise, otherwise.”

He wrote that groups with “special and legitimate needs will be granted as far as possible” and that “requests for individual celebrations can also be discerned on a case-by-case basis, without prejudice to the principle that everything should take place in an atmosphere of recollection and decorum.” 

But he also stressed it was important to ensure that “what is exceptional does not become ordinary, distorting the intentions and meaning of the Magisterium.” 

The statement marks a significant softening of a five-point directive from the Secretariat of State that caused a public outcry in March after it called for the suppression of Masses celebrated individually in the main body of the basilica.

That directive, circulated internally and initialed by the deputy secretary of state, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, was a break with the usual custom of allowing individual priests to freely celebrate their daily Mass at the basilica’s many side altars. 

Since those rules came into force on March 22, the number of Masses celebrated each morning, often by priests who work as officials in the Vatican, plummeted from as many as 75 to less than 10, and few of the priest officials have switched to taking part in the concelebrated morning Masses. 

At that time, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, called the directive a “merciless, authoritarian document, imposed without consultation or synodality,” which disregarded “the Catholic spiritual tradition of the priesthood to celebrate the Mass every day,” while Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect emeritus of the Apostolic Signatura, said it was in “direct violation of universal Church law” and called for it to be rescinded. 

 

Concelebration

Cardinal Gambetti explained that he was issuing his statement in the hope that it would be “useful for understanding” the Secretariat of State’s directive that, he said, applied only to a “precise context,” namely “liturgical services in the time slot between 7 and 9am.” 

The changes made through that directive had been inspired by two main principles, he said: “To order the celebrations from the point of view of their time frame and quality,” and to “welcome and integrate particular and legitimate desires of the faithful as far as possible.” 

He noted that the magisterium “recommends concelebration, such as at the main Mass of a church or at Masses on the occasion of meetings of priests, secular or religious, whatever their character.” 

The changes, he added, offered an opportunity to recall the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which stated that “liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the sacrament of unity.” Further quoting from the document, he added that concelebration is “to be preferred, so far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private.”

Cardinal Gambetti also asserted, drawing on other Church documents, that the “greatest fruit of the Eucharist is drawn from participation in the same action, because it better expresses the mystery that is celebrated.” He said that there is “no diminution of the value and fruits of the Eucharistic sacrifice” in concelebrated Masses “but rather a full exaltation of them.” 

But he also mentioned, notably through footnotes, other passages from Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Code of Canon Law that stipulate a priest’s right to always celebrate Mass individually, although not while a celebration is taking place in the same church or oratory. 

 

Addressing Other Criticisms

Another criticism of the Secretariat of State’s directive was that visiting groups of pilgrims would only be allowed to have Masses individually celebrated if they took place in the grottoes under the basilica, while all morning Masses in the main body of the basilica would have to be concelebrated in Italian, therefore unduly penalizing non-Italian speaking pilgrims. 

Cardinal Gambetti, who took up his position as archpriest soon after the Secretariat of State directive emerged, addressed this point by noting the importance of “understanding the language in the liturgy” and stressing that the “pastoral value” of the celebration of the Eucharist for a group of pilgrims according to existing Rites of the Catholic Church “should not be underestimated.” 

Implicitly referring to the rule that individual Masses should take place when a concelebrated Mass is happening concurrently in the same church, he noted that the “dimensions of the basilica” are such that there need not be any overlap between a group wishing to have a Mass celebrated and concelebrations taking place elsewhere in the basilica.

“St. Peter's Basilica is characterized by the Petrine ministry of unity, mercy and orthodoxy of the faith and welcomes pilgrims from all over the world,” he stressed. 

A further significant element of Cardinal Gambetti’s statement involves Masses in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Under the Secretariat of State’s directive, these Masses, which are always celebrated individually, were ordered to only take place in a small, ornate chapel in the Vatican grottoes — a change that critics said was a breach with Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 decree that liberalized celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass.

Although he did not say specifically what changes would be made to the celebration of Mass in the Extraordinary Form in the basilica, Cardinal Gambetti wrote that “everything possible must be done to fulfill the wishes of the faithful and priests as foreseen by the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.”

He concluded his statement by saying he was confident that “the path we have embarked upon will enable every priest and every member of the faithful to experience celebrations in St. Peter’s in a way that is ever more ordered to goodness, beauty and truth.”

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