The side altars of St. Peter’s basilica were almost all devoid of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass this morning as a Vatican directive suppressing individual Masses being celebrated in the upper part of the basilica came into force.
From today, priests can only concelebrate the Masses in the main body of the basilica in the morning between 7am and 9.30am Rome time — a break with the usual custom of allowing individual priests to freely celebrate their daily Mass at the basilica’s many altars.
At 7am this morning, when this Register correspondent was there, two concelebrated Masses with between two and four priests were taking place at just two altars: The Choir Chapel on the basilica’s southern side and at the Altar of the Chair.
The Traditional Latin Mass, until now allowed in the main body of the basilica, was celebrated this morning by an “authorized priest” in the small, Clementine Chapel, in the grotto underneath the basilica, as stipulated by the Vatican’s March 12 instruction.
The five-point directive, unusually addressed to the administrators of the basilica from the Secretariat of State, rather than the basilica’s cardinal archpriest, and pinned to the door of the basilica sacristy, has drawn much controversy since it came to public attention 10 days ago.
Imposed in a “top-down” fashion without any consultation, according to an informed Vatican source who asked to remain anonymous, the change primarily affects priest officials working in the Vatican who used to celebrate Masses individually in the basilica’s 45 side altars and 11 chapels before beginning their workday.
“They’re very ticked off,” the source told the Register. “Very few of them are here joining in the concelebrated Masses this morning out of protest at the changes,” the source said, adding that the ability to celebrate Mass individually in the basilica was one of the few opportunities the officials had to exercise their priesthood.
Initialed by Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the deputy Secretary of State, the instruction stated that, in order to ensure “an atmosphere of recollection and liturgical decorum,” individual celebrations would be “suppressed” at the side altars of St. Peter’s beginning March 22.
Priests and faithful coming to the basilica for Mass would, from now on, only be able to take part in one of four concelebrated Masses each morning, as well as other concelebrated Masses during the day at the main altars.
The directive also stated that concelebrations should have the assistance of readers and cantors, and that groups of pilgrims accompanied by a bishop or priest should now celebrate Mass in the Vatican grottoes underneath the basilica. “Authorized priests” are now only allowed to celebrate Mass in the Extraordinary Form in the Clementine Chapel at four set times each morning limited to 30 minutes.
In a March 13 statement, Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect emeritus of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest court, said the directive was in “direct violation of universal Church law,” that it breached the standard methods for making changes to the Sacred Liturgy, and should therefore be “rescinded immediately.”
He and others critical of the directive say it unjustly conditions priests to concelebrate Masses in violation of their freedom to offer the Mass individually. Faithful from around the world coming to the basilica will also now almost always be restricted to taking part in Masses in Italian.
Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who remarked on EWTN’s The World Over last week that the Secretariat of State had neither the legal nor theological competence to make such a decision, told the Register March 22 that it will have the effect of making clergy working in the Vatican “more like functionaries and with less priestly identity.”
The directive, which he said was a “merciless, authoritarian document, imposed without consultation or synodality,” represents a “secularized understanding” of the Mass as religious entertainment, disregards “the Catholic spiritual tradition of the priesthood to celebrate the Mass every day,” and is further proof of the “self-secularization of the Church.”
“It’s all very superficial,” he said, adding that it is “absolutely obvious that this document has been made by anonymous men in the background who don’t know anything about Catholic theology.”
Cardinal Müller said the directive’s authors “want to have this ‘recollection and decorum’ but it’s not the reality.” Instead he believes they are giving “a totally bad example to all the Church, because the Holy Roman Church is Mater et Magistra, for all the Church, and it must give the best example of the Roman liturgy.”
He added that he hopes it will not make the basilica “more and more like a museum.”
Writing in Catholic World Report, George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, predicted “St. Peter’s will be much less a house of prayer than it used to be,” something he viewed as “a great sadness, especially at a time when the Church and the world badly need the power of the Eucharist and the witness of intense Eucharistic piety.”
It is still not clear who was behind the directive which has been discussed for many years but has coincided with the departure in February of the previous archpriest, Cardinal Angelo Comastri, who was known to be resistant to such a change. Reliable sources have told the Register Pope Francis authorized it himself with the help of one of his close confidants, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, and a number of other cardinals close to the Holy Father.
The Register has asked the Holy See Press Office, Archbishop Peña Parra, and his superior, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, for an explanation of the change and how it came into being but has not yet received a response.