The City of Big Shoulders — and Liturgical Confusion: Chicago Faithful Flummoxed by Inconsistent Liturgy Policy

NEWS ANALYSIS: The juxtaposition of laxity for liturgical abuses with forceful crackdowns of reverent worship well beyond Pope Francis’s recent directives calls into question Cardinal Blase Cupich’s stated prioritization of promoting unity and the reforms of Vatican II.

Cardinal Blase Cupich (C) presides over a Simbang Gabi Mass at the Old St. Mary's Catholic Church in Chicago, Illinois, on December 20, 2018.
Cardinal Blase Cupich (C) presides over a Simbang Gabi Mass at the Old St. Mary's Catholic Church in Chicago, Illinois, on December 20, 2018. (photo: Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP/Getty)

CHICAGO — Perhaps no U.S. diocese has implemented Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis’s motu proprio restricting what is commonly known as the traditional Latin Mass, as forcefully as the Archdiocese of Chicago. 

In fact, Cardinal Blase Cupich’s enactment of the decree has gone beyond what the text of both the motu proprio and a subsequent clarification issued by the Vatican require, including additional limitations placed on communities still allowed by Traditionis Custodes to celebrate the pre-conciliar Mass previously known as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite and an effective ban on the ad orientem celebration of the ordinary form of the Mass by diocesan priests — a measure not even hinted at in the Pope’s original guidance.

In explaining the basis for his extratextual implementation of Traditionis Custodes, Cardinal Cupich wrote that his “guiding principles” are “the unity of the Church” and conformity with the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. These are themes he has emphasized elsewhere, including in a November 2021 article for America magazine that suggested “the legacy of Vatican II” was at stake in the implementation of the Holy Father’s directive, underscoring the importance of celebrating the post-Vatican II Mass “with great reverence in harmony with the liturgical directives” as a vital step for fostering liturgical unity.

However, while recent liturgical changes in Chicago are clearly aimed at limiting the celebration of the Mass outside of the Mass of Paul VI, they’ve done little to ensure the celebration of this liturgy with “great reverence” in fidelity to the Church’s official guidance. In fact, the archdiocese’s crackdown on the traditional Latin Mass and ad orientem worship in the post-conciliar Mass — a liturgical posture preferred by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, endorsed by former Vatican liturgy head Cardinal Robert Sarah, and believed by many theologians to simply be presumed by the Council Fathers and subsequent liturgical norms — has coincided with a steady stream of blatant abuses in the celebration of the post-Vatican II liturgy across the archdiocese.

In one ironic illustration of this overlap, Cardinal Cupich published his implementation of Traditionis Custodes on Christmas Day 2021, only hours after Father Michael Pfleger had led a jazz-infused, Introductory Rites-less “Christmas at St. Sabina” liturgy the night before. 

The most recent Chicago liturgy controversy features a same-sex couple giving a “lay reflection” during a June 19 Mass at Old St. Patrick’s Church, describing their civil marriage and adoption of two girls as “miracles” and characterizing Catholic teaching regarding homosexuality and marriage as “bigotry.” 

Aside from the obvious problem of dissenting views being platformed during the liturgy, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal makes no allowance for “lay reflections” in the midst of Mass, and prohibits laypeople from giving homilies (66).

Pope Francis seemed to address the need to curtail such liturgical deformations in his letter accompanying Traditionis Custodes, in which he wrote that he is “saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides,” quoting Benedict’s observation that “in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions.”

Likewise, Cardinal Arthur Roche, the current head of the Dicastery for Divine Worship, recently criticized the exaltation of “individualism” and “personal preference” in the liturgy. Although his comments were made regarding some people’s preference for the traditional Latin Mass, they certainly seem applicable to the types of liturgical “innovations” and performative spectacles rampant in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

However, liturgical abuses of these sort in Chicago have been met with no public response nor indication of disapproval from the chancery. In fact, the Archdiocese of Chicago has not responded to multiple requests for comment from the Register regarding its liturgical policies made over multiple months.

This puzzling juxtaposition — tolerance for liturgical abuses of the post-conciliar Mass but a forceful crackdown of reverent expressions of worship not even mentioned in Traditionis Custodes — has generated a situation that is theologically muddled and pastorally fraught, leaving some in the archdiocese unclear how Church unity and fidelity to Vatican II are being advanced by the archdiocese’s policies. The confusion has only been exacerbated by Cardinal Cupich’s recent appointment to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Divine Worship.

“The juxtaposition is quite startling,” said Timothy Wilwerding, a parishioner at St. John Cantius, one of the only places where the traditional Latin Mass is still permitted, though not on the first Sundays of each month, nor during the Triduum, Easter Sunday or Pentecost Sunday, an instance of the archdiocese’s curtailing of the TLM beyond Traditionis Custodes. “If you’re allowing some pretty wacky liturgical abuses and you’re restricting reverent celebrations of the Mass in the name of ‘unity,’ it’s hard for me to find the pastoral content in there because it just doesn’t make any sense to me.”


Liturgical Abuses Unaddressed

Jonathan Blevins, a popular Catholic internet personality who has brought some of the incidents of liturgical abuse in his archdiocese to the attention of a wider audience via social media, expressed a similar perspective. 

“I am disheartened by it for sure,” Blevins, who attends the post-conciliar Mass, told the Register. “I seek understanding. I try to fill any gaps with trust and that has been more difficult to do now than ever.”

In February, Blevins shared a video clip from a Mass at Holy Family Catholic Community in Inverness, Illinois, which showed a priest ad libbing a rock ’n’ roll themed final blessing, making the Sign of the Cross over the congregation with a guitar, and then departing from the prescribed dismissal to declare, “Our Mass never ends.” Blevins, who had previously shared a thread of liturgical deformations he had observed at Holy Family after he and his family had “accidentally” gone there for Mass, attached a simple request to his tweet of the guitar blessing video: “Dear @CardinalBCupich, Please make it stop.”

At that time, Blevins declined to speak with the Register, preferring to communicate directly with the archdiocesan chancery instead of taking his concerns to the media. But after writing multiple letters to the archdiocese, he said he never received a response.

So after sharing another instance of Holy Family’s clear departure from the Church’s liturgical norms — this time featuring a layperson making giant bubbles at the foot of the altar and the choir performing Kool & the Gang’s Celebration in the midst of Pentecost Sunday Mass — he was willing to share his perspective with the Register.

Blevins said that it “breaks my heart that many attend this parish and they have no idea of the beauty that they are missing out on when Mass is said correctly.” He is also concerned about how members of the parish will respond when the liturgical situation at Holy Family is “eventually turned around.”

“Where will they go? How many will miss the theatrics and stop attending Mass?”

Blevins, who worked for an archdiocesan parish for five years until starting Little Flower Media eight months ago, still has many friends involved in ministry in the archdiocese, including priests, and said that “many of them are shocked that this is seemingly allowed to continue.”


Whose Vatican II?

Cardinal Cupich, who received a doctorate in sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America in 1987, has emphasized the need to follow the reforms called for by the Second Vatican Council and the Roman Missal promulgated by Pope St. Paul VI in 1970 and revised by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000.

But in addition to allowing liturgical abuses clearly inconsistent with these normative sources, some of Cardinal Cupich’s own liturgical directives do not seem explicitly required by Vatican II or the Church’s other sources of liturgical guidance, and may even potentially contrast with them, giving the impression that the cardinal is advancing his own liturgical preferences under the guise of “protecting the legacy of Vatican II.”

The most glaring example of this is the Archdiocese of Chicago’s effective suppression of the ad orientem, a liturgical posture in which the celebrant faces “to the east,” the direction symbolic of the coming of Christ, joining the lay faithful in orientating himself to the tabernacle and/or cross during those parts of the Mass that are addressed to God. Praying to the “Liturgical East” has ancient roots, and prior to his election to the papacy, Joseph Ratzinger wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy that a “common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential,” and “is not a case of something accidental.”

But ad orientem was not included in a list of liturgical elements Cardinal Cupich described as “pre-Vatican” that could be incorporated into the celebration of the Mass to encourage participation of those previously attached to the traditional Latin Mass — a confusing list to begin with, considering that the elements included, such as Gregorian chant, reverent silence, and the use of Latin for parts of the Mass, are not “options” merely permitted by the Second Vatican Council, but were explicitly called for in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s pastoral constitution on the liturgy.

Furthermore, the cardinal wrote that Mass is also ordinarily to be celebrated versus populum (facing the people), “unless permission is granted otherwise by the archbishop.” Other than at St. John Cantius Church, which is maintained by the Canons Regular who are uniquely devoted to “the restoration of the sacred” in parish ministry, the Register was unable to confirm any instances of permission given to diocesan priests to publicly celebrate the post-conciliar Mass ad orientem, now six months after the policy went into effect.

As ordinary of the archdiocese, Cardinal Cupich has the canonical authority to regulate aspects of the celebration of the Mass. But according to one liturgical theologian, there are no grounds to make the case that banning Mass ad orientem is required by or even consistent with Vatican II and subsequent liturgical norms.

Ad orientem is not only not contrary to the revised books, it’s very much in keeping with them,” said Chris Carstens, speaking generally on the topic. Carstens, the director of the Office for Sacred Worship at the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, editor of Adoremus Bulletin, and co-host of The Liturgy Guys podcast, points out the that rubrics for Mass “presume at times that the priest is facing with the people in the same direction.” 

For instance, the Roman Missal includes at specific points in the liturgy, particularly when the priest is addressing the congregants, an instruction for the celebrant to be “facing” or “turned towards” the people; at other times, the Missal describes the priest as “facing the altar.” Several theologians say this distinction only makes sense if the altar and the people are, in fact, in different directions from the priest in the sanctuary, an indication that some degree of ad orientem is normative for the Novus Ordo Mass, even if it is not typically celebrated in this way.

Some argue that official liturgical standards indicate that versus populum should be the norm, such as paragraph 299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. “The altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible,” reads the English translation of the passage in question.

However, Carstens and other liturgical scholars note that in the original Latin of GIRM 299, the part translated, “which is desirable wherever possible,” refers not to the celebration of Mass versus populum, but to building the altar separate from the wall, and should not be read as indicative of a preference for one orientation over the other. Carstens said a bishop “might have a reason” for restricting the ad orientem worship in the Mass. “But I don’t think he can make that case in light of Tradition, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the current Missal, or definite interpretations.”


Non-Synodal Culture

Cardinal Cupich has allowed for diocesan priests desiring to celebrate the Mass ad orientem to submit a request to his office, but according to one archdiocesan priest, no one is likely to take the cardinal up on his offer.

“A guy would have a better chance of walking on the moon than getting permission to celebrate ad orientem, let alone the traditional Latin Mass,” said the Chicago priest, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal for critiquing the archdiocese’s liturgical policies.

Furthermore, he said that making such a request would simply “put a target on your back,” given the cardinal archbishop’s disapproval of the practice. Father Anthony Buś, an archdiocesan priest who had offered the post-conciliar Mass ad orientem to parishioners at St. Stanislaus Kostka in Chicago since 2017, was allegedly reprimanded by Cardinal Cupich after the diocesan priest wrote in an open letter about his intention to continue celebrating Mass ad orientem, with or without approval.

The archdiocesan priest interviewed by the Register clarified that for the majority of Chicago priests — as well as Catholics in the pews — Cardinal Cupich’s implementation of Traditionis Custodes has little effect on their lives. In fact, the interviewed priest does not celebrate the traditional Latin Mass himself, and only celebrates Mass ad orientem when versus populum is not possible.

Nevertheless, he is critical of the “heavy-handedness” of the archdiocese’s liturgical policies, which he believes are all the more unjust in light of the abuses that are tolerated.

“It’s absurd that people are being clamped down on for faithfully celebrating the Mass” while “blasphemy and lunacy are allowed and have not been publicly corrected,” said the priest.

This priest said he has played a role in “calming the fears” of those who are upset by the archdiocese’s decisions, letting them know “that their faithfulness to the Church is really important.”

“I say to them, ‘Let’s just hold out and pray that there’s a kinder, gentler, more fraternal turn in the Church in the near future.”

The archdiocesan priest’s concern about a lack of synodality in the archdiocese’s approach is shared by other Chicago Catholics, like Astrida Orle Tantillo, who credits her experience of the traditional Latin Mass with drawing her into the Catholic faith and giving her a deeper basis for understanding and now appreciating the Novus Ordo.

“The Holy Father has made it very clear that he expects his priests and his bishops to know his sheep,” Tantillo, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois-Chicago, told the Register. “And I guess I would ask the Church to make sure that they know their sheep.” She questions whether this has been adequately done in Chicago, and feels like, because of her preference for the TLM, she is being treated like “I’m somehow schismatic or that I’ve left the Church. And that’s never been the case.”

Another Chicago Catholic, David Unger, wrote in a January Chicago Tribune op-ed that he was unaware of Cardinal Cupich ever visiting his diocesan parish, St. Mary of Perpetual Help, before suppressing its celebration of the traditional Latin Mass and subsequently denying the parish’s request to retain this practice. Unger described the parish’s adherence to the TLM not as “a rebellion against Vatican II,” but instead as consistent with many of the Council’s desires, including “new zeal for the Mass” and the enablement of “active internal and external participation among the faithful.”

“With all due respect to [Cardinal] Cupich,” Unger wrote, “I humbly request that his eminence reconsider his policy on the Latin Mass in dialogue with the parishioners who attend it.” 


Need for Unity

Chicago Catholics tell the Register that some of the initial discontent surrounding Cardinal Cupich’s implementation of Traditionis Custodes has subsided, as people have learned to live with, though not necessarily like, the restrictions placed on the traditional Latin Mass. But many remain confused, hurt, and feeling unwelcome over the fact that the TLM and ad orientem has been so thoroughly squashed while liturgical abuses are given carte blanche.

Wilwerding at St. John Cantius criticized the efforts resisting the archdiocese’s policies that “treat this like it’s a political fight.” Instead, he urged people to pray for Cardinal Cupich, and encouraged other to “continue showing up in greater numbers to whatever Masses you find that are being celebrated with great reverence. That drives home the point that there is something important here.”

Speaking generally, Carstens underscored how fostering unity in a diocese requires a bishop to use the actual texts of Vatican II and the post-conciliar Roman Missal as the “touchstone” for consistent liturgical reform. He believes this is the approach pointed to by Pope Francis in his letter accompanying Traditionis Custodes. 

But if the effort to direct adherents of the traditional Latin Mass into greater acceptance of the post-conciliar liturgy is not “addressed at the same time” as the curtailing of abuses that deviate from the liturgical texts, “then it does seem like a sort of one-sided, disunified treatment of a particular group of Catholics,” he said.

“If Catholics could see [their] bishop consistent across the board about trying to return the people in his care to the actual text of the Church that doesn’t vary from person to person or place to place a great deal, then I think that would help people to see that the bishop is trying to effect a reconciliation across the board.”

Blevins agreed, and sees uniform, consistent fidelity to the Church’s official liturgical guidance as vital to bringing about a much-needed sense of shared communion in Chicago.

“We need unity now more than ever as Catholics. Life would be a lot easier if priests would ‘say the black and do the red,’” said Blevins, employing a phrase that underscores the importance of the celebrant following the instructions of the liturgical text without additions or deletions.

Time will tell if Cardinal Cupich feels the same.