Theologians on ‘Traditionis Custodes’: True Unity Requires Liturgical Reform All Around

Unity Pope’s motu proprio seeks requires renewing celebration of the ‘ordinary form’ of the Mass, too, say theologians.

On All Souls Day, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass for the commemoration of all the faithful departed in the Catacombs of Priscilla on the Via Salaria in Rome, Nov. 2, 2019.
On All Souls Day, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass for the commemoration of all the faithful departed in the Catacombs of Priscilla on the Via Salaria in Rome, Nov. 2, 2019. (photo: Vatican Media)

Pope Francis issued Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of the Tradition), his motu proprio curtailing the celebration of the extraordinary form of the Latin Rite liturgy, with the intended goal of bolstering Church unity. 

To that end, the Holy Father reimposed restrictions that had been lifted only 13 years earlier by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in order to limit the influence of a traditionalist movement that he believes has bred dissent from the authority of the Second Vatican Council.

The move has been criticized in some corners of the Church as an unnecessary overreach, an instance of throwing the liturgical baby out with limited pockets of dissentious bath water. But Traditionis Custodes has also raised concerns that if genuine progress is to be made toward the Holy Father’s goal of unity and conformity to the teachings of Vatican II, the celebration of the “extraordinary form” of the Mass isn’t the only — or even the first — liturgical expression that should be reevaluated. 

For instance, while first affirming the Holy Father’s insistence on “unconditional recognition of Vatican II,” Cardinal Gerhard Müller argued that such a stance necessitated renewal of the “ordinary form” of the Mass, which has suffered a bevy of abuses and distortions since its introduction in 1970, shortly after the conclusion of the Council.

“One may measure Pope Francis’ will to return to unity the deplored so-called ‘traditionalists’ (i.e., those opposed to the Missal of Paul VI) against the degree of his determination to put an end to the innumerable ‘progressivist’ abuses of the liturgy ([which was] renewed in accordance with Vatican II) that are tantamount to blasphemy,” wrote Cardinal Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in his response to the motu proprio.

In fact, several theologians tell the Register that Traditionis Custodes, which calls for the celebration of the liturgy in conformity with the original intentions of the Second Vatican Council, contains within it an implicit call to bring the “ordinary form” of the Mass, which has suffered from abuses and distortions since its introduction in 1970, into greater continuity with the older “extraordinary form” from which it developed. 

“If the principles the Holy Father invokes in Traditionis Custodes were taken seriously by every Catholic parish, the document would provoke a serious examination of conscience from the whole Church,” said Jesuit Father Tony Lusvardi, a professor of sacramental theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure that has been the effect.” 

The priest, who is a Minnesota native, added that he is disturbed that those who choose to participate in the extraordinary form of the liturgy are often castigated as “scapegoats for disunity in the Church.” Such characterization, he said, does not serve the Holy Father’s larger purpose of fostering communion and denies the disunity fostered by irreverent celebrations of the ordinary form.

While Traditionis Custodes breaks from Summorum Pontificum in its practical prescriptions about the celebration of the extraordinary form, Father Lusvardi and others point out that Francis is explicit in his agreement with Benedict’s critique of the implementation of the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms.

 

‘Saddened by Abuses’

For instance, in a July 16 letter to his brother bishops accompanying Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis wrote that he is “saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides.”

“In common with Benedict XVI, I deplore the fact 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,” the Holy Father wrote, quoting liberally from the letter his predecessor wrote accompanying his 2007 motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum.

Thus, when Pope Francis writes in Article 1 of Traditionis Custodes that “the liturgical books promulgated by St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite,” theologians say his emphasis on fidelity to the liturgical reforms of Vatican II should be read at least in part as a rebuke of wayward applications of the Mass of Paul VI that have taken place in the past 50 years.

Sown in the confusion following the Council’s aftermath, these abuses have been legion, something those who study the liturgy are familiar with not only in theory, but in experience. 

Father Lusvardi, for instance, says he has been to parishes where words of the Creed have been altered to accommodate ideological agendas. Timothy O’Malley, the academic director of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Liturgy, recalls a liturgy he attended where the presider “riffed off the Eucharistic Prayer,” to the point where others in attendance approached him afterward asking, “Was that even Mass?”

More broadly, however, O’Malley says “the bigger abuse is the banality of the liturgy as it’s often celebrated,” failing to integrate the different elements of the liturgy — from the posture of the priest during the Eucharist to the use of art and architecture in the parish church — with its central, sacred purpose.

“Equally important, do we even recognize why we go to Mass in the first place?” he asked. “The sacrifice of love that is being celebrated?”

 

‘Left Untried’

If a 2019 Pew survey is any indication, the answer for most Catholics is probably “No.” According to the survey, only one-third of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, implying a similar lack of belief that the lay faithful, through their baptismal priesthood, engage in “fully conscious and active participation” in Christ’s self-offering at the Mass, a central teaching of Vatican II’s constitution on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Father Lusvardi finds this reality especially troubling, considering that the Eucharist is the sacramental means by which the Church is held together and reaffirmed as Christ’s Body.

“There’s no scenario in which the Church finds any sort of unity without firm faith in the Real Presence,” he said, adding that he believes Pope Francis would see this as a problem, too, though Traditionis Custodes doesn’t offer any guidance on how to remedy it.

Some Catholics lay the blame for these kinds of heterodoxic trends on Vatican II’s principles of liturgical reform, citing the maxim lex orandi, lex credendi, which implies how one prays directly impacts what he or she ends up believing. But others say the problem isn’t the principles themselves, but the fact that they’ve rarely been implemented as the Council Fathers intended.

“I think that what [G.K.] Chesterton says of Christian living applies well here, too,” said Matthew Ramage, a theologian at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. “[It] has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”

For instance, contrary to what most Catholics in the United States find in a typical Sunday Mass in their parish, the Second Vatican Council’s Sacrosanctum Concilium and subsequently reformed liturgical texts actually privilege many of the traditional elements contained in the usus antiquior. The use of Latin “is to be preserved,” says the Vatican II text, especially in those parts of the Mass that remain constant from week to week. Incense, chant and periods of silence are all encouraged. Ad orientem worship, in which the celebrant and the congregation all face “liturgical east,” is not disallowed. In fact, many of these elements were held up as consistent with the reform’s goal of fostering active participation of the laity, which implied not merely frenetic activity, but a full union of mind and body, soul and senses, to the liturgical action taking place.

“It is precisely the perceived lack of these exterior elements of reverence and beauty [in the ordinary form] that drive many to the extraordinary form of the Mass in search of them,” said Ramage.

Ramage says what’s especially saddening is that so many Catholics don’t know that these transcendent elements can be found in the Mass of St. Paul VI, something he experienced powerfully as a graduate student under Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, the founder of Ignatius Press and a former student of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — who, of course, would later be elected Pope Benedict XVI. 

According to Ramage, Father Fessio celebrated the Mass of Paul VI in a way that emphasized its continuity with the older form of the Mass, worshipping ad orientem, incorporating a schola, and praying in Latin — he even printed little missal booklets entitled “The Mass of Vatican II” with Latin and English texts of the liturgy side by side so everyone in the pews could participate in both word and understanding. He recalls these as “some of the most dignified and moving liturgies I’ve ever experienced.”

“The best-kept secret [of the liturgical reform] is precisely that these practices of beauty and reverence are equally native to the Novus Ordo [as to the extraordinary form],” he added.

 

‘Saints Will Arise’

Notre Dame’s O’Malley says that by shifting the focus back to the reformed rites of the 1970 Missal, Traditionis Custodes may allow the Church to more seriously consider “how we might celebrate the reformed Mass in a way that is attuned with the 1962 Missal,” suggesting that additional practices could be retrieved. For instance, he advocates for the reinstitution of Rogation Days, traditional days of prayer and fasting for the reparation of sin and in petition for a bountiful harvest, which he says would align well with the emphases of Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on “Care for Our Common Home.”

Father Lusvardi says there are also opportunities to amend tendencies in the celebration of the ordinary form toward “minimalism” — doing the bare minimum to celebrate a valid liturgy, which, ironically, was a preconciliar characteristic of the celebration of the older form of the Mass that Vatican II sought to correct. 

“It’s not a given that just because you’re celebrating the Novus Ordo, you’re being faithful to the Council’s intentions,” he said. Father Lusvardi, for instance, recommends reducing the usage of Eucharistic Prayer II, which he says “is used way too much for the simple reason — let’s be honest — that it’s the shortest.” He advocates for greater employment of the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) and Eucharistic Prayer IV, which are longer, but he says are more theologically, historically and spiritually rich. 

He also encourages his brother priests to pray with the liturgical texts ahead of time to aid in more naturally praying with these texts during the Mass and cautions about overburdening the liturgy with parish announcements and other extraneous elements.

One of the potential positive outcomes of Traditionis Custodes, in Father Lusvardi’s opinion, is the possibility of people who have been nourished by the extraordinary form of the Mass sharing “some of their sensibilities, knowledge and passion with the larger Church.” He encourages them to “resist the temptation to discouragement” that they might be experiencing in the motu proprio’s aftermath and to bring their “sense of wonder, mystery and transcendence into the celebration of the Novus Ordo.”

“In the Holy Spirit’s roundabout way of doing things, the end result of all of this could be that more Catholics experience the full splendor of the Church’s liturgy,” says the Jesuit priest.

Ramage agrees and says that while Traditionis Custodes “has given rise to quite understandable feelings of sadness and confusion among those of us who have benefited from our experience of the Church’s traditional liturgy,” he hopes that the motu proprio will result in a greater incorporation of the liturgical treasures of the usus antiquior into the celebration of the Novus Ordo, “while at the same time proving to seekers of beauty and reverence that they do not need to seek out the extraordinary form to get what they can find in the ordinary form.”

O’Malley acknowledges that some adherents of the extraordinary form are suspicious of the reformed Mass itself and believe that no amount of incorporating elements of the older form of the liturgy will ever make the Mass of Paul VI acceptable.

“But I think this is wrongheaded,” he said. “Celebrate the reformed liturgy with reverence, and saints will arise.”

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]