What If Pope Francis Were to Rescind Summorum Pontificum?

March 2018By W. Patrick Cunningham

W. Patrick Cunningham, a deacon of the Archdiocese of San Antonio ministering in St. Pius X parish, has been writing for national Catholic publications for over 40 years. He and his wife, Carolyn, have been married for 46 years and have three daughters and ten grandchildren.

Recent news out of the Vatican has some observers scratching their heads: What is Pope Francis up to now? He has given local bishops’ conferences authority over vernacular translations of the Roman missal. Will we see a revision of the Third Typical Edition, released in 2011, in the U.S.? The last time the U.S. bishops’ conference let the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) translate Mass texts, the product created a multinational firestorm. I was involved with the association Credo in the critique. We found numerous doctrinal flaws and gave orthodox bishops the ammunition needed to cause the Vatican to stop the promulgation of that version. More recently, Francis floated the idea of revising a line in the Our Father: “Lead us not into temptation.” Change is clearly afoot. It prompts one to ask: What’s next?

A few fellow clergymen and I were having an informal breakfast shortly after the tenth anniversary of the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio broadening the use of the Roman missal of 1962 so that any priest could offer Mass in what Benedict called the “extraordinary form.” One priest asked me if the rumors were true that Pope Francis intends to rescind the document as soon as Benedict dies. If one believes Internet postings, such rumors go back at least to July 2016, without having much basis in verifiable Vatican news sources.

More recently, actual Vatican sources have been quoted as saying that Pope Francis’s critical comments about the Latin Mass, and the personnel changes he has imposed on Vatican dicasteries, point to a possible elimination of the “Tridentine option,” or to a radical restriction of the right to celebrate according to the 1962 missal. What is the likelihood of such an elimination or restriction? What should we do if it were to come about?


In addition to the Mass, Summorum Pontificum permits the celebration of certain other sacraments, including matrimony, penance, and confirmation, using the older Latin sacramentaries. Moreover, Benedict’s motu proprio authorizes groups of the faithful to petition their parish priest to celebrate Mass in the usus antiquitor, and it urges priests to “willingly accede to their requests.”

Robert Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, delivered an address to the colloquium “The Source of the Future” in Germany (Mar. 29, 2017) on the motu proprio’s tenth anniversary. He emphasized the Eucharist as sacrifice, mystery, and divine worship, and his talk was widely seen as a reaffirmation of the importance of maintaining the extraordinary form of the Mass as a living reality in the Church. There seem to be mixed feelings about the Latin Mass at the highest levels of the Church.

The response to Summorum Pontificum at the parish level has been mixed as well. According to the Coalition in Support of Ecclesia Dei, there are regularly scheduled Masses in the extraordinary form in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. But resistance has also been evident ever since Benedict issued his motu proprio. To my knowledge, no scientific poll of clergy has been done, but it isn’t difficult to imagine that the majority of priests and bishops in the U.S. would be happy if the extraordinary form disappeared overnight.

But what about those of the faithful who drive hundreds of miles each week to participate in such a Mass? They are often refugees from the all-too-common ugly celebrations of the ordinary form of the Mass, or Novus Ordo Missae. They are the collateral damage of what Cardinal Sarah calls “the disaster, the devastation and the schism that the modern promoters of a living liturgy [have] caused by remodeling the Church’s liturgy according to their ideas.” What attracts them to the 1962 liturgies?

In my experience with parishioners, the “Tridentine” Mass has three primary attractions. They are, in no particular order: (1) sacred music, which tends to be centered on Gregorian chant and polyphony, both ancient and modern; (2) celebration ad orientem, in which both clergy and congregation face toward the “liturgical east”; and (3) traditional postures of prayer and actions bespeaking prayer, including genuflections, incensation, multiple vested ministers, and formal processions. The one word that might sum up these points is formality. Latin Mass congregants are attracted to liturgies that have a clear and reverent form. (Though it is my experience that, when celebrated according to the official directives of the Church, both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Mass can be reverent, uplifting, and beautiful.)

Pope Benedict, in his letter to bishops accompanying Summorum Pontificum, expressed a strong interest in mutual enrichment between the two forms of the Mass. I have written on ways that this might happen (“A Dialogue of Forms,” Jul.-Aug. 2015). So far, however, such hoped-for enrichment has been quite limited, though some examples exist. In extraordinary-form Masses, some priests deliver the readings in the vernacular out loud from the altar. The complete doxology at the end of the canon, not just the per ipsum, may be sung. The Lord’s Prayer may be sung by the whole congregation. Likewise, at Novus Ordo Masses, some bishops have encouraged the use of chant for the introit, offertory, Communion, and Eucharistic Prayers, in Latin or the vernacular. Some have encouraged celebration ad orientem, at least in some seasons. The Church moves slowly, and the vision of the Emeritus Pope seems to be coming to fruition at the customary largo ecclesial pace.

There are certainly a number of reasons why, absent some radical move by the Vatican, one would expect this to continue. The idea of establishing the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) as an officially sanctioned personal prelature in the Church has encountered some obstacles, as was to be expected. It is difficult to imagine a pope like Francis, steeped in the theology (and “spirit”) of Vatican II, allowing a prelature to hold that certain conciliar documents are full of error. (One is reminded of the “Old Catholic” schism after Vatican I, less than two centuries ago, in which some European bishops who objected to the dogmatic proclamation of papal infallibility, perhaps because they misunderstood the dogma itself, separated themselves from communion with the Holy See.) Moreover, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), set up under the patronage of St. John Paul II in 1988, is completely faithful to those documents and to the traditional liturgy of the Roman rite. And it is growing each year. Imagine a Church in which these two societies worked with each other. What a blessing that would be!

The other reality that a termination of the wide permission to celebrate in the 1962 form must face is the existence of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. In his apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus (2009), Pope Benedict permitted the creation of personal ordinariates to provide a path for groups of Catholic-minded Anglicans to enter full communion with Rome while retaining elements of their worship traditions and spiritual heritage. The ordinariates give clerics and parishioners from Anglo-Catholic and other Continuing Anglican traditions a way to retain much of their patrimony while becoming fully Roman Catholic. It is difficult to imagine how Pope Francis could continue to accept new Anglo-Catholic parishes, with their distinctive worship style and language, into the ordinariates while throwing out or severely limiting the use of the 1962 Missal.

But this is the age of illogic. So, what options does a parish that currently offers celebrations of the Mass in the extraordinary form have if it finds itself by papal directive unable to continue doing so?


Imagine: The decree has come down from Rome and the usus antiquitor must be deleted from the schedule. What are the alternatives? Some of those who attend these Latin Masses would have come from one of the unauthorized SSPX chapels and would be tempted to return to them. But if the Holy Father shoots down the extraordinary form in his own parishes, he very well may impose additional sanctions on the SSPX, the ecclesial status of which is already murky. The most onerous of these is withdrawing faculties from the SSPX clergy, so that confessions and other sacraments they celebrate are not recognized (they are currently valid but not licit). We would hope that, by now, former SSPX fellow travelers have grown accustomed to being in communion with the Catholic Church and would be reluctant to leave. Therefore, we must offer something attractive to encourage that loyalty and reduce the likelihood of a traumatic reaction.

The easiest way to handle the problem is to insert a Mass in the ordinary form, but celebrated in Latin, into the time slot previously occupied by the extraordinary-form Mass. Many, perhaps most, parishioners don’t know that there is an ordinary form Latin Mass in the back of most English altar missals. Most of the prayers in Latin are identical to the English. Eucharistic Prayer I is the Roman canon with the addition of the memorial acclamation after the consecration. The chants, most of which are taken from the ancient repertory, are available in easily found chant books. The Latin ordinaries can be used, as can the well-worn Mass VIII (Mass of the Angels). Responsorial psalms are not required; the Latin graduals and alleluia chants can fit between the first and second, and the second and third readings, respectively. Perhaps the only unfamiliar part of the ordinary would be the memorial acclamation, and that is short and easy to learn.

All of this can be accomplished without compromising the three critical characteristics of the extraordinary form that make it so attractive: sacred music, celebration ad orientem, and congregational posture and gestures. Quite a few who ordinarily attend the “Old Mass” will wonder what the fuss is about.

A second alternative, if the largest part of the Latin Mass community does not care about language, is to put a Novus Ordo Mass in English into the time slot earlier reserved for the older form, but making it more in keeping with the ethos of the extraordinary-form High Mass or Solemn High Mass. A parish can retain the quality of music, the priest’s ad orientem posture, and congregational movement while switching forms. In fact, some Latin (and Greek) could be maintained in the Mass ordinary for congregational singing. The Mass propers for every Sunday and feast day — for instance, the versions by Adam Bartlett or Fr. Samuel Weber — are available online at the Church Music Association of America website, www.musicasacra.com. A survey of Latin Mass attendees would suffice to indicate whether this option is preferred by most.


Due to what many perceive as the implicit hostility of Pope Francis toward the extraordinary form, speculation on what will happen to it under his leadership will continue until either he makes a pronouncement or months pass without any action after Pope Benedict’s death. The prayers of those who hope for a continuation of the status quo must be directed toward a peaceful reconciliation of the liturgical options. Moreover, the “Latinists” need to work toward an integration of their communities with their parish homes, and inclusion of all the faithful in their personal prayers and community liturgical education. With more mutual understanding, and a true “mutual enrichment” of the two forms, both options can become more attractive to Catholics and even the “unchurched.” Thus will the liturgy be a true enhancement of the new evangelization.

DOSSIER: The Latin Mass

DOSSIER: Liturgy, Liturgical Rites & Devotions

DOSSIER: Pope Francis

DOSSIER: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

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"confessions and other sacraments they celebrate are not recognized (they are currently valid but not licit)."confession are recognized. Posted by: Stewart M Schwartz
March 08, 2018 10:54 PM EST
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