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Universae Ecclesiae: A Blow Against Liturgical Absolutism

It’s no secret that, generally speaking, one won’t encounter much enthusiasm for the Tridentine Latin Mass among the bishops of the world. Although there are a few exceptions here and there — and a growing number, some would add — the overwhelming episcopal attitude is one of either barely contained hostility or studied ambivalence. Twice in the 1980s Pope John Paul II asked for a “generous” response from bishops to appeals from the laity for the celebration of the Latin Mass. Save for rare instances, however, most bishops were in no hurry to cater to those whom they surely considered fringe fanatics. It was due in large part to this type of episcopal obstructionism that, four years ago this July, Pope Benedict XVI released Summorum Pontificum, his motu proprio liberalizing the use of the old Mass. No longer did the decision of where, when, and whether or not to offer the Latin Mass rest with the local bishop. Rather, Summorum Pontificum decreed that wherever a “stable group of faithful” expresses a desire for what is now known as the forma extraordinaria, or “extraordinary form,” of the Roman rite of the Mass, pastors are to “willingly accept their requests.” Further, Summorum Pontificum established a grievance process, leading ultimately to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, to ensure the fulfillment of laymen’s requests.

Of course, it takes more than a single directive from the chair of Peter to undercut a deeply engrained, decades-long, and virtually Church-wide attitude ranging from indifference to contempt such as that directed against the Latin Mass. Upon the release of Summorum Pontificum, there were reports that many priests and bishops, especially in parts of Europe, were unwilling to play ball according to the new rules. Instead, they issued complaints that the terms and procedures set forth in Summorum Pontificum were too vague; for example, many questioned the exact meaning of the phrase “stable group of faithful.” Elsewhere, new roadblocks were thrown out: Some bishops declared that, in order to be “qualified” to celebrate the old Mass, priests had to demonstrate proficiency in the Latin language or undergo as-yet-unavailable training in the liturgical rubrics. Others stated flatly that there were no priests available, capable, or willing to take on the additional duty of learning and celebrating the Latin Mass. Still others simply ignored the motu proprio, undoubtedly hoping that word of its contents would never reach the faithful.

Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, then-secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, called out the “no to the motu” obstructionists — among whom were numbered bishops and cardinals — who “practically annul or twist the intention” of the Pope. “There hide on the one hand,” Archbishop Ran­jith said, “ideological prejudices and, on the other hand, pride, which is one of the most serious sins.” It was, he said, a “crisis of obedience,” for these churchmen were, very bluntly, “in rebellion against the Pope.”

Rumors soon began swirling that the Holy Father would compose a follow-up instruction to clarify certain aspects of his motu proprio that were being used to forestall its implementation. The rumors were confirmed in early 2008 by Secretary of State Tarcisio Cardinal Ber­tone, who announced that the Pope indeed was drafting such a document. We made eager mention of this impending development in a New Oxford Note titled “Reinforcements Are on the Way” (Mar. 2008). But we reminded readers that “the Vatican wheels turn at a notoriously slow pace,” and warned that “if the past is any indication — we waited over a year with bated breath before Summorum Pontificum was finally released — we have a long wait ahead of us.” Little did we know that the wait would last over three years!

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