By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Pope Francis recently made a much-discussed decision to restrict the celebration of “the Latin Mass,” also known as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite. As the bishop of Rome, he has the power to give bishops the authority to allow the celebration of the Tridentine rite in their dioceses. But his judgment, expressed in a motu proprio entitled Traditionis custodes, was mourned by those priests and laity who cherish the old rite and fear that permission to celebrate it might not be granted by their local bishop.
The Extraordinary Form of the Mass can offer a beautiful combination of silence and reverent song that conveys a strong sense of divine mystery, especially in such a frenetic and noisy culture as our own.
But the Pope also expressed his disappointment that the widespread permission to celebrate the Extraordinary Form was “exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.” Its use today, he claimed, “is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Second Vatican Council itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’”
I wish to make clear that the vast majority of Catholics I have met who attend the Latin Mass love the Pope, acknowledge that some reform at the Council was necessary, and do not consider the Council or the Novus Ordo to be invalid. I personally hope that anyone who wishes to participate in an Extraordinary Form Mass is able to do so, but I definitely understand why Pope Francis made his decision. I have encountered vociferous proponents of the Tridentine rite who refer to themselves as “the faithful remnant,” who condemn everything Pope Francis says and does (on social media and, alas, even from the pulpit), and refuse to set foot in a “Novus Ordo church.” My fear is that a greater number of them will be tempted now to break away formally from the Church, much like the Society of Saint Pius X did a few decades ago.
This would be an absolute tragedy, and Pope Francis would not be at fault. Those willing to reject the authority of the bishop of Rome have elevated their own aesthetic judgment above the authority of the Pope, the source of apostolic unity for the entire college of bishops. One must be careful not to employ arguments that alienate oneself from Peter, the guarantor of full communion among the members of the Body of Christ. Since no liturgical rite in itself is essential (the Last Supper, contrary to an opinion I once heard voiced, was not celebrated in Latin, and the Catholic Church boasts of more than 20 valid rites even today!), I suspect that some traditionalist Catholics fall into the trap of liturgical idolatry. In thinking that the only reverent way to worship the Lord is through the Extraordinary Form, they inevitably foster an antagonism against “Novus Ordo” Catholics that is decisively uncharitable and un-evangelical.
To those who love the Latin Mass, I wish to make an appeal: please show that the use of the Extraordinary Form does not foster division and smug arrogance! Do not accept and promote conspiracy theories, especially on social media, that turn the Holy Spirit either into a liar at Vatican II or a puppet playing on your preferred liturgical stage! And please take the time to read Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II document that spells out the riches of the Church’s liturgical tradition and the need for reform, which had already started well before the Council!
I would encourage all Catholics, the majority of whom are probably not familiar with the Latin Mass, to read Sacrosanctum Concilium as well. It could provide inspiration for priests and laity alike to imbue their participation at Mass with a greater amount of silence, and a greater desire to stand in awe before the mystery of Christ in the Eucharist.
Father Thomas Esposito, O. Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.