Fr. Andrew Cameron Mowat SJ, a priest of the British Province of the Society of Jesus, a liturgist and parish priest of a large London parish explores how Pope Francis’ motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes, reminds us of the priority of unity in the Church.

While there are voices expressing strong disapproval of the recent motu proprio and the accompanying letter, my belief is that, for the most part, very few dioceses around the world will be much affected.  Its foundational pastoral intention to foster the unity of the body of the whole Church is to be commended, for the following reasons:

  1. By long tradition, it is entirely within the rights of a pope to issue regulations which reform, renew, update and develop the established and approved liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church (including the celebration of the Sacraments) for all territories under his jurisdiction.  This is normally done by abrogating (abolishing  permissions for) what has gone before.  This is exactly what Pope Francis has now done.
  1. The clear intention of Pope Benedict XVI in his motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum” by allowing priests to celebrate the 1962 rites was that this should occur with the agreement of, and in cooperation with, the diocesan authority. No priest in full communion with the Roman Catholic church wishing to celebrate the 1962 Rites for a “stable community” should disapprove of the established and approved Missal of Paul VI. While the Missal of Paul VI was still clearly intended to be the normal ordinary rite for the whole Church, Pope Benedict hoped that allowing the 1962 rites to be celebrated would bring peaceful reconciliation within the Church. In particular, he hoped it would end theological hostilities over the celebration of Mass.  Unfortunately, some priests chose to “go their own way”, and this caused great harm to the ecclesial unity of the body of the whole Church.  Pope Francis makes it clear that it is for the diocesan bishop to grant the necessary permissions. In this he has now begun to restore the authority of the bishops in liturgical matters intended by Vatican II.
  2. The introduction of the notion of “two usages of the one rite” was an innovation and was without any historical or traditional foundation.  It gave the impression of either rite being an alternative to the other, of equal worth and merit.  But this was clearly not the intention of the Council Fathers, nor of Pope Paul VI, as was made clear in any number of his letters, homilies and statements on the matter.  Pope Francis has now made it perfectly clear that there is the unique rite that is the ordinary (as distinct from extraordinary) rite for the whole Church. At the same time he might have indicated that Paul VI had abrogated the previous rites, and that he subsequently made some allowance for them by issuing specific indults as required.  It would never have been Paul VI’s intention that there were to be two alternative Roman Rites available going forward in perpetuity.
  1. From the first there were problems in relation to how the 1962 Rites sit theologically with the doctrines of the Church as found in the decrees of Vatican II.  As a prime example of the different approaches of a pre and post Vatican II ecclesiology is the Good Friday prayer concerning the Jews. The pre-Vatican II prayer did not conform to Nostra Aetate and was reformed in 2008. Surprisingly, however, the prayer for non- Catholic Christians, (“we pray for schismatics and heretics”), which does not conform to Unitatis redintegratio, was not reformed. It is still a cause for concern.
  2. In his accompanying letter, Pope Francis lays bare the hostile and negative forces who, by their statements and actions, appear to reject the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. In so far as they do this in some fundamental way, they distinguish themselves within the Roman Catholic Church from many of its members who are nourished, sustained and inspired by the rite approved by St Paul VI.  While there are faithful religious communities whose acceptance of the teachings of Vatican II goes alongside their celebration of the 1962 Rites, there are others who appear to regard the Mass of 1962 as some sort of rallying point for their rejection not only of the established Vatican II rites but the ecclesiology which they embody and express: the Church’s continuing kerygma – responding to the signs of the times, to the multiple pressures of poverty, injustice, disease, harm to the planet, continuing economic uncertainty, human trafficking and slavery, misuse of the earth’s resources for personal gain, racism, to name only a few. It is clear from Pope Francis’ teachings and statements that he speaks on behalf of the entire church, and for the good of the whole world on these matters. It is important for the Church’s mission as the universal sacrament of salvation that Francis has insisted on the unity of the Church’s liturgy and mission. 
  3. It is to be hoped that for the majority of the lay Faithful around the world, and their priests, this clear establishment of the Missal of Paul VI and his successors as the sole Rite of the Roman Catholic Church will help to ensure the unity of the Church and the effectiveness of her mission for the redemptive reconciliation of humanity and the healing of our planet.  We must hope and pray that bishops will reflect carefully on the Pope’s decision and his petrine solicitude for the unity of the People of God. Not only has he restored their authority regarding the liturgy in their diocese, he has also strengthened their responsibility for the unity of the universal Church in mission.

About the Author

Andrew Cameron Mowat SJ

Jesuit, liturgist & parish priest

Priest of the British Province of the Society of Jesus, a liturgist and parish priest of a large London parish.

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