Today is a great day of rejoicing in the Catholic Church. In addition to it being the feasts Blessed Ralph Milner and Roger Dickenson, we also celebrate the 7th anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. If you ask the average Catholic what Summorum Pontificum was about, they will tell you it is a document which removed almost all of the restrictions on what had come to be known as the “Latin Mass” among a host of other names. As a result of this move, traditionalists have found themselves able to participate fully in wide areas of parish life, especially in the United States and Canada.
Yet if you aren’t a traditionalist and have no desire for the Latin Mass, should you care? The prevailing opinion is that the motu proprio was simply a concession to people who want to worship in Latin. This is regrettable. Far from being a mere concession, Summorum Pontificium is a blueprint for spiritual renewal for all Catholics, not just traditionalists.
To understand why the narrative of a mere concession is inaccurate, it is helpful to recall a bit of history about the status of the Latin Mass within the Church. Following the Second Vatican Council, a new Missal for the Roman Rite of Mass was promulgated. This missal was adopted in almost every parish, and debate has raged ever since on whether or not that was a good thing. While we cannot answer that question, we can state that a sizeable amount of people still desired to worship according to the manner of the previous Roman Missal, last updated by St. John XXIII. Church authorities were genuinely surprised about this fact, and decided to address it. This occurred in the 1984 indult (a privilege that deviates from standard Church law) Quattuor Abhinc Annos. In it, devotion to the Missal of St. John XXIII was described as a “problem” that was “almost completely solved.” Yet in spite of their best efforts, the “problem” remained, and was not going away. As a result, they decided to give that small group of faithful a true and genuine concession to have the Missal celebrated, under very strict circumstances. No parishes and you could not view the celebration of the Mass as an authentic carrying out of the liturgical reform.
Looked at 30 years later, these restrictions seem cruel, spiteful and draconian, even to those who aren’t traditionalists. Yet even if such is the likely interpretation, there are some things to keep in mind. The demographics of those loving the missal skewed very old, many of them were going to masses not approved by the Church, and they were an incredibly small minority. Yet since that minority existed and would continue to exist, the idea behind the 1984 Indult had to be changed. That occurred with the 1988 motu proprio Ecclesia Dei Afflictica. While it was still viewed as a concession from the norm, there were rumors of a contentious debate within Vatican halls on whether or not such a concession should be broadened. There were talks of a “universal indult” which greatly expanded the privileges already contained. For one reason or another, nothing came of those rumors.
When Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, this discussion occurred with renewed vigor. Instead of a “universal Indult”, Benedict released Summorum Pontificum. This was not a mere concession to existing liturgical law: it was a rewriting of it. The Mass most Latin Catholics celebrated (sometimes referred to as the “Novus Ordo”) became the “Ordinary Form” of the Mass. The Missal of St. John XXIII became the “Extraordinary Form.” While some to this day still say “Benedict clearly meant to keep the Extraordinary Form rare and inferior”, the actual text of the document does not indicate this. While it is viewed as “different” from the ordinary, it is given almost all the same rights as the ordinary. In areas where there were restrictions, these restrictions were meant to be very narrow, and the bias was meant to be towards granting the wishes of anyone who wished to celebrate or assist at the Extraordinary Form. This was no longer a concession.
What led to this clear change in thinking? Benedict’s words should not be read in a vacuum. In Ecclesia Dei, St. John Paul II said the following about the Extraordinary Form and those who desired it:
However, it is necessary that all the Pastors and the other faithful have a new awareness, not only of the lawfulness but also of the richness for the Church of a diversity of charisms, traditions of spirituality and apostolate, which also constitutes the beauty of unity in variety: of that blended “harmony” which the earthly Church raises up to Heaven under the impulse of the Holy Spirit….. To all those Catholic faithful who feel attached to some previous liturgical and disciplinary forms of the Latin tradition I wish to manifest my will to facilitate their ecclesial communion by means of the necessary measures to guarantee respect for their rightful aspirations.
With these words, John Paul II began a reckoning with those attached to the Missal of St. John XXIII. Implicit in his statement is that up until that point, the Church was not doing its job in fostering this unity in diversity. When Benedict changed church law with Summorum, he sent out an explanatory letter to all the Bishops (and by extension, the faithful) of the world outlining the reasons he did this:
I now come to the positive reason which motivated my decision to issue this Motu Proprio updating that of 1988. It is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church. Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. One has the impression that omissions on the part of the Church have had their share of blame for the fact that these divisions were able to harden. This glance at the past imposes an obligation on us today: to make every effort to enable for all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew... Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.
This is where spiritual renewal comes in to play. Benedict admitted that the response of the Church up to that point on this question was insufficient. Even if they had the best of intentions, their decisions were hindering the ability of faithful Catholics to have a deeper and fuller communion with the Apostolic See. Benedict said this situation had to end, not because of what it says about those who had a devotion to the previous Missal, but what it said about the Pope and the Bishops as Catholics. If they could be integrated into the regular life of the Church, they should be.
This has applications far beyond the Extraordinary Form. Let us think of the plight of our Eastern Brethren, who in many cases have had their rightful aspirations suppressed in the name of Latinization. One example being that Eastern priests in areas outside of their rite (for example, the Ukranian Rite in the Ukraine) can be forced to abide by vows of clerical celibacy their tradition and custom does not impose on them. What harm is made by allowing them to live according to their tradition? What message does this send to the Orthodox about full communion?
On an individual level, we can all think of Catholics we know who aren’t heretical, just different. They go to daily mass, they do things according to the norms of the Church, but they face persecution and marginalization because they do things a little differently. The faith won’t be compromised by their actions. John Paul II and Benedict XVI tell us we should do it. Not because they deserve it, but because we should not let our choices hinder the spirit. Is it possible that the Church, in her prudential actions, could hinder the work of the Spirit? Before you object, read the exhortation of Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium:
God’s word is unpredictable in its power. The Gospel speaks of a seed which, once sown, grows by itself, even as the farmer sleeps (Mk 4:26-29). The Church has to accept this unruly freedom of the word, which accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations and ways of thinking.
This is ultimately what Benedict’s spiritual renewal is. We have to accept that the Spirit moves in ways we might not have originally anticipated, and provided the faith isn’t compromised, we should be willing to sacrifice our priorities for the sake of the other. The church has talked about unity in diversity extensively for 50 years now. No matter which liturgy you attend, this isn’t optional. Far too often this unity is denied to Catholics, whether they are lovers of the Latin Mass, Eastern Rite Catholics, and various others. If we want take Pope Benedict’s legacy seriously, this has to change. With Summorum Pontificum, we have all the tools at our disposal to make that change a reality.