Summorum Pontificum and the Case for Spiritual Renewal

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 AnnosIn 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.

image: giulio napolitano /

Kevin Tierney


Kevin Tierney is the Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane. He and his family live in Brighton, MI. Connect with him via FB  or on twitter @CatholicSmark.

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  • Joseph

    I wanted to leave a comment on the “Paying Attention to Single Catholics” article but alas, comments were closed. There’s other single Catholics out there probably finding the same article in Google, having it strike a chord, wanting to comment, then seeing the comments are closed.

    I’m currently separated from my wife. Up until recently, my thinking was that I’d seek an “easy” annulment, date again, then remarry. We have no kids so the prospect of spending the rest of my life alone (I’m only in my 30s) and feeling like an outsider at Mass was unappealing. On top of it, I’m an introvert.

    I have made the decision that I won’t seek an annulment. Deep inside I know my vows were valid. I’ll pray for a reconciliation in my marriage. If it doesn’t work, I’ll pray another year. If it still doesn’t work, I’ll pray 5 years, but I won’t remarry as long as my vows are valid.

    We need to do everything we can to find a place at Mass and in our parish communities for the divorced… so they’ll see there is an option besides annulment or remarrying outside the church… I know there’s many ways I can serve my community and overcome loneliness. Others may not have the same faith or spiritual formation.

  • Chris B

    May God bless you and keep you.

  • Elijah fan

    Will pray for you both. Write her and talk things out in text which clears away impulsive, angry interchanges. Some females want to see if you will search for them in this situation.

  • Amateur Brain Surgeon

    It seems to me that Mr Tierney is engaged in wishful thinking. S.P. was an act of tolerance and while he was Pope, Bishop Emeritus Ratzinger never once – not once- publicly offered the Mass; that is, he too treated it as an act of nostalgia clung-to by those too set in their ways.

    It is an absurdity to call the new mass a development or an act of continuity; that is merely papal positivism devoid of rationality. The Mass and the new mass are two completely different acts; if they were not, then why the Iconoclasm that trailed in the wake of this crummy council?

    If everything is essentially the same, they why was everything – everything from Mass to Sacraments, to Religious Orders to Canon Law to Catechism to Disciplines etc etc etc -changed?

    Everything is different; nothing has changed is the banner of progressivism behind which we Catholics are expected to dutifully march into the Ecumenical future where all churches become one and into which cauldron the Catholic Church will be visibly dissolved as a distinctive fact for it is ineluctable that Ecumenism is the Universal Solvent.

    The 1962-1965 BCE (Bestest Council Ever) revolution with the form of Catholicism resulted in the necessity of creating a new mass apt for the new theology which makes men the center of everything in the world and as it is the truth that men are learnt the Faith via the Mass, the new mass was required to catechise the masses into feeling comfortable with the new truths of the new church.

    Nothing will change in the continuity of constant change as long as the revolutionary Bugnini Rite is left alive; it must be destroyed; and not one – not one- bishop possesses Tradition in amounts sufficient to act as a force against our Inertia Into Indifferentism.

  • “But it seems to me a normal demand of faith and pastoral concern for a bishop of our Church to have love and tolerance for these people and permit them to live with this liturgy.”

    That sounds a lot like what I argued. Bishops should be accommodating all that the faith permits, and before this point, they weren’t doing so. I don’t see how that’s especially controversial.

    If you believe Vatican II teaches formal heresy, then yes, you are going to be disappointed when Benedict says that the liberation of the 1962 missal isn’t a “regression” to the time before the Council. If you believe the New Mass is invalid, intrinsically evil, or intrinsically offensive to God, yes, you won’t like his statements.

    Outside of the internet crusaders, very few people actually believe either. One can say that the New Mass still teaches and makes present the Sacrifice of Calvary as the 1962 missal, but there are certain things it doesn’t emphasize well enough. not surprisingly, those are the things the Church desperately needs today. You can even argue that the texts as they stand could use further revision so that there is less ambiguity. In doing that, I can even acknowledge that over the short term, not much is likely to change, and that’s to the Churches discredit. But I can still You can do all of this, and still accept the reality of the Ordinary Form as the form most Western Catholics assist at, and accept it as a valid and lawful mass which, when celebrated properly, can sanctify souls. I can think that, and still push hard for the 1962 Missal.

    I get it, you reject all of that. If you are expecting me to join in that rejection, yes, you will be disappointed. There’s really not that much I can do for you there.

  • Amateur Brain Surgeon

    V2 produced neither Canons or Decrees and it produced no texts that are binding or the rejection of which results in anathema. It was, as it said, a pastoral council.

    Yes, the mass is valid and it is not evil but you well know its history and the reasons for its existence.

    You also know that mass has so many options that it constitutes a permanent revolution and you prolly would agree the Church would be much better off if it had never been shoved down our throats.

    As to what must be done, ABS thinks its destruction is necessary but even if it is not destroyed ABS would never -as in never, ever – sever the Bonds of unity in Worship, Doctrine, and Authority for that is the sine qua non of Catholicism

  • Athelstane

    One can say that the New Mass still teaches and makes present the Sacrifice of Calvary as the 1962 missal, but there are certain things it doesn’t emphasize well enough. not surprisingly, those are the things the Church desperately needs today.

    I think that’s a way of expressing it that I would sign onto.