Opinion Divided on Mass Decision: Some Downplay Demand for Old Rite, but Other Liturgists Predict Confusion

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, July 20, 2007 | Go to article overview

Opinion Divided on Mass Decision: Some Downplay Demand for Old Rite, but Other Liturgists Predict Confusion


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


Pope Benedict XVI's decision to broaden permission for celebration of the pre-Vatican II Mass appears to be playing to predictably mixed reviews, with some observers praising its intent and downplaying its likely impact, while others suggest it poses risks of division and theological confusion.

On July 7. the Vatican released Summorum Pontificum, a motu proprio, or document under the pope's personal authority, that eliminates requirements for priests who want to celebrate the pre-Vatican II Mass to obtain special permission from the local bishop. The document takes effect Sept. 14.

Under the terms of the ruling, use of the older Mass becomes optional, not mandatory. Benedict XVI calls the new Mass the "ordinary" form of the Mass, and the pre-Vatican II rite the "extraordinary" form.

According to the new rules, a priest can celebrate the old Mass privately whenever he wants, even with people attending, except during Holy Week. He can celebrate it publicly in a parish whenever a "stable" group of Catholics asks for it. If priests and bishops won't accommodate a group's request, the motu proprio allows them to take their case to the Vatican office in charge of the old Mass, known as the Ecclesia Dei Commission.

The pre-Vatican II rite is also known as the "1962 Missal," because that was the year in which the Mass was last reissued prior to the reforms of Second Vatican Council (1962-65). It's also sometimes called the "Latin Mass," but experts point out that's misleading because the post-Vatican II Mass can also be said in Latin. Summorum Pontificum provides for celebration not just of the Mass, but of the other sacraments and also the funeral rite according to the 1962 formula.

At the popular level, the most obvious differences are that the priest celebrates the old Mass facing east, with his back to the congregation, and that the old Mass is said in Latin, while the new Mass is generally celebrated in the local language.

Advocates of the pre-Vatican II Mass were understandably elated.

"The traditional Mass is a true gem of the church's heritage, and the Holy Father has taken the most important step toward making it available to many more of the faithful," said Michael Dunnigan, chairman of Una Voce America, an organization that has long promoted celebration of the older rite.

Several observers expressed skepticism that the numbers of priests or Catholics likely to choose to celebrate the old Mass will be terribly large.

Msgr. James Moroney, executive director of the Secretariat for the Liturgy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, estimated that at present perhaps "2 to 3 percent" of the priests in the United States know how to celebrate Mass according to the pre-Vatican II rite, and said that even under the more liberal rules of Summorum Pontificum, he doubts that figure will rise above 5 to 10 percent.

"This will not be a widespread phenomenon that in any way threatens the ordinary form of the Mass," Moroney said. "We're talking about a relatively small number of people."

Moroney argued that American bishops had already been fairly generous in permitting celebration of the old Mass under a 1984 ruling from Pope John Paul II, which allowed it with the bishop's approval, so in his view there's not much pent-up demand.

Some liturgical experts expressed concern that however small the number of devotees of the old Mass may be, the pope's ruling has potentially negative implications.

Benedictine Sr. Mary Collins, a popular liturgical author and speaker, said that by allowing priests to bypass the local bishop, the bishops' "pastoral authority is being undermined in favor of a growth in Roman centralization."

Collins also argued that the pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II rites have "distinct ecclesiologies," with the pre-Vatican II Mass, she said, expressing an "unashamedly monarchical and hierarchical" vision. …

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