Pope Francis Restricts Use of Old Latin Mass, in a Blow to Conservatives

The pope placed new restrictions on where the old Latin Mass can be celebrated and who can celebrate it, and will require new permissions from local bishops.


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Pope Francis took a significant step toward putting the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgy solidly on the side of modernization on Friday by cracking down on the use of the old Latin Mass, essentially reversing a decision by his conservative predecessor.

The move to restrict the use of an old Latin rite in celebrating Mass dealt a blow to conservatives, who have long complained that the pope is diluting the traditions of the church.

Francis, in a papal Motu Proprio — a document issued under the pope’s own legal authority — placed new restrictions on where and by whom the traditional Latin Mass can be celebrated and required new permissions from local bishops for its use.

Francis wrote that he believed champions of the old Latin Mass were exploiting it to oppose more recent church reforms and to divide the faithful. In the 1960s, the church sought to make the faith more accessible with liturgy in living languages that made use of modern idioms in its prayer books. In subsequent decades, traditionalists recoiled and conservative pontiffs let the Latin come back.

Beyond the so-called liturgy wars of the church, Francis’ new law also perhaps served as an answer to questions about whether his recent health scare would slow him down, or speed up his upheavals.

Francis was released from the hospital following colon surgery on Wednesday. The law sends a strong sign that Francis, who has repeatedly noted his awareness that he will lead the church for a finite time, intends to make his changes stick.

Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had relaxed restrictions on the old Latin Mass, also called the Tridentine Mass, in 2007. It was a move seen as reflective of a shift toward traditionalism.


Pope Francis at the Gemelli hospital in Rome last week.Credit…Vatican Media, via Reuters

In statements released by the Vatican on Friday, Francis argued that the change, designed to bring unity to the church and its most traditionalist and schismatic corners back into the fold, had become a cause of division and a cudgel for conservative opponents of the Second Vatican Council, the major church meetings of the 1960s that ushered in many modernizing measures.

Francis cited those measures, especially liturgical rules enacted in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, in explaining his law, called “Traditionis Custodes.” Many analysts see Francis’ pontificate as the restoration of those modernizing decisions after three decades of leadership by conservative popes who thought they had gone too far.

Doubting the council, Francis wrote in a document explaining his motivations for the new law, is “to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church,” and associating only the old rite with what traditionalists often call the “true Church” led only to division.

Francis argued that those traditionalists had essentially taken advantage of the kindness of his predecessors. The 16th-century Tridentine Mass was replaced after the Second Vatican Council with a new standard version approved in 1970, but many traditionalists insisted on the old rite. Nevertheless, some traditionalists insisted on celebrating it and rejected the new version as a corruption of the “true church.”

In 1983, Pope John Paul II sought to heal a rift with a schismatic, traditionalist movement by asking bishops to grant the request of the faithful who wished to use the old Latin Mass. But Francis said some traditionalists exploited that decision to effectively create a parallel liturgical universe.

Benedict clearly put his weight, and that of the whole church, on the side of the old rite in 2007 when he issued a Motu Proprio of his own increasing access to the traditional Latin Mass. He argued that, among other things, it appealed to young people and that the two forms, old and new, “would enrich one another.”

But Francis argued that things had shaken out differently.

The Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, once led by Benedict XVI, held talks with bishops in 2020 to determine whether a change was necessary. A survey of bishops showed, Francis wrote, “a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene.”

He wrote that his bishops believed that a byproduct of Benedict’s 2007 decision had been the undercutting of more modern liturgical forms and the empowering of celebrants of the old Latin Mass to use it as a political weapon.

Francis also shared the concerns of Benedict XVI, that overly liberal interpretations of the liturgy led to “unbearable distortions.” But his new law focused on the old guard.

Francis made it clear that bishops must make sure that groups celebrating the old Latin Mass “do not deny the validity and the legitimacy” of the modernized liturgy.

He gave local bishops more flexibility in regulating liturgical celebrations and deciding whether the old Latin Mass could be used. He restricted where celebrants of the old rite could gather, saying it could not be in parochial churches or in newly established personal parishes “tied more to the desire and wishes of individual priests” than to the general faithful.

Priests celebrating old Latin Masses now require authorization from their bishop, and they must be “suited for this responsibility” not just in language skills, but in a more inclusive pastoral approach. Priests ordained after the publication of Friday’s law will need to submit a formal request to their bishop if they want to celebrate the old Latin Mass, which the bishop would need to consult with the Vatican before granting.

This was not Francis’s first foray into conflicts over liturgy, which, especially in the English-speaking church, have divided liberals and conservatives for decades. In October 2017, he issued another Motu Proprio, “Magnum Principium,” giving national bishop conferences greater authority in translating liturgical language.

That decision followed several crackdowns on Cardinal Robert Sarah, a hero to Vatican traditionalists — and for many of them, a desired candidate in the next conclave to choose a pope. In 2014, Francis chose Cardinal Sarah, who is from Guinea, to run the Vatican department with liturgical oversight, but then quickly isolated him, surrounding him with papal allies.

In 2016, when Cardinal Sarah called for priests to celebrate Mass with their backs to the congregation, Francis issued an unusual public rebuke. In 2017, Cardinal Sarah sent a letter honoring Benedict’s support of the Latin Mass, asserting that “modern liturgy” had caused devastation and schism. Benedict wrote that “the liturgy is in good hands,” in an afterword to a book by the cardinal.

But in February of this year, Francis removed the church’s prayer book from Cardinal Sarah’s hands, accepting his resignation despite frequently allowing cardinals to serve after the retirement age of 75.

Church conservatives had recently applauded Francis’ decisions, including his setting aside of a vote by bishops to allow married priests in limited situations, and expressing concerns about a gay rights bill making its way through the Italian Parliament. But with Friday’s law, Francis clearly put himself against the conservatives who pine for the days of Benedict. And they were not happy.

“Shocking, and terrifying,” Rorate Caeli, a popular traditionalist blog run out of the United States, declared on Friday. “Francis HATES US. Francis HATES Tradition. Francis HATES all that is good and beautiful.”


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