Aleteia logoAleteia logoAleteia
Wednesday 24 April |
Saint of the Day: St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen
Aleteia logo
separateurCreated with Sketch.

5 Questions (and answers) about Pope Francis’ changes to Latin Mass


Andrewgardner1 | CC BY 4.0

Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP - published on 07/20/21

A summary of current questions and concerns.

With Friday’s motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of the Tradition), Pope Francis has set forth new rules governing the Church’s liturgical life. In essence, he has returned “exclusive competence” for permitting use of the Tridentine Rite to diocesan bishops.

Fourteen years after Pope Benedict granted general permission for priests to offer Mass and the other sacraments in the Tridentine Rite (in the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum), Pope Francis has asked priests again to seek permission from their local bishops to do so. Pope Francis’ new legislation, which abrogates much of Summorum Pontificum, went into effect immediately.

Since Friday’s promulgation of Traditionis Custodes, many questions have arisen among clergy and faithful. The following is an attempt to summarise and address current conversations and concerns.

Exactly what has changed?

Following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Pope Paul VI issued a new edition of the Roman Missal. With its simplified ritual and use of vernacular languages, this missal inaugurated the liturgy that most Catholics know today. From that time, however, local bishops could grant permission for certain priests and communities to continue to worship according to the older ritual, known as the Tridentine Rite, which had been promulgated by Pope Saint Pius V after the Council of Trent (1545-1563). 

In 2007, with Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict broadened these permissions granting priests themselves the authority to celebrate public Masses in the Tridentine Rite according to their discernment and availability. 

Pope Francis has seen fit to revert the authority of overseeing the celebration of the Tridentine Mass to the diocesan bishop. Describing the bishop’s authority in his diocese, the Holy Father states: “It belongs to the diocesan bishop, as moderator, promoter, and guardian of the whole liturgical life of the particular Church entrusted to him, to regulate the liturgical celebrations of his diocese.” Pope Francis continues: “Therefore, it is his exclusive competence to authorize the use of the 1962 Roman Missal in his diocese, according to the guidelines of the Apostolic See.” 

In practical terms, this means that priests currently celebrating the Tridentine Mass must request to retain this faculty from the diocesan bishop. Newly ordained priests, that is priests ordained after the promulgation of Traditionis Custodes,must similarly request the permission of the diocesan bishop, who himself must consult the Holy See before granting the permission.

Two Masses or two forms of the same rite?

In Summorum Pontificum,Pope Benedict explained that two forms of the Mass — the Mass of Paul VI and the Tridentine Mass — mutually enrich the worship of the Latin Church. Pope Benedict wrote: “The Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI is the ordinary expression of the lex orandi (rule of prayer) of the Catholic Church of the Latin Rite. The Roman Missal promulgated by Saint Pius V and revised by Blessed John XXIII is nonetheless to be considered an extraordinary expression of the same lex orandi of the Church and duly honored for its venerable and ancient usage.” For Pope Benedict, the Mass of Paul VI remains the ordinary (normative, typical) form of the celebration of Mass, while the Tridentine Mass would be generally permitted as extraordinary (exceptional).

Shifting from Pope Benedict’s approach, Pope Francis declares in Traditiones Custodes: “The liturgical books promulgated by Saint Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” While for the purposes of the Church’s legislation Pope Francis has set aside Pope Benedict’s ordinary/extraordinary distinction, it remains to be seen just how Catholics should regard the relation of the Tridentine Mass — which can still be offered with permission — with the Mass of Paul VI.

What are Pope Francis’ concerns?

Through conversations with many of the world’s bishops, Pope Francis has concluded that the Church’s unity has been threatened, not strengthened, in the years since Summorum Pontificum. In a letter accompanying Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis explains his concerns: “An opportunity […] intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities, was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.”

Acknowledging the modern liturgical abuses that concern many traditional Catholics, Pope Francis expressed dismay that the use of the Tridentine Rite has become “characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’” 

Pope Francis explains that preference for the Tridentine Mass cannot include rejection either of the Mass of Paul VI or of the Second Vatican Council: “To doubt the Council is to doubt the intentions of those very Fathers who exercised their collegial power in a solemn manner cum Petro et sub Petro in an ecumenical council, and, in the final analysis, to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church.”

Can Pope Francis do that?

Many on social media have asked if by issuing Friday’s motu proprio Pope Francis exceeded his proper authority. In fact, he did not. The pope is the supreme legislator of the Church. To this point, the Code of Canon Law states: “By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely” (CIC, 331). This and other canons in the Code make clear that matters of Church discipline, including the celebration of the sacraments, fall under the pope’s proper competence to oversee and regulate.

Throughout the Church’s history, Christian worship has developed under the careful guidance of the popes. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), for example, placed the Our Father after the Eucharistic Prayer, where it remains today. Pope Urban IV (1261-1264) extended the feast of Corpus Christi to be celebrated throughout the entire Church. In Summorum Pontificum,Pope Benedict lists other examples of popes adding careful changes to the liturgy. He singles out Clement VIII, Urban VIII, Saint Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XII, and John XXIII as among those who “directed their energies . . . in order to ensure that the rites and liturgical books were brought up to date and, when necessary, clarified.”

How have bishops responded?

Several diocesan bishops quickly issued public assurances that they would study Traditiones Custodes and introduce appropriate changes in due time. Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco said, “The Mass is a miracle in any form: Christ comes to us in the flesh under the appearance of Bread and Wine. Unity under Christ is what matters. Therefore the Traditional Latin Mass will continue to be available here in the Archdiocese of San Francisco and provided in response to the legitimate needs and desires of the faithful.”

For his part, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has issued no immediate changes, in light of his plans to conduct consultations and review the current practices in the Archdiocese of Boston. Similarly, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., wrote to the priests of his diocese saying, “I will prayerfully reflect upon Traditiones Custodes in the coming weeks to ensure we understand fully the Holy Father’s intentions and consider carefully how they are to be realized in the Archdiocese of Washington.”

Enjoying your time on Aleteia?

Articles like these are sponsored free for every Catholic through the support of generous readers just like you.

Help us continue to bring the Gospel to people everywhere through uplifting Catholic news, stories, spirituality, and more.

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.