A Catholic Cathedral: “A Sort of World”

Unless there’s a last-minute change of orders in the hours between this being written and the opening of St. Peter’s Basilica Monday morning, the Church in Rome will have taken another, bizarre, almost inexplicable step in an age that can little afford the West’s central spiritual institution to go even more wobbly.

I refer, of course, to the strange decision to prohibit Masses being said in St. Peter’s on side altars, often on the spur of the moment, in various languages; and to restrict everyone attending Mass in the Basilica to the few central services offered only in Italian and Latin.

This may seem a small matter, especially during the COVID lockdowns, when there are few pilgrims entering St. Peter’s anyway. But this was not an order issued in response to the potential dangers from the virus at side-altar Masses, nor does it bear any explanation that this is just a temporary measure that will be suspended when conditions are “safe.”

No, it reflects yet another instance of the Church – or at least some high-placed officials in the Vatican – reducing the breadth and depth that Catholicism should offer to God’s holy people.

I call as witness the ever-prescient John Henry (now Saint) Newman who wrote more than a century and a half ago about the feeling in a “great cathedral”:

as I have said for months past that I never knew what worship was, as an objective fact, till I entered the Catholic Church, and was partaker in its offices of devotion, so now I say the same on the view of its cathedral assemblages. I have expressed myself so badly that I doubt if you will understand me, but a Catholic Cathedral is a sort of world, every one going about his own business, but that business a religious one; groups of worshippers, and solitary ones – kneeling, standing – some at shrines, some at altars – hearing Mass and communicating, currents of worshippers intercepting and passing by each other – altar after altar lit up for worship, like stars in the firmament – or the bell giving notice of what is going on in parts you do not see, and all the while the canons in the choir going through matins and lauds, and at the end of it the incense rolling up from the high altar, and all this in one of the most wonderful buildings in the world and every day – lastly, all of this without any show or effort – but what everyone is used to – everyone at his own work, and leaving everyone else to his. (Letter, September 24, 1846)

(I owe the precise reference to my longtime friend Fr. Peter Stravinskas who, when I mentioned having once read in Newman a moving passage on his experience in a large church, immediately knew that it must have been in Milan and quickly found the letter.)

The St. Joseph’s side altar, St. Peter’s Basilica

Cardinal Burke (here) has explained in detail the irregularities in the document proclaiming the new rules. And that too is a retreat from an older Catholic understanding that rules matter because they assure fairness. And if circumstances arise in which they become unfair, the rules are changed to other rules, so that we don’t just have a regime of “executive orders” in the Church. (As we all know, ignoring rules in various areas has led to anarchy and the widespread belief that rules may be simply overruled by someone’s “truth.” Witness the open rebellion by hundreds of German-speaking priests who have declared that they will continue to bless “same-sex unions” and are outraged at the Vatican asserting in a recent document (here) that the Church cannot bless “sin.”)

Other commentators have pointed out the practical – even the pastoral – disasters that the new regulations about Masses in St. Peter’s will present to future pilgrims. One memorable experience when you visit Rome is a kind of pick-up Mass with a priest who speaks your language (how many can follow Mass in Italian or – alas – even Latin, the universal language of the Church?). You may find yourself half-asleep, jet-lagged, dizzy from dragging yourself out of bed at 5:30 for a 6 AM Mass. But it’s an experience you never forget, especially if the altar you happen to be assigned is above the tomb of a pope like John XXIII or JPII.

But both the irregularities in law and the inconveniences to pilgrims, important as they may be, are as nothing – at least in the present writer’s estimation – to the loss of a Catholic sensibility that Newman noted in the passage above, at a time when he was still a new Catholic and years earlier had even been repelled by certain Catholic beliefs and practices he had encountered traveling in Italy.

A great spirit, however, a Catholic spirit, could see through his own prejudices and English habits and respond to “altar after altar lit up for worship, like stars in the firmament” in a cathedral. Is there no one with a similar Catholic sensibility in the Vatican in a position to do something about the new rules – no one who sees “the sort of world” Newman sensed in the Milan Duomo, a world that reaches up into the very heavens?

And further, under a pope who has sought to decentralize things in the Church that do not need to be rendered narrowly uniform everywhere, is there no one who resonates to the embodiment of what Newman saw as a kind of image of the diversity within the Church Universal: “at the end of it the incense rolling up from the high altar, and all this in one of the most wonderful buildings in the world and every day – lastly, all of this without any show or effort – but what everyone is used to – everyone at his own work, and leaving everyone else to his.”

That was once, before this morning, a fair description of St. Peter’s on an ordinary day as well – and of a Catholicism at one with the many languages and customs of its faithful peoples.

Robert Royal

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and currently serves as the St. John Henry Newman Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies at Thomas More College. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.

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