A Cardinal and Bishop Who Get It

Cardinal Robert Sarah has published a moving essay in which he pleads with the bishops of the world to apply the provisions of Pope Francis’ motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes, regulating the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass with a spirit of respect for the Church’s liturgical “sacred continuity.”  Sarah writes: “[I]f the bishops, who are in charge of the cohabitation and mutual enrichment of the two liturgical forms, do not exercise their authority to this effect, they run the risk of no longer appearing as shepherds, guardians of the faith they have received and of the sheep entrusted to them, but as political leaders: commissars of the ideology of the moment rather than guardians of the perennial tradition. They risk losing the trust of men of good will.”

Sarah grounds his plea in the nature of the Church’s mission, witnessing before the whole world the faith received from Jesus Christ: “[T]he Church has no other sacred reality to offer than her faith in Jesus, God made man. Her sole goal is to make possible the encounter of men with the person of Jesus. Moral and dogmatic teaching, as well as mystical and liturgical patrimony, are the setting and the means of this fundamental and sacred encounter. Christian civilization is born of this encounter. Beauty and culture are its fruits.”

Sarah’s insights get to the heart of why the bishops of the world need to approach this question with great care and pastoral sensitivity: the respect owed to the faithful who are attached to the prior liturgical forms is not a reluctant concession to the unreasonable demands of troublesome – if not troubled – people who cling nostalgically to things past, instead of meeting Christ in the reformed liturgy and putting aside what is a spiritually dangerous fascination with obsolete rituals. No, the liturgical heritage of the Roman Rite was, is, and always will be a sacred reality that makes “possible the encounter of men with the person of Jesus.”

Respect is owed to those who plainly have found the ancient rite of Mass to be that spiritually fruitful experience of meeting Christ through the venerable liturgical form that the Church has offered for centuries, fostering the holy purpose of union with God made man. That respect will strengthen the faith of all Catholics by demonstrating that the bishops understand their role to be that of a “father [who] cannot introduce mistrust and division among his faithful children. He cannot humiliate some by setting them against others. He cannot ostracize some of his priests. The peace and unity that the Church claims to offer to the world must first be lived within the Church.”

The bishops’ continued willingness to facilitate these legitimate spiritual preferences of the faithful, which may not be shared by this or that particular shepherd of the Church, is a sign of their own deeper understanding of their role as shepherds of the sheep. That is what Pope Benedict XVI was asking of his fellow bishops when he introduced the liberalization of restrictions on the use of the 1962 Missile Romanum. He did not want simply to use his papal authority in a merely arbitrary way to enforce his own appreciation for the value of the Traditional Latin Mass. Rather he appealed to their paternal sense of being fathers in Christ who uphold and promote the patrimony of the Church. Sarah cites Benedict’s wise counsel: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”

Pope Benedict was aware that not all bishops had been generous in applying Pope John Paul II’s earlier and more restrictive provisions for the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass. Thus, he eliminated the requirement that priests needed permission from their bishop to celebrate this form of the Mass either publicly (provided there was a stable group of the faithful who would attend) or privately. Alas, Pope Francis has reversed that and now the bishop has the power to forbid any and every priest from celebrating the Traditional Latin Mass in his diocese. Thus, Cardinal Sarah’s appeal for generosity of spirit among bishops in governing their flock, which of course may include sheep who seek solace and strength in the liturgical heritage of the Church.

Pope Francis’ concern for unity is shared by all those who love the Church, including the vast majority of those who attend the Traditional Latin Mass. Their growing presence in their parishes (and not at chapels directed by priests of the Society of St. Pius X or by other canonically irregular priests) over the years since Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum is living testimony that they sought to worship in full union with the Holy See.

That desire for unity encompassing a diversity of liturgical forms remains and should be recognized by the bishops of the Church. Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, displayed this magnanimous spirit in an August 15th letter to the faithful of his diocese. He notes that

[I]t is a sad fact that there are some voices, few in number. . .that have used the celebration of what we previously called the extraordinary form of the Mass to sow dissension and division among the faithful.” He then expresses what I am certain is the reality in most dioceses: “Such voices are rarely found in our Diocese, and I am deeply and personally grateful for your fidelity to the Church, its teachings and to our Holy Father. Rather than seeing a spirit of dissension among those who attend the usus antiquior in our Diocese, I have experienced firsthand your heartfelt desire for personal holiness, commitment to participate in your parishes and your generosity.

He concludes his letter stating that “the celebration of the Mass according to the missal of 1962 will continue in our Diocese to be a source of nourishment and spiritual growth for you and your families.”

To which I say: Amen! Alleluia!


Image: Inner Voices: Christ Consoling the Wanderersby James Tissot, 1885 [State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia]

You may also enjoy:

Joseph Ratzinger’s On the Latin Mass

David G. Bonagura Jr.’s Latin Rising

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.