July 20, 2007

O December 4, 1963, the bishops who participated in the Second Vatican Council in union with Pope Paul VI issued a document entitled "The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy." In it, they called for a revision of the prayers of the Mass which would, of course, "preserve their substance" but also make adjustments in them so as to increase the participation and devotion of the faithful.

In addition, in the same "Constitution," the bishops with the Holy Father noted that "the use of the mother tongue (the vernacular of a particular area), whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, may frequently be of great advantage to the people" and, accordingly, proposed a translation of the Latin texts of the liturgy into the vernaculars of the world and their appropriate use under the direction of ecclesiastical authorities.

All of this was done for no other reason than better to assist the members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ in their prayer. Unfortunately, however, some felt that what the bishops and the Holy Father had decided was either mistaken theologically, disdainful of ancient uses or uncaring as regards the sentiments of those who had been reared in the established liturgy and both revered and loved it. Indeed, a community of clergy, religious and laity under the leadership of a French Archbishop who had been a missionary in Africa rejected the liturgy that was developed after the Council and separated itself from the Church because of it and other Conciliar teachings and directives.

Thus it was that in 1984 the Congregation for Divine Worship published a document with the Latin title, "Quattuor Abhinc Annos," making the traditional liturgy more available and Pope John Paul II in 1988 published another with the Latin title, "Ecclesia Dei," making it even more available. It was hoped that these measures would put an end to the various feelings of discontent and especially to the aforementioned separation, and to some extent they were successful. Still, our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, was convinced that something further needed to be done; and this is the origin of the document that he issued regarding the liturgical prayer of the Church this past July 7th.

I briefest terms, here is what the document, which is entitled in Latin "Summorum Pontificum," provides:

     I. There is one Eucharistic liturgy for members of the Roman Catholic Church of the Latin Rite. It has two forms ("expressions")-an "ordinary" one that is to be found in the Missal of Pope Paul VI published in 1970, and an "extraordinary" one that is to found in the Missal of Blessed John XXIII published in 1962.

      II. The "ordinary" form (usually identified as the Missal of Pope Paul VI) is the one to be used regularly.

      III. The "extraordinary" form (usually identified as the Missal of Blessed John XXIII) may, however, be used-

      A. in Masses where the priest does not have a congregation, except on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday,

      B. in Masses of religious communities in their chapels and oratories and

      C. in parishes where a group of the faithful requests it, but only once on a Sunday or feast day.

There are, though, three more provisions in the new norms which are of interest mostly to the clergy. All the same, it might be well to at least mention them here.

      I. Pastors are to agree "willingly" to the "extraordinary" form in their parishes. If, however, there is a problem in this regard, the matter should be referred to the local bishop; and if there is a further problem, to the Holy See.

      II. Pre-Vatican II rites may be used for Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Matrimony and the Anointing of the Sick, "as the good of souls suggests."

      III. When Mass is celebrated in the "extraordinary" form, the Readings may be in the vernacular.

Ad to all of this our Holy Father, in a letter to the bishops of the world, added three further points.

     I. The changes in the liturgy do not in any sense detract from the authority of the Second Vatican Council.


     II. Priests who choose to celebrate Mass in the "extraordinary" form must have a sufficient knowledge of the Latin language to pronounce the words correctly.

     III. The changes in the liturgy must not be the occasion of divisions in the Church. They are rather to strengthen the unity of that community of believers for whom the Lord prayed on the night before he died that "they may be one as You, Father, in Me and I in You" (John 17:21).

Concerning this last point, perhaps it would be well to conclude what may seem to be a rather tedious lesson in Church Law by recounting two recent events in my life that might be helpful in thinking about the new liturgical norms.

This past June 6th I was in the Sheraton New York Hotel on the dais for a dinner sponsored by the Building and Construction sector of the Cardinal’s Committee for Charity to raise funds for Archdiocesan schools that educate children who are physically or emotionally disabled. One of the more than 600 guests approached the dais toward the end of the dinner and began in jest to recite the responses of the altar server to the opening prayers of the traditional Latin Mass. On my right was one of the most prominent labor leaders in the nation and on my left one of the most successful construction company executives in New York. Together they joined in with the man who had approached the dais, reciting every word with remarkable accuracy. And when they were done, the man on my right launched into the longest of the altar server’s prayers in the Latin liturgy, the so-called "Suscipiat." Both got even the most difficult pronunciations correct, and it was clear from the looks on their faces and the sound of their voices that what they had recited by heart had a very special place in the heart of each of them. Nor are they alone in this. Many feel a strong attachment to the Mass before the Council, and this we must understand and respect-from the heart.

This past July 8th I was in Rome at the conclusion of a week of meetings. Early in the morning I received a telephone call from the new superior general of the Conventual Franciscans, a priest from Boston. One of his priests from Spain who had worked with me in the early 1960s when I was on the faculty of a Roman seminary was in town and would like to see me. He had come to the Eternal City to direct the recording of new musical settings he had composed for the Mass in Spanish. I had a 3:30 appointment with a mother general on the outskirts of the city and a 6:30 appointment with an official of the Holy See in the Vatican. Nonetheless, taking a chance on the Roman traffic, I fit a third appointment in between the other two and arranged to visit the priest where he was staying at the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian on the edge of the Roman Forum.

The superior general met me at the door and brought me in to see the priest whose musical compositions are performed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and across the world. After a brief exchange of niceties, the priest began to tell me in remarkable detail about what he was composing and recording in order to make the singing of the prayers of the post-conciliar Mass more devout and compelling in Spanish. He conceded that it would take a good deal of time to achieve all he had in mind. "But I am only 94," he observed jokingly, as he tapped out for me the rhythm of a responsorial psalm of his creation. The superior general did not dare even to smile. Nor did I. For I knew this immensely gifted artist is but one of millions upon millions who have come to love the new liturgy in the vernacular, and indeed, love it with fervor.

"Ours is a big Church," I mused to myself as I walked to my car after the meeting. "There is room within it for all expressions of what is Catholic, noble and holy; and for this each of us, whatever our tastes and inclinations, should be grateful to the Lord."