July 25, 2021 | José Antonio Ureta
With the stroke of a pen, Pope Francis has taken concrete steps to abolish in practice the Roman Rite of the Holy Mass. Substantially in use since Saint Damasus, at the end of the fourth century, and with additions by Saint Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth, the 1962 Missal promulgated by John XXIII is the most recent version of the Roman Rite.
In his letter to bishops around the world accompanying the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, the sovereign pontiff is clear about his intent to restrict the use of this immemorial rite gradually, unto extinction. The pope urges bishops “to proceed in such a way as to return to a unitary form of celebration,” with the missals of Paul VI and John Paul II, which, he says, are “the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” The practical consequence is that Roman Rite priests are no longer entitled to celebrate the traditional Mass. They can only do so with their bishop’s permission, and for those ordained after the motu proprio, that of the Holy See! The obvious question that arises in the face of this drastic measure is: Does a pope have the authority to overturn a rite that has been used in the Church for 1,400 years and whose essential elements come from apostolic times? If, on the one hand, the Vicar of Christ has plena et suprema potestas in matters concerning “the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world,”1 as the First Vatican Council teaches, on the other, he must respect the universal customs of the Church in liturgical matters.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by John Paul II gives a definitive answer to this question in paragraph 1125: “no sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minister or the community. Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy.”2
Commenting on this text, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote:
It seems to me most important that the Catechism, in mentioning the limitation of the powers of the supreme authority in the Church with regard to reform, recalls to mind what is the essence of the primacy as outlined by the First and Second Vatican Councils: The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law, but is the guardian of the authentic Tradition, and thereby the premier guarantor of obedience. He cannot do as he likes, and is thereby able to oppose those people who for their part want to do what has come into their head. His rule is not that of arbitrary power, but that of obedience in faith. That is why, with respect to the Liturgy, he has the task of a gardener, not that of a technician who builds new machines and throws the old ones on the junk-pile."
"The “rite,” that form of celebration and prayer which has ripened in the faith and the life of the Church, is a condensed form of living tradition in which the sphere which uses that rite expresses the whole of its faith and its prayer, and thus at the same time the fellowship of generations one with another becomes something we can experience, fellowship with the people who pray before us and after us. Thus the rite is something of benefit which is given to the Church, a living form of paradosis the handing-on of tradition."3
Msgr. Klaus Gamber, whom Cardinal Ratzinger deemed one of the greatest liturgists of the twentieth century, develops this thought in a superb book titled The Reform of the Roman Liturgy. He starts from the observation that the rites of the Catholic Church, taken in the sense of obligatory forms of worship, definitively date back to Our Lord Jesus Christ but gradually developed and differentiated from the general custom, being later confirmed by ecclesiastical authority.
From this reality, the distinguished German liturgist draws the following conclusions: 1. If we assume that the liturgical rite evolved on the basis of shared traditions—and nobody who has at least some knowledge of liturgical history will dispute this—then it cannot be developed anew in its entirety.
[J]ust as the primitive Church gradually emerged from the Synagogue, so did the liturgical forms used by the young communities of Christians emerge from the liturgical rites of the Jews…. 2. Since the liturgical rite has developed over time, further development continues to be possible. But such continuing development has to respect the timeless character of all rites; and its development has to be organic in nature.
… never breaking with tradition, and with no directives emanating from the Church hierarchy. Plenary and local church councils concerned themselves only with eliminating abuses in the actual execution of liturgical rites.
3. There are different, independent liturgical rites in the universal Church. In the Western Church, in addition to the Roman rite, there are the Gallican rite (now defunct), the Ambrosian rite, and the Mozarabic rite; and in the East, among others, the Byzantine rite, the Armenian rite, the Syriac rite and the Coptic rite.
Every one of these rites has gone through a process of independent growth and developed its very own characteristics. Thus, it is not appropriate to simply exchange or substitute individual liturgical elements between different rites….
4. Every liturgical rite constitutes an organically developed, homogeneous unit. To change any of its essential elements is synonymous with the destruction of the rite in its entirety. This is what happened during the Reformation when Martin Luther did away with the canon of the Mass and made the words of consecration and institution part of the distribution of communion….
5. Restoration of early liturgical forms does not necessarily constitute a change in the rite, at least not if this is done on a case-by-case basis, and if it is done with certain constraints. There was thus no break with the traditional Roman rite when Pope St. Pius X restored the Gregorian chant to its original form.4
The distinguished founder of the Regensburg Theological Institute goes on to comment that while “The revision made in 1965 did not touch the traditional liturgical rite … the publication of the Ordo Missae of 1969, however, created a new liturgical rite.”5 He calls it ritus modernus, since “the assertion … that the inclusion of some parts of the traditional Missal into the new one means a continuation of the Roman rite, is insupportable.”6
To prove this point, from a strictly liturgical point of view,7 it suffices to quote what Prof. Roberto de Mattei said about this devastation:
During the [liturgical] Reform, a whole series of novelties and variants were gradually introduced. Some of them were foreseen neither by the Council nor by the Constitution Missale Romanum of Paul VI. The quid novum cannot be limited to replacing Latin with vernacular languages. It also consists in the desire to conceive of the altar as a “table” to emphasize the aspect of a banquet rather than a sacrifice; in the celebratio versus populum, which replaced versus Deum, consequently abandoning the celebration turned to the East, that is, toward Christ, symbolized by the rising sun; in the absence of silence and meditation during the ceremony and in a theatrical celebratio