My name is Fr. Paul Beach, and I read with interest the new motu proprio of Pope Francis that was released on Friday, July 16th: Traditionis custodes, “Guardians of the tradition.”
With this document, Pope Francis enacted new legislation regarding something that Catholics in the vast majority of parishes today have probably not experienced, save those who are — shall we say — of a certain vintage.
It has gone by many different names: the “Tridentine Mass;” the “Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite” (to distinguish it from the form Mass has taken since the liturgical renewals of Vatican II); or simply as “the Latin Mass.”
Finding an appropriate name for it is a challenge. It is Mass the way it was celebrated for many centuries, by and large: the priest at the high altar, the language Latin (with a little Greek thrown in — a vestige from the first and second-century liturgy), the choir chanting and making the responses when the Mass is sung.
Different from Mass the way it is celebrated today, yes. But for those familiar with it, it’s simply the Mass: the community of believers coming together to celebrate the Eucharist; an encounter with the risen Lord.
Beginning in 1988, Pope St. John Paul II granted permission, with the blessing of the local bishop, to groups of faithful who requested this form of the Mass. Principal among the reasons for this permission was the hoped-for reconciliation of those groups who had left communion with the Catholic Church after Vatican II. The initial permission for it made inroads in achieving that goal, but unfortunately, a full reconciliation with these groups has not yet been realized.
With the support of Archbishop Thomas Kelly, one group that made the request for the Latin Mass was located in Louisville, at the parish where I am now pastor: St. Martin of Tours on Shelby Street.
Over the years at St. Martin’s, alongside the usual parish Masses, the “Latin Mass” has been celebrated every weekend and holy day, and has attracted a faithful following of parishioners.
Most people are surprised to find out that this particular portion of our congregation is composed of many young people, families, and lots of crying babies. People of various backgrounds, a diverse (some might say “eclectic”) gathering of people for whom Mass in this fashion speaks to their hearts.
They don’t all describe their experience of attending this Mass in the same way. Some say it is in a way transcendent; others speak about the beauty of the chant and the ritual itself; still others find it uniquely prayerful. Whatever the words used to describe it, there is something about it that speaks to their hearts, and many travel a good distance every Sunday to participate.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI expanded the permission for the Latin Mass — coining the term “Extraordinary Form” to describe it — making this form of the Mass available without the need to seek special permission. Across the globe, more and more parishes saw the establishment of these “Extraordinary Form” Masses.
Pope Francis issued the motu proprio Traditionis custodes, and in it he reiterated that the “Ordinary Form” of Mass is precisely that: it is the normative way that Mass is to be celebrated, and that celebrations of Mass according to the older liturgical books (the “Latin Mass”) are the exception. While some media outlets reported that this new legislation called for an end of celebrations of the Latin Mass, a careful reading shows simply that some changes are being called for.
Notable amongst these reforms is the re-establishment of the role of the local bishop in granting the necessary permission. The local bishop, after all, is the person most familiar with local circumstances, and can make a good judgment on the benefit of their pastoral service to the faithful in his diocese.
The location of where these celebrations are held is also a subject of the new legislation, and likewise, the importance of remaining in communion with the Church. As a priest friend of mine commented, the emphasis of placing more discretion in the hands of the local authority such as the diocesan bishop when it comes to decision-making regarding pastoral circumstances (what is referred to as “synodality” in Church law) has been a constant theme of Pope Francis’ pontificate. This new document follows upon that theme.
So what changes might we expect moving forward?
Given that the pastoral situation of each diocese in every part of the world is unique, I’m sure that different decisions will be made depending on what is judged to be most beneficial for that respective place.
Archbishop Kelly first granted permission for the “Latin Mass” to occur in the Archdiocese of Louisville in 1988, to address what he saw as an important pastoral need. Archbishop Kurtz has continued support for this particular ministry in the Archdiocese by extending his permission to those priests who have made the necessary request.
As the pastor of a parish where this Mass exists, I, too, feel that it serves an important function. To know that there is room for a variety of different liturgical expressions and experiences of prayer speaks to the richness of our Catholic faith.
I have found that those who regularly attend this Mass are there because they find genuine spiritual nourishment in it, and for that, I am thankful that it is available.