One is tempted to begin, Parturiebant montes, so great were the fears on one side and the expectations on the other concerning Pope Benedict’s long-awaited motu proprio on the Tridentine Mass. In the end, while the motu proprio proved more than a ridiculus mus, it was not an event of historic significance.

The document permits easier access to the unreformed usage of the Roman Missal by those who desire it, but does not mandate its use. Priests so inclined do not require anyone’s permission to follow it in private Masses, though it is barred during the Paschal Triduum. A stable group of people within a parish may ask the pastor for celebrations in the unreformed manner, and he is expected to accommodate them where possible. A bishop may erect a parish composed of people who wish to follow the unreformed usage. These are the accommodations most likely to have a practical effect in the lives of parishes and dioceses.

The rite as reformed in consequence of the Second Vatican Council remains the juridically ordinary expression of the Western church’s worship, and as the pope admits, will remain the statistically ordinary form of worship. Indeed, priests who wish to celebrate in the unreformed mode are warned that they may not in principle refuse to celebrate according to the reformed usage.

Pastors will be able to tell us before long just how great the desire for the unreformed usage is. In most places with which I am familiar, it is a very small minority who might desire the unreformed liturgy. One difficulty in the United States, at least in the beginning, will be that the great majority of priests do not know enough Latin to celebrate the old Mass well, and an ever-decreasing percentage of priests have experience celebrating the unreformed liturgy. Even those, like me, who can remember the rite will have to refamiliarize themselves with its complex rubrics. Where any bishop is going to find celebrants for the old Mass is a good question.

Pope Benedict says that the unreformed usage was never strictly forbidden, but that certainly was not the impression that Rome and local dioceses permitted to prevail for some thirty-five years—otherwise, why all the fuss? At the time—the early 1970s—I did not think that the unreformed rite should be forbidden. It seemed unjust to preclude a ritual that had nourished the spiritual and communal life of Catholics for centuries when all around us all sorts of ultra-relevant bizarre liturgical experiments were being tolerated. The result was that reverence for the ancient usage was tempted to go underground and to mingle there with movements that called into question the entire work of Vatican II or even the validity of the reformed usage.

It was thus inevitable that, thirty-five years later, the decision to permit easier access to the unreformed usage would be thought of as compromising the council’s work. Much of this confusion might have been avoided had greater generosity been shown at the time of the introduction of the reformed usage. I do not believe that to have the vast majority of Catholics worshiping according to the reformed usage, with a small minority worshiping according to the unreformed usage, is a serious threat to the unity of the church, any more than the various rites in full use in the whole church compromise the eucharistically based unity of a genuinely Catholic church.

There is one thing I greatly regret, though—namely, that except on rare occasions, the two forms will follow different lectionaries. Under the unreformed usage, the same biblical texts were read on the same Sundays and feast days each year. The council called for an expansion of the number and variety of biblical readings used at Mass, which was accomplished through a three-year cycle on Sundays and a two-year cycle for the first readings during the week. I do not see how this expanded lectionary can be considered anything but a great gain for the church, one from which, it appears, those who will follow the unreformed usage will no longer benefit.

Furthermore, it is a great instrument of Catholic unity that on any given day, everywhere, in every continent, among every people, in every circumstance, Catholics hear the same Word of God that calls us to faith and offers us its judgment, its comfort, and its challenge. And what ecumenical blessing may eventually come from the fact that many other Christian churches have adopted our reformed Catholic lectionary, so that churches still divided may already be united under the same Word of God?

Unfortunately, among Catholics this will no longer be true. Those who choose to follow the unreformed usage will be off by themselves, hearing a different Word from that being heard by the rest of the church. To this degree something will be lacking from their communion under the Word of God with their fellow Catholics, with their bishops, and with the bishop of Rome. This lack of communion troubles me more than the differences in the rite of worship itself. I think it will be felt particularly on such great feasts as Christmas and Pentecost. It needs to be addressed.

Finally, the matter of Latin as the language of the liturgy has often been presented as if it were the most important issue at stake. I don’t think it is. The reformed liturgy, after all, can also be celebrated in Latin. Paradoxically, the new provisions may make it less likely that Latin will be restored, even in part, in celebrations of the reformed liturgy, since it might be a convenient excuse now to say: “Oh, if you want Latin, you can always go to the Tridentine Mass.”

By coincidence the Sunday after the motu proprio was published, the second reading came from the end of the Epistle to the Galatians and included the words: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but only a new creation.” The new world that God has created for us in Jesus Christ is the important thing, and we should all try to focus on that grace to which no one of us has greater right, and of which none of us is less unworthy.


Read more responses to Summorum pontificum: The Old Rite Returns

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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Published in the 2007-08-17 issue: View Contents
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