Some Thoughts on Pope Francis’s Recent Interview and Traditional Catholics
Guest Op-Ed by Veronica A. Arntz at Rorate Caeli:
With Pope Francis’s most recent interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SI, there has been much discontent, especially among traditional Catholics. In just a few sentences, Pope Francis seemingly denied the validity and importance of everything they hold dear: traditional liturgy, adhering to the traditions of the Church, and even the essential role of Summorum Pontificum. He has even alluded to the belief that young people who are interested in traditional liturgy are too “rigid” (more on that later).
Displeasure at these remarks is a natural response, yet they should not really surprise us. Pope Francis has already disregarded Cardinal Sarah’s remarks on the importance of ad orientem worship (which he reiterates in this interview), and he has swept clean the Office of Divine Worship of its more traditional cardinals, who supported movements such as ad orientem worship. We should not be surprised that this pope, who has already disregarded liturgical tradition in many instances, should say these things about those who are interested in traditional liturgy.
The more difficult part about these statements, however, is that they could not be further from the truth. Whether he is simply ignorant, has little regard for traditional Catholics, or truly means these things, it is difficult to reconcile them with the reality of traditional Catholicism.
In the translation of this interview provided by Rorate Caeli, we read, “Pope Benedict accomplished a just and magnanimous gesture [Summorum Pontificum] to reach out to a certain mindset of some groups and persons who felt nostalgia and were distancing themselves. But it is an exception.” One can hardly read this sentence without picturing a large, important man patting a small, innocent girl on the head as he hands her a lollipop. That Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum made an “exception” for a small group of people interested in pre-conciliar liturgy is a vast understatement.
In Benedict’s letter on the publication of Summorum, we read that the positive reason for the Motu Propio “is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church…Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.”
Benedict’s Motuo Proprio, which permits the celebration of the 1962 Missal, is hardly allowing just one small group of people the liturgy for which they are nostalgic. Rather, he is bringing union where there was division, for the 1962 Missal “was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted.” Benedict brought unity to the broken Church following the Second Vatican Council.
For so many long years, the “experts” denied that the liturgy of the 1962 Missal could be celebrated: Vatican II (supposedly) had spoken, and we now only celebrate the Missal of Paul VI. We cannot return to that old liturgy, which did not allow for active participation and was only for towering intellects with knowledge of Latin. The participation of the people is more important than the tradition of 1500 years (see Pope Paul VI’s “eulogy” of the Traditional Latin Mass); we are modern people now, and we need a Mass that fits who we are.
So they said at the time.
But Benedict XVI saw things differently. He saw that, while both forms are valid, as he himself affirms, the Church was suffering from the lack of the 1962 Missal. The Church had (perhaps unknowingly, in some respects) distanced herself from the tradition that rightfully belonged to her, and should rightfully be given to the people. And not just one small group was suffering, but the entire, universal Church.
Indeed, this healing began with Pope John Paul II in his 1988 Motu Proprio, Ecclesia Dei, when he provided guidelines for the use of the 1962 Missal. Benedict sought to bring even further healing by allowing celebration of the 1962 Missal for the whole Church. While many had accepted the liturgical changes of Paul VI out of obedience, they could see that “in many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear” (Letter of Benedict XVI).
Thus, with the introduction of the 1962 Missal, Benedict sought to give back to the Church a mode of celebrating the liturgy that would be reverent and faithful to tradition. In this way, Benedict saw that both the Tridentine Rite and the Novus Ordo could inform each other: perhaps the 1962 Missal would influence a more reverent celebration of the Novus Ordo, which had become subject to abuse since Vatican II.
While the “reform of the reform” movement has its flaws, it is certainly better than leaving the Novus Ordo as it has been celebrated since the Second Vatican Council. But, as Francis states, “Vatican II and Sacrosanctum Concilium must go on as they are. To speak of a ‘reform of the reform’ is an error.” While there is a small hint of truth in that, as Sacrosanctum Concilium called for certain things in the celebration of sacred liturgy that were subsequently ignored after the Council, it seems that Francis is speaking of how the Church has celebrated the Novus Ordo since the time of Vatican II. This form of celebration has become irreverent to the mysteries within the liturgy, novel in its liturgical form, and divorced from tradition.
It seems he is saying that there is no need to change anything with the way that our liturgies are celebrated, that everything is perfectly fine. This is a further retraction of what Benedict XVI attempted to do in his pontificate, for alongside Summorum, he was continually advocating for properly celebrated liturgy.
Once again, we know that what Francis has said could hardly be further from reality. The fact is that the Church, the people of God, the faithful members of the Body of Christ, are thirsting for something that banal, anthropocentric liturgy cannot give them. They are searching for true beauty, for beauty that has been handed down through tradition. They are searching for a liturgy that does not change at random, that is not merely about the creativity or personality of the priest, that does not treat them like ignorant children. Their souls are longing to be filled with sacred music, accompanying the most sacred act of the Church, that of making present the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ on the altar.
The whole Church is groaning for a liturgy that puts Christ, not man, at its center. And while the Novus Ordo can be celebrated reverently and beautifully if the time and consideration is taken, it is just as true (or even more true) that the Tridentine Rite satisfies, even if only in a small way, the deepest desires of Christ’s faithful while we are here on earth. The rich prayers, passed down through tradition, satisfy the faithful’s desire for transcendence. While we will not be completely at rest until Heaven, the liturgy of 1962 begins that rest here on earth. In this liturgy, we find the deepest springs of God’s love for us; we truly feel as if we have tasted Heaven, because we are not worried about the priest’s personality, or what will happen next, or what we should say. Our focus is entirely on Christ and the mystery of his presence.
This desire for beautiful, sacred liturgy could not be more evident among young people. Young people truly want beautiful liturgy; they find that it is truly attractive, not just attractive at the surface level. They recognize in the Tridentine Rite something that is wholly different from their everyday experience. Unlike the Novus Ordo, which can sometimes almost cater to everyday experience, the Tridentine Rite is entirely other. It is mysterious and truly points beyond human reality. While Pope Francis’s syntax is difficult (it could be read in a few ways), it would seem that he is condemning young people who love the Tridentine Rite as being too “rigid.” The full text is reproduced below, from the Rorate Caeli translation:
“I always try to understand what is behind those individuals who are too young to have lived the pre-Conciliar liturgy, and who want it nonetheless. I have at times found myself in front of people who are too rigid, an attitude of rigidity. And I ask myself: how come so much rigidity? You dig, you dig, this rigidity always hides something: insecurity, at times perhaps something else…[sic]. The rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.”
Perhaps the Pontiff has not experienced young people who love the Tridentine rite, but the last word to describe them would be “rigid.”
Young people who experience and love the Tridentine rite have a deep desire to preserve the tradition of the Church; they have a deep love for God, and a deep love for the liturgy. Women wear chapel veils as a sign of reverence and respect for the presence of our Lord. They ardently desire to become saints and to imitate them in their own lives. They willingly attend the sacrament of Penance, they love the universal Church, and they have a profound respect for the Holy Father and his office. They respond openly to God’s call: Many become priests and religious, and others have beautiful, fruitful marriages with many children. Perhaps some consider them “rigid” because of their very desire to preserve tradition and what the Church has always taught.
Being a young person who loves the Tridentine rite, I can say that young people are not rigid when it comes to the celebration of liturgy or the tradition of the faith. The Tridentine rite has transformed my spiritual life in innumerable ways, and I think I can say the same for many other young people who love the Old Rite. When I participate in the Tridentine Rite, I feel as if I have been transported to Heaven. The liturgy is not about me, and that is precisely the point. The liturgy has its entire focus on Christ, present in the sacrament—and if I choose to turn to myself, it is only because of my fallen free will, and not anything within the liturgy itself.
The Tridentine Rite speaks to the desires of a young person’s heart, for a young person truly wants to go beyond him or herself to experience the transcendental and the sacred. At this point in his or her life, a (catechized and informed) young person is realizing that life is about so much more than what the world has to offer. Such a person does not want a liturgy that looks just like the rest of the world. Rather, he or she desires a profound and beautiful liturgy, a liturgy that brings him or her closer to God and closer to the universal Church. In short, we as young people do not want the rigidity of a liturgy that caters to the purely human level; young people do not want to attend a liturgy with sappy music or jokes from the priest to make the time pass. Young people want so much more—and this is something that Benedict XVI sought to give them by bringing about a renewal of the ancient liturgy of the Church.
While Pope Francis’s comments are disheartening and confusing, we know that they are simply not the reality of traditional Catholicism. His comments are non-magisterial, which means that we can continue as we have been, with the blessing of Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum. We ought to continue in our celebration and promotion of beautiful and sacred liturgy. The next generation is so desperately in need of liturgy entirely focused on Christ, and we must be ready to pass that down to them. We know what is true about the sacred liturgy, and we have the tradition.
Let us continue to stand firm and not be discouraged. Let us not be shaken like a reed in the wind; rather, let us be willing to re-double our efforts for the greater glory of God and for the work of his kingdom. There is much work to be done in the Kingdom of God—through the grace of Christ, let us carry on.