CP&S comment – The sudden order last week cancelling all celebrations of the Traditional Latin Mass in St Peter’s Basilica has caused a shockwave of both sadness and indignation throughout the Catholic world, and whose repercussions we are still hearing. Dr. Robert Royal wrote on ‘The Catholic Thing’ a few days ago about:
“[…] the strange decision to prohibit Masses being said in St. Peter’s on side altars, often on the spur of the moment, in various languages; and to restrict everyone attending Mass in the Basilica to the few central services offered only in Italian and Latin.
This may seem a small matter, especially during the COVID lockdowns, when there are few pilgrims entering St. Peter’s anyway. But this was not an order issued in response to the potential dangers from the virus at side-altar Masses, nor does it bear any explanation that this is just a temporary measure that will be suspended when conditions are “safe.”
No, it reflects yet another instance of the Church – or at least some high-placed officials in the Vatican – reducing the breadth and depth that Catholicism should offer to God’s holy people.
I call as witness the ever-prescient John Henry (now Saint) Newman who wrote more than a century and a half ago about the feeling in a “great cathedral”:
as I have said for months past that I never knew what worship was, as an objective fact, till I entered the Catholic Church, and was partaker in its offices of devotion, so now I say the same on the view of its cathedral assemblages. I have expressed myself so badly that I doubt if you will understand me, but a Catholic Cathedral is a sort of world, every one going about his own business, but that business a religious one; groups of worshippers, and solitary ones – kneeling, standing – some at shrines, some at altars – hearing Mass and communicating, currents of worshippers intercepting and passing by each other – altar after altar lit up for worship, like stars in the firmament – or the bell giving notice of what is going on in parts you do not see, and all the while the canons in the choir going through matins and lauds, and at the end of it the incense rolling up from the high altar, and all this in one of the most wonderful buildings in the world and every day – lastly, all of this without any show or effort – but what everyone is used to – everyone at his own work, and leaving everyone else to his. (Letter, September 24, 1846)
Cardinal Burke (here) has explained in detail the irregularities in the document proclaiming the new rules. And that too is a retreat from an older Catholic understanding that rules matter because they assure fairness. And if circumstances arise in which they become unfair, the rules are changed to other rules, so that we don’t just have a regime of “executive orders” in the Church. (As we all know, ignoring rules in various areas has led to anarchy and the widespread belief that rules may be simply overruled by someone’s “truth.” Witness the open rebellion by hundreds of German-speaking priests who have declared that they will continue to bless “same-sex unions” and are outraged at the Vatican asserting in a recent document (here) that the Church cannot bless “sin.”)
Other commentators have pointed out the practical – even the pastoral – disasters that the new regulations about Masses in St. Peter’s will present to future pilgrims. One memorable experience when you visit Rome is a kind of pick-up Mass with a priest who speaks your language (how many can follow Mass in Italian or – alas – even Latin, the universal language of the Church?). You may find yourself half-asleep, jet-lagged, dizzy from dragging yourself out of bed at 5:30 for a 6 AM Mass. But it’s an experience you never forget, especially if the altar you happen to be assigned is above the tomb of a pope like John XXIII or JPII.
But both the irregularities in law and the inconveniences to pilgrims, important as they may be, are as nothing – at least in the present writer’s estimation – to the loss of a Catholic sensibility that Newman noted in the passage above, at a time when he was still a new Catholic and years earlier had even been repelled by certain Catholic beliefs and practices he had encountered traveling in Italy.
A great spirit, however, a Catholic spirit, could see through his own prejudices and English habits and respond to “altar after altar lit up for worship, like stars in the firmament” in a cathedral. Is there no one with a similar Catholic sensibility in the Vatican in a position to do something about the new rules – no one who sees “the sort of world” Newman sensed in the Milan Duomo, a world that reaches up into the very heavens?
And further, under a pope who has sought to decentralize things in the Church that do not need to be rendered narrowly uniform everywhere, is there no one who resonates to the embodiment of what Newman saw as a kind of image of the diversity within the Church Universal: “at the end of it the incense rolling up from the high altar, and all this in one of the most wonderful buildings in the world and every day – lastly, all of this without any show or effort – but what everyone is used to – everyone at his own work, and leaving everyone else to his.”
That was once, before this morning, a fair description of St. Peter’s on an ordinary day as well – and of a Catholicism at one with the many languages and customs of its faithful peoples.
On the day the order became effective, Edward Pentin wrote :
“The side altars of St. Peter’s basilica were almost all devoid of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass this morning as a Vatican directive suppressing individual Masses being celebrated in the upper part of the basilica came into force, a break with the usual custom of allowing individual priests to freely celebrate their daily Mass at the basilica’s many altars”
Finally, Father Z reminisces on what St Peter’s Basilica was like once upon a time on any morning …. and will, tragically, be no more:
”Mornings in the Basilica. Priests drift in and out of the door leading to the sacristy. “Lingua?” “Español… English, Inglese… Latino… Italiano… Deutsch…”. People follow priests to altars. Priests say Mass, asking anyone who showed up if they want to receive Communion and then counting out the hosts needed. Masses said, quietly, even if the priest turns around to read the Scriptures in whatever language. Another priest over there is doing the same, a different part of the Mass, still only at the Gloria, but far enough away that most of the time you barely hear the other guy. Priests finish up and leave the altar with a bow as other priests wait patient to take the available altar. They nod as they pass each other. People who were just at Mass drift off, to go to work, go to kneel somewhere else in the Basilica to pray. Newly arrived lay people, religious, wait for another Mass to start.
Everyone at his own work and leaving everyone else to his.
That’s what the Basilica of St. Peter’s is – was – like early in the mornings before the tourists came. Not perfect, but pretty good, all in all. I said my morning Mass in the Basilica for so long that they gave me my own locked cabinet for my things.
But, you can hear someone say,
“Do you really think you should be doing that?”
FFLF, friends. I think that explains something of what is going on with the Suppression. It is aimed at the activities (TLM and ad orientem, hence Tradition and the Roman ‘genius‘, Romanitas). But even more it is aimed at the people who want and enjoy those aspects of our common Catholic identity, our inheritance, our patrimony, our rites. And…We Are Our Rites.”