Despite predictions of chaos and division, Pope Benedict’s Motu Proprio has enriched the church

At noon Rome-time on 7th July 2007 it was my privilege to be present at the first solemn Mass of a recently ordained young priest. As a member of the Fraternity of Saint Peter he (licitly) sang the Mass according to the usus antiquior—the more ancient form of the Roman rite, as used prior to the reforms following the Second Vatican Council. It was a beautiful occasion, but one which harboured a lingering distraction.

For up until that time the faithful, lay men and women, religious and even clergy, did not have free access to the older liturgical rites. It was commonly (but erroneously) held that permission was required to celebrate them. Certainly, the Holy See had encouraged bishops to be generous in granting such permissions, but as many recall only too well and with no small amount of suffering, in many dioceses around the world this was not the case: the parsimony of a good number of prelates was immovable. One English liturgist even called for “a period of compulsory transition…for all priests ordained after 1970, with perhaps five years for them to prepare for the celebration of the Novus Ordo exclusively.”

The distraction on that July 7th was the fact that at that very hour Pope Benedict’s long-awaited Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum, on the use of the older rites had been published. It was, perhaps, an appropriate sacrifice to have to wait an hour or so before reading its long-awaited provisions.

The first months of 2007 had seen a battle royale waged over what it would contain. Pope Benedict himself wrote in his letter to the Bishops of the same date: “News reports and judgments made without sufficient information have created no little confusion. There have been very divergent reactions ranging from joyful acceptance to harsh opposition, about a plan whose contents were in reality unknown.” Indeed, it is known that he personally telephoned several bishops before July to insist that they end their public opposition to a document they had not even read.

The issue was “the fear that the document detracts from the authority of the Second Vatican Council, one of whose essential decisions—the liturgical reform—is being called into question.” The Pope’s response was clear: “This fear is unfounded.” And he was right: the modern rites as reformed following the Council remain what one ordinarily encounters in parishes to this day. There have been no widespread public burnings of the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy or of the liturgical books produced in its wake.

Another issue was the fear that a wider use of the older rites “would lead to disarray or even divisions within parish communities.” Pope Benedict replied: “This fear also strikes me as quite unfounded.” Notwithstanding some instances of pastoral imprudence by clergy imposing older (or even newer) rites on congregations without adequate preparation and formation, the Church today is not riven with parishes divided over the inclusion of the older rites in their schedule. Indeed, many people find their life of faith and worship to be enriched by this legitimate ritual diversity.

For Pope Benedict, Summorum Pontificum was “a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church”—of taking away obstacles to that communion and unity which Our Lord so desires amongst all the baptised. It is a fact that the liturgical reform following the Council was abrupt and controversial and disenfranchised many Catholics, some of whom simply stopped coming to Mass. Those small pockets of priests and laity who continued with the older rites were ostracised. When, rather than dying out, they attracted young people, they were proscribed. The divisions were real and became entrenched. In line with efforts made by St John Paul II, in 2007 the Holy Father sought to do what he could to heal these divisions, insisting that: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

So too he noted a seemingly curious phenomenon: “Immediately after the Second Vatican Council,” he observed, “it was presumed that requests for the use of the 1962 Missal would be limited to the older generation which had grown up with it, but in the meantime it has clearly been demonstrated that young persons too have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them.”

This is an oft-missed element of Summorum Pontificum. Pope Benedict’s authoritative establishment in Church law that all of the faithful have the legal right to the older liturgical ceremonies, including the sacraments, and that parish priests and not bishops had both the duty to provide these and the authority otherwise to decide when their celebration is appropriate, is not motivated by nostalgia. Rather, it is a response to the new and somewhat unexpected reality of the Church at the beginning of the twenty-first century where young people who never knew the older liturgy (or even the battles fought over it) find that at celebrations of it—often much more so than in some other liturgical celebrations they have experienced—they are able fully, consciously and actively participate in the Sacred Liturgy, the “the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit,” precisely as the Second Vatican Council desired. Accordingly, Pope Benedict wrote: “It behoves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”

When finally we read Summorum Pontificum on July 7th, and the letter accompanying it, it was clear that Pope Benedict had acted as a “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven…like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt 13:52). But not all reactions were as calm. One Italian bishop lamented that “Today, a reform for which so many laboured, at the cost of great sacrifices, animated solely by the wish to renew the Church, has been cancelled…today an important reform of the Council was undermined…” Fr Mark Francis would lament that: “the Pope, who is not a trained liturgist, has shown interest and sensitivity in liturgical matters,” but that with Summorum Pontificum he demonstrated “a real misunderstanding of the liturgy’s role in the life of the Church,” and adopted a liturgical “relativism,” ignoring “the hallowed patristic axiom lex orandi, lex credendi.”

There were many other ‘prophets of doom,’ including some bishops who summarily rejected any suggestion of their seminarians being given time to learn how to celebrate the older rites. Yet no liturgical doomsday has arrived and many seminarians seem nevertheless to have found the means to familiarise themselves with the older rites. For Summorum Pontificum established an entirely new situation in the liturgical life of the Church, one which augurs very well indeed for the Church of today and of tomorrow.

As has been noted, the Motu Proprio established that the older liturgical rites are to be freely available when the faithful request them. Today, the majority of the faithful, including myself, grew up following the Second Vatican Council. We did not know ‘the old days’—when, certainly, the usus antiquior was sometimes, indeed too often, celebrated poorly, and when sung Mass was an exception rather than the norm that it should be. When we discovered the older liturgy and continued to come back to it, it was with the expectation that we would indeed participate in its rites and prayers fully, consciously and actually and in optimal, not minimalistic, celebrations. And we discovered an immense treasury of faith and culture in which to participate—a treasury which stretches back to the early Church which had not been pushed through an ideological sieve in the 1960s.

This encounter of our post-conciliar generations with the pre-conciliar liturgy is in fact realising, at least in part, the stated aim of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: to impart an ever-increasing vigour to the Christian life through a profound and engaged participation in the liturgy—though the irony of the means of this being the unreformed liturgy is significant. (This raises questions about the necessity and utility of the specific reforms themselves, and gives the lie to those ‘Vatican II fundamentalists’ who would idolise them—but discussion of that is for another place.) Its demands bring forth a response in us. We find that the restraint and beauty of the ritual, the silence in which we find space to pray interiorly, the music which does not attempt to imitate the world or soothe the emotions but which challenges us and facilitates worship of the divine, indeed we find the overall ritual experience of the numinous and of the sacred, to be uplifting and nourishing.

This dynamic has also changed how we approach and celebrate the reformed liturgical rites. They are, in comparison, quite ritually streamlined—too much so for some. And certainly, the theology of their texts is at times quite different or diminished. But their celebration is now being enriched by those immersed in the unreformed liturgical tradition. Pope Benedict spoke of this “mutual enrichment” in 2007 as a possible outcome of his Motu Proprio. It has been an increasing factor in the liturgical life of the Church ever since. Many young priests speak eloquently of how celebrating the usus antiquior has enabled them to celebrate the usus recentior with greater reverence and meaning. This new approach to and manner of celebrating the modern rites so that they are in greater continuity with preceding liturgical tradition is certainly more in line with the intentions of the Council than some applications and interpretations of it heretofore. This doesn’t address the greater question of a ‘reform of the liturgical reform’—a question which will not go away simply because people don’t like it—but it does do a good deal to correct the erroneous and sometimes even abusive celebrations of the modern rites we have experienced all too often.

Some commentators are just as enraged by Summorum Pontificum as they were in 2007 and claim that it promotes a “traditionalism” which is having “a negative effect on the acceptance of other documents from Vatican II, such as those on ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue and missionary activity of the Church.” (As with many “-isms,” traditionalism is an erroneous exaggeration and is to be avoided.) But if the new and life-giving encounter with unreformed liturgical tradition made possible by Pope Benedict XVI ten years ago leads to a critical reappraisal of the liturgical reform and of the implementation other Conciliar documents, who are we to judge it adversely? For if this arises from faithful Catholic clergy and laity for whom the label “traditionalist” is simply outdated, might not this new situation in the life of the Church in fact be one of the “signs of the times” of our day—a sign in which Church authorities may well hear something of what the Holy Spirit is saying in our midst? Thanks to Pope Benedict XVI, laity and clergy (should) have had access to the unreformed liturgical tradition without having to be anything other than Catholic for ten years now. The fruits of this measure are real, and they are growing—for the good of the whole Church.

Following Mass on July 7th 2007 we celebrated the young priest’s ordination with greater joy as we read Pope Benedict’s Motu Proprio and accompanying letter. This priest now gives thanks to Almighty God for ten years of fruitful ministry just as the Church can give thanks to Almighty God for the genuine fruits of Pope Benedict’s paternal wisdom and profound insight in promulgating Summorum Pontificum.

Dom Alcuin Reid, a monk of the Monastère Saint-Benoît in the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France, and a liturgical scholar of international renown, is the author of “The Usus Antiquior—Its History and Importance in the Church after the Second Vatican Council,” (A. Reid, ed., T&T Clark Companion to Liturgy, Bloomsbury 2016).