Rorate Caeli

Francis' Cruelty - Costa Rica: Fr. Varela, the First Priest Suspended for Celebrating the Traditional Mass (and the New Mass in Latin!) Following the new Motu Proprio


 by Augustine Aksala*

I feel the need to write this chronicle due to the concern expressed in different parts of the world to know clearly what is happening in Costa Rica after the promulgation of the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes.

On July 7, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI published his apostolic letter in the form of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. With this document, the Pope established that it was licit to celebrate the sacraments with the liturgical books prior to the post-conciliar liturgical reform. Thus, in the Roman Rite there was an ordinary form and an extraordinary form, and no priest needed any permission to celebrate Holy Mass with the 1962 missal, edited by St. John XXIII. Moreover, the faithful who requested it were to be admitted to such celebrations.

A few years later, on April 30, 2011, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the instruction Universae Ecclesiae. In it, some clarifications were made regarding the suitable priest and the group of faithful. Among other things, it clarified that the group requesting Mass in the extraordinary form could be created after the publication of Summorum Pontificum and could be made up of faithful from various parishes or dioceses. Around the same time, some of the faithful in Costa Rica had joined together with the objective of celebrating the sacraments in the extraordinary form in the country. Some had spoken with Father Sixto Varela Santamaría, who had been sent by the then Bishop of Alajuela, Monsignor Ángel San Casimiro, to study communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. Father Sixto expressed his openness so that, at some point, these celebrations could be held in his parish in Costa Rica. Other faithful had contacted the then Archbishop of San José, Monsignor Hugo Barrantes Ureña, in order to have the Traditional Mass in Latin in the archdiocese.

In 2012, the group of faithful realized that, in the Archdiocese of San José, Summorum Pontificum was being interpreted as the Ecclesia Dei 1988 Motu Proprio - or even more restrictive. In July of that year, while Father Sixto was already back in Costa Rica, some of the faithful asked him to have a Tridentine Mass celebrated in his parish with a priest from the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. On July 25, 2012, in the parish of San Joaquin de Flores in the Diocese of Alajuela, a Mass with the 1962 missal was celebrated for the first time since 1970 in Costa Rica in a public manner. However, there was a split in the group of faithful: some, tired of the restrictions placed on Summorum Pontificum in the Archdiocese of San José, contacted the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X; others, on the contrary, wanted to remain in full and visible communion with the Church, so under the pastoral care of Father Sixto Varela, and with the knowledge of Monsignor Angel San Casimiro, they preferred to wait for suitable priests to have the Mass in the extraordinary form.

Father Sixto was a man the Bishop of Alajuela trusted completely. Not only did he serve as pastor in San Joaquin de Flores and episcopal vicar of communication, but he was also appointed chancellor of the diocese. In those years it was common to see Father Sixto in the major media outlets in the country, clearly exposing the doctrine of the Church in the midst of important debates on national television.

In 2015, the religious priest Agustín Pelayo Corona, C.Ss.S, began to visit the country, coming from Nicaragua with certain frequency to San Joaquín de Flores for the celebration of the Mass in the Extraordinary Form. Thanks to the greater frequency of these celebrations, the group of faithful began to grow and become more solidly established. In 2016, the group of faithful contacted the Good Shepherd Institute, who from Colombia sent a priest monthly for the celebration of the sacraments. Also, Father Daniel Heenan, from the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, traveled to Costa Rica on two occasions for the celebration of the Traditional Mass. During this time, the Masses in the Extraordinary Form were carried out without any inconvenience with the Catholic hierarchy; moreover, with the help of Father Grégory Lutz-Wiest, of the Institute of the Good Shepherd, the group of faithful formed the Association Summorum Pontificum Costa Rica.

On March 1, 2018, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Monsignor Ángel San Casimiro from the pastoral government of the Diocese of Alajuela for reasons of age, as established by Canon Law, appointing the Amigonian priest Bartolomé Buigues Oller as the new bishop. Following the spirit of communion that has characterized the Summorum Pontificum Costa Rica Association, the faithful presented themselves before the new bishop and expressed their desire to continue with the celebration of the Mass in the Extraordinary Form. At the end of that same year, the bishop made the decision to transfer Father Sixto to another parish. The celebration of the Traditional Holy Mass was also transferred to the new location: Patriarca San José Parish, in Alajuela.

With the help of the priests of the Good Shepherd Institute, Father Sixto learned the usus antiquor, celebrating his first Mass in the Extraordinary Form at the Rorate Caeli Mass on December 13, 2019. From then on, and in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, having a diocesan priest in the country to celebrate the Traditional Mass in full communion, made the apostolate grow stronger than ever. It went from celebrating a few masses a month, to having 3 masses a week, with an attendance of approximately 250 faithful. Baptisms, marriages, requiem masses were celebrated, and traditional and sacramental customs were revived. From this group of faithful several vocations to the priestly and religious life have emerged: at least two diocesan seminarians, two young men are making vocational processes with the Redemptorists, one with the Augustinian Recollects, one with the Institute of the Good Shepherd, three with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, one novice in the congregation of the Legionaries of Christ and one novice in the Handmaids of the Holy Family in Colombia.

On July 16, 2021, the Holy Father published the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes. The document establishes that each bishop regulates the celebration of the Mass with the texts prior to the liturgical reform of 1970. It also establishes that it must be verified that the group of faithful is in full communion with the Church. Since the group and the priest meet the conditions, both Father Sixto and the Summorum Pontificum Costa Rica Association contacted the bishop and requested the necessary permissions. However, the Episcopal Conference of Costa Rica issued a communiqué saying that there was no group in the country that adhered to the former liturgical tradition, and therefore the Traditional Mass could not be celebrated in the country. This communiqué was unusual, since it is not within the competence of the conference of bishops to legislate on this matter. It also insinuated a censure to the use of ornaments and traditional elements that have never been eliminated in the Roman rite. It seems that behind this document was the executive secretary of the National Liturgy Commission, a doctorate in France, from a liturgical school strongly opposed to the hermeneutic of continuity proposed by Benedict XVI.

Since the celebration of the Mass with the 1962 Missal could not be maintained, Father Sixtus, encouraged by the faithful and in order to ensure the accompaniment and rapprochement to the reformed liturgy in 1970, continued to celebrate the "new" Mass in Latin. The faithful donated to him the Editio typica tertia emmendata of the Missale Romanum of 2008, published by the Vatican Bookstore.

A week later, even when the Summorum Pontificum Association had met with the bishop and he had assured them that he would find a way to give them the proper pastoral accompaniment, the Diocese of Alajuela published a decree prohibiting the use of pre-1970 liturgical books throughout the diocese. The document also denied the existence of a group of faithful who since the time of the reform had remained adherent to the 1962 missal (although at no time has this been a condition for the validity of the group of faithful). The document also prohibited the celebration of the Novus Ordo Missae in Latin and celebrating ad orientem, in what the decree considered to be "hybrid forms". This provision is not only contrary to Canon Law which allows every priest to celebrate Mass in Latin, but to various documents which allow even ad orientem celebration. Father Sixtus, advised by some canonists, initiated a process of canonical appeal. For its part, the Association Summorum Pontificum Costa Rica requested the intervention of the Apostolic Nuncio, Monsignor Bruno Musaró, who recommended a new meeting with the bishop. One of the signatories of this decree was the judicial vicar of the Diocese of Alajuela, who in social networks expressed derogatory comments towards the faithful attending the Traditional Mass, saying that they had "biased positions or amateurish affinities".

Following Father Sixto's appeal and a meeting with the bishop on behalf of the Association, in which Monsignor Buigues reaffirmed that he would maintain the ban on the Traditional Mass, a modification to the diocesan decree, dated August 4, was published. The new document insisted that the group of faithful had not existed since the time of the liturgical reform and that therefore their desire to have the Tridentine Mass was a "created necessity", continued to maintain the prohibition to use the missal of St. John XXIII and that the only missal that could be used in the country was the one edited in Spanish by the Mexican Episcopal Conference. The document eliminated the part referring to the use of Latin in the 1970 liturgy.

The document was accompanied by the response to Father Sixto's appeal, which continued to insist on elements contrary to universal law: refusals that the Mass in its ordinary form be celebrated in Latin and ad orientem. Father made the second appeal. Less than a week later, the people of God were surprised to learn that the bishop had asked Father Sixto to stop being pastor and to retire for a few months to his family home, without the possibility of celebrating Mass in public and hearing confessions only in his home. After several moments of dialogue with the bishop, Father, moved by a deep love for the Church, renounced to continue the process of canonical appeal and accepted the bishop's decision.

It is important to mention that a sector of clergy of a more progressive tendency has been hard on Father Sixto not only for his way of celebrating the sacraments, but also for having criticized at some point the government of the Republic, which has ruled against life and the family, as well as questioning the attitude of the Episcopal Conference to the government's decision to close places of worship during the pandemic, but not other commercial establishments. When one reads the lives of saints such as St. John the Baptist, Thomas Beckett, Thomas More or Oscar Romero, one sees that same zeal in Father Varela.

The existing group of faithful has received the hardest blow with the pastoral staff: without the priest who accompanied him, without the celebration of the Holy Mass not only with the 1962 Mass, but also without the New Mass in Latin, what will become of these faithful? Many of them have been despised in their parishes of origin. The Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X has insisted that they will continue to celebrate the Traditional Mass, even in the diocese of Alajuela, and have invited to disobey Pope Francis and the bishop. These are attitudes very contrary to those of communion and ecclesiality that characterize the Association Summorum Pontificum Costa Rica. Father Sixto, gives us all another lesson of love for the Church, renouncing a canonical process and submitting to his bishop, even in the midst of a decision that is objectively unjust. To those who can, unite in prayer, both for Father Sixto and for the group of faithful; that is the best weapon.

The words of the prophet Zechariah resound at this moment, which could conclude this chronicle of what is happening in Costa Rica:

"Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man of my company, O oracle of the LORD Sebaoth: smite the shepherd, let the sheep be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones! And it shall come to pass in all this land," says the LORD, "that two thirds shall be cut off (perish) in it, and one third shall remain in it. I will put this third into the fire: I will purge them as silver is purged and test them as gold is tested. He shall call upon my name, and I will answer him; I will say, "He is my people!" and he shall say, "The LORD is my God!"" Zechariah 13:7-9.

*[Translation and text provided by E.F.]