Rorate Caeli

“Concelebration as compromise?” — Article by Michael Charlier

Holy Thursday 2022 in Rome. Does such a giant concelebration with clergy from many dioceses correspond to the essence of the episcopal Chrism Mass?

Rorate presents this translation of an essay by Michael Charlier, posted on April 30, 2022 (source). It does not represent Rorate's view. It is offered in the spirit of fostering conversation. A response from Peter Kwasniewski will be published in the next days.

The extremely brief announcement by the Fraternity of St. Peter that Bishop Meier of Augsburg will ordain several of the community’s subdeacons as deacons on May 28 has, so far as we can see, not been noted either by the wider ecclesial public or in the circles of tradition. This is astonishing insofar as no acting German diocesan bishop has heretofore been willing to confer the sacrament of ordination on candidates of one of the Old Rite communities. It is not necessary to declare the Wigrazbad announcement a sensation, but it is a reason to reflect on the current state of affairs concerning the communities of the traditional rite according to Traditionis Custodes.

After the enactment of Traditionis Custodes last summer and its extensive relativization by the Pope’s decree of February 11, these (Ecclesia Dei) communities find themselves in a rather strange state of limbo. On the one hand, that decree clarified that the Fraternity of St. Peter is dispensed, in its houses and oratories, from most of the restrictions imposed by the motu proprio. However, it remains unclear how internal use and public activity are to be delineated. The parish of Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini in Rome, used by the Fraternity of St. Peter, celebrated the Paschal Triduum this year in its usual form and in public, although a decree from the Roman Vicar General had initially seemed to stand in the way of doing so. It also continues its public activities as per custom. Also unclear is the legal situation for the other old-rite communities, which are not mentioned in the decree for the FSSP. As far as we can see, they are proceeding as if they were included in the February decree, without obtaining special permission—and no objection has come to light from Rome.

On the other hand, several bishops in the USA and in Europe have announced—possibly after a request to that effect from Rome—that they have forbidden the FSSP to celebrate the traditional rite in parish churches. However, it remains unclear to what extent the Fraternity was active in parish churches in the dioceses concerned and whether it was offered alternative options. After numerous parish mergers, there are at least in Germany in all larger places enough suitable churches which are not (or no longer) parish churches. Cases are known from the USA in which exactly this possibility has been taken advantage of. Even in dioceses headed by declared enemies of the traditional liturgy, such as Cardinal Cupich’s in Chicago, there still seems to be a kind of “basic provision” for the old-rite faithful. Concrete arrangements on the ground are treated with discretion, and not only in Chicago. Gray areas are spreading—and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

The dangers emanating from TC, however, are by no means banished with this development. The unfortunate and neither legally nor theologically tenable formulation that Paul VI’s books are the only legitimate lex orandi of the Roman rite still exists in the world, and if at present leaders refuse to execute the strangulating measures that can be derived from it, that does not mean the threat is off the table.

But the unexpected step of announcing that Augsburg’s Bishop Meier will ordain deacons for the FSSP seminary that lies within his jurisdiction—such a thing certainly does not happen without consultation with, or even suggestion from, Rome—indicates that no new confrontation is being sought at present. Not even a year after the promulgation of TC, it looks as if the effect of the motu proprio has largely fizzled out and the factual situation for the faithful of the ancient rite—not the legal position of priests—is largely back at the status quo ante.

This again raises the question of who was pulling the strings in Rome and what were the goals of the action that was set in motion with a thunderclap. The long-term goals of the hardliners around Sant’Anselmo have hardly changed: the traditional liturgy must disappear, period. But Pope Francis himself no longer seems to be pursuing this goal as vigorously or expecting results as quickly as it initially seemed. Perhaps it also surprised him that the FSSP in particular, which had probably been portrayed to him as a band of schism-mongers set on separation, was not at all willing to conform to this image. The will to abandon communion with Rome is recognizably stronger among the progressives of the German synodal church than it is among the old ritualists. Seen in this light, these communities do not seem to pose a concrete threat to the position of Francis, who thinks primarily in terms of power politics and who has little interest in liturgy anyway.

From this point of view, a compromise between the position of Rome and the priestly communities, which at first seemed quite incompatible, seems to have become possible. Apparently, for once, discussions that really remained secret took place, which then led to the unexpected decree of February 11 and the thoroughly friendly visit of two leading members of the Fraternity of St. Peter to Francis.

And this raises the second question: what then could have formed the subject of a compromise? Who gave what?

We recall: the starting point of the crisis, visible to the public, was marked by the surprising decision of the bishop of Dijon last June to ban the Fraternity of St. Peter from his diocese because its priests had refused to concelebrate at his Chrism Mass. After that, the topic of concelebration came up again and again in the analyses and reflections on the situation, but without being explicitly addressed in Traditionis Custodes. That happened only with the strange “Responsa ad Dubia” by Prefect Roche. Now, these Responsa are, in essence, points already rendered invalid by the February decree; but of all things, the issue of “concelebration” has been dealt with emphatically by Francis in recent days at his meeting with representatives of the French bishops. And this after this topic was not mentioned anywhere in the week before Easter, when thousands of bishops worldwide celebrated their Chrism Masses and Francis himself presided over a Chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica with about two thousand concelebrants.

In retrospect, no one can say whether among this huge number there were not also representatives of Santissima Trinità and other members of the Fraternity of St. Peter. It is quite conceivable that we are on the trail of one (of perhaps several) points of compromise that made it possible to switch from the hard course of destruction in TC to a policy of at least temporary toleration.

In any case, at the meeting with the French bishops, Francis also explicitly commented on his February decree, emphasizing that the Fraternity of St. Peter could act publicly only in agreement with and on behalf of the diocesan bishops—and that all priests working in a diocese must concelebrate at the Chrism Mass with the local Ordinary. So also the “old ritualists”—and in this respect Francis here merely reaffirms the deal established a year ago by Minnerath of Dijon.

What would be thought of a compromise on this basis? The refusal of many old-rite priests to participate in concelebrations is understandable, but it cannot be justified in the unconditionality with which it is sometimes presented. The refusal is based primarily on Can. 902, which grants all priests the right to celebrate the Eucharist individually. Now, paragraphs of canon law under the current pontificate are hardly worth the paper they are printed on anyway, but in the case of the Chrism Mass one can also disagree in general about the applicability of this paragraph. The Chrism Mass is not just any concelebration, like one meant to emphasize a festive occasion (supposedly particularly impressive), nor does it serve in itself to rationalize a habitual daily procedure of concelebration in an ecclesiastical entity staffed by several priests. It goes without saying that it must be the right of every priest to avoid this kind of pressure by referring to Can. 902, especially if he would have to participate in a rite that is foreign to him in order to do so.

The annual Chrism Mass of the local bishop, on the other hand, has a recognizably special character. It is a visible expression of the recognition of the bishop as the supreme pastor of his jurisdiction and a symbol of the unity of the presbyterate working in a diocese. It is difficult to justify refusing to participate in it, not even because of the diversity of the rite, since even the Old Rite communities (including the Society of St. Pius X) recognize in principal the validity and legitimacy of the liturgy according to the 1969 books. Those who want to participate in the pastoral care of the diocese on behalf of the bishop—and such a mission has been one of the prerequisites of the public work of the priestly fraternities from the very beginning - can hardly avoid a request to this effect. In this respect, such a compromise would not really change anything for the activity of the FSSP, because it was already dependent on being invited by a bishop or at least being approved for pastoral care in his diocese. Including the uncertainty factor that a successor due sooner or later could withdraw this invitation or approval.

From the Roman point of view, this obligation to participate annually in the Chrism Mass would have the advantage of demonstrating the involvement of the fraternity in the official structures and counteracting the tendencies toward separation that are suspected there. And, of course, Rome, as well as the diocesan bishops, would not be bound in any way by entering into such a compromise. As long as the claim that the rite of Paul VI is the only lex orandi of the Roman rite remains in the room, the future for the traditional liturgy within the diocesan pastoral care and within the official church structures remains precarious. Only the establishment of a “Tridentine” rite church of its own right, which at present seems utopian, could change this situation. Until then, one will have to shimmy from compromise to compromise; the danger of failure cannot be ruled out.

The next touchstone for the durability of the compromise now apparently reached is the expected regulation of seminaries for traditional communities. As long as the dicastery for religious orders and communities continues to be headed by bitter enemies of the tradition, one must expect anything here, as the authority’s brutal treatment of the Carmelite nuns of Fairfield underscores.

The congregations and communities of the tradition will therefore continue to practice the balancing act of maintaining communion with a Rome that is moving away from the tradition, even at the cost of sacrifices, for as long as possible—and, on the other hand, to prepare themselves materially and theologically for the fact that a point may arrive when such a communion no longer de facto exists.

April 30, 2022