Rorate Caeli

The Game: What Now For the Traditional Mass Under Francis? - Op-Ed

 Guest Op-Ed by Kevin Tierney

During the pontificate of Pope Francis, we have seen a careful game being played by the Vatican and their allies when it comes to dealing with Catholics drawn to the Traditional Latin Mass.  When they attempt to downplay traditionalists, they are an irrelevant sect, with numbers so insignificant none should take them seriously.  After this approach, they then flip, treating traditionalists as a threat to the unity of the Church, a threat so severe the ordinary rights of clerics and the faithful must be curtailed.  

This mentality was on full display in an interview with the liturgist Andrea Grillo (himself a man of much influence within the circles of Pope Francis) given to Messainlatino.  In the interview, Grillo speaks with a forthrightness and candor that is absent from most discourse surrounding how the Church should deal with traditionalists.    Alongside that candor is the tension mentioned above.  

While many would say this is a product of three-dimensional chess, I think it is more a reflection of the reality where their warnings do not find a warm reception in the Church at large, and the increasing desperation this failure generates in their voices.

Grillo begins the interview with a rather striking redefinition of what communion with the Pope and Catholic Church means.  It is a mistake to call traditionalists “faithful to Rome” if they celebrate Latin Masses within the Church, because the very celebration of a Latin Mass means that you cannot be faithful to Rome.  

What is the root of this infidelity?  Why, a papal document of course!  It is his assessment that Benedict, while in good faith, was wrong when he decreed that it was acceptable for there to be a multiplicity of liturgical usages within the Roman Rite. Since Francis has reversed this, anyone who still advocates this is not “faithful to Rome.”  We must remind Professor Grillo that, per Church law and papal teaching (Pius IX, Quartus Supra), it is the Bishop of Rome who decides the grounds for communion, not Italian academics.  

Whatever one may think of Pope Francis, he has not (and arguably could not) set such grounds for communion so flimsy.  Furthermore, as Grillo makes clear, a Pope (Benedict XVI) got the grounds for communion wrong.  This leaves us with an important question of which, if it proves anything, proves too much.  If we cannot trust the criterion for communion established by Pope Benedict, why can we trust it for Francis?

To this we can only add that while he believes Traditionis Custodes “re-establishes the one ‘lex orandi’ in force for the entire Catholic Church”, this is in fact not what happened.  As always, there is the question of the Eastern Rites, which have much more in common with the TLM than they do with the Novus Ordo, and therefore differ far more substantially from the unique ‘lex orandi’ of the Novus Ordo than the TLM does.  In this same interview when asked how they can have an equal dignity in his theology, Professor Grillo evades the question. 

It is clear, he does not think they have an equal patrimony and heritage, and that a Pope could just as easily suppress them should he decide they were a problem.  Given the dramatic implications this has not only for Catholic ecclesiology but ecumenism, it is not surprising Professor Grillo avoids the question.  Within the Roman Rite, there are other variations besides the TLM, such as the Zaire Usage and the Anglican Usage from the Ordinariate.  

In many dioceses throughout the West, bishops have responded to Traditionis Custodes by limiting its impact, ensuring the survival of the TLM in their dioceses when possible.  His use of charged and polemical language does not change this reality.  His fault is not with traditionalists, it is with the world’s clergy.

He comes close to acknowledging this when asked about the condition of seminaries in the West.  What is happening there is not in dispute.  As Francis ally Thomas Reese said, you are likelier to find a unicorn in today’s seminaries than a fan of Pope Francis.  The Associated Press’ Tim Sullivan documented the shift “to the old ways” in the American Church, including the seminaries.  This rightward shift came after the collapse of the seminaries from the 1970s to 2000s.  

When asked about this collapse and what replaced it, Professor Grillo not only acknowledges the collapse, he celebrates it.  The dearth of seminarians is not a cause for alarm, it is a sign of the necessary journey the Church must make as she begins her rebirth, something that is not a “negative fact” but a “sign of a necessary travail for the entire Church.”  He criticizes bishops for allowing traditionalists/conservatives into the seminaries, faulting them for a nostalgia that previous popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) mistakenly viewed an asset.  For decades progressives spoke of a coming future for the Church where if she embraced the council, the crisis of vocations would be solved.  Now, facing the rightward shift in the seminaries, the crisis of vocations was not only a good thing, it was an intended thing.

There are two things that could be said about this.  

The first is that this view has been widely rejected in the seminaries throughout the world, not just in America.  (Other examples are Africa, France, Eastern Europe, etc.)  The rightward shift in seminarians has been seen as an asset throughout the Church. Professor Grillo finds himself complaining in academia because the worlds bishops have not been calling him for advice on how to handle the seminaries.  When Church authorities do criticize it (such as Pope Francis’ tirade against priests wearing traditional garb), all that is exposed is their relative impotence.  

The second is that Grillo finds himself in tension not just with traditionalists, but much of the Church.  They do not view the dearth of seminarians as a necessary journey.  They do not appreciate the average age in their parish rising every year because she can no longer generate more converts than deaths/ceasing attendance. Revolutions seldom fail because of ideology.  

They fail because the revolutionaries cannot meet the needs of the populace.  The breadline is a far greater danger to the revolution than the greatest philosopher.  Amongst all these talks of necessary travails and seminaries turning out the wrong type of priests, the average parishioner in the west asks “Sir, when will you send us a priest for our Church?”

Many have asked what to make of this interview considering the Holy Father meeting with the head of the ICKSP on the 45th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, and rumors of impending restrictions upon the Traditional Latin Mass.  During the audience, the Holy Father encouraged the ICKSP to continue to be faithful to their ministry and their communion with the Pope.  On the former, I would be careful reading anything into it one way or the other beyond the facts:  The head of a religious order had a milestone anniversary, and had a private audience with the pope on that date.  We do not know what exactly was said.  We do not know what the rumored restrictions may or may not be.  I would prefer to avoid speculation and reading the tea leaves, and instead focus on things that we do know.  We know what Professor Grillo thinks, and that he is an important player in liturgical thinking in the era of Francis. Professor Grillo’s interview is interesting reading, but all the polemics and potential restrictions do not change the fact he is in a dying class of men, and that his facing that reality every night is no doubt a source of that angst and polemic.  Their battle is not with traditionalists.  Their battle is with themselves and their own regret, as they increasingly become hostage to trends and events they no longer control.