In May 2011 the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei,
the Roman dicastery responsible for questions connected with the traditional
Latin Mass, issued the instruction Universae Ecclesiae. That instruction
concerns the implementation of Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict
XVI’s landmark 2007 apostolic letter granting full freedom to the traditional
The faithful devoted to the older form of Mass (often
called “traditionalists”) generally greeted Universae Ecclesiae with
gratitude, but it was a gratitude that sometimes seemed restrained or cautious.
Some worry about the Holy See’s announced intention to incorporate some of the
newer prefaces into the traditional Mass, and fear that it will open the door
to further modifications of the older form.
A few others fretted over the fact that the instruction
does not resolve every question connected with the traditional Mass. Within
days of the issuance of Universae Ecclesiae, some were already hoping
for a new instruction or for the formal submission of inquiries (dubia)
to the Ecclesia Dei Commission to resolve all of the open questions. The
anxiety of these traditionalists may be understandable, but it would be
unfortunate if it were to prevent them from appreciating the full significance
of Universae Ecclesiae.
In actual fact, this instruction is a cause not only for
gratitude on the part of traditionalists, but indeed for enthusiasm. It
resolves the most important questions that have arisen since the publication of
Summorum Pontificum, and significantly, it repudiates the onerous norms
and obstructive guidelines that many bishops issued in the wake of Summorum.
Most importantly, the instruction reaffirms in ringing terms the Holy See’s
determination to make the older form of Mass available to all Catholics who
wish to attend it.
Soon after the 2005 election of Pope Benedict XVI,
speculation began over what that election would mean for the traditional Latin
Mass. Two years later the answer came. Despite the opposition of many highly
placed churchmen (especially in France, and
reportedly throughout much of the Roman Curia), the Holy Father declared full
freedom for the traditional Mass in his 2007 apostolic letter Summorum
Why was this apostolic letter necessary, given that Blessed
John Paul II had issued his own apostolic letter on the same subject almost 20
years earlier? Benedict gingerly addressed this question in a letter to
bishops. While the earlier 1988 apostolic letter of John Paul, Ecclesia Dei Adflicta,
had appealed to the generosity of bishops in urging them to make the
older form of Mass available, Benedict saw that two decades of experience had
demonstrated the need for a clearer juridical regulation (Letter to Bishops
The reason for the greater juridical emphasis of Summorum
was simply that many bishops had disregarded John Paul’s earlier call for
respect and generosity toward the older form of Mass and toward the faithful
attached to it. In his letter accompanying Summorum, Benedict
diplomatically attributed resistance to the traditional Mass to those bishops’
fears that the spread of the older form of the Mass might amount to a calling
into question of the Second Vatican Council, or
might cause division within parishes.
Years before his papal election, however, Benedict had
addressed the subject of resistance to the traditional Mass in less diplomatic
terms. In the mid-1990s, he had called for greater access to the older form of
Mass, and he had deplored the widespread tendency to treat it with disdain. “A
community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares
that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly
forbidden and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent” (Joseph
Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth , 176).
In fact, the future pontiff expressed his complete
bewilderment at the prejudice against the traditional Mass that many bishops
harbored. The faithful devoted to this Mass, he said, were being treated like lepers, and the unreasoning
intolerance of these bishops was preventing necessary reconciliation within the
Church (cf., Ratzinger, God and the World , 416).
was Benedict’s response both to the injustice with which many bishops were
treating the traditionalist faithful, and also to the Church’s need for
reconciliation. This need for reconciliation stems from a common
misunderstanding of the Vatican II era as a rupture with the Church’s
previous history and tradition. The Holy Father, by contrast, insists that
Vatican II must be interpreted in continuity with Catholic tradition.
Accordingly, the Holy Father issued Summorum Pontificum to make clear
that the traditional Mass never had been abrogated and that priests could
freely celebrate it as a legitimate usage of the Roman rite.
The response to Summorum
In the United States many bishops greeted the Holy Father’s
liberation of the traditional Mass with willing acceptance. The number of
Sunday Masses in the traditional form increased in the months following Summorum
Pontificum, and in some dioceses, priests were given access to resources to
help them learn to celebrate this Mass.
However, many other American bishops continued to resist
the liberation of the Latin Mass, and what ensued in the summer and fall of
2007 was a unique spectacle. Bishop after bishop enacted norms for the
application of Summorum Pontificum, and the purpose of these norms often
seemed to be to circumvent Summorum and to persist in restricting access
to the traditional Mass.
The specific provisions of these norms are discussed below,
but before proceeding to them, it is worthwhile to note the singularity of this
norm-issuing activity. What is strange about this race to regulate is that, by
its terms, Summorum calls for no such diocesan regulations. The document
is brief; its terms are clear; and it contains no indication whatsoever that
bishops should (or even may) issue their own norms for its application. The
issuance of norms and guidelines was not confined to the United States,
but the obstructionist American bishops exhibited a zeal for bureaucracy that
none of their brother bishops throughout the world could match.
As a reaction to these norms, rumors began to circulate
that the Holy See would be preparing an instruction on the proper
interpretation and application of Summorum Pontificum. These rumors were
a mixed blessing to traditionalists. On the one hand, they held out hope that
the Holy See understood and appreciated that many bishops were continuing to
stand in the way of the faithful having access to the traditional Mass. On the other hand,
traditionalists had had to wait more than two years for the Holy Father to
issue Summorum, and how much longer would the wait now be for the instruction?
Moreover, once the instruction appeared, would the Holy See have the will to
put an end to the tactics of the obstructionist bishops?
Four years after the publication of Summorum, the Ecclesia
Dei Commission issued the instruction Universae Ecclesiae in May
2011. The instruction sounds the same note of reconciliation as Summorum,
but one should make no mistake about its immediate purpose. That purpose is to
put an end to the tactics of the obstructionist bishopstactics that manifested
themselves in the extraordinary flurry of diocesan norms that followed the July
2007 publication of Summorum. This purpose is clear from a careful reading
of the instruction, many of the provisions of which were direct responses to
the provisions in the diocesan norms that tended to keep the traditional Mass
Scheduling parish Masses
The primary innovation of Summorum Pontificum in
2007 had been to decentralize decision-making in the matter of the
traditional Mass. The decision to schedule a regular celebration of the older
form of the Mass no longer would rest with the bishop, the Holy Father stated,
but now would rest in most cases with the pastor of a parish (cf., SP art. 5 §1).
Despite the clarity of the Pope’s decision to commit this
choice to pastors of parishes, many bishops nonetheless continued to claim the
authority to decide whether to schedule a traditional Mass in a parish. Some of
the dioceses whose bishops made this claim were Dallas, New Orleans,
and Altoona-Johnstown. The bishops generally attempted to justify themselves by
claiming that they needed to test the celebrating priest’s knowledge of the
rubrics and his facility with the Latin language.
Summorum did indeed
require the celebrating priest to be qualified (idoneus), but it nowhere
suggested that this requirement allowed the bishop to make himself the
gatekeeper to all celebrations of the Latin Mass. On the contrary, the
requirement that the priest be “qualified” is contained in Article 5 of Summorum
(cf., SP art. 5 §4), the very
same article that commits the decision to schedule traditional Masses, not to
the bishop, but to the pastor of the parish (cf., SP art. 5, §4). The clear
implication is that, if any oversight of the priest’s qualification is
required, then that oversight falls in the first instance to the pastor of the
parish. The bishop is to become involved, if at all, only when the pastor
proves unable to satisfy the desire of the faithful for the traditional Mass (cf.
SP art. 7; Letter to Bishops [the
local bishop may intervene “should some problem arise which the parish priest
The 2011 instruction Universae Ecclesiae made clear
the illegitimacy of the regime of Latin and rubrical examinations that bishops
had established in many American dioceses. “Every Catholic priest who is not
impeded by canon law,” the instruction declared, “is to be considered idoneus
(‘qualified’)…” (UE 20). The
only Latin language requirement is the ability to pronounce and understand the
words, and, most importantly, priests who previously have celebrated the
traditional Mass are presumed to be idoneus (ibid.). Thus, the instruction
wrests back from the obstructionist bishops the faculty that the Holy Father
had taken such care to bestow on the pastors of parishes.
What was even more striking in many of the 2007 diocesan
norms was that they claimed for the bishop the authority to regulate not only
scheduled parish Masses (so-called “public”
Masses), but also unscheduled Masses celebrated by an individual priest with no
congregation or with only a few of the faithful present (so-called “private” Masses).
This was an area in which the Holy Father had granted
almost total freedom to individual priests. With Summorum, Pope Benedict
had declared priests free to celebrate the traditional Mass on their own
initiative, without permission from any other authority. Pope Benedict could
not have been clearer on this point: “[T]he priest has no need for permission
from the Apostolic See or from his ordinary” (SP art. 2).
Despite the clarity of Summorum, many US bishops
attempted to deny their priests the very freedom that the Holy Father had
Ronald Herzog of Alexandria, Louisiana
issued norms requiring priests to obtain a certificate from the diocese before beginning to celebrate
the traditional Mass, even
privately (cf., R. Herzog, Memo to Priests [September 11, 2007]). (N.B. Some or all of the norms
discussed in this section now have been removed from the diocesan websites,
but they still can be found elsewhere online. For a seemingly
comprehensive compilation of diocesan norms, see the website of Father
John Zuhlsdorf, www.wdtprs.com/blog.)
Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati issued norms
requiring priests to appear before a committee and to demonstrate their
facility with Latin and with the rubrics before beginning even private
celebrations of the traditional Mass (cf., Cincinnati Norms [August
the Diocese of Peoria, the director of the
office for divine worship issued a memorandum to priests stating that
Bishop Daniel Jenky would not allow them to celebrate the traditional Mass,
even privately, without first demonstrating knowledge of Latin and the
- In the diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, the director of liturgy, Father
Thomas Willis, issued an equally onerous memorandum on behalf of Bishop Victor
Galeone. That memorandum required priests to obtain the bishop’s permission to
celebrate the traditional Mass, even privately (cf., T. Willis, Memo to
Pastors, Priests & Deacons [August 1, 2007], 2). At a public meeting on
September 18, 2007, Father Willis further alienated traditionalists by
reportedly suggesting that the older form of the Mass is better suited to
people with Attention Deficit Disorder
than is the Novus Ordo (cf., “Crash and Burn,” http://thebarqueofpeter.blogspot.com/2007/09/crash-and-burn-diocese-of-st-augustine.html,
accessed June 28, 2011).
- Perhaps most
prominently, the former chair of the US Bishops’ Liturgy Committee, Bishop
Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, issued 16
pages of excruciatingly detailed and repetitive norms. In them, he claimed no
less than three times that he had the authority to determine whether priests
could celebrate the traditional Mass, even privately (cf., Erie Norms
[October 5, 2007] §3.2, 3.4, 3.7; cf., ibid. §3.1, 3.5).
Robert Conlon of Steubenville deserves
special mention. Like his brother bishops discussed above, he too
purported to prohibit priests from celebrating even private Masses in the
traditional form unless they first obtained his permission. However, he
went a step further by requiring these priests to tell him how often they
planned to celebrate the Latin Mass privately and which of the faithful
might attend those celebrations (cf., R.D. Conlon, Memo to Priests [July
20, 2007]). Perhaps traditionalists no longer were being treated as
lepers, but in Steubenville, it seemed that they now were being treated
like criminal suspects.
This resistance to the Holy Father was striking. Summorum
Pontificum had contained some minor conditions on the celebration of
so-called public Masses (those regularly scheduled in a parish) (cf., SP art. 5), but its grant of
authority to individual priests to celebrate the traditional Mass privately
(without a congregation or with a small one) was virtually unconditional (cf., SP arts. 2 and 4). Moreover, the Holy
Father had gone out of his way to specify that a priest did not require his
bishop’s permission (cf., SP art. 2). In dioceses like Erie and Cincinnati,
however, the bishops were issuing norms that flatly contradicted Summorum.
These bishops seemed to be grasping for themselves the authority that the Pope
had granted to all Roman Catholic priests.
The 2011 instruction Universae Ecclesiae directly
repudiated this encroachment. The instruction reaffirmed that Summorum
had provided to all priests the faculty to celebrate the older form of the Mass
privately, and that priests required no permission from their bishops to do so (cf.,
UE 23). One cannot call this
provision of the instruction a “clarification,” for there never was any
ambiguity that lacked clarity. Rather, the instruction simply repeated in clear
language what Summorum already had declared in equally clear language
four years earlier.
Perhaps the remedy is as disconcerting as the infection,
however. What will prevent the bishops who ignored the plain meaning of Summorum
from ignoring in turn the instruction’s plain meaning? We find the answer in
the signature provisions of the instruction.
The new juridical order
With the instruction Universae Ecclesiae, the Ecclesia
Dei Commission has put the finishing touches on the legal or juridical
reform that Pope Benedict inaugurated with Summorum Pontificum. That is,
the instruction provides a cure for the weakness inherent in John Paul’s
earlier attempt to promote the traditional Mass solely by exhorting the bishops
John Paul’s 1988 apostolic letter, Ecclesia Dei Adflicta,
had urged the bishops to show respect for the traditional form of Mass, but many
simply ignored him. John Paul established the Ecclesia Dei Commission to
promote the Latin Mass, but he bestowed no authority on the commission to
review and rule upon the actions of the bishops. If a bishop refused a request
for the traditional Mass for any reason, or even for no reason at all, the Holy See under John Paul invariably allowed that
decision to stand.
Pope Benedict’s announcement in Summorum of a clearer juridical regulation of the
traditional Mass amounted to an acknowledgement of the failure, or at least the
clear inadequacy, of a system based solely on exhortation and appeals for
However, even Summorum left open the question of how
far the Holy Father was prepared to go toward this new juridical ordering of
the traditional Mass. In his 2007 apostolic letter, Benedict declared that, if
the traditionalist faithful were unable to obtain access to the Mass from their
pastor, then they could bring the matter to the bishop’s attention. Summorum
urged bishops to accommodate the faithful, but what if they refused to do so?
The answer was somewhat ambiguous. “[T]he matter,” Summorum
said, “should be referred to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei” (SP art. 7). What did this mean? Who
was to do the “referring,” the bishop or the lay faithful? And what was the
role of the Ecclesia Dei Commission? Did it remain merely a facilitator
to exhort bishops to provide for the faithful, or would it now have authority
actually to overrule obstructionist bishops? Summorum did not provide
direct answers to these questions. It did signal an elevation of the
commission’s stature (cf. SP art. 12), but it stopped short of specifying
whether the commission would have the authority actually to adjudicate disputes
arising from dioceses.
However, four years later, we have the answers. The 2011 instruction
Universae Ecclesiae makes clear that the faithful indeed may challenge
the decisions of their bishops, and that the Ecclesia Dei Commission now
has been granted the authority to review and, if necessary, overrule local
bishops (cf., UE 10 §1).
The augmented juridical status of the commission is the
true centerpiece of the instruction. To be sure, provisions such as the instruction’s
clarification on what makes a priest qualified (idoneus) to celebrate
the Mass are important. However, it is only the increased juridical profile of
the commission that can break the cycle of obstructionist bishops resisting,
evading, and circumventing the pronouncements of the Holy See.
What about altar girls?
Some of the traditionalist faithful greeted the instruction
Universae Ecclesiae with a measure of alarm because it did not directly
address such matters as whether females could serve at the altar in
celebrations of the traditional Mass. The instruction provided that post-Vatican
II changes to liturgical law do not apply to the older form of the Mass,
but that changes to disciplinary norms do apply (cf., UE 27 and 28). However, the instruction
does not state directly whether the use of female altar servers is a question
of discipline or of liturgical law.
Why did the Ecclesia Dei Commission not address the
question of altar girls more directly? The most likely reason is that, while
the prospect of altar girls may be a theoretical concern of the faithful, it is
barely a live issue in actual practice. Hardly anyone in the world actually has
attended a traditional Mass in which females have served at the altar. Instead
of addressing largely hypothetical abuses, the commission wisely decided to
focus on the concrete measures that obstructionist bishops actually were using
to restrict access to the older form of the Mass.
As chance would have it, however, at the very time of the instruction’s
publication, reports began to circulate widely about one instance in which
females were indeed serving at the altar for celebrations of the traditional
Mass. The story arose in England, where a
chaplain at the University of Cambridge, Father Alban McCoy, was insisting on
having females serve at the altar. However, even this circumstance illustrates
the wisdom of the commission’s approach. The instruction may not have addressed
the use of altar girls directly, but once the issue arose in a concrete case,
the commission was prepared for it.
A group of Cambridge students
wrote to the Ecclesia Dei Commission to protest their chaplain’s
introduction of altar girls into the traditional Mass. This practice is foreign
to the tradition, and is universally opposed by the traditionalist faithful,
both men and women. The commission quickly decided in the students’ favor and
responded that it is not permissible to have females serve at the altar in
celebrations of the older form of Mass.
The faithful devoted to the traditional Mass
are, of course, grateful for the resolution of the question of altar girls.
However, they should be even more grateful for the increased juridical profile
of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, for the authority that the Holy Father
has bestowed upon it, and for the evident willingness of the commission’s
personnel to exercise that authority with speed and vigor.