The Sacred Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life issued a Decree on July 11, 2013, dissolving the General Council of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate (FFI), appointing an Apostolic Commissioner to govern the religious community, and ordering its priests to celebrate Mass in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, unless they, as individuals or as a local community, obtain express permission from the authorities for Mass in the Extraordinary Form. The new commissioner for the FFI is Capuchin Father Fidenzio Volpi. The Decree, which bears protocol number 52741/2012, was authorized by Pope Francis and signed by the Prefect and the Secretary of the “Congregation for Religious” (its shorter name), and goes into effect on August 12.
The Decree temporarily deprives the FFI priests of the right, granted by the 2007 Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, to say a private Mass on any day (except during the Easter Triduum) without the need for permission from an ordinary or a religious superior. Since the story became widely publicized, many traditionalist and progressive Catholic commentators have sensationalized this development, depicting it as the beginning of the end of the Traditional Latin Mass Renaissance.
Such hand-wringing (or gloating, as the case may be) overlooks two important facts. First, Summorum Pontificum is universal liturgical law, promulgated by the Supreme Legislator, the Pope, and valid throughout the Latin-rite Church. Second, the July 11 Decree is a disciplinary measure narrowly applying to the FFI in its present unsettled circumstances. As Father Angelo M. Geiger, General Delegate of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate in the United States, wrote on July 29 on his blog Mary Victrix:
The restrictions on our community are specific to us and have been put in place for reasons specific to us. Pope Francis has not contradicted Pope Benedict. The visitation of our community began [in July 2012] under Pope Benedict and the Commission was recommended by Cardinal João Braz de Aviz who was appointed to the Congregation by Pope Benedict. What is being reported in the press and what has actually transpired within our community over the course of a number of years are two different things.
Facts about the FFI
The Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate were founded by Fr. Stephano Maria Manelli and Fr. Gabriele Maria Pellettieri after Vatican II in order to renew Franciscan religious life according to the conciliar document Perfectae caritatis. Practicing traditional Franciscan devotions and the spirituality of St. Maximilian Kolbe, its members take a fourth “Marian” vow, whereby they consecrate themselves to the Mother of God and pledge to perform apostolic work for the coming of Christ’s kingdom in the world.
While most Franciscan and Capuchin communities withered away in the decades after the Council, the FFI attracted young members, thrived and expanded its apostolate worldwide. Today the FFI is a family of Franciscan communities, two for friars and two for nuns, with one active and one contemplative community for each. All together they have approximately 600 members, almost half of whom are priests.
At their General Chapter in 2008 the FFI voted to make Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite generally available to its members, in keeping with the specific provisions for religious in the 2007 Motu Proprio. Gradually the Traditional Latin Mass was celebrated more and more often “internally” (i.e. for the consecrated religious themselves), while the priests of the community usually continued to celebrate Mass in the Ordinary Form “externally”, in their pastoral ministry and missionary work. The liturgical blog Rorate Coeli reports that “the FFI, in their promotion of the Forma Extraordinaria, have been remarkably free of polemics and public attacks on the Novus Ordo.” Nevertheless the transition caused a conflict in the community: in recent years eight members complained to the Congregation for Religious that it was causing divisions and exclusion.
The FFI spokesman in Italy, Fr. Alfonso Maria Bruno, told Catholic News Agency that the problem in the Franciscan family of communities is not the usus antiquior or the “older form” of Holy Mass per se; that is “only the tip of the iceberg”. Another journalist, Alessandro Speciale, quotes him as saying that some of the sisters had become accustomed to using the Extraordinary Form exclusively and that their decision had then been “exploited” by traditionalist groups. Later those nuns tried to act as mediators in the unsuccessful dialogue between the Vatican and the Society of Saint Pius X. Fr. Bruno told CNA that the followers of one influential Italian mother superior run the risk of falling into “heresy and disobedience”.
Fr. Bruno and Fr. Geiger agree that few if any FFI members are interested in turning their community into another Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (which celebrates Mass in the Extraordinary Form only), and that the vast majority of them welcome the intervention by the Holy See in the present complicated situation.
Nevertheless, Rorate Coeli asks: “If the crisis in the FFI is due to the misbehavior of some, then why is the deprivation of the Traditional Latin Mass extended to all?” Fr. Zuhlsdorf in his blog comments: “This decree will hurt a lot of lay people. It will also stimulate the bitter element among those inclined to a traditional expression of the Faith.” These are legitimate concerns, but they both assume that the measures taken by the Congregation for Religious were essentially punitive or restrictive.
There are chapels in Europe and North America where stable groups of the lay faithful have had the opportunity to attend the Traditional Mass thanks to the ministry of FFI friars. But how many people would be affected, and for how long? As I read the Decree, it is not a “crackdown” on the Extraordinary Form, but rather a “reset” of a large, far-flung religious community to a pre-2007 point so as to allow their transition to the use of the Extraordinary Form to take place again under impartial supervision. The Pope directed that each friar should celebrate Mass in the Ordinary Form—in other words, should not exclude that possibility for ideological reasons.
But he did not say “always and everywhere”: the Decree expressly allows individual friars and individual friaries or convents to ask the appropriate authority for permission to use the Traditional Mass. The Vatican-appointed Commissioner, Fr. Volpi, replaces the General Council but will not micromanage each and every local decision. The Decree, it seems to this writer, is framed broadly but is designed to home in on where the “conflict” arose and why. If the friars and nuns obey the Decree, the matter could very well be resolved promptly with a minimum of “deprivation” to them or to the lay Catholics whom they serve.