At the conclusion of World Youth Day in 2013, Pope Francis urged the young people in Rio de Janeiro, “¡Hagan lio!” We apparently have another fulfillment of that wish with the latest decree emanating from the SS (that’s shorthand in “Vaticanese” for “Secretariat of State”).
On March 12, an unsigned document from the SS was sent to Archbishop Giovanni Giordano, responsible for the physical maintenance of St. Peter’s Basilica, and to the canons of the Basilica, indicating that “individual celebrations” (or, inaccurately so-called “private” Masses) would no longer be allowed, as of March 22. There are many oddities connected with the document, which I wish to address presently, and then proceed to deal with the substance. Suffice it to say for now, that this decree has raised a firestorm among priests from around the world.
First of all, the document is unsigned. We have been subsequently (unofficially) informed that its author is Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, sostituto, successor to the infamous Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu; this man also has a somewhat checkered background. Why would the SS be concerned, let alone have competence, regarding the liturgical life of the Basilica?
Second, why is Archbishop Giordano an addressee? (Actually, I have a thought about that, which I shall share momentarily.)
Third, why are the canons of the Basilica summarily informed about such an issue? Indeed, the Chapter of the Basilica has canonical responsibility and jurisdiction over that edifice and over what goes on therein. Were they even consulted? There is no evidence of that. And, if not, what about the “collegiality,” so often vaunted by this Pope? Rather, this seems like yet another bizarre, unthought-out command from Mount Olympus.
Now, why this document? Some sources claim that it emerged from the will of the Pope himself because he is supposedly “annoyed” by the crowds of people milling about the Basilica in the morning! Why should that bother him? Beyond that, one would think that any cleric (let alone the Pope) would be delighted with crowds in St. Peter’s. Another possible rationale is financial, which has some credibility since we know that the Vatican is in the hole for some $61 million this year and also because the prelate in charge of the Basilica’s upkeep is a recipient of this document.
So, what’s the financial angle? From as long ago as I can remember, going back at least forty years, the sacristy of St. Peter’s has been packed with priests desiring to celebrate Holy Mass. Each priest is given a fresh amice, purificator and finger towel (which are sent to the laundry immediately after his Mass), along with an alb, cincture, stole and chasuble (which have to be cleaned regularly and eventually replaced due to use). Of course, he is also given wine and a host as well. An altar boy is assigned to bring him to an available altar, where candles are burning and electrical lighting is provided. This can add up to a hefty sum over the course of a year. If memory serves, there is a box in the sacristy, where priests can leave a donation to help defray some of the costs; I am not sure how many even notice the box!
The altar boy assigned to celebrants comes from the high school seminary, which has come under scrutiny lately over cases of alleged sexual impropriety among some of the students. There seems to be some momentum to have the institution closed. If that happens, the boy (who is unpaid) will have to be replaced by an adult (who will be paid). Yet another financial consideration.
Now, if money is the motive behind this “instruction,” why not say it? I have no doubt that any number of individuals or organizations would be more than happy to foot the bill. Another point to consider is that if the number of pilgrims hadn’t dried up due to lack of interest in this pontificate (it is important to note that the embarrassing numbers pre-date the “pandemic”), there would be more dollars and euros in the Vatican coffers.
Now, onto more substantive dimensions of this debacle.
The decree indicates that, except for the one daily Mass in Latin at 5:00 p.m., all the other public Masses will be in Italian. The Basilica does not belong to the Diocese of Rome, the Republic of Italy, or the Italian people (whom I love dearly). St. Peter’s is the home of the Church Universal, which is the precise symbolism of the colonnade’s outstretched “arms”. Since priests will now be prohibited from offering Mass for their pilgrims,1 priests and their people (from every corner of the earth) will now have to “participate” in the Sacred Liturgy in a language unknown to them. Where is Vatican II’s “full, conscious and active participation” when you need it? Under these circumstances, not only will a priest be forced to celebrate in an unknown language (will the Eucharistic Prayer at least be in Latin?), but he will be forced to concelebrate Mass – explicitly forbidden by all the documents of the Church from the Council forward.
The document expresses concern for “liturgical decency.” What does that mean? What manifestations of “liturgical indecency” have been observed (except for the presence of the Pachamama at the Pope’s Mass!)? Throwing around facile expressions may give the air of theological validity to an argument, however, there is no argument even proferred; we are simply told to accept what has been decreed (a consistent pattern in this pontificate).
Francis has wanted to be recognized as the Pope of “accoglienza” (welcome). Where is the hospitality for pilgrims and their priests? Where is the fatherly support for Vatican officials who, for decades, have begun their day offering Holy Mass in the Basilica, getting a coffee and pastry on the run (with their brother priests), and then heading to their offices? Further, do Parra and the Pope realize the constraints under which pilgrim groups operate? A tour guide will give a group 45 minutes for Mass; no one will be able to wait around until the next publicly scheduled Mass, which could be more than an hour away.
Some initial reactions suggested that this was a ploy to marginalize the Extraordinary Form Mass. Ironically, this does the exact opposite as it seems that priests wishing to celebrate Mass in the Usus Antiquior can do so and, ironically, in one of the most coveted spots of the Basilica, the Clementine Chapel (directly behind the present niche which is above the relics of St. Peter, so that it correlates to the present high altar of the Basilica).
Word around the Piazza is that some of the Pope’s “magic circle” have surveyed the landscape of the Basilica in the early morning hours and have been disturbed at the sight of priests (many, very young) celebrating “alone.” They take this as evidence of the “clericalism” constantly targeted by Francis, unable to distinguish between the flaw of “clericalism” and a healthy priestly identity.
A most regrettable part of the “Francis effect” of the past eight years is that priests and seminarians (and bishops, too) have known the sting of this Pope’s regularly discharged “nastigrams” at us, which contributes in a major way to the terrible level to which priestly morale has sunk during this time. It is disheartening for a “veteran” in the priesthood like myself to have to counsel young priests and seminarians not to give up on the priesthood because of what they have witnessed in this pontificate. That perception is likewise shared by many potential candidates for the seminary, which is why we have seen those numbers dry up to a most troubling degree in the past few years.
Due to the Wujan virus, many priests discovered for the first time the celebration of Holy Mass without a congregation – and they were surprised to find it spiritually uplifting. The Pope and his “collaborators” ought to be thrilled that priests on vacation (or officials of the Curia) are so devoted to the Mass that they want to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice whenever and wherever possible. Pope John Paul II – a Pope who didn’t simply love the priesthood but loved priests – actively encouraged priests to celebrate even alone, for their own spiritual benefit but also for the benefit of the whole Church.
When would-be liturgists or left-wing ideologues condemn “private” Masses, they demonstrate an embarrassing ignorance of the cosmic nature of the Mass. No priest ever celebrates “alone,” which is precisely why the Preface of every Mass ends by reminding all that our present act of worship is being joined by all the angels and saints. It’s the fulfillment of the vision described by the Prophet Isaiah in the sixth chapter of his book.
This document needs to be walked back: it is yet another insult and assault on the priesthood and a glaring violation of ecclesial hospitality to laity who visit the church which is the common home of all believers. This is yet another self-inflicted wound, needlessly inflicted. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – unless your goal is “to make a mess.”
Perhaps we can launch a campaign called, “Give us back our home!” It might be a good idea to register your sentiments about this matter to our Apostolic Nuncio, so that he can pass them on to those responsible at the SS:
The Most Reverend Christophe Pierre
3339 Massachusetts Ave NW
Washington, DC 20008
The banning of “individual” celebrations of Mass would have troubled Cardinal Newman. St. John Henry knew the meaning, beauty and power of the Mass; it pained him greatly that he couldn’t offer it for most of the last year of his life. His sorrow for that physical inability was multiplied many times over, precisely because of his appreciation for the Mass. Reflect on these words he puts on the lips of his literary alter ego in his novel, Loss and Gain:
To me nothing is so consoling, so piercing, so thrilling, so overcoming, as the Mass, said as it is among us. I could attend Masses forever, and not be tired. It is not a mere form of words — it is a great action, the greatest action that can be on earth. It is not the invocation merely, but, if I dare use the word, the evocation of the Eternal. Here becomes present on the altar in flesh and blood, before whom angels bow and devils tremble. This is that awful event which is the scope, and the interpretation, of every part of the solemnity.
1There is mention of priests perhaps being “authorized” to do this, but what does that mean and “authorized” by whom?
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!