Cruel and (Very) Unusual: On the banning of Masses in the Vatican Basilica

The recent and bizarre diktat violates both universality and hospitality while ensuring a more jumbled, less reverent atmosphere at the altars.

People walking inside St. Peter's Basilica. (Image: Anton Scherbakov/Unsplash.com)

A week after a bizarre instruction banning early morning Masses at the side altars of the Papal Archbasilica of St. Peter in the Vatican was released (and subsequently posted on the door of the basilica’s sacristy), questions about the origins of this ukase, its irregularities of form, its curious recipients, its legality, and its intention remain – despite numerous inquiries to the Vatican Press Office and to the First Section of the Vatican Secretariat of State, on whose letterhead the decree was printed.

That silence suggests that the press office was blindsided by this summary action, and that there was no consultation about this matter with the relevant bodies in the Roman Curia, including the Congregation for Divine Worship. It also suggests that many who recognized that this unprecedented and abrupt action was unwarranted (not to mention illegal according to Canon Law) were afraid to protest the decree, even privately. Those knowledgeable about the present tremulous atmosphere inside the Vatican will likely draw the appropriate conclusion regarding the provenance and nature of this authoritarian diktat.

For over thirty years, I have found early morning Mass at one of the side altars of St. Peter’s one of the joys of Roman life. Whether I was simply assisting a priest friend celebrating the Mass at my request, or participating at Mass with a small group of friends or family, the experience was always prayerful and always reverent. Moreover, early morning Mass at St. Peter’s was a profound experience of the universality of the Church as the sacramentally constituted Mystical Body of Christ. For at the other side altars the Holy Sacrifice was being offered in many other languages, with pilgrims from all over the world.

Just as impressively, the basilica was a genuine house of prayer in those hours between 7 and 9 a.m. This was in sharpest contrast to the bustling, often chaotic, museum-like atmosphere in St. Peter’s from the time early morning Masses were completed until the basilica closed for the evening. I begrudge no one their admiration for Bramante’s original design of “New St. Peter’s,” or for Michelangelo’s genius in altering Bramante’s plans by including a much larger dome, or for the beauty of Bernini’s masterful decorative scheme, which took fifty-seven years to complete. Yet during tourist hours, St. Peter’s is just that—a tourist site—full of chatter and iPhone cameras, despite the quiet serenity of its Blessed Sacrament Chapel. There is no decorum; the only time of decorum I ever experienced in Catholicism’s most recognizable space was when those early morning Masses were being celebrated at the basilica’s 45 side altars and 11 chapels.

That quiet and reflective period was also a time of hospitality—like decorum, another rare commodity in the great basilicas of Rome, many of whose custodians are not the most hospitable. Yet in St. Peter’s at 7 or 7:30 a.m., the sacristy staff could not have been more gracious in welcoming priests who hailed from many countries. In my experience of waiting for my priest-friends to vest, things were orderly in the sacristy and the young altar boys who accompanied the celebrant (and his group, if he had one) to one or another of the side altars were efficient and well-behaved.

Thus the claim of the March 12 decree, that it was being issued to foster a more prayerful and decorous atmosphere in the basilica, is nonsense. By dictating that virtually all early morning Masses be concelebrated, and by virtually guaranteeing that those concelebrations will be in Italian, the diktat violates both universality and hospitality while ensuring a more jumbled, less reverent atmosphere at the altars where these Masses will be celebrated—not least under pandemic conditions of social-distancing and so forth.

And why the de facto restriction to one language, which is not the universal language of the Church? What kind of welcome does that represent to the 99.2% of the world’s population for whom Italian is not a first language? I am perfectly capable of participating in the Mass in Italian, and I do so regularly and happily when I attend Mass in other Roman churches. But why is Italian being imposed on the entire world Church if it wishes to participate in Mass in St. Peter’s early in the morning?

The form of the March 12th decree was so odd as to raise immediate questions about its authenticity. It was not signed, but only initialed by Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the head of the Secretariat of State’s First Section. But why was this diktat issued by the First Section (the Section for “Ordinary Affairs”) of the Segretario di Stato, which has no competence over liturgical celebrations in St. Peter’s – or anywhere else for that matter? (One wag started speculating about “Deep Stato;” be that as it may, a decree of this sort coming from the First Section was entirely irregular.) Will the First Section will now pass judgment on indulgences? Or liturgical vestments? Or anything else on which it is told to pronounce?

The fact that the decree carried no protocol number, considered essential in any official and authorized communication, was also puzzling. Did this simply represent incompetence in the First Section (not unknown these days, by many accounts)? Or did it suggest that the decree was a fake? No one believes that now. But in any case an official document from the Secretariat of State without a protocol number was entirely irregular.

The addressees of the decree were also mysterious, suggesting again that this was an arbitrary decision, not very well thought through. The new Archpriest of St. Peter’s, Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, O.F.M.Conv., was not on the list of those to whom the diktat was issued. Why not? Why did the list of addressees include the head of the Commissariat for the Fabric of St. Peter’s (typically occupied with maintenance and repairs), the basilica’s Chapter of Canons (a largely ceremonial body), and the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Basilica (which makes some sense, at least), but not the responsible party, the Archpriest?

Moreover, the decree misused technical language—another indication of a First Section in shambles, perhaps, but one that certainly raised eyebrows and questions. In limiting celebrations of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass to one place in the basilica, the small Clementine Chapel in the Vatican grottoes, the ukase used the term rito straordinario [extraordinary rite], which is not only wrong but contradicts Pope Benedict XVI’s insistence that there is only one Roman Rite, which has two “forms” – Ordinary and Extraordinary.

Limiting the celebration of the Extraordinary Form to a small number of time slots in a small underground chapel also effectively ghettoizes those who believe that they pray better in that way; and while I do not count myself among their number, I cannot see why their preference should be treated as if it were some sort of contagious disease. The decree also referred to a lector and a cantor “animating” the permitted concelebrations, which is, to put it gently, a curious formulation, suggesting as it does that a Mass celebrated without a lector or cantor is somehow “unanimated.” This weird usage also violates the teaching of Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which at #7 insists that it is Christ himself who enlivens the Church’s worship.

The decree also seemed to run roughshod over Church law (not necessarily an innovation in a pontificate whose agreement with the People’s Republic of China on the appointment of bishops violates Canon 377.5 of the Code of Canon law). By imposing concelebration as the norm in the basilica early in the morning, the decree would seem to violate at least the spirit of Canon 902, which affirms that every priest is “fully entitled to celebrate the Eucharist individually.” Then there is the restriction on the use of the Extraordinary Form to “authorized priests,” which violates the provisions of Benedict XVI’s 2007 Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum, which grants permission to use the Extraordinary Rite to every priest.

The usual defenders of the present pontificate tried to mount the usual defenses, suggesting that this was an effort to promote the “spirit of the liturgical renewal introduced by the Second Vatican Council” (as Gerard O’Connell put it in America). One does wonder when these people will cease speaking of some amorphous conciliar “spirit” as an all-purpose justification for anything they wish to justify. Still, how does one square a ban on individual and small-group Masses at the side altars of St. Peter’s with the papal “populism” so celebrated by those same defenders? There was nothing populist about this ukase—a term I use deliberately, as what was done on March 12th more resembled the diktat of an autocratic Russian czar than the carefully pondered decision of a “synodal” Church.

But perhaps, these days, some of the people of the Church are less equal than others, rather like in the latter pages of Orwell’s Animal Farm.

As for Vatican II, this decision to ghettoize the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite in the Clementine Chapel will only harden the conviction of some that the council’s liturgical renewal was not just poorly implemented but was in fact a terrible mistake. I do not share that view at all. But I can readily imagine what some will make of this latest effort to impose on the Church a form of the Holy Mass in which some find it difficult to pray.

Bishops, priests, and lay Catholics who have benefited spiritually from early morning Mass at the side altars of St. Peter’s should make their distress at this cruel and very unusual decree known to the Holy Father, either directly by letter to him or by writing their local Nuncio or Apostolic Delegate. It might also be helpful if those curial cardinals I have seen regularly celebrating early morning Mass in St. Peter’s, often with the assistance of an altar boy only, would make their unhappiness known to Pope Francis. As those cardinals include men close to the Pope, like papal almoner Konrad Krajewski, that might make some difference.

As of March 22nd, when this ukase goes into effect, St. Peter’s will be much less a house of prayer than it used to be. That is a great sadness, especially at a time when the Church and the world badly need the power of the Eucharist and the witness of intense Eucharistic piety.


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About George Weigel 331 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

30 Comments

  1. Mankind needs to see Unity of purpose in God’s house by those who love God

    Hope’s springs eternal or so the saying goes’
    Doe,s the church present a weed?
    When she should present a rose,
    A light set upon a hill,
    All mankind shall see and know God’s Holy Will.
    No word need be spoken, all mankind shall see,
    God’s lovers as they bend their knee.
    Justice and Love reflected from above.
    The missionary shall call,
    We would have this for one and all
    A crystal (Rome) sat on a hill,
    Manifesting our Fathers Holy Will.

    “My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer”

    Father! with tongue and flame give us unity again

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. I have witnessed many fanatical experimentations and innovations in the Church. This has got to be the worst. A most grievious violation of Liturgical law. I wonder if this was not already planned, waiting for Cardinal Sarah to resign from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments. This is a grave insult to Jesus Christ Crucified. The days of the great Apostacy are at its zenith.

  3. When the author makes two errors in the first sentence, it is hard to take the rest of the article seriously. Perhaps a little homework before ranting.

    • There were no errors in that opening sentence for you to note for your indulgent rant, necessitated no doubt by a personal contempt for those justly upset by the undermining of Sacramental life.

  4. The decree also violates the actual Vatican 2 document on the liturgy which protects the right of priests to say individual Masses (SC 57.2).

    Moreover, it attacks the diverse liturgical rites of the Church. For example, it would now seem that a visiting Chaldean Catholic priest couldn’t say Mass in his venerable rite at St. Peter’s, but would be forced to concelebrate at a Latin Rite Novus Ordo Mass instead (could he do that without bi-ritual faculties).

    This move is very typical of the Spirit of Vatican 2 crowd. It’s dictatorial and narrow sighted. Also typical is how the decree contradicts what Vatican 2 ACTUALLY said while at the same time invoicing the Council. Classic gaslighting.

    There are far too many churchmen who would prefer to see bare altars and empty churches rather than anything that looks like traditional Catholicism. Their hate runs that deep.

    • Catholic priests may always concelebrate in rites which are not their own. However, they cannot be principal celebrant unless they have bi ritual faculties. Lastly, priests may not licitly con celebrate holy Mass, unless they are able to do so in the language which is being used. Therefore, unless you are able to celebrate Mass in Italian or in Latin in the extraordinary Rite, you can no longer celebrate Mass in the basilica of Saint Peter.

  5. It is time Catholics rose up and said “Enough!”. I love the crowds in St. Peter (pre-Covid). They conveyed the joy Catholics have in just being there. My wife Margaret Mary and I arrived at Saint Peter’s just before noon on October 16, 2002, St. Margaret’ feast day. The bus left us in the square at some distance from the front. The front of the Basilica was jammed with Pilgrims. Some threat was in the news and everyone entering was being subjected to an inspection. A long walk and a wait in the line were beyond the capability of my wife’s failing heart. I approached a guard and told him. He slowly guided us far up on the left side to avoid the crowd. We entered St. Peter thru a small unused door. Inside, people seemed to be everywhere. To our immediate delight we were confronted with a huge mosaic of St. Margaret and the Sacred Heart. It appears on one of the great supporting structures just to the left of the main altar. Adding to our excitement, Mass was beginning at the side altar dedicated to St. Margaret which faces the mosaic. Marge had first been to that very spot 52 years before, after having graduated from College and two years before we were married. St. Peter’s Basilica took on an even greater prominence in our married lives and memories.

  6. Over the past 5 years, I’ve gotten the sense that the Pope is in league with secularism to hurt and undermine the Church. He does so in a cagey and sly way so as to do as much damage as possible.

    I’m not a Catholic Trid, but if the Pope and a large number of bishops continue to act the way they do AND if secularism institutes a mild to moderate persecution of the Church, the future of Catholicism will be in Catholic Tridentine groups such as the FSSP.

    • Steve Seitz, You said what could happen, “the future of Catholicism will be in Catholic Tridentine groups…”. It already is. The Traditionalists are growing by leaps and bounds. They want no more of the, do whatever WE Modernists command you Church. They want no more Modernist heresies shoved down their throats. We Trads are living in what is called “Holy disobedience”, living what Cardinal Sarah said “It’s God or nothing” also “We must serve God rather than man”. We will no longer follow the whims and fancies of heretics, we are reclaiming the Church as founded by Jesus Christ. We don’t do this blindly, we have the official teachings of the Church of 2000 years, the teachings discarded by the Modernist heretics, and to think those hypocrites did it all for us? They can keep their man-made Church we are reclaiming Christ’s Church.

        • You sure don’t know much about Luther, of whom traditionalists rightly take offense at many of his disciples active in today’s Vatican.

  7. As this ridiculous note pinned to the Sacristy door has no legal standing, and has not been placed there by any competent person, it should be completely ignored. Why is everyone in such awe of it? It’s patently an obvious fake! It’s rubbish! It’s almost a stupid (early) April Fool’s Joke! Someone is trying to pull something over y’all! Stop being so gullible! Do us all a favour, don’t buy into it! I mean, if it said you all had to dance a jig, would you all be doing that now?

    I find it hard to believe, is it really still there, pinned to the door? If it is, you should be ashamed of yourselves! Tear it down, please someone sensible, and would all you priests stop being so lily-livered and just get on with fulfilling your usual obligations as per normal! If the powers that be really want you to stop saying Masses in the time-honoured tradition of St Peter’s, then surely they’ll have to do better than this? Or is it really this easy to kybosh y’all?!

  8. I am more and more convinced that there are a number of sociopaths occupying high positions.They seem enraged by the presence of holy men like Cardinal Sarah and beautiful and dignified liturgy.
    They are hiding like creatures shunning day light.
    Their actions occur in darkness.
    I pray and hope that priests will react swiftly and promptly.
    And the lay people should make use of their only weapon: praying much and closing their wallets.

  9. While I fully understand the distress of those devoted to the TLM, who feel relegated like embarrassing relatives, the Novus Ordo in Latin appears to have been banished altogether. This seems to me to be a great pity, and I don’t imagine the priests who used to celebrate it by choice are very happy either.

    It also seems odd to me that Masses will not in future be celebrated in either of the chapels where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved: the Blessed Sacrament Chapel or St Joseph’s Chapel.

    It is hard to see how the needs of the faithful are being met in this decision; one might be tempted to describe it as a first class example of tge clericalism the Holy Father constantly condemns.

  10. Literally too long didn’t read it all.

    TLDR; George is extremely appalled on behalf of all and states his righteous indignation in an article that is elegantly written albeit supercalifragilisticexpialidociously longer than the thought of those culpable for the error.

    Respectfully, you’re points from the first several paragraphs are dully noted, but elaboration of it all can be too much, George, and I really wanted to stick with the article and be supportive and agree with all the social media reposts but it was just too long. You lost one person here, and not because I disagree but because it’s too much.

    • Or you could develop an attention span longer than that of a gnat. Maybe read an occasional book instead of living on Twitter? Eighteen quite short paragraphs is not “too long,” except perhaps for someone who is noting “dully.”

    • Yes,….plus, please, please – respect! Love! Pray for the Pope Whoever He is! Don’t foment dissent in the Mystical Body of Christ! Look at most of these replies! What kind of fruit does this article produce?

      Is it so difficult to see safety from viral transmission – especially among elderly – in this act? The anti-Christ-and-His-Vicar “virus” is also contagious and insidious, Mr. Weigel. Please promote Unity. Bring Light. Satan rejoices in hearing Catholics speak against our Holy Father. Our Shepherds need our Prayers. Trust in God. Non Praevalebunt. Mt.16:18-19 >

  11. In 2016, in a very small circle, Francis is said to have stated “It is not to be excluded that I will enter history as the one who split the Catholic Church.”

    If that doesn’t come to fruition, then it won’t be because of this narcissistic little man’s lack of trying.

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