Paris, France, Jul 24, 2021 / 03:00 am (CNA).
Responding to concerns raised by Pope Francis’ motu proprio restricting the Traditional Latin Mass, French Church authorities have issued a series of communiques seeking to reassure Catholics attached to this liturgy.
The motu proprio Traditionis custodes, published July 16, arrived like a thunderbolt for a significant part of the French Church because of its perceived severity towards traditionalist communities, which are regarded as places of strong missionary dynamism and magnets for de-Christianized youth.
According to an investigation recently published by the Catholic magazine La Nef, traditionalist Catholicism is growing constantly in France, although it still represents a small minority (4% of all practicing Catholics, 7% if we include the Society of St. Pius X, or SSPX.)
Estimating that there are around 60,000 traditionalist Catholics in France, the study concluded that traditional communities are slowly but steadily growing each year, with a very young average age.
The day after the motu proprio was issued, the French bishops’ conference reaffirmed the bishops’ intention to pursue dialogue with these communities.
“The French bishops […] wish to express to the faithful who usually celebrate according to the missal of St. John XXIII and to their pastors, their attention, their esteem for the spiritual zeal of these faithful, and their determination to continue the mission together, in the communion of the Church and according to the norms in force,” a communique said.
This statement led several observers, including the Catholic historian Yves Chiron, quoted by Le Figaro, to conclude that the new norms would be applied with flexibility and benevolence by a number of French bishops.
In the diocese of Versailles, located in the western suburbs of Paris and considered a bastion of traditionalism, Bishop Luc Crepy said that the situation was “peaceful” with the six communities usually celebrating Masses using the 1962 Roman Missal.
“Although some communities have experienced painful events in the past, I’m glad to see the progress made towards effective ecclesial communion,” he wrote.
The same peaceful climate, coupled with a “loyal application” of Benedict XVI’s 2007 apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, was observed by Bishop Marc Aillet in his diocese of Bayonne, in southwestern France.
While reiterating his trust in the communities involved and inviting them to “continue their efforts in the same direction,” Aillet said that he would keep in place the existing groups and priests allowed to celebrate Mass according to the 1962 Missal.
The bishops of the southern dioceses of Toulon-Fréjus and Bordeaux — two other breeding grounds for traditionalist communities — sought to reassure their flocks by saying that the detailed rules for the application of Traditionis custodes would be reviewed and discussed collegially.
Meanwhile, Bishop Matthieu Rougé of Nanterre, in the western suburbs of Paris, claimed that his diocese was “hardly impacted by the new directives” and that the communities concerned should “be assured of the lasting, benevolent, and prayerful solicitude of their bishop.”
Some Catholic authorities, such as Bishop Jean-Pierre Batut of Blois, in central France, and Bishop Olivier Leborgne of Arras, in the north, welcomed the motu proprio quite favorably, denouncing the misuse of Summorum Pontificum by those who questioned the validity of Vatican II.
But many voices have been raised in defense of the Traditional Latin Mass, including in some surprising quarters.
Indeed, the most vibrant speech in favor of the Tridentine Mass came from the atheist and left-wing philosopher Michel Onfray. In a column published on July 18, he argued that it embodies “the heritage of the genealogical time of our civilization.”
“It inherits historically and spiritually a long lineage of sacred rituals, celebrations, and prayers, all crystallized in a form that offers a total spectacle,” he wrote.
The president of the Catholic lay organization behind the traditionalist Chartres pilgrimage, for his part, roundly condemned the motu proprio, claiming that “it will be difficult to apply in a Church which is in a catastrophic situation and has many other difficulties that the Vatican pretends not to see.”
A few priests who only celebrate according to the Novus Ordo have also expressed surprise at what they regard as the harshness of Pope Francis’ letter.
“It brings me sadness because this text seems to sweep away the efforts made by Benedict XVI to maintain the unity of the Church and to despise the efforts made by the traditionalist communities for 15 years,” Fr. Guy-Emmanuel Cariot, rector of the Basilica Saint-Denis of Argenteuil, in the suburbs of Paris, told the weekly magazine Famille chrétienne.
But for those directly affected by the motu proprio, emotions are still raw.
“I expected a text that would change things, but I would have never expected such an unjust document,” Fr. Matthieu Raffray, a Rome-based French priest of the Institute of the Good Shepherd, told CNA.
“Wherever there are traditional communities in France, I think the situation is calmed, and the bishops’ reactions are a proof of that,” he continued.
He suggested that, although it is true that some people may have used the freedom granted by the Pope emeritus to destroy unity in the Church, such a phenomenon is far more intense and widespread in the circles that follow Paul VI’s liturgy, through topics such as married priests or the German bishops’ “Synodal Way.”
In his view, the risk of spiritual impoverishment is among the most worrying possible consequences of the papal text.
“How can we possibly favor a liturgical renewal and put the mystery of the Eucharist back at the center of Mass by separating the Church from its tradition?” he asked. “A tree whose roots are cut off dies.”
Raffray argued that the motu proprio, which seeks to bring people back to the ordinary form of the Latin Rite, could also prove to be counterproductive.
“I must marry a couple this summer in France, and we’ve already agreed that if the parish priest eventually refuses to welcome us in his church, we would go outside or to a nearby barn,” he said.
“No faithful accustomed to the Traditional Latin Mass will suddenly decide to stop going because of this document.”
“There is a real movement of the youth toward traditional Mass nowadays, because they need cultural and identity landmarks,” he added.
“This text could be, in this sense, an engine that will make traditionalists even more devout, more confident in the Church, while praying for the pope and growing in faith and charity.”
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