The publication of Pope Francis’ motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes, has once more lit the embers underneath ecclesiological and liturgical debates. Among the various reactions to this document include disbelief, shock, and hurt by those who love the traditional Latin Mass; while those favorable to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council express vindication, triumph, and glee.
As bishops scramble to their flocks and discern how best to implement the motu proprio, there seems to be more emphases given to questions of canonical and pastoral nature, such as the future of long-existing Latin Mass communities, the existence of religious congregations attached to the rite, and the rights of priests to offer Mass according to the 1962 missal. With traditionalists holding high Pius V’s Quo Primum (1570) and progressives Paul VI’s Missale Romanum (1969), the arguments rage on regarding the legal status of the traditional Roman Rite.
Amidst the clanging clamor and ubiquitous uproar, I suggest there be a collective pause, so to allow space for a reflection of a more theological nature. Given the papal-centric nature of this discourse, it is important to ask the following: was the Sacred Liturgy made for the pope, or the pope for the Sacred Liturgy?
Knee-jerk reactions to this question might include a quotation from the First Vatican Council (1869-70) on the pope’s unquestionable role on faith, morals, discipline, and government of the Church (Pastor aeternus, III.2). Pope Pius XII’s encyclical, Mediator Dei (1947), also comes to mind, in which he states that only the pope has “the right to recognize and establish any practice touching the worship of God, to introduce and approve new rites, as also to modify those he judges to require modification.” (58) Other reactions might quote the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which makes clear the pope’s “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church” (Can. 331). As the administration of the sacraments falls within Church discipline, it is not surprising that canon law designates the ordering of the liturgy to the pope (Can. 838 §2) and even grants him the power to “approve or define the requirements for their validity.” (Can. 841).
Immediately, then, we are faced with disturbing questions. If the pope has the power over the liturgy, then what is stopping him from suppressing all of the Eastern rites and forcing the Eastern Catholic Churches to use the Novus Ordo Missae, if not a brand new liturgy crafted for postmodern man? If the pope can determine what is required for sacramental validity, what is preventing the Holy Father from replacing the bread and wine used for the consecration at Mass with rice and tea?
Some might argue that the pope would never do such a thing, and they rightfully point out the damage such an action could cause to the Church. Others might dismiss such hypotheticals as absurdities, claiming that the people of God would resist. But such protesting does not change the fact that, according to the aforementioned quotations, the pope indeed does have such power—whether or not he chooses to use it is an entirely different issue. To deny the pope this power would seemingly call the papal office itself into question.
Historically, Scholastic theologians were not afraid to tackle such hypotheticals. Cardinal Juan de Torquemada (1388–1468), while not dealing with this particular issue, nevertheless knew that there were limits to papal authority. The pope was constrained by divine and natural law, the order of the sacraments, and moral teachings (Summa de ecclesia, 3.57) For Torquemada, the pope’s authority was tied to its purpose—there was no papal authority in the abstract, but only in relation to his relationship to the Church, which was one of confirming the Christian faith and preserving the proper order of the Church (status ecclesiae), whose mission is the salvation of souls. Elsewhere in his treatise on the Church, Torquemada also notes how, among all the things necessary for promoting the well-being of the Church, none is higher than those pertaining to divine worship (maxime ad cultum divinum).
Following in Torquemada’s footsteps, the well-known Jesuit philosopher-theologian, Francisco Suarez (1548–1617), was quick to show how papal power is not absolute in an unqualified sense. For example, if the pope decided to excommunicate the entire Church, he would be in error. The pope would also err—as well as commit the sin of schism from the Church—if he were to overthrow or destroy (evertere) liturgical rites of apostolic origin (De charitate, 12.1)
Let us return to the original question: was the Sacred Liturgy made for the pope, or the pope for the Sacred Liturgy? If we affirm the former, then we acknowledge the fullness of power (plenitudo potestatis) belonging to the Supreme Pontiff, albeit at the expense of granting that the liturgy—in theory—could be his plaything. In this mindset, the pope is the ultimate arbiter of divine worship, and if he requires that priests offer the Mass while riding on a unicycle, there is nothing preventing him (save divine intervention) from doing so. Even the assurances of those who suggest that this is not probable does not quell the fear that it is possible. However, if we affirm the latter—that the pope was made for the Sacred Liturgy, we might have a firmer and more theological basis for his liturgical role, one that grants the pope’s primacy without sacrificing the beauty and truth of ancient worship.
With all respect to all that Catholic faith teaches regarding his office, the pope, above all, is a bishop, and a bishop is necessarily a priest. A priest is one who offers sacrifice to the LORD, and the only true and absolute priest is Christ Himself (Heb 7:25-28) All priestly acts flow from His priesthood, all holy sacrifices from His sacrifice. In his sacramental actions, the priest acts in the person of Christ (in persona Christi), not in the person of the pope. In many ways, the priest does indeed represent the bishop, who, as the Catechism notes, possesses the “fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders” (#1557). In the early Church, the bishop was the primary celebrant of the Eucharist. The unity of the Church was expressed through the offering of Christ in the Eucharist, and the bishop represented Christ, offering the Divine Victim to the Father, the Head offering the Body made manifest through the gathering assembly (synaxis). Each local Church expressed their visible communion through gathering for liturgy celebrated by the bishop, and each bishop manifests his communion with the wider Church through his union with the Church of Rome, which held a true primacy in relation to the other Churches.
Why is the focus on the pope-as-priest important to our question? Let us imagine an undivided Church, in which all the bishops are gathered for the Eucharistic liturgy. By the very nature of the Mass, there can only be one main celebrant. Given its historical and theological importance, the Bishop of Rome would hold such primacy, just as St. Peter was known as the leader of the Apostles. But what does such primacy consist of? The pope would express his primacy in “presiding in love”, as St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote. Such presiding would have its fullest sense in liturgical presidency. In the liturgy, we witness the offering Christ to the Father, the same offering made on Calvary for the remission of sins. If primacy is regarded as “power over”, then the pope’s primacy—which, I suggest, is best seen in him serving the altar as bishop and priest—has no place in the liturgy.
The liturgy is not our pushing aside Christ and putting ourselves on the Cross, but instead our mystical participation in Calvary, which is a sacrifice we first must receive before participating. To speak of papal primacy as “power over” fails the litmus test by which we should measure our identity—in the Sacred Liturgy, the “source and summit of the Christian life.”
If we think of the liturgy as a ‘thing’, then it makes sense that it was made for the pope, whose supremacy was dogmatized at Vatican I. But if we understand the liturgy to be the divine drama of salvation made present, the saving acts of the LORD given to the Church as a mountain of treasure, then we cannot help but reject the notion that the guardian of such treasure has the right to dispose of it, for it did not originate with him, nor does it belong solely to him, but rather the treasure is given to the Church as its ransom and redemption.
The liturgy is not a ‘thing’ which we can grasp; it is a mystery we enter into. The liturgy is not a fabrication of the Church’s musings upon God, but a gift given to the Church for the glory of God, the good of the Church, and love of God’s people. As a member of the Church—despite there being no earthly equal to him or his authority—the pope is the recipient of liturgy, not its creator nor its master.
Thus, the liturgy has a logical priority over the pope, for without the liturgy, the Church has no reason to exist, nor any ability to participate in the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Tradition is the vehicle through which liturgy is transmitted—just as we cannot create a new Calvary, Resurrection, or Pentecost, so too is it impossible to “create” a new liturgy. Its substance, as St. Paul writes, was first “received from the Lord” before being “handed over” (1 Cor 11:23). After all, when Christ commanded His Apostles to “Do this in memory of Me,” St. Peter did not dare to suggest “doing that”, instead.
It is the pope who serves the Sacred Liturgy as its celebrant, protector, and transmitter—to claim otherwise would not only reveal a severe misunderstanding of liturgy, but also the papacy, as well.
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