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Pope resurrects Latin Mass limits

Francis says it causes division; traditionalists feel persecuted by NICOLE WINFIELD THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | July 17, 2021 at 3:57 a.m.
Pope Francis celebrates a Mass on April 1 inside St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. (AP/Andrew Medichini)

ROME -- Pope Francis cracked down Friday on the spread of the old Latin Mass, reversing one of Pope Benedict XVI's signature decisions in a major challenge to traditionalist Catholics who immediately decried it as an attack on them and the ancient liturgy.

Francis reimposed restrictions on celebrating the Latin Mass that Benedict relaxed in 2007, and went further to limit its use. The pontiff said he was taking action because Benedict's reform had become a source of division in the church and been exploited by Catholics opposed to the Second Vatican Council, the 1960s meetings that modernized the church and its liturgy.

Critics said they had never before witnessed a pope so thoroughly reversing his predecessor. That the reversal concerned something so fundamental as the liturgy, while Benedict is still alive and living in the Vatican as a retired pope, only amplified the extraordinary nature of Francis' move, which is likely to inflame right-wing hostility toward him.

Francis, 84, issued a law requiring individual bishops to approve celebrations of the old Mass, also called the Tridentine Mass, and requiring newly ordained priests to receive explicit permission to celebrate it from their bishops, in consultation with the Vatican.

Under the new law, bishops must also determine if the current groups of faithful attached to the old Mass accept Vatican II, which allowed for Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular rather than Latin. These groups cannot use regular churches; instead, bishops must find alternate locations for them without creating new parishes.

In addition, Francis said bishops are no longer allowed to authorize the formation of any new pro-Latin Mass groups in their dioceses.

Francis said he was taking action to promote unity and heal divisions within the church that had grown since Benedict's 2007 document, Summorum Pontificum. He said he based his decision on a 2020 Vatican survey of all the world's bishops, whose "responses reveal a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene."

The pope's rollback immediately created an uproar among traditionalists already opposed to Francis' more progressive bent.

"This is an extremely disappointing document which entirely undoes the legal provisions" of Benedict's 2007 document, said Joseph Shaw, chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales.

While Latin celebrations can continue, "the presumption is consistently against them: Bishops are being invited to close them down," Shaw said, adding that the requirement for Latin Masses to be held outside a parish was "unworkable."

"This is an extraordinary rejection of the hard work for the church and the loyalty to the hierarchy which has characterized the movement for the Traditional Mass for many years, which I fear will foster a sense of alienation among those attached to the church's ancient liturgy," he said.

Benedict issued his document in 2007 to reach out to a breakaway, schismatic group that celebrates the Latin Mass, the Society of St. Pius X, which had split from Rome over the modernizing reforms of Vatican II.

But Francis said Benedict's effort to foster unity had essentially backfired.

The opportunity offered by Benedict, the pope said in a letter to bishops accompanying the new law, was instead "exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division."

Francis said he was "saddened" that the use of the old Mass was accompanied by a rejection of Vatican II itself.

Christopher Bellitto, professor of church history at Kean University, said Francis was right to intervene, noting that Benedict's original decision had had a slew of unintended consequences.

The blowback was fierce, though it's also likely that many will simply ignore Francis' decree and continue on as before with sympathetic bishops. Some of these traditionalists and Catholics already were among Francis' fiercest critics, with some accusing him of heresy for having opened the door to letting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receive Communion.

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