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A new crossroad for the Latin Mass

NCR Staff

A decade-old community of priests seen as the standard bearer for the Latin Mass movement is facing serious new strains, in the form of both Vatican setbacks and internal dissent.

Observers say the new developments create one of the most important crossroads for adherents of the Latin Mass since the 1988 excommunication of French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who rejected the reforms adopted at Vatican II.

Some of Lefebvre’s followers joined him in exile from the church, while others gravitated to traditionalist communities that remain in communion with Rome. A new Vatican ruling may force these communities, including the largest and most influential -- the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter -- to allow priests to celebrate the post-Vatican II Mass as well as the older rite.

Rome also canceled a special session of the fraternity’s general chapter meeting in August, instead calling an open meeting of all members in November. The site has not yet been determined.

Meanwhile, 16 members of the fraternity from France have written the Vatican warning of a “spirit of separatism” brewing in its ranks.

Since 1990, the number of U.S. dioceses allowing traditional Masses has leaped from six to 131 out of a total of 191. More than 150,000 Catholics attend them each week.

Diocesan or religious order priests operating under special permission from the local bishop say most of those Latin Masses. Members of religious communities such as the Fraternity of St. Peter, specifically erected for that purpose, celebrate the rest.

In July, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments ruled that priests in communities devoted to the Latin Mass cannot be barred by their superiors from saying Mass according to the new rite. The ruling is known by its Vatican file number, Protocol 1411.

Some observers believe the ruling will help bishops when traditionalist priests refuse requests to cover assignments on the grounds they cannot celebrate the new Mass. Latin Mass advocates worry that the ruling will gradually make the older Mass an exception rather than the rule in traditionalist orders, thereby undercutting the reason for their existence.

Traditionalist priests are actually expected to celebrate the new Mass under certain circumstances, according to the ruling, such as the Holy Thursday chrism Mass in which priests usually concelebrate with the bishop, or when called upon to officiate in a parish accustomed to the new rite.

The ruling does not mention any communities by name, but its impact is likely to be most acute for the Fraternity of St. Peter, which asks members to celebrate the Tridentine Mass exclusively.

Officials of the fraternity say they are appealing the ruling before the Roman Rota, the judicial branch of the Vatican.

The fraternity has approximately 100 members in nine nations (mostly North America and Western Europe), and operates in 20 U.S. dioceses. It is currently building a seminary in the Lincoln, Neb., diocese. Fraternity officials say they expect it to house approximately 100 seminarians.

The decision to cancel the chapter meeting came from the pontifical commission on Ecclesia Dei, John Paul’s 1988 document authorizing the celebration of the Latin Mass. Instead, a plenary session of all priest members will occur in November, and sources expect it will focus on tensions within the fraternity.

Those tensions came to a head on June 29, when 16 French members signed a letter to the commission warning of a “constant progression towards a spirit of separatism.” The 16 priests complained of increasing rigidity, offering examples such as seminarians who refuse to serve the Masses of visiting professors, or members who are ostracized because they choose to concelebrate a Mass according to the new rite.

When a canonical visitor came to the fraternity’s headquarters in Germany, the priests charge, seminarians were told to keep silent “to preserve the interior unity of the fraternity.”

“The stiffening as regards liturgy appears to be only an external demonstration of a more serious opposition to the visible church, its current teaching and hierarchy, even if official declarations try to persuade to the contrary,” the letter says.

“One finds step by step, in this constant progression towards a spirit of separatism, the same gradual drift which led the Fraternity of Saint Pius X to refuse the 1988 Roman proposals,” it says.

The 16 priests asked Rome to send a new canonical visitor to “make an account of the exact reality” within the fraternity and to appoint an apostolic administrator “to take in hand the destiny of our society.”

The 16 priests claim to represent one-third of the members, but a spokesperson for the fraternity disputed the assertion. Julia Ann O’Sullivan, special projects manager for the U.S. branch, said that all 40 priests in the United States and Canada have signed a letter of support for Fr. Joseph Bisig, the present superior of the fraternity who lives at the fraternity’s headquarters in Wigratzbad, Germany.

“There’s no overt indication that these concerns exist outside this group [the 16 priests who produced the letter],” O’Sullivan said.

O’Sullivan said that since the Fraternity of St. Peter originated in a protocol signed by the Vatican with Lefebvre in May 1988 (which he subsequently abrogated), and because its constitutions say it is founded around the older rite, it is under a “particular law.” Thus the ruling on celebrating the new Mass should not apply to its members, she said.

A canonist contacted by NCR was skeptical. “The ruling is obviously written with them in mind,” he said. “Whom else would Rome be referring to?”

The U.S. bishops’ expert on liturgy called the ruling a “most welcome” clarification. Fr. James Moroney said he knew of situations in which fraternity priests had declined requests from bishops to cover Masses in parishes that use the new rite.

“A bishop might have a rural parish where the priest needs a day off, and a fraternity priest staffs a nearby parish. In instances like this, fraternity priests have said they’re not allowed to celebrate the Mass,” Moroney said. He said he also knew of cases in which fraternity priests had declined to concelebrate the chrism Mass with the bishop.

O’Sullivan noted that under canon law, no priest can be forced to concelebrate. Nevertheless, she said some bishops, especially in France, treat the willigness to concelebrate as proof of communion.

“It’s a false suspicion that the community rejects the validity of the new Mass,” O’Sullivan said. “But our purpose is to keep alive the heritage of the ancient liturgy, so it’s not lost to history.

“Obviously the concern is that over time the language could shift from a benevolent kind of ‘should’ to ‘must,’ ” she said.

Despite the concern in the traditionalist camp over the new ruling, the canonist contacted by NCR said it may work to the advantage of some members. “If priests of the fraternity can preside in parishes using the new rite, there’s nothing stopping them from becoming bishops like members of any other order,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999