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Vatican officials favor elements of older Mass

NCR Staff

In statements sure to fuel Catholicism’s already fierce debates over liturgy, two high-ranking Vatican officials have signaled support for changes that would either restore elements of the pre-1970s Latin Mass or make the older rite itself more widely available.

Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, head of a papal commission charged with overseeing use of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, told an Austrian newsmagazine in June that he favors wide freedom to celebrate the older rite. At present, the rite, often referred to as “the Tridentine Mass,” can be celebrated only with permission from a local bishop.

Several supporters of the older rite took Castrillón Hoyos to mean that the Vatican is considering issuing general permission for priests to celebrate it, eliminating the need for approval from the bishop. In effect, such a move would leave the church with two Roman rites, with priests and parishes to decide which to employ.

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

Meanwhile Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican’s powerful doctrinal office, has written a new book in which he suggests that priests turn away from the people in order to face east during portions of the Mass. He also supported placing tabernacles in a central location in churches and endorsed a “renewed appreciation” of kneeling. All are customs associated with pre-Vatican II liturgical piety.

The comments, which carry no official weight, come in Ratzinger’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy, to be published by Ignatius Press in the fall.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Catholics celebrated Mass in Latin according to rules codified by the 16th-century Council of Trent (thus the older Mass is sometimes called “Tridentine”). Pope Paul VI decreed a new order of Mass in 1969, and some Catholics fond of the older rite have long lamented the change. Some conservatives have also faulted the new Mass for what they see as liturgical and theological deficiencies.

In 1988, John Paul II authorized celebration of the pre-Vatican II rite with the permission of the local bishop. He created a pontifical commission, Ecclesia Dei, charged with overseeing its use.

The new comments by Castrillón Hoyos, who is also prefect of the congregation for clergy, came in an interview with the Austrian magazine Profil.

“Is it a problem to give wider permission today to celebrate the Latin Mass, which for so long was the norm?” Castrillón Hoyos asked. “I believe that people who take pleasure in the old rite have a sense for the holy and for the mystery of the Mass, and a respect for custom. Why not, therefore, give people the freedom to celebrate the Mass?”

Asked if he hopes to coax followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who broke with Rome over the suppression of the Latin Mass, back into the church, Castrillón Hoyos said, “Christ’s will is the unity of the church.”

A general permission for the pre-Vatican II Mass “would inspire vocations and restore the joy to Catholic families who would no longer have to drive long distances to other chapels, some not so good,” said Steven Hand, editor of Traditionalist Catholic Reflections, an online journal with a conservative editorial stance. He called the comments by Castrillón Hoyos “wonderful news.”

In his new book, Ratzinger calls for priest and people to face east during the eucharistic prayer, the point during the Mass when Catholics believe the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus.

Before Vatican II (1962-65) the priest faced away from the people during the eucharistic prayer, a custom some felt disconnected the laity from the liturgical action. After the council, priests generally turned to face the people, a move criticized for treating the Mass too much as a communal meal and not enough as a transcendent act of worship.

“Less and less is God in the picture,” Ratzinger writes of the way the Mass is celebrated today. “More and more important is what is done by the human beings who meet here and do not like to subject themselves to a ‘predetermined pattern.’ ”

Ratzinger argues that facing east has a long history in Christian worship. Early Christians regarded east, because of the rising sun, as the direction of the risen Christ and as the direction from which Christ would return.

“What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle, but the common movement forward expressed in a common direction for prayer,” Ratzinger writes.

As a practical matter, where it is impossible for priests and people to face east, Ratzinger recommends that they face an altar cross, which would symbolize “the interior ‘east’ of faith.”

Ratzinger’s positions on tabernacles and kneeling are both likely to provoke controversy. Progressive liturgists often argue that devotion to the consecrated elements in the tabernacle distracts from the action of the Mass, and that kneeling is a posture of abasement not suited to a communal celebration.

Ratzinger has long been a critic of the move away from the pre-Vatican II Mass. “The prohibition ... introduced a breach into the history of the liturgy whose consequences could only be tragic,” Ratzinger wrote in his 1997 memoirs. “I am convinced that the crisis in the church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000