The Status of the Traditional Mass Since the Liturgical Reform

September 02, 2021

What is the “legal” situation of the Missal of St. Pius V since the promulgation of the reform of Paul VI and the Novus Ordo Missae? How and under what conditions can the immemorial rite be used? In what ways has it been maintained and developed? Pope Francis’s recent motu proprio Traditionis Custodes provides the opportunity to consider this.

It is not difficult to discover five stages between 1970, the date of the promulgation of the new Roman use, and 2021 which is witnessing the publication of Traditionis Custodes.

I. 1970-1984: The New Missal

The entry into force of the Paul VI missal in 1970 froze the celebration according to the Tridentine Mass. The priests and laity saw the arrival of the Novus Ordo Missae (NOM) as a replacement for the old rite. On June 14, 1971, the Congregation for Divine Worship published a not indicating that, after the approbation of the translations of the NOM, everyone should use “only the renewed form of the Mass.”

Usage of the old rite was only given to aged or sick priests, in private and with the permission of the Ordinary, until their extinction. During this era, faithful priests took a position apparently “outside the law.” At least until 1988, the only priests ordained to celebrate the Tridentine Mass were done so by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

The position taken by Paul VI at the consistory of May 24, 1976 is without equivocation: “The adoption of the Novus Ordo Missae is certainly not left to the discretion of the priests or the faithful. The Instruction of June 14, 1971 has provided for the celebration of the Mass in the old form, with the authorization of the Ordinary, only by aged or infirm priests, who offer the Divine Sacrifice sine populo [without the people].

“Our holy predecessor Pius V made obligatory…the Missal reformed following the Council of Trent. We require…with the same supreme authority for the same obedience to all the other liturgical, disciplinary, and pastoral reforms which have matured in the application of the Council decrees.”

“Any initiative which tries to obstruct them cannot claim the prerogative of rendering a service to the Church; in fact it causes the Church serious damage.” The pope therefore wanted the extinction of the old rite and its replacement by the new, establishing a parallel with St. Pius V himself.

Paul VI invites the faithful who feel connected to the forms of worship of the past “can find today the support and sustenance that they are seeking in the renewed forms that the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and we ourself have decreed as being necessary for the good of the Church, her progress in the modern world, and her unity.” 

During this era :

--No public Tridentine Mass is considered to be “legal.” Private Masses are authorized until the aged priests pass away.

--Priests who continue to publicly celebrated are generally persecuted, sometimes tolerated, never approved.

--Only Archbishop Lefebvre continues to form and ordain priests for the traditional rite, in open opposition to the Council and the new Mass, and was sanctioned by a suspensis a divinis in 1976.

II. 1984-1988: The Mass and the Indult

In the presence of the persistence of the traditional rite, its success and its link with opposition to the Council, the Holy See decided to take a measure to satisfy the partisans of the traditional rite. This was the October 3, 1984 “indult” from the Congregation for Divine Worship called Quattuor Abhinc Annos.

This text had been preceded by an investigation started four years earlier by the Congregation on the application and reception of the Paul VI Missal, and the possible resistance to be overcome. This consultation was, the letter says, comforting: “Almost everywhere in the world the problem of priests and faithful who remain attached to the Tridentine Mass seems to have been almost completely resolved.”

But, since here and there, “the problem [of the old rite] persists,” the Pope issued an indult for the celebration according to the 1962 Missal that the bishops could grant to those requesting it.

This indult is given under very precise conditions. Firstly, it must be publicly clear that the priests and faithful have nothing to do with those who question the “legal force” and the “doctrinal correctness” of the NOM.

The other conditions apply to the circumstances: celebration in specific churches, determined by the bishop, at times and under conditions decided by him, excluding parishes; the old and the new rites should not be mixed.

The letter concludes in noting the benevolence of the Holy Father towards all his children, specifically that this concession should in no case prejudice “the observance of the liturgical reform in the life of each ecclesial community.”

This indult contains the nature of the relationship between the old and new rites: until Traditionis Custodes, for the post-conciliar popes, the traditional rite only existed as an exception to the new, which was the ordinary rite of the Roman Church, and on the condition that this point not be questioned.

In the indult, this condition was explicitly required, to the point that the very the assistance at these “granted” Masses could not fail to signify the, at least exterior, adherence to this principle. It is for this reason the Archbishop Lefebvre refused such a “concession.”

During the audience John Paul II granted to him in November 1979, during which he asked to be authorized to continue the Traditional Mass, the prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Seper, warned the Pontiff: “But, Most Holy Father, they make this Mass a flag!”

It was recognized that the Tridentine Mass was the banner of a large opposition to the Council and to modernism, and that it could not be authorized. The conditions of the indult sought to suppress this “flag” quality.

The situation until 1988 was thus the following:

--“Legal” Tridentine Masses were introduced, at the judgment of the bishops, in defined places and times, and only on the condition of accepting the goodness and legitimacy of the Paul VI Mass.

--The Society of Saint Pius X and other attached religious institutions refused these conditions and continued to celebrate only the Tridentine Mass because they rejected the new.

--Only Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop De Castro Mayer of Campos formed and ordained priests who continued to celebrate the Traditional Mass, refusing the new.

III. 1988-2007: Ecclesia Dei

On June 30, 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four bishops, because of the grave state of necessity the Church was in: it was, in fact, impossible to be ordained a priest according to the “legal” ways, without accepting, at least externally, the New Mass and the Council's errors.

John Paul II  through the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei Ddflicta, confirmed the indult, inviting all bishops to apply it generously, and allowing the creation of priestly institutes using the Tridentine liturgy, according to the normal condition of accepting the Council.

And so was born the Fraternity of St. Peter and various other foundations in the following years. The Pontifical Ecclesia Dei Commission was founded to administer these questions from Rome.

The principles are recalled in a letter from Msgr. Perl, secretary of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, dated November 18, 1993, which said, among other things, “The Indult is a concession which is not intended to last forever….The celebration of the Mass according to the 1962 Missal is the exception, the rule, the liturgical form introduced by the Church 25 years ago, and followed by 99% of the Church.”

The principles remain clear: the norm is the NOM, and whoever accepts it can, within certain limits, celebrate the previous rite, at least as long as there is an opposition to be managed, which is better tolerated than leaving it in the hands of Archbishop Lefebvre.

During this period:

--Archbishop Lefebvre ordained priests, and also bishops who continue to celebrate the traditional rite as a sign of adherence to a well defined doctrine, and opposed to that of the new Mass.

--The Holy See continues the 1984 indult regime, but authorizes the ordination of priests in the institutes—in 2002 of a bishop—who celebrate the Tridentine rite on condition of accepting the Novus Ordo Missae and the Council. Every priest must publicly adhere to these conditions to be allowed to celebrate.

IV. 2007-2021: The Philosophy of Summorum Pontificum

Benedict XVI’s promulgation of the Motu proprio Summorum Pontificum on July 7, 2007 brought in a new element. This document affirms that the Tridentine Mass had never been abrogated—thus opposing Paul VI—and determines the new and enlarged conditions for its celebration.

Nevertheless, the new Mass is presented as the normal rite of the Church, because there are “two forms of the same Roman rite” in force: one ordinary and one extraordinary. The Tridentine Mass was not abrogated as the extraordinary rite, but it is not in force as the ordinary rite.

The two expressions of the lex orandi (law of prayer) of the Roman rite, it is said, “will in no way lead to a division of the lex credendi (law of belief) of the Church: they are two usages of the one Roman rite.”

But claiming that the two rites cannot lead to a division in the lex credendi becomes a claim that the two rites express the same beliefs. How these two contradictory rites can express the same beliefs is the problem that has arisen since the Brief Critical Examination [The Ottaviani Intervention].

In identifying the lex credendi expressed by the two rites, Summorum pontificum seems to change the sense of the Tridentine Missal (the rite of Paul VI being ordinary), while retaining its exterior form.

An identification conforming to the hermeneutic of continuity, according to which the old and the new missal, the old and the new Church can be reduced ad unum, synthesized in such a way as to close a conflict while waiting to open another one, according to the Hegelian dialectic.

The Tridentine Mass is declared equal to the new: therefore all the priests can celebrate it, at least in private, and also in public with certain organizational limits, without having to submit to special conditions concerning the profession of the new idea of the faith.

But the text gives the faculty to use the old rite only to priests “not legally prevented.” Any ordained priest must accept the Council and the New Mass, and sign the conciliar profession of faith imposed by John Paul II in 1989, even in the (former) Ecclesia Dei institutes. With few exceptions, only those who had accepted the Council and the NOM could use the Motu proprio.

In this period, the situation was as follows:

--The SSPX (and several other communities) continues to celebrate the Tridentine rite because it continues to form priests who reject the new Mass and the new doctrines.

--The new regime, on the one hand, makes prosper the celebration of the old rite upon which the acceptation of the new is based; on the other hand, it puts the traditional rite into the hands of priest and laity, who, discovering its meaning given by tradition, discover it to be incompatible with the Novus Ordo Mass.

V. July 16, 2021: Traditionis Custodes

Pope Francis intervenes through the Motu proprio Traditionis custodes. The document, although very restrictive, does not deviate much from the letter and spirit of the 1984 indult. It reaffirms that the only current form of the lex orandi of the Roman rite is the Missal of Paul VI.

But the continued (though limited) concession of the Tridentine Missal shows a unity. Whether indult or extraordinary rite, the concept is similar: the previous law applies by exception.

There is, however, a strong insistence on the duty of the bishops to verify that the celebration of the Tridentine Mass does not hide a traditional concept (“not aligned”) of the Church: that it does not become a “flag.”

It is acting from the same concepts as the indult or Summorum pontificum, but reinforces by a series of strict measures and recommendations on the acceptance of the Council and the new rite: why insist so much on a condition that has always been required?

Ratzinger’s conception of the hermeneutic of continuity changes the meaning of the ancient rite, while retaining it externally. The Ecclesia Dei circles, accustomed, at least externally, to this thought, in fact never had any particular difficulty with it.

But having been put into the hands of everyone, the traditional Mass ended up imposing, on the priests and the faithful who spontaneously approached it, its own “natural,” traditional sense, obviously incompatible with the NOM.

Especially among the young clergy from whom the ancient rite and tradition had been hidden for decades, and whose theological preparation is deficient, the revelation of “the world of yesterday” through the Mass was able to make them discover the meaning of the priesthood denied by the formators in the seminary.

This is the true good effect, even if it is accidental and involuntary, of the former pope’s document. This is what the progressives, less academic that Ratzinger and more pragmatic, have feared.

The Pope therefore comes to put things in order, saying in a way: “We have told you: yes to the Tridentine Mass and no to the previous doctrine, and you have done otherwise.”

“The continuation of this Mass risks being the continuation of a conception of the Church that we absolutely fight against. It must therefore be handed over to a few selected, well-controlled groups where there is no risk of confusion.”

Above all, it must be removed from the hands of the young clergy, who are easily deformed. The concept is clear: there is no Church of the Tridentine Missal, there is only that of Vatican II, and the Tridentine Missal cannot express it; those who use the Tridentine Missal are trying to revive a “true Church” opposed to that of Vatican II and the Montini Missal, an unforgivable crime.

The reaction of the Ecclesia Dei communities and those associated with Summorum pontificum is revealing. Nearly all have insisted on one point, namely: “It is not us who want to make the Mass a flag! If someone did it, it is their own fault, not a collective fault!”

There is a general reminder of fidelity to Vatican II, and a clear affirmation not to recognize oneself in the Pope’s criticism of the users of the Tridentine Missal. All denied the accusations made by the Motu proprio: acceptance of the Council, the new Mass, and rejection of the schism of Archbishop Lefebvre, with whom they had no contact. They are innocent.

Even Bishop Schneider, who asserts the right of every priest to say the Tridentine Mass, and calls for a certain resistance to Pope Francis’s document, does not escape this logic. Thus, the constancy of the Holy See’s line has convinced even those who resist Francis’ line that it is not necessary to attack the New Mass and the Council to continue saying the traditional Mass.

Since 1984, the papal policy of limited and regulated tolerance has achieved its first and main objective: not to eliminate the Tridentine Mass, but to convince everyone that it should not be considered in opposition to the new.