One of the more deft moves in Benedict’s apostolic letter motu proprio, titled “Summorum Pontificum,” is in referring to the 1962 form of the Roman Rite as the Mass of Blessed John XXIII. It is not the Tridentine Mass or the Mass of Pius V but the Mass of John XXIII. It is the form of the Mass that was celebrated daily at the Second Vatican Council.
Benedict notes that, over the many centuries of the Roman Rite, popes have from time to time made modest changes. Pius V did so in 1570, John XXIII did so in 1962, and Paul VI did so in 1970, the last producing what is called the Novus Ordo. Benedict notes that John Paul II also made small but important emendations regarding references to the Jews in the Good Friday Liturgy. (More on that below.)
By associating the Latin Mass that is now universally approved with John XXIII, Benedict steals a card from the deck of liberals and progressives, for whom John XXIII is always “good Pope John,” in contrast to his successors. But this is much more than a deft rhetorical move. “Summorum Pontificum” is a thoroughly liberal document in substance and spirit, remembering that liberal means, as once was more commonly understood, generosity of spirit.
For decades following the council, experimentation was in, tradition was out, and the Catholic faithful were subjected to a long period of what is politely called liturgical destabilization—and not only liturgical destabilization—which alienated many. The pope is, with great care, trying to remedy that destablization without causing additional destablization. As he notes in his letter, there is a close connection between lex credendi and lex orandi—between the way of faith and the way of worship.
Of the problem to be remedied, he writes: “This occurred above all because in many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear. I am speaking from experience, since I too lived through that period with all its hopes and its confusion. And I have seen how arbitrary deformations of the liturgy caused deep pain to individuals totally rooted in the faith of the Church.”
In keeping with the spirit of pastoral generosity and sensitivity that marks this document, Benedict recognizes that in the one Church there will always be problems. Three years after the implementation of “Summorum Pontificum” this September, he says, there will be a study of the successes and difficulties encountered in putting it into effect. There is no suggestion that these provisions might be rescinded at that time. Any modifications required will have as their purpose the effective implementation of the apostolic letter.
With the possible exception of those who are incorrigibly nostalgic for the good old days of the revolution that was not to be, I believe that the pope’s initiative will be recognized for what it is—a generous and hopeful proposal for a future in which Catholics are freed to celebrate the rich variety of the tradition that is theirs. Benedict expresses the hope that even those who decline to use the Missal of John XXIII will be encouraged to celebrate the Novus Ordo of 1970 with the reverence and solemnity that befits the ineffable mystery of the Mass. We can only pray that his hope will be vindicated. First Things