What Did Pope Francis Do and Why?

Thomas Griffin 7/20/21

A whirlwind continues to sweep around the inside of the Catholic Church since Pope Francis declared stricter regulations on the celebration of the Latin Mass on Friday. Those who have grown accustomed to attending the form of Mass celebrated prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) are outraged by Francis’ decision to deprive them of their beloved form of worship. 

Traditiones Custodes (Guardians of Tradition) is a form of papal document called a motu proprio which is Latin for “on his own initiative.” The pope can issue such a statement without receiving advice from other leaders in the Vatican or other bishops. However, this decree comes as the result of Francis’ ongoing conversations with bishops across the globe as he sent out questionnaires to them on this topic over the course of the previous year. 

Francis stated that the results of his findings “reveal a situation that preoccupies and saddens me, and persuades me of the need to intervene.” While the capacity to celebrate the Latin Mass after Vatican II was restricted in many ways, Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI later opened the door for the faithful and for priests to participate in this old and extraordinary rite more freely. 

Their easing of regulations was meant to bring about Church unity, but instead, the pope firmly believes that it was taken advantage of. In place of communion, many used it as an opportunity that “was 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.” 

The pope’s words have been received with a mixture of praise and rejection since his move to further extend, what many think, is a highly progressive and confusing agenda. Unfortunately, the Church is not safe from its own form of America’s political tribalism. Some have taken the stand that anything Francis says or does is a move towards destroying the faith while others champion him as someone who will update the Church to conform with the present times.

Some believe that he can never do wrong and some exclaim that everything he does is abhorrent. Neither side will budge from their aisle, no matter what – reasoning is not allowed. Sound familiar? 

The truth is, that inside of the Catholic Church, there has been deep rooted division concerning the reform of the Sacrifice of the Mass since Vatican II. There are many practicing Catholics (baptized members of the Church who believe in every single teaching of the Church, go to Mass every Sunday and state that the faith is extremely important to them) who even claim that the pope‘s views disqualify him as the real successor of Peter and hold that Vatican II was the work of the devil infiltrating the Church.

Indisputable Church teaching is that the Holy Spirit chooses the pope and that Christ guides His Church when the bishops, along with the pope, gather for an ecumenical council. Vatican II was a way for the bishops of that time to respond to a prompting of the Holy Spirit to allow the People of God to both understand and contribute more in worship to God. To reject the authority of the pope and a Church council would mean that a Catholic is denying Christ Himself. 

Pope Francis stated his intentions outright. Claiming that his motive was “to press on ever more in the constant search for ecclesial communion.” To further explain his reasons for reversing the regulations put forth by prior popes, Francis issued a letter sent to every bishop of the world. He noted that John Paul II and Benedict made the decision to allow the Latin Mass to be more accessible in order to generously recognize the “just aspirations” of the faithful who wished to worship in such a manner. 

Its application, he says, resulted in a free-for-all and an ideology gaining speed in the Catholic Church claiming that those who reject the reforms of Vatican II and worship the old rite of the Mass are part of the “true Church.” This divisive language and dangerous understanding framed the main reason for the pope’s stricter regulations. His mode of doing so could have been different but, nevertheless, his decision to do so has accelerated a conversation in the Church that needs to happen. 

He noted that many communities and parishes have been swept up in a move to go back to the pre-Vatican II Mass that is “tied more to the desire and wishes of individual priests than to the real need of the holy People of God.” Francis thought that the best way to combat the harmful nature of such an action was to pull back the reins of freedom for priests to celebrate the old rite while still allowing the faithful access where desired. 

All of the above is the position of the pope. However, the fact remains that there is a large number of faithful Catholics (many of them young people) who have fallen in love with Jesus Christ after attending a Latin Mass. Many are drawn to its transcendent nature and are awed by its beauty. 

The Latin Mass is the rite of old and it stands as a true form of worship that makes Christ present in the Eucharist. However, the Mass as it stands today (post-Vatican II reforms) is meant to be the rite for parishes and for priests and the faithful to participate in.  

Time will tell whether or not this was the best mode of action for the pope to take. Time will also tell whether or not the faithful will place their own egos aside (despite their views) and follow Christ’s Church over their own opinions and desires. Doing so always bring disciples closer to the Lord.

Thomas Griffin teaches at a Catholic high school on Long Island and lives with his wife and son. He received a master’s degree in theology and is currently a master’s candidate in philosophy. He writes for several Catholic media outlets.

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