Papal Responses to the Emergence of the TLM Movement

The Movement to Return to the Tridentine Liturgy

Because of the rather chaotic manner in which the liturgical reform was implemented, and particularly because of deviations and irregularities perpetrated by some priests, the desire gradually grew among some priests and faithful to return to Tridentine Mass (often called the Traditional Latin Mass). Although the number is relatively small, the number of those who now attend that form on a regular basis has increased significantly over the years, particularly among young Catholics. One can understand and sympathize with the motives for such a return.

There is a desire that the Mass be celebrated properly, in a way that manifests its transcendent reality, so that the liturgy possesses a solemnity that promotes the elevation of one’s heart and mind to worship the Father through the Son in communion with the Holy Spirit. The liturgy itself ought to create a holy and peaceful ambiance in contrast to the hustle of daily secular life. Ultimately, the faithful ought to encounter at Mass a sanctifying communion with the most blessed Trinity. Some of the faithful maintain that they find all of the above more fully realized in the Tridentine Mass than in the Novus Ordo.

Although one can empathize with these concerns, we believe that a return to the Tridentine Mass is liturgically unfortunate and doctrinally unacceptable. As noted in an earlier installment, such a return is contrary to the entire Spirit-anointed liturgical renewal that culminated in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Although the argument is proffered that the Council never rescinded the Tridentine form of the rite, the reason for this lack of an explicit abrogation, as noted previously, is precisely that the Council Fathers saw themselves as revitalizing the Roman rite, and thus they did not anticipate the continued celebration of its unrevised form. What is often overlooked is the notification issued by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, Conferentiarum Episcopalium (October 28, 1974), addressed to the episcopal conferences throughout the world, which states:

With regard to the Roman Missal: when an episcopal conference has determined that a vernacular version of the Roman Missal—or a part of it, such as the Order of Mass—must be used in its territory, from then on Mass may not be celebrated, whether in Latin or in the vernacular, save according to the rite of the Roman Missal promulgated by the authority of Paul VI on 7 April, 1969.

With regard to the regulations issued by this sacred congregation in favor of priests who, on account of advanced years or infirm health, find it difficult to use the new Order of the Roman Missal or the Mass Lectionary: it is clear that an ordinary may grant permission to use, in whole or in part, the 1962 edition the Roman Missal, with the changes introduced by the Decrees of 1965 and 1967. But this permission can only be granted for Masses celebrated without a congregation. Ordinaries may not grant it for Masses celebrated with a congregation. Ordinaries, both religious and local, should endeavor to secure the acceptance of the Order of the Mass of the new Roman Missal by priests and laity. They should see to it that priests and laity, by dint of greater effort and with greater reverence comprehend the treasures of divine wisdom and of liturgical and pastoral teaching which it contains. What has been said does not apply to officially recognized non-Roman rites, but it does hold against any pretext of even immemorial custom.

This notification is very straightforward. Once an episcopal conference approves a vernacular translation of the 1969 Roman Missal, it must be used. The only exception granted at the time is for elderly or infirm priests, who may celebrate Mass according to the 1962 Missal, but without a congregation present. Ordinaries are to ensure the acceptance of the new rite and promote a greater understanding and reverence for it. In so doing, they help both priests and laity to grasp the treasures contained in the Novus Ordo. Importantly, the Congregation states that these directives do not apply to non-Roman rites, but emphatically adds that they do hold against any pretext of “immemorial custom,” i.e., of the Tridentine Mass. 

Some who promote the Tridentine Mass argue that it is the “Mass of the Ages” and is therefore sacrosanct. What they fail to realize that 400 years is not a long time in ecclesial terms. Do they really expect that hundreds of years from now the Tridentine Mass will still be celebrated, even unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ at the end of history? The Novus Ordo will undergo its own renewal in coming centuries, and more than likely there will then be some who want to return to the “Vetus Ordo.” The Church’s tradition, of which the liturgy is a constitutive element, is not frozen in time but is a living tradition that develops with the help of the Holy Spirit, in fidelity to the deposit of faith.[1]

The Church’s doctrinal and moral teaching is unchangeable, but, as history testifies, the rubrics and language of the liturgy can change and have changed, precisely for the benefit of the faithful.[2] The Tridentine Mass was itself a reform. Earlier, the Mass came to be celebrated in Latin in the western Church not because it was a sacred language but because it was the vernacular of its day; likewise, earlier still, with Greek. Jesus himself employed Aramaic, the vernacular of his time and place. If he had not, the apostles would have had no clue as to what he was doing at the Last Supper, nor could they then have actively participated in that first Eucharistic liturgy. The same holds true for the faithful today.

Others contend that the Tridentine Mass could not have been in need of reform because it was the liturgy celebrated by thousands of saints through the centuries. In fact, all liturgies celebrated prior to the eschaton are in a sense “flawed,” in that they have not achieved their heavenly perfection. They are, however, not flawed in that they enact their intended purpose: participating in the one saving sacrifice of Jesus and becoming one with him in Holy Communion. Thus, many of the faithful became saints prior to the Tridentine Mass, beginning with the apostles. And many today have already become saints in celebrating the Novus Ordo, including John Paul II and Mother Teresa. Just as the Church grows in her understanding of doctrine, including liturgical doctrine, so her enactment of that truth in the liturgy becomes more fully actualized.

Moreover, to return to the unreformed rite is to return to a rite that systemically, and not simply as an abuse, positioned the faithful as “silent spectators.” It is to revert to a more limited and less adequate ecclesiology, one that makes it appear that the Mass is essentially the provenance and activity of the priest.[3] He alone celebrates, at a distance from the onlooking faithful as though the offering were not theirs too. Such a rite, though unintentionally, undermines the doctrine that the ordained priesthood is ordered to the service of the baptismal priesthood of the faithful.[4] To return to the Tridentine Mass is, then, to lose or obscure a foundational dimension of the Church and her worship. This is the case even if the revised rite has suffered abuses during its implementation. We now need to examine the Church’s pastoral response to the upsurge in popularity of the Tridentine Mass.

The Pastoral Strategies of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis

Pope John Paul was faced with a pastoral issue not of his making—that of the continued use of the Tridentine Mass. Although he was not pleased by this development, he realized that, as the supreme shepherd of God’s flock, he needed to address it pastorally. At his behest, in 1984 the Congregation for Divine Worship issued a circular letter to bishops, Quattuor Abhinc Annos: Indult for Use of the Roman Missal of 1962. This letter notes that four years previously the pope invited the bishops of the whole Church to present a report addressing three issues:

  • the way in which the priests and faithful of their dioceses had received the 1970 Missal promulgated by Paul VI in accord with the decisions of Vatican II
  • the difficulties arising in the implementation of the liturgical reform
  • possible resistance that may have arisen

The Congregation had noted at the time (1980) that “On the basis of [the bishops’] replies it appeared that the problem of priests and faithful holding to the so-called ‘Tridentine’ rite was almost completely solved.” However, in 1984 John Paul recognized that this problem persisted. Thus, Quattuor Abhinc Annos states:

Since, however, the same problem continues, the Supreme Pontiff, in a desire to meet the wishes of these groups grants to diocesan bishops the possibility of using an indult whereby priests and faithful, who shall be expressly indicated in the letter of request to be presented to their own bishop, may be able to celebrate Mass by using the Roman Missal according to the 1962 edition, but under the following conditions….

Significantly, John Paul sees himself addressing a pastoral “problem,” not encouraging and supporting a development that he wishes to bless. That such is the case is found in the conditions he places on celebrating the Tridentine Mass. First, it must “be made publicly clear beyond all ambiguity that such priests and their respective faithful in no way share the positions of those who call in question the legitimacy and doctrinal exactitude of the Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970.” Second, these celebrations “must be made only for the benefit of those groups that request it; in churches and oratories indicated by the bishop (not, however, in parish churches, unless the bishop permits it in extraordinary cases); and on the days and under the conditions fixed by the bishop either habitually or in individual cases.” Third, such celebrations “must be according to the 1962 Missal and in Latin,” and fourth, there “must be no interchanging of texts and rites of the two Missals.” Lastly, every ordinary “must inform this Congregation of the concessions granted by him, and at the end of a year from the granting of this indult, he must report on the result of its application.” The circular letter concludes: “This concession, indicative of the common Father's solicitude for all his children, must be used in such a way as not to prejudice the faithful observance of the liturgical reform in the life of the respective ecclesial communities.”

Subsequently, in response to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s schismatic act of ordaining bishops for the Society of Saint Pius X, John Paul granted further concessions to those who wished to celebrate the Tridentine liturgy, lest they be attracted to Lefebvre’s fraternity. In his 1998 apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei, John Paul stated that “respect must everywhere be shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition, by a wide and generous application of the directives already issued some time ago by the Apostolic See for the use of the Roman Missal according to the typical edition of 1962.” Again, John Paul responded pastorally to the situation that now confronted him.

Pope Benedict XVI undoubtedly has a great personal affection for the Tridentine Mass. Because of this fondness and because of its continued rise in popularity, in 2007 he promulgated his apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum: On the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970. Recalling the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, Benedict surveys the many popes who were instrumental in developing the Roman Missal, beginning with Gregory the Great. He praises the liturgical renewal that culminated at Vatican II and was admirably implemented by Paul VI and John Paul II. Nonetheless, he is aware that “not a few of the faithful continued to be attached with such love and affection to the earlier liturgical forms.” After listening to the views of cardinals, and “having reflected deeply upon all aspects of the question,” he promulgates further norms for the celebration of the Tridentine Mass. He states:

The Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI is the ordinary expression of the lex orandi (rule of prayer) of the Catholic Church of the Latin rite. The Roman Missal promulgated by Saint Pius V and revised by Blessed John XXIII is nonetheless to be considered an extraordinary expression of the same lex orandi of the Church and duly honoured for its venerable and ancient usage. These two expressions of the Church’s lex orandi will in no way lead to a division in the Church’s lex credendi (rule of faith); for they are two usages of the one Roman rite.

Benedict thus decrees that both “the ordinary expression” and “the extraordinary expression” of the liturgy are permitted, as two distinct usages existing simultaneously in the Roman rite of the Latin Church. However, his hope that these two rites will not lead to a division in the Church now appears overly optimistic. Benedict concluded:

It is therefore permitted to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass following the typical edition of the Roman Missal, which was promulgated by Blessed John XXIII in 1962 and never abrogated, as an extraordinary form of the Church’s Liturgy. The conditions for the use of this Missal laid down by the previous documents Quattuor Abhinc Annos and Ecclesia Dei are now replaced.

It is true that the 1962 Missal promulgated by John XXIII was “never abrogated.” However, such a statement disregards the reason Vatican II never abrogated what is now termed the “extraordinary form,” which is that the Council was reforming the rite with the intention that it would no longer be celebrated in its older form. For the Council Fathers, what is now termed the “ordinary form” would become the sole form of the liturgy celebrated in the Roman rite of the Church. Pope Paul VI solemnly declared the same in the apostolic constitution that established the reformed Missal, giving it the lengthy title, “Promulgation of the Missale Romanum Renewed by Decree of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican.” In the constitution itself, he states, “We decree that these Our laws and prescriptions be firm and effective now and in the future, notwithstanding, to the extent necessary, the Apostolic Constitutions and Ordinances issued by Our Predecessors nor other prescriptions, even those worthy of particular mention and derogation.”

In the subsequent articles, Benedict in effect normalized the Tridentine liturgy in the life of the Church. A priest could now, without permission from the Apostolic See or his own bishop, “use either the Roman Missal published in 1962 by Pope John XXIII or the Roman Missal promulgated in 1970 by Pope Paul VI on any day, with the exception of the Easter Triduum” (Art. 2). The faithful are free to attend such liturgies, and pastors should accede to requests that the Tridentine Mass be made available to them (Art. 4; 5.1). Requests to use the older rites for other sacraments should likewise be permitted (Art. 5.3; 9.1; 9.2). Local ordinaries are permitted to erect “personal parishes” for celebrations “according to the older form of the Roman rite” (Art. 10).

Although Benedict cannot be faulted for his loving pastoral concern for the faithful who wish to participate in the pre-Vatican II liturgy, it may be questioned whether such benevolence was wise. The entire thrust of the Spirit’s work of renewing the liturgy, from its origins to Vatican II and beyond, was to ensure that the faithful would participate fully in the sacred liturgy in accord with their baptismal priesthood. The Novus Ordo is directed to this precise end. Benedict’s accommodation of the Tridentine liturgy, while pastorally motivated, undercut the fundamental principle of the liturgical renewal, for the faithful who now attend that liturgy have little opportunity for active participation. The priest is once more the focus of attention; the liturgy is no longer the uniting of priest and people to offer, each in their own proper manner, the one sacrifice of the Mass.

The objection is sometimes made that those who attend the Tridentine Mass do participate fully, in a silent and prayerful manner. However, a purely silent, passive participation does not correspond to the reality of human nature as inseparably corporeal-spiritual, nor to the biblical and traditional understanding of worship as involving both interior acts and their outward expression in word, gesture, and song (Ps 47:1-6; 1 Tim 2:8; cf. SC §30). Moreover, it must be pointed out that those who attend the Tridentine Mass are a self-selected group of highly motivated, attentive worshippers, many of them (ironically) nurtured on Vatican II sensibilities about full, conscious, active participation. The vast majority of liturgies, on the other hand, are populated by a whole range of attention levels and buy-in. The question is which rite is intentionally structured to elicit and emphasize active participation, to educate, and sensitize people to its importance and to help all to grow in their communion with Christ in his saving mysteries.

Moreover, in the extraordinary form, the faithful are deprived of the incomparably fuller lectionary promulgated after Vatican II. This deficiency is a great loss, and at a time when the popes—especially Benedict—have urged Catholics to become more familiar with the Bible. Although Pope Benedict would not interpret his actions in this light, one could conclude that he was attempting to make the best of a pastoral situation that was objectionable from the outset.

In normalizing the Tridentine Mass, Benedict undermined the principle by which, as he himself insists, Vatican II must be interpreted: a hermeneutic of continuity. This principle rightly recognizes that what was liturgically and doctrinally indispensable in the previous rite is carried over into the renewed ordinary form of the Roman liturgy. By reestablishing the extraordinary form, Benedict unwittingly employed a hermeneutic of discontinuity, as if the revised rite were not in continuity with the old. Significantly, some traditionalists argue precisely this: that the principle of discontinuity necessitates the reinstatement of the Tridentine Mass, because the Novus Ordo wrongly exceeded the Council’s mandate to reform the liturgy—or, as some argue, the Council’s reform was a break with ecclesial tradition in the first place.

The normalization of the extraordinary form came to an abrupt halt on July 16, 2021, when Pope Francis promulgated Traditionis Custodes and its accompanying letter to bishops. Francis begins by affirming that “the bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome” are “guardians of the tradition.” Such is the case not only in the proclamation of the Gospel, but also “by means of the celebration of the Eucharist.” Francis acknowledges the solicitude of John Paul II and Benedict XVI toward those who participate in “earlier liturgical forms.” Nonetheless, in the light of a consultation with bishops carried out by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Francis feels obliged, for the sake of ecclesial unity, to establish new norms for the Tridentine Mass.

Francis states his governing principle in Article 1: “The liturgical books promulgated by the saintly Pontiffs Paul VI and Saint John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, are the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman rite." Since these liturgical books embody the Roman rite, Francis proceeds to restrict the use of the 1962 missal in terms similar to those of John Paul II in Quattuor Abhinc Annos. Bishops, as guardians of the liturgical life in their dioceses, must ensure that those who use this missal “do not deny the validity and legitimacy of the liturgical reform” decreed by Vatican II and the popes (Art. 2; 3.1). Bishops are to designate the locations where such groups may celebrate the Eucharist, though they are forbidden to use parochial churches or to establish “new personal parishes” or “new groups” (Art. 3.2; 3.6). Priests who already celebrate according to the 1962 missal must request continued permission to do so; those who newly wish to do so must formally request permission from their bishop, and the bishop must consult the Holy See before authorizing such permission (Arts. 4 and 5). “Previous norms, instructions, and customs that do not conform to the provisions of the present Motu Proprio are abrogated” (Art. 8).

In his accompanying letter to the world’s bishops, Francis explains his reasons for the restrictions. Although John Paul II and especially Benedict wished to accommodate those who desired to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, Francis has discovered, by means of the survey carried out by the CDF, that these provisions were “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.” Some not only reject the liturgical renewal but also Vatican II itself, claiming that the Council “betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’” For these reasons, and in response to the bishops’ requests, Francis again states that he is abrogating “all the norms, instructions, permissions and customs that precede the present Motu proprio.” He again declares that the missals promulgated by Paul VI and John Paul II are “the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman rite.” Francis’s hope is that such constraints will encourage those who participated in the Tridentine liturgy to return to the lex orandi of the Roman rite, and so advance unity in the Church.

Following upon the publication of Traditionis Custodes and the accompanying letter, various dubia were sent to the CDW. These questions primarily expressed extenuating circumstances that would render some of the strictures impossible, concerning the location where the Tridentine Mass could be celebrated or the priests who officiate at these liturgies. The Congregation published its responses to the dubia on December 4, 2021. The content and tenor of these responses was to ensure that the prohibitions enacted in Traditionis Custodes would be strictly followed insofar as possible. The overriding principle was that those who used the 1962 missal were not to be perceived as part of the local parish’s life and worship. If such became the case, parishioners could conclude that the older usage was being endorsed and promoted. They could be attracted to such liturgies or assume they could regularly participate in them instead of in the parish’s own Eucharistic celebration according to the Novus Ordo.

Although Traditionis Custodis addresses legitimate concerns, it does so in a way that many perceived as less pastoral in approach than it could be, and therefore not as helpful as it could have been in fostering the desired end of liturgical and ecclesial unity. Some felt that the letter gave the impression of wanting to drive the faithful who celebrate the Tridentine Mass to the peripheries of the Church, almost as though they were beyond pastoral care. Whether or not this was intended, it was perceived this way, and this has, for some, strengthened rather than weakened their resolve to participate in the Tridentine Mass. The recent letter Desiderio Desideravi, which takes a more pastoral tone and explains the underlying reasons for the restrictions, may have been intended to address these hard feelings. More of such overtures are needed on the diocesan and parish levels.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is the fourth installment of five on the renewal of the liturgy. You can find a link to the third installment at the bottom of this page.

[1] See Dei Verbum §8; CCC §1124.

[2] See USCCB, “Roman Missal”; and “The Theological Vision of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Roman Missal." See also Uwe Michael Lang, The Roman Mass: From Early Christian Origins to Tridentine Reform (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

[3] As Pope Francis notes in Desiderio Desideravi §31, tensions concerning the liturgy are not merely “a simple divergence between different tastes concerning a particular ritual form. The problematic is primarily ecclesiological.”

[4] Cf. Francis, Desiderio Desideravi §36: “Ordained ministers carry out a pastoral action of the first importance when they take the baptized faithful by the hand to lead them into the repeated experience of the Paschal Mystery. Let us always remember that it is the Church, the Body of Christ, that is the celebrating subject and not just the priest.”

Featured Image: Tridentinel High Mass at Saint-Laurent Chapel, in the Strasbourg Cathedral Notre Dame, for Sainte Jeanne d'Arc; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0.


John Cavadini, Mary Healy, Thomas Weinandy

John Cavadini is the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life and a professor in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Mary Healy is professor of Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Cap., is a theologian and scholar who has published widely in academic presses and journals.

Read more by John Cavadini, Mary Healy, Thomas Weinandy