Father John Zuhlsdorf Analyzes
ROME, 8 JULY 2007 (ZENIT)
Benedict XVI's letter on the Roman Missal
promulgated by Pope John XXIII is an opportunity for Church members to
widen their hearts, according to liturgy expert Father John Zuhlsdorf.
On Saturday, the Vatican released the apostolic letter issued "motu
proprio," on one's own initiative," titled "Summorum Pontificum," along
with an accompanying letter to bishops.
For an analysis of the documents, ZENIT turned to Father John Zuhlsdorf,
author of the column on liturgical translation titled "What Does the
Prayer Really Say," published in the national Catholic weekly journal
The column turned into a popular blog of the same name.
Q: What is a "motu proprio?"
Father Zuhlsdorf: A "motu proprio" is a document issued by a Pope "by
his own motion," that is, on his own initiative and signed by him. It
very often is a rescript, or a written response sent back about a
question put to him, or on some burning issue.
Famous "motu proprio" letters are "Tra le Sollecitudini" of Pope St.
Pius X in 1903 on Sacred Music and, of course, John Paul II's "Ecclesia
Dei Adflicta" in 1988 after Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre consecrated
bishops without pontifical mandate.
Q: Can you summarize the main points of the document?
Father Zuhlsdorf: There are not many new things in "Summorum Pontificum."
Many of its provisions were already in place after "Ecclesia Dei
Adflicta," which broadened, but in a vague way, the restrictive
legislation in the 1986 document "Quattuor Abhinc Annos." This 2007 "motu
proprio" removes ambiguities and resolves disputes. It levels the
playing field in a way the previous documents did not.
For example, it makes clear that use of older liturgical books was never
totally forbidden. The old form wasn't "abrogated." Some thought it was.
All priests will be able to say Mass with the older "use" in private.
That had been a disputed point.
In the matter of public Masses, where there are stable groups of people
who desire them, pastors can schedule a regular Mass in parishes. There
are some reasonable restrictions for Good Friday, Holy Thursday and the
Parishes or oratories can be erected where only the older liturgical
books are used. Bishops could do that before, of course.
As the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei" clarified years ago, it is
possible, not obligatory, to use the lectionary of the Roman Missal
promulgated by Paul VI, the new readings, in the Missal of John XXIII.
It was never spelled how that would be done. "Summorum Pontificum"
doesn't either. The Pontifical Commission will have to figure that out.
The older books may be used for other sacraments as well: baptism,
penance, extreme unction. Only bishops will be able to confer
confirmation and holy orders, of course. Priests will be able to use the
pre-conciliar Roman Breviary instead of the usual Liturgy of the Hours.
A new point is that the older form of Mass is regarded by the Pope as an
extraordinary "use" of the one Latin Rite, while the Missal of Paul VI,
or "Novus Ordo," remains the ordinary "use." Benedict stresses there are
not two rites, but one rite in two expressions or "uses." This has been
a matter of deep debate.
Many say the "Novus Ordo" is so different from the Missal of John XXIII,
or Tridentine form, that it constitutes a different rite
the rupture with tradition was supposedly that profound. There are good
arguments for that claim, but the Holy Father is leading us in the other
direction on this question.
Another new point, though we will see how this works, is that the
Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei" will have to be reinvigorated, and
given its due role.
The document aims to promote unity and people's rights. Critics of the
Pope's move, not a few bishops included, have warned that this
derestriction will cause disunity in parishes and dioceses, chaos will
reign, the council will be undermined, and the clock will start whirling
Frankly, I think most of the opposition from bishops was really
motivated by concern that this document would restrict the bishops' own
authority. Benedict XVI built in safeguards for the bishops to exercise
oversight in their dioceses. That is good and prudent. It must be so.
But he makes it clear that there is a new model to be followed by
everyone, bishops included. This cannot be emphasized too much. By this
"motu proprio," Benedict XVI asserts that traditionally minded Catholics
are not to be seen as the nutty aunt to be locked up in the diocese's
attic. They have valuable contributions to make. They have rights.
One of the most important aspects of this "motu proprio" is that it
underscores the rights of priests and laypeople. It does not cut the
legs from under the bishops. But it is a shot in the arm for lay people.
The Pope is showing confidence in lay people with a concrete act, but
also to priests and bishops. This is a beautiful continuation of John
Paul II's call for mutual respect and generosity.
Benedict XVI is asking everyone to open their hearts. In his explanatory
letter he even quotes 2 Corinthians 6:13: "Widen your hearts!" When you
read "Summorum Pontificum" with a wide heart, no one need fear that
rights will be trampled or due authority undermined.
Q: Why is the "liberalization" of the1962 Roman Missal necessary after
the world's bishops were granted permission to allow this rite to be
celebrated over 20 years ago?
Father Zuhlsdorf: At first there was a very strict permission granted by
John Paul II in 1986 to use the 1962 "Missale Romanum." After Archbishop
Lefebvre illicitly consecrated bishops in June of 1988, Pope John Paul
issued his "motu proprio" "Ecclesia Dei Adflicta" which effectively
relaxed the restrictive permission of 1986, but in a vague way.
In that document John Paul II called, actually decreed by his apostolic
authority, for bishops and priests to be generous and to show respect to
those who wanted older expressions of the liturgy. Some did. More
Meanwhile, the gap between the late Archbishop Lefebvre's group, the
Society of St. Pius X, has in some respects grown wider, in some
respects less. The dispute over the use of the Missal of Paul VI, or
"ordinary" use, has not settled down, in spite of numerous disciplinary
documents issued by the Holy See. It is as if we have lost sight of
where our liturgy comes from and what it is supposed to be.
Long before his elevation to the See of Peter, Benedict XVI wrote and
spoke about the continuity our liturgical rites and practice must have
with our Tradition. Liturgy grows organically over a long period from
living the faith and coming in contact with various cultures.
The Missal of Paul VI was, in some ways, pasted together on desks by
experts, some of whom it must be said had their own ideological agendas.
Together with an unbridled attitude of "out with the old," there was a
perceived rupture in the Church's liturgical tradition.
This break in the Church's liturgical life has not borne exclusively
happy fruits. Among other wounds, it gave an impression that if the
liturgy could change almost overnight and old forms be banished,
anything could change
But let's cut through the theory. Restoring the older way of saying Mass
is simply the prudent thing to do. As Benedict XVI has written, it was
unreasonable to ban so suddenly a form of the Mass that shaped Catholic
identity for centuries. That did damage to our Catholic identity. We
have to heal the wounds.
Q: Many commentators view the "motu proprio" as an attempt to heal the
schism between the Holy See and traditionalist sects. What is your view?
Father Zuhlsdorf: This ought to help remedy the break between the
Society of St. Pius X and the Holy See.
My view is that extending this faculty to all priests will help, but it
won't solve anything. There are deeper issues that will not be easily
The matter of what book a priest can say Mass from, or lifting the
excommunication imposed on the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, can
both be resolved with the stroke of the Pope's pen.
But yet to be resolved are theological issues such as the Second Vatican
Council's teaching about religious liberty and how the Church is to
interact with the world. That is why I don't think this "motu proprio"
is primarily about the break with the Society of St. Pius X.
People on both sides of the issue have long looked at the other with
what I call "funnel vision." When we look at each other with Christ's
heart, through "the invisible wound of love" as Richard of St. Victor
called it, many problems melt away. It is time to heal.
Q: Other analysts argue that the purpose of the "motu proprio" is to
help foster genuine liturgical renewal of the Missal of Paul VI
along the lines of a "reform of the reform." How might this occur?
Father Zuhlsdorf: As I said before, liturgy grows organically over a
long period from living the faith and coming in contact with various
cultures. Historically, different rites of Mass influenced each other.
What will happen with the derestriction of the older form of the Mass
will be a cross-pollination, as it were, use of one Mass influencing the
other. This is already the case.
Since Pope John Paul II's original derestriction, many young priests
have become interested in older forms of Mass. They didn't really know
the "Tridentine" Mass, but they also aren't lugging around the baggage
of the 60s and 70s. They aren't trapped in that false "Spirit of Vatican
The same goes for some older priests who get reacquainted with the
"extraordinary" form of the Mass after years without contact. When they
start studying the older form, they adjust the way they celebrate the
"Novus Ordo." They begin to re-root their style of celebration of Mass
in our profound tradition.
They develop a different sense of the "ars celebrandi," the proper
liturgical manner and attitude spoken of by Pope Benedict in his post-synodal
exhortation "Sacramentum Caritatis."
In an ironic sense, I have heard some quip that the "Novus Ordo" gets
better the more you celebrate it as if it were the older form of Mass.
On the other hand, people using the older form of Mass have learned from
the last few decades of the "Novus Ordo." They probably say and
participate in the Tridentine Mass better now than people did before all
The lack of the older missal for so long increased our appreciation of
its riches. The good and the bad experiences, even the abuses, have
taught us lessons.
When I watch priests celebrate the older form, I can tell they are
acutely aware that there are actually people in the pews. There is a
strong connection between the priest and congregation. The bottom line
is that the different uses will have an influence on the whole
liturgical life of the Church. We will all be enriched. There are no
losers here. We are all winners.
Q: What does the "motu proprio" have to do with what the Holy Father
calls "the hermeneutic of continuity?"
Father Zuhlsdorf: Let's make a couple of distinctions. I try to examine
important documents by considering what they say to the Church
— and also to the world
From the "ad intra" point of view, Benedict XVI wants to heal breaks in
continuity in various spheres of the Church's life. The derestriction
will, as I said, re-root celebrations of Holy Mass in our deep
In his 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, the Holy Father spoke
of a "hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture" after the Second Vatican
Council. A "hermeneutic" is a principle of interpretation, like a lens
through which you examine a question. For many it was as if nothing good
or worth preserving happened before Vatican II. Anything old was bad.
The council documents don't call for a rupture. A false "Spirit of
Vatican II," of discontinuity and rupture, captivated many influential
people in the Church. This "hermeneutic of discontinuity" was applied in
parishes, seminaries, universities, chanceries, and in Catholic media.
It created fractures in nearly every aspect of the Church's life after
This "motu proprio" is a concrete step in Benedict XVI's promotion of a
new way of seeing how past, present and future are connected. He
proposes a "hermeneutic of reform," as he called it in that same
Christmas address in 2005.
You will hear some use the cliché that this is a move to "turn the clock
back." They misread the motive. It is a way to implement the Council
more authentically. The derestriction of the older form of Mass must be
seen as just one part of Benedict XVI's vision for reform. He is
rebuilding continuity with the Church's tradition. "Ad intra," the
document is all about healing.
Rebuilding continuity leads us to what the "motu proprio" says "ad
extra," to the larger world.
Everyone knows about the efforts to silence and belittle the Catholic
Church in public debate, politics and academic settings. Catholics are
marginalized if they open their mouths. In short, faith is being shoved
off to the side as mere a "private" matter, not to be expressed in
Benedict XVI holds that the Church has a right to her own language,
symbols and identity. We have a right to express ourselves in the public
square with our Catholic identity intact. We must make a contribution as
At the same time, Benedict XVI defends the concept of properly
understood laicality, but insists on bringing Catholic concerns out in
public. In Italy this has started to cause unrest. The Italian bishops
are rediscovering their voice in the piazza and their opponents are
For this dimension of Benedict XVI's vision to bear fruit, we must begin
to rediscover and reintegrate an authentically Catholic identity. The "motu
proprio" to derestrict the form of Mass that shaped Catholic identity
for centuries is a major move in the Pope's project to recover
continuity with our tradition, to start the healing, and therefore
reinvigorate the Church in an ever more secularized and relativistic