Few dates can be said with certainty to mark a turning point in Church history. But July 7, 2007, is one of them. That was the day that Benedict XVI issued the apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, sweeping away restrictions on the celebration of the older Mass. At a stroke, Benedict ensured that the Catholic Church would not be severed from its precious liturgical heritage. On our front page 10 years ago, we described the move as “the most important liturgical reform since the Second Vatican Council” – a hasty assessment that we nevertheless stand by.
Benedict – a man usually characterised as timid – showed immense courage, for he was well aware that many opposed the step. The Italian Bishop Luca Brandolini called July 7, 2007, the “saddest moment in my life as a man, priest and bishop”. It was a “day of mourning”, he said, because the reforms of Vatican II had “been cancelled”. (To his immense credit, he concluded: “I will obey the Holy Father, because I am a bishop and because I care for the Holy Father.”)
The German pope clearly knew that Summorum Pontificum would be interpreted that way in certain influential quarters (especially in Europe). This is why he addressed the claim that he was undoing the Council’s liturgical reforms in an accompanying letter to bishops. “This fear is unfounded,” he said, reminding them that the 1962 Missal was used throughout the Council and therefore indirectly inspired the Council Fathers’ reforming vision. He argued that it was wrong to speak (as we still sometimes do) of the pre-conciliar Mass as the “Old Rite” and the post-conciliar Mass as the “New Rite”. There is only one Roman Rite, he declared, with two forms, the Extraordinary and the Ordinary.
By insisting that both the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Mass were valid expressions of the one Roman Rite, Benedict hoped to heal one of the Church’s deepest wounds. Before July 7, 2007, those attached to the older Mass felt at times like a despised minority, barely tolerated by fellow Catholics who regarded them as stubborn throwbacks. They, in turn, sometimes lashed out at those who happily adopted the Novus Ordo, implying that they were a lesser kind of Catholic. With Summorum Pontificum, the shy professor pope shouted: “Enough already!”
In his letter to bishops, Benedict said that he wanted to promote an “interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church”. It would be naïve to imagine that, just 10 years on, this has been achieved fully everywhere. But the Church is no longer roiled by liturgical disputes as frequently as it was in the late 1960s, the 1970s and the early 2000s. Back then the arguments were so intemperate that someone coined the incongruous term “liturgy wars”. Millennials may not realise that they are living in an era of relative liturgical peace unknown to their parents and grandparents.
Yet it doesn’t take much for wars – real or metaphorical – to break out again. So on this momentous anniversary, let us commit ourselves again to pursuing the “interior reconciliation” on which the Church’s health depends.
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