The magician was dressed in .flowing robes. He had his back to the audience. He claimed to be an alchemist that could change lead into gold – transubstantiation. In between his secret mumbo-jumbo he would suddenly turn around to face his audience, raise his arms, with his index fingers touching the thumbs, as in a yogic posture. “Abracadabra” he said. “So be it”, said the audience, in awe struck admiration. With a flash of his fingers, a la Sai Baba, he brandished a shiny gold object. Nobody dared question the magician’s claim of transubstantiation!
I was just seven years of age when I was packed off to a prestigious boarding school in the hills. Since my voice was a tad better than that of a croaking frog, I was never in the choir; so I was often assigned to be an altar boy, a role that I cherished. As such, I was really up close to the school chaplain, a hoary old Italian Capuchin. There he was in his flowing robes, with his back to all of us. He would occasionally whirl around to say a hurried “Dominus Vobiscum”, to which we altar boys would dutifully reply, “Et cum spiritu tuo”. We did learn a few more Latin responses that have now faded from memory. Then came the finale – the transubstantiation; bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ. Amen (so be it).
These thoughts came to me as I read the vociferous objections of retired Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong and American Cardinal Burke, to the latest Motu Proprio (of his own accord/volition) by Pope Francis, having the Latin title “Traditionis Custodes” (Custodians of Tradition). What is the hullabaloo all about?
Pope Francis issued this on 16th July, imposing restrictions on what has been incorrectly referred to as the Latin Mass. This is a gross distortion of truth. The restriction is not on celebrating the Mass in Latin. He probably does so everyday in Rome. It is on the version known as the Missale Romanum that had been edited (revised) by Pope John XXIII in 1962 (MR62). This was possibly at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Post Vatican II, Popes Paul VI and John Paul II had revised the liturgical books in conformity with Vatican II teachings, coming into effect in 1970. These venerable popes had banned the use of MR62 and had to face stiff opposition from the likes of arch conservatives Abp Marcel Lefebvre and his Pius X Society.
Opposition to change is intrinsic to human behaviour, and the Catholic Church is no exception. Jesus himself had forewarned that his words and actions would result in division/ polarisation (cf Lk 12:51).
Unfortunately, as in several other spheres, the Eurocentric previous Pope Benedict XVI chose to turn the clock back. In 2007 he had issued a document “Summorum Pontificum” that snatched away the authority of bishops/ parish priests, stating that they were obliged to comply with requests from the laity for the celebration of MR62. This resulted in arch conservative and well-heeled parishioners in the USA, France etc demanding the celebration of MR62; and even the establishment of separate parishes for the same. This was not just a piquant, but a potentially dangerous, situation.
Pope Francis has merely sought to restore parity consequent of the blunder committed by his predecessor. He has not “banned” the MR62, as is loosely being reported in the Catholic and mainstream media. He has merely imposed reasonable restrictions on the same.
In the Vatican II spirit of collegiality with bishops, he has delegated this authority to the diocesan bishops, to be exercised at their discretion. So what are the likes of Zen and Burke grumbling about? Do they have some other sinister agenda?
Pope Francis states that consequent to Benedict’s document, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent out a questionnaire seeking a feedback on the celebration of MR62. The present Motu Proprio is a result of those findings. Besides delegating authority to the diocesan bishops, Francis specifies that even where MR62 is permitted, the scripture readings should be in the vernacular, not in Latin. Can any sensible person find fault with that? Let us also remember that Jesus himself, at the Last Supper, spoke the language of the people. He would not even have known how to speak in Latin! Francis also warns bishops to not allow any more groups or parishes for celebrating MR62.
Pope Francis, as also earlier Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, had discontinued MR62 as it was not in consonance with the ecclesiology and liturgical reforms of Vatican II. I contacted a senior theologian, but he expressed his ignorance on the subject. I then contacted a senior liturgist. Unfortunately, he neither responded to my email or phone calls. As a layman I am therefore unable to enlighten my readers further, nor can I fathom the opposition to this act of Pope Francis.
But we get a hint of it from a learned writer in the journal La Croix International, published from Rome. Rev Jean-Francois Chiron, professor of theology at the Catholic University of Lyon, France, in his article “The church is not an archipelago” on 22/7/21 says that “There is nothing more bitter than liturgical controversies … With just the slightest bit of irrationality things can go to extremes”. In layman’s language this means going off on a tangent. For a space scientist it would be like a space craft losing its elliptical orbit, and going off into outer space!
Chiron says that “by changing the rules of the game, Francis intends to limit the proliferation of celebrations that do not comply with the post-Vatican II liturgical reform”. It seeks to curb those people who “are in a militant, if not proselytizing frame of mind”. Francis is unequivocally stating that the “Vatican Council II is not optional”. Benedict tried to indicate that “an entire part of the work of an ecumenical council could be optional”. In contrast, Francis asserts “that attachment to the unreformed rite is a challenge to Vatican II”.
Chiron further says that in his native France proponents of MR62 “often include hymns from the 1880s such as – Catholics and French Forever”; a form of militant French Catholic nationalism. This echoes Donald Trump in the USA, and the BJP in India. It is right wing nationalism garbed in religion. It is an open secret that several cardinals, bishops and priests in the USA are dyed in the wool Trump supporters who are inimical to Joe Biden, despite him being a devout practicing Catholic. (This issue merits a separate article).
The MR62 is often referred to as the Tridentine Mass, deriving its name from the Council of Trent (1545-63). This Council was in response to Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation in 1517. This 18 year long Council spanned the terms of three popes – Paul III, Julius III and Paul IV. Paul III convened the Council of Trent in modern day Austria. Notably, none of the three popes actually attended the Council. Worse still, Cardinal Fernesse, aged 66, who took the name of Paul III, had an illicit family of five children, the product of concubinage in his early years!
In his recently published 900 page tome “Seven Baskets Full” on the evolution of the Holy Eucharist, Dr Subhash Anand, professor emeritus of the Papal Seminary, Pune, makes some pertinent observations on the Council of Trent. He says that in its thirteenth session held on 11/10/1551, the Council discussed the Eucharist and transubstantiation. He writes that “the Council claims that its teaching on transubstantiation has ever been a firm belief in the Church of God”. However, “It will be almost impossible for historians to critically substantiate this claim of Trent”. He compares it to looking for a needle in a haystack.
Anand goes on to say that there were hardly sixty signatories on important legislation. Two thirds of those present were Italian, and the rest were mostly Spanish. He therefore avers that “Given this poor attendance, there are very serious reasons to question its teaching authority in matters doctrinal”. He claims that Trent was “not an ecumenical council … but a provincial council of the Latin Catholic church”. He goes on to say that “provincial councils do not have the competence of defining dogmatic truths. This is the prerogative only of ecumenical councils”. Most church historians are of the view that Vatican II was probably the first true ecumenical council of the universal (catholic) church.
Perhaps this will help us better understand why Pope Francis has clamped down on the Tridentine Mass MR62, and is pushing ahead for the reforms of Vatican II. All those who profess to be “Catholic” should support this wisdom and action of Pope Francis who is only following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Popes Paul VI and John Paul II. This includes Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the CBCI President and a member of Pope Francis’ charmed inner circle.
Let us too, in turn, be the proponents of truth and not blind adherents to infructuous traditions. The liturgy, after all, is not a magic show, but a reflection of our life and faith in Jesus who celebrated the Last Supper, sitting (not standing), facing his disciples, his betrayer included, after having humbly washed their feet. Coming to think of it, if the Eucharist is not preceded by the washing of the feet (humble, unconditional service) then it gets reduced to the magical mumbo jumbo of the alchemist. How can the bread and wine be transubstantiated if we are not simultaneously transformed?
- The writer is the Convenor of the Indian Catholic Forum