On March 12, 2021, the First Section (General Affairs) of the Secretariat of State of Pope Francis published a document containing certain dispositions regarding the offering of the Holy Mass in the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican. The document is addressed to the Extraordinary Commissioner of the Fabric of Saint Peter (Commissario Straordinario della Fabbrica di San Pietro), the canonical institute responsible for the care of the Papal Basilica, to the Canons of the Vatican Chapter (Canonici del Capitolo Vaticano), and to the Service for Liturgical Celebrations of the Basilica (Servizio Celebrazioni liturgiche della Basilica). Both the form and content of the document rightly sustain the deepest concerns of the faithful and, above all, of priests. The concerns pertain not only to the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter, but to the universal Church, inasmuch as the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter is, in a particular way, the spiritual home for all Catholics, and, as such, should be a model of liturgical discipline for the particular Churches.
Regarding the form of the document, there are several concerns.
1. It is an unsigned document from the First Section of the Secretariat of State, without a protocol number, legislating regarding the most sacred aspect of the Church’s life, the offering of the Holy Mass. It bears the seal of the First Section with initials. While the document appears to be authentic, that is, not forged, it cannot be retained to be a document containing valid legislation for the Sacred Liturgy.
2. The Secretariat of State is not competent for the liturgical discipline of the Church and, in particular, for the liturgical discipline at the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican. Rightly, one asks by what authority has the Secretariat of State issued directives which are contrary to the discipline of the universal Church. A further question regards what process was followed to arrive at the publication of such an anomalous document.
3. Given the incompetence of the Secretariat of State in the matter, the faithful have the right to know what competent authority gave the mandate to the Secretariat of State to legislate regarding the Sacred Liturgy, that is, to issue directives regarding the offering of the Holy Mass in the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter.
4. The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican now has a Cardinal Archpriest, but the document in question is not officially communicated to him. Neither is any reference made to his responsibility for the liturgical discipline at the Basilica confided to his care.
The content of the document is likewise a source of deepest concerns.
1. The document supposes that the Holy Masses in the Basilica of Saint Peter are presently offered in a climate lacking, in some measure, in recollection and liturgical decorum (“di raccoglimento e di decoro”). This is certainly not my experience. I know many priests, resident in Rome and visitors to Rome, who have celebrated or regularly celebrate the Holy Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica. While they have expressed to me their profound gratitude for the opportunity to celebrate the Holy Mass in the Basilica, they have not indicated that the climate in which they have celebrated the Holy Mass in the Basilica was in any way lacking in the reverence, recollection and dignity which befits the Sacrament of Sacraments.
2. The document imposes concelebration upon priests who wish to offer the Holy Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica, which is contrary to universal Church law and which unjustly conditions the primary duty of the individual priest to offer the Holy Mass daily for the salvation of the world (can. 902). In what church more than in the Basilica of Saint Peter would a priest desire to offer the Holy Mass, which is the most perfect and fullest way in which he carries out his priestly mission? If an individual priest wishes to offer the Holy Mass in the Basilica, once the directives in question are in force, he will be constrained to concelebrate, in violation of his freedom to offer the Holy Mass individually.
3. Regarding the individual offering of the Holy Mass, it must be observed that it is not only a question of a right of the priest but also of great spiritual fruit for the whole Church, since the infinite merits of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass are more greatly and widely applied in a manner befitting our finite and temporal nature. It is helpful to reflect upon the teaching of the Council of Trent, regarding the situation of a priest who offers the Holy Mass without any member of the faithful receiving Holy Communion. Regarding the participation of the faithful at the Holy Mass, the Council teaches: “The holy council would certainly like the faithful present at every Mass to communicate in it not only by spiritual devotion but also by sacramental reception of the Eucharist, so that the fruits of this most holy sacrifice could be theirs more fully.” It goes on to state: “But, if this does not always happen, the council does not for that reason condemn as private and illicit Masses [can. 8] in which only the priest communicates. Rather, it approves and commends them, for they too should be considered truly communal Masses, partly because the people communicate spiritually in them and partly because they are celebrated by a public minister of the Church, not for his own good alone, but for all the faithful who belong to the body of Christ” (Session XXII, Chapter 6). It should be further observed that a priest never offers the Holy Mass alone, even if there is no one else physically present, for the angels and saints assist at every offering of the Holy Mass (can. 903).
4. With regard to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, which the document falsely calls the Extraordinary Rite, the document refers to “authorized priests”, but no priest in good standing needs authorization to offer the Holy Mass according to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, art. 2). What is more, the document limits the offering of the Holy Mass according to the Extraordinary Form or Usus Antiquior of the Roman Rite in the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter to the Clementine Chapel, at four fixed times. Is it supposed, therefore, that, each day, only four priests will be permitted to offer the Holy Mass according to the Usus Antiquior
in the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter? Since universal Church law permits the individual priest, in such circumstances, to offer the Holy Mass, according to either the Ordinary Form (Usus Recentior) or the Extraordinary Form (Usus Antiquior), the directive in question is in direct violation of universal Church law.
5. The document also legislates that the concelebrated Masses be animated liturgically (siano animate liturgicamente) by the service of lectors and cantors. While the liturgical discipline of the Church provides for the service of lectors and cantors, it is not their purpose to animate the Sacred Liturgy. Christ alone, in Whose person the priest acts, animates the Sacred Liturgy. Therefore, it should not be thought that the individual offering of the Holy Mass is somehow less animated, in the true spiritual sense, than the concelebrated Mass.
6. For the sake of the Catholic faith and for the good order of the Sacred Liturgy, the highest and most perfect expression of the Church’s life in Christ, the document in question should be rescinded immediately, that is, before its supposed effective date of March 22nd next. Furthermore, the thinking which underlies such a document should be corrected, while the discipline of the universal Church and the liturgical doctrine which underlies it is expounded for the faithful.
In conclusion, Church discipline recognizes the right, and indeed the duty, of the Christian faithful to make known to their pastors their concerns regarding matters which pertain to the good of the Church and, likewise, to make such concerns known to all the Christian faithful (can. 212 §3). Given the gravity of the situation represented by the document in question, it is my hope that many of the Christian faithful for whom the Basilica of Saint Peter is, in a particular sense, their mother church, and, above all, many priests from throughout the world will make known to Pope Francis and to his Secretariat of State their strong objection to the document in question.