The Church and “Traditionis Custodes”: Personal Reflections

INTRODUCTION

Six weeks ago Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter called Traditionis Custodes” (“Guardians of the Tradition”). When I heard the news and read the Letter, my first thought was, “thank God.” In this essay I want to explain why, and suggest several points for moving forward.

The Letter had little impact on the majority of Catholics, Catholics who celebrate Mass at their local parish, help out as they can, enroll their children in religious education classes, celebrate the sacraments with great joy, and, in short, participate in the life of their parish in peace. However, the Letter exploded like a bomb in the circles of those who refer to themselves as “traditional” or “traditionalist” Catholics. We must be cautious with these terms. All Catholics are “traditional”: we hold that God’s revelation flows from Christ through the double streams of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. A “traditionalist” has been described as “an advocate of maintaining tradition, especially so as to resist change.” This certainly seems an appropriate characterization of some of these groups. Liturgically, they express this traditionalist identity through the use of the 1962 Missale Romanum and largely reject the principles of liturgical reform mandated made by the Second Vatican Council in its first document, Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC] (the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), promulgated in December, 1963. With this new Letter and its restrictions on the use of the older form of the Mass, traditionalists are convinced even more that the Catholic Church is headed in the wrong direction.

Historically, liturgical reform began long before Vatican II. But with the affirmation of the reform movement by the Council, and the principles of reform clearly articulated in SC, the pace of liturgical change accelerated. St. Paul VI wasted no time. A month after the promulgation of SC , he instituted the Consilium ad exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia [Council for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy]. Building on the specific principles contained in SC, the Consilium developed the reforms to the Mass, and Pope Paul promulgated the novus ordo Missae (the “new order of the Mass”) in the Roman Missal of 1970. At the end of this essay we will look in detail at his own view of the Roman Missal that bears his name.

PERSONAL TESTIMONY

Before going any further, I want to offer some personal testimony from those days. I loved the pre-Conciliar Latin Mass. It was the Mass of my youth. I was born in 1950, and this was the Mass we celebrated every Sunday. When I entered Catholic grade school, it was the Mass we celebrated every day before class. I began serving the Mass in 1957 as a seven year-old third grader. In our parish, we had three Masses on every weekday, and six on Sunday, one of which was a Solemn High Mass. I continued to serve at the parish until I left home in 1963 at age 13 to enter the high school seminary. Obviously, I continued to serve in the seminary, and by age 15 I was Master of Ceremonies for Holy Week when I went home for Easter break. I had also been studying the piano and organ since second grade and by seventh grade, I was one of the three regular organists for our parish, covering all of those Sunday and weekday Masses, along with funerals and weddings. I continued to do this when I would come home for the summers. To say that I was heavily engaged in the liturgical life of the parish would be an understatement. I loved the pre-Conciliar Latin Mass. At the same time, I was enthusiastic about the possibilities of the changes set in motion by the Council.

When I started the seminary, in September, 1963, the Second Vatican Council was entering its second session and, by the time we went home for Christmas vacation that December, Sacrosanctum Concilium had been promulgated by an overwhelming vote by the world’s bishops of 2,147 placet to 4 non placet. By the end of that school year, we were beginning to feel the effects of the changes to come. We were following events in Rome closely. Some of the priests on our faculty had friends and classmates studying and working in Rome, and they would share their own insights about the Council and the discussions taking place among the bishops. The Council was as real to us as if we were actually there. One poignant memory remains with me. During that school year of 1963-64, one of our religion teachers in the seminary was an elderly priest. One day we were talking about the liturgical changes being debated in Rome. Father began to talk about his time as a parish priest, and how special it was to celebrate the Mass for his people. “You know, gentlemen, I am so excited about the possibilities being discussed. For years, I have dreamed of turning around to face my people and say — in English! — ‘The Lord be with you.’ How many times I have turned toward them and said ‘Dominus vobiscum’ to a church of people who had no idea what was going on at the altar.” He continued, “I know that I will never live to see that day, gentlemen, but if — God willing — you become priests, you’ll be able to do just that!” Fortunately, he was wrong. Before the end of that school year, we had received permission from the bishops to implement ad experimentum some of the liturgical changes. There was Father, turning to us with tears in his eyes, greeting us with “The Lord be with you!” I remained in the seminary throughout high school and college (1963-1971), living through the final years of the Council and the first years of its implementation. It was a blessed time.

CURRENT SITUATION

Not everyone accepted the liturgical changes, of course. Various individuals, notably Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, formed groups to celebrate the “old Mass” rather than the “new Mass.” Every pope from Paul VI to Francis has attempted to resolve the disputes with these groups. The goal, of course, is communio. One of the four traditional marks of the Church is the claim that we are “One.” This mark is founded in the priestly prayer of Christ as the Last Supper, when Jesus prayed to His Father “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (John 17: 21). Over the decades since the Council, the popes have all showed good faith in working with these groups in a quest to strengthen or in some cases restore that unity.

While I knew some of this history, my research interests revolved around other issues. Since ordination as a deacon for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, I have served in wide variety of pastoral, diocesan, and national assignments, from Washington, DC, to Iowa, Illinois, and California. In more than three decades of diaconal ministry, I have encountered very few parishioners who characterized themselves as “traditionalist” or who preferred to worship according to the 1962 Missale. So I decided, after the Pope’s letter, that I should look more closely into these matters. My reason was simple: I wanted to see if there was some way to help alleviate the pain these folks were experiencing. I had heard of several popular personalities who had extensive influence on Twitter and YouTube, so off I went.

I began exchanging tweets with one of these personalities, a Texas “influencer” who promptly “blocked” me on Twitter when I suggested some of his claims about the Church were inaccurate. Over on his YouTube channel, one of this man’s “co-hosts” repeatedly mocked “the Novus Ordo Church.” In another video, this same duo condemned, mocked, and dismissed the language they associated with the Council, terms like “pastoral,” “People of God,” and “social justice.” The co-host complained (and, as usual, mocked) Vatican II’s call for a reformed liturgy which involved “the full, conscious, and active participation” of the laity at the Mass. He gleefully reported, to the great amusement of his host, that as a sign of dissent against this teaching, he would pull out his rosary at the “novus ordo” Masses he occasionally and reluctantly attended. Interesting idea: the rosary as dissent! Then I was struck by another fact. While the host repeatedly complained about the constant liturgical “novelties” and “abuses” of the novus ordo, implying widespread experience with the “new Mass,” he remarked casually to his co-host that in all the years since his conversion to Catholicism (he had been a priest in the Episcopal church) he had only attended nine or ten novus ordo Masses!

These commentators are not alone. I spent considerable time looking at other sites to see other reactions to the pope’s Letter. Again, there were hyperbolic, breathless headlines, mostly directed in vitriolic terms against the Holy Father. Not having spent much time in this “traditionalist” world, I was stunned. These people, while claiming an identity of “faithful Catholics,” presented themselves as anything but! To offer any support of Pope Francis was ridiculed as ultramontanism. Furthermore, their mocking dismissal of Vatican II was disturbing. They seemed to lump together all of the world’s bishops who were the Council Fathers of Vatican II, characterizing them as some kind of liberal, hippy, cabal that was out to destroy the Church. Others adopted an attitude that people don’t need to pay attention to Vatican II because it was a “lesser” Council which will go down in history as a minor kerfluffle. Certainly, they say, it was not of the stature of the magnificent Councils of Trent or Nicaea. For the record, all of the twenty-one general Councils of the Church hold the same magisterial status. As I heard and read these comments, I realized that none of these people seemed to have any real substantive knowledge about what the Council was all about: why it was called in the first place, what its goals were, and the vision behind the decisions the world’s bishops made.

Consider again the final vote on Sacrosanctum Concilium. 2,147 bishops approved the text; only 4 disapproved. Look at those numbers. They are incredible. To hear some of our “traditionalist” sisters and brothers, it may seem that there was a huge rift among the bishops about the principles of liturgical reform being promulgated in Sacrosanctum Concilium. There was vigorous debate, of course! However, when the final version was presented for their vote, the bishops were nearly unanimous in their approval.

Fast forward to the present. Pope Francis explained in the Letter that he wrote it after consulting with the bishops of the world and their concerns over the continued usage by some Catholics of the 1962 Missale Romanum. These concerns revolve around the unity and communio of the Church. This was the hope of Pope Benedict when he promulgated Summorum Pontificum. Benedict created a novelty by initiating a practice never before done within a single ritual church. His hope was that by creating two “forms” (the “ordinary” which is the Mass of Paul VI, and the “extraordinary” which is the 1962 Roman Missal) the forms would mutually enrich each other, and those feeling disenfranchised by the liturgical changes following the Council might be reconciled. Unfortunately, despite his good intentions, Benedict’s attempt was a failure. For all their public protestations to the contrary, the “traditionalists” who are “influencers” on social media communicate a radical disunity with the Church and her magisterium. Many of the people I encountered on Twitter and YouTube have come into the Catholic Church from other religious traditions, and it makes one wonder what attracted some of them to the Catholic Church in the first place if they have so many problems with the magisterium of the Church! Nonetheless, I am not judging their motivation, their spirituality, or their love for the Church, and I believe they are attempting to operate in good faith.

Where might we go from here? Consider the following four points.

1) As other commentators have pointed out, this issue is not about Latin. It’s never been about Latin. It is about the Church. It is about ecclesiology. The ancient maxim, dating back as far as the 5th Century St. Prosper of Aquitaine, is lex orandi, lex credendi. How we are praying reflects how we are believing. This goes far beyond the language in which the liturgy is celebrated. If the issue was simply about the use of Latin, that need could be met readily simply by using the Latin editio typica of the current Roman Missal. But this is not about the Latin alone.

What kind of Church is reflected in in the 1962 Missale? And what kind of Church is reflected in the current Missal? As is well known, Vatican II described the Church in scriptural and sacramental terms. The world’s bishops also chose to speak of the Church as a pilgrim and moved away from the previous model of perfectas societas. They also stressed the Trinitarian identity of the entire church in all of its members as the People of God, Mystical Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. I am not saying that the pre-Conciliar Church did not see itself as sacramental or did not appreciate its Trinitarian foundation. What I am saying is that Vatican II’s vision of Church, as discernible through a study of the historical development of the various drafts of the key conciliar documents, chose to stress aspects of this identity with new focus and emphasis. This can be seen, for example, in many of the changes made to the Mass following the Council. One particular example is that the 1962 Missale refers to the assembly of the faithful at Mass rarely, and these were directions to the priest-celebrant such as to turn toward the people to determine if there were communicants. While much ink has been spilled in the intervening years about what “active participation” by the laity should mean, we must always keep in mind that “active participation” is not to be considered in isolation: Sacrosanctum Concilium almost always links it with “full,” and “conscious.” Consider this passage:

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people, is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, #14

This ecclesiological foundation is behind all of the teaching and action of every Pope since St. Paul VI promulgated the novus ordo missae. The conversation that we should be having is less about Latin or even about which edition of the Mass we should be using. Rather, it must be about the kind of Church we are called to be. One traditionalist commentator is fond of referring dismissively to the post-Conciliar Church as “the Church of Nice,” a Church which doesn’t want to offend anyone, especially those not part of the Catholic Church. It is important to understand that the attitude of the Church’s bishops is born of a desire to respond to Christ’s prayer for unity. One of the goals of the Council and the post-Conciliar papal magisterium has been to work for Christian unity. This does not mean watering down our teachings, but finding areas of common faith and seeking pathways toward ultimate reunion. The Church, according to Vatican II, is to serve “as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God’s family” (Gaudium et spes, #40).

Reception of Vatican II is, therefore, central to this current issue regarding the Mass. The Council articulated a vision for the future of the Church, and suggested directions for ongoing reform. Vatican II, as all prior twenty general Councils of the Church, articulates magisterial teaching. One does not have the option to say, “I will respect the magisterial authority of THIS Council but not THAT one.” This is a fundamental point being raised by every pope from St. Paul VI to Francis.

2) The normative Roman Missal is not the1962 Missale Romanum. There is discussion among traditionalists that this Missale “was never abrogated” when the 1970 Missal appeared. The traditionalist-vilified novus ordo Missae is the norm, what Benedict XVI termed the “ordinary” form of the Mass. It seems wise to me that the characterization of ordinary and extraordinary forms has been discarded. Given the intimate sacramental relationship between the Eucharist (the Mass) and the Church, such a distinction is not helpful. Remember lex orandi, lex credendi. So, for example, we do not speak of an “ordinary” form of the Church and an “extraordinary” form of the Church. As I said above, the fundamental issue here is not language of the Mass, or the associated rubrics. This is about the Church. The ritual and sui iuris Churches that make up the Catholic Church have one ritual expression of the Eucharist within each Church. The diversity of the Church found in the communion of Catholic Churches is matched by the unity within each Church.

Unfortunately, to read or watch certain certain traditionalist commentators, one would think the situation was reversed: that it was the “new Mass” which is — or should be — the extraordinary form, retaining the 1962 Missale as the ordinary form. In other words, the desire seems to be for a different kind of Church, not simply a different form of the Mass.

3) It was precisely the 1962 Missale that the overwhelming majority of the world’s bishops wanted reformed! This point cannot be overstressed. When the bishops directed a reform of the Mass, the Mass they had in mind was the 1962 Missale. According to the bishops, this Mass needed reform. Again, reading or watching traditionalist commentators, they seem to feel that the unreformed 1962 Missale is perfect as it is and in no need of reform; some would go so far as to say that it cannot be reformed anyway, due to the language of St. Pius V’s Quo Primum, which said no one could ever change the Mass. The simple fact is that, despite the language of Quo Primum, the Mass of Pius V was changed regularly over the centuries , including a new editio typica during the reign of St. John XXIII.

4) Much of the recent agita over Traditionis Custodes has attempted to pit Pope Francis against his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict. Rather, Pope Francis has as his object the identical positions taken by every Pope from Paul VI onward. It was, in fact, Pope Benedict who tried a novel approach in his well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to heal the breach between those who favor the unreformed 1962 Missale and Catholics who celebrate the reformed Mass of Paul VI. Furthermore, Benedict’s decision to remove diocesan bishops from any role in the use of the “old Mass” in their own dioceses has proven unfortunate and harmful. Pope Francis has now corrected that approach, returning the responsibility of the diocesan bishop as the chief liturgist of his diocese. However, as stressed above, it is critical to remember that both popes share a common vision of Christian unity, following the prayer of Christ. Instead of trying to pit one pope against another, it is far better to find their commonality.

CONCLUSION

On Wednesday, 19 November 1969, St. Pope Paul VI addressed the imminent implementation of the new Roman Missal during his general audience. He anticipated several questions. What follows are direct citations from the address. I include these rather lengthy quotes because of their ongoing applicability.

Question #1: How could such a change be made? Answer: It is due to the will expressed by the Ecumenical Council held not long ago. The Council decreed:

“The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as also the connection between them, can be more clearly manifested, and that devout and active participation by the faithful can be more easily accomplished. For this purpose the rites are to be simplified, while due care is taken to preserve their substance. Elements which, with the passage of time, came to be duplicated, or were added with but little advantage, are now to be discarded. Where opportunity allows or necessity demands, other elements which have suffered injury through accidents of history are now to be restored to the earlier norm of the Holy Fathers.”

Sacrosanctum Concilium, #50

Pope Paul continues, “The reform which is about to be brought into being is therefore a response to an authoritative mandate from the Church. It is an act of obedience. It is an act of coherence of the Church with herself. It is a step forward for her authentic tradition. . . . It is not an arbitrary act. It is not a transitory or optional experiment. It is not some dilettante’s improvisation. It is a law.”

The pope underscores the unity of the Church, now to be found in its liturgical reform: “This reform puts an end to uncertainties, to discussions, to arbitrary abuses. It calls us back to that uniformity of rites and feeling proper to the Catholic Church, the heir and continuation of that first Christian community, which was all “one single heart and a single soul” (Acts 4:32).

Question #2: What exactly are the changes?

You will see for yourselves that they consist of many new directions for celebrating the rites. . . . But keep this clearly in mind: Nothing has been changed of the substance of our traditional Mass. Perhaps some may allow themselves to be carried away by the impression made by some particular ceremony or additional rubric, and thus think that they conceal some alteration or diminution of truths which were acquired by the Catholic faith for ever, and are sanctioned by it. They might come to believe that the equation between the law of prayer, lex orandi and the law of faith, lex credendi, is compromised as a result.

It is not so. Absolutely not. . . . The Mass of the new rite is and remains the same Mass we have always had. If anything, its sameness has been brought out more clearly in some respects.

The unity of the Lord’s Supper, of the Sacrifice on the cross of the re-presentation and the renewal of both in the Mass, is inviolably affirmed and celebrated in the new rite just as they were in the old. The Mass is and remains the memorial of Christ’s Last Supper. At that Supper the Lord changed the bread and wine into His Body and His Blood, and instituted the Sacrifice of the New Testament. He willed that the Sacrifice should be identically renewed by the power of His Priesthood, conferred on the Apostles. Only the manner of offering is different, namely, an unbloody and sacramental manner; and it is offered in perennial memory of Himself, until His final return (cf. De la Taille, Mysterium Fidei, Elucd. IX).

In the new rite you will find the relationship between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, strictly so called, brought out more clearly, as if the latter were the practical response to the former (cf. Bonyer). You will find how much the assembly of the faithful is called upon to participate in the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice, and how in the Mass they are and fully feel themselves “the Church.” You will also see other marvelous features of our Mass. But do not think that these things are aimed at altering its genuine and traditional essence.

Rather try to see how the Church desires to give greater efficacy to her liturgical message through this new and more expansive liturgical language; how she wishes to bring home the message to each of her faithful, and to the whole body of the People of God, in a more direct and pastoral way.

Question #3: What will be the results of this innovation? The results expected, or rather desired, are that the faithful will participate in the liturgical mystery with more understanding, in a more practical, a more enjoyable and a more sanctifying way. That is, they will hear the Word of God, which lives and echoes down the centuries and in our individual souls; and they will likewise share in the mystical reality of Christ’s sacramental and propitiatory sacrifice.

The pope concluded, “So do not let us talk about ‘the new Mass.’ Let us rather speak of the ‘new epoch’ in the Church’s life.”

I hope that all of us can take the long view of two centuries of liturgical reform, and see liturgical reform within the even larger revitalization of the Church herself. This is why my first reaction to Traditionis Custodes was to thank God. At Vatican II, the world’s bishops gathered in solemn Council introduced the idea of liturgical reform in just such a way, as part of larger project of ecclesial reform. It is time for all of us — in faithfulness to Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium — to set aside fear, the rhetoric of mockery, distortion, and condescension, and recommit ourselves to this vision of the Council:

“This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church. The Council therefore sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, #1.

The Limits of Choice: Personal Freedom and the Common Good

I was speaking recently with a fellow Catholic who is against mandates concerning vaccinations or masks during this time of COVID-19. The language was interesting. “It’s all about my personal freedom. As Catholics, we have free will and as Americans we have individual rights. I should be able to make my own decisions without anyone else (especially the government) taking that freedom away. It’s my body; it’s my choice.”

It may be hard to believe, but I was speechless. The person I was speaking with is staunchly anti-abortion and anti-choice. He is part of a group that wants to deny Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who are pro-choice regarding abortion. But the very pro-choice position he abhors when discussing abortion is now the exact same argument he is using to justify his anti-vax, anti-mask mandate stance. So, he is anti-choice in one case, pro-choice in another.

How is this in any way coherent? It isn’t.

People who are anti-abortion make the case that “my body, my choice” is an insufficient claim for two reasons. First, they hold that there is more than one body involved: the unborn child as well as the mother. Second, even the claim of “my body, my choice” — disregarding for the moment the presence of the unborn child — is simply not true or absolute. Our experience tells us this readily. We accept without question and without distress that there are certain things that we may not do to our bodies; there are limits to the choices we can make. For example, if we saw a person about to harm themselves in some way, we would do whatever we could to stop them. Some personal choices are even subject to society’s laws: a person may “choose” to murder another person, but no one would say that this would be moral or legal. We readily accept limits on personal freedom. It is not an absolute right. Think of all the other restrictions we accept on our personal freedom: obtaining a driver’s license, for example, or the travel restrictions we endure to ensure the safety of all. Just because our personal freedom suggests we do something (or not do something), thinking adults realize that personal freedom is not an absolute.

How might this fact — that all rights have limits and commensurate responsibilities — affect the abortion debate? How might this fact — that all rights have limits and commensurate responsibilities — affect the vaccination debate?

Do I have a right to refuse to take the vaccine? The answer is not an absolute yes or no, but maybe. Does society have a right to regulate my behavior despite my personal freedom? “My body, my choice” is again insufficient. My personal freedom extends only as far as the personal freedom of others. At some point, the moral choice is to surrender a measure of personal freedom for the common good of all. Consider how we veterans are often greeted: “Thank you for your service!” It is acknowledged that, as a class of people, military personnel put their own personal freedom aside to a degree in order to benefit their comrades and the country. Taking the vaccination, even under a mandate, is less about one’s personal good than it is about the good of others. For people of faith, we need only look to St. Paul, who reminded the Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4).

The bottom line is that “my body, my choice” is an inadequate and flawed argument no matter who makes it.

“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around by the equal rights of others.”

Thomas Jefferson

Women in Ministries of Lector and Acolyte: Some Background

Pope Francis has responded affirmatively to the recommendations made through the Synod of Bishops that women be admitted to the ministries of Lector and Acolyte. In an Apostolic Letter issued motu proprio titled “Spiritus Domini” [The Spirit of the Lord], published yesterday, 10 January 2021, the pope modified the Code of Canon Law (c. 230.1). Now, all qualified persons may be admitted to those ministries. To put this decision into perspective, several points need to be understood.

  1. Prior to 1972, ministries were seen as the province of the ordained, and “the ordained” in the Latin Church consisted of seven ranks of ordained ministers. This was known as the cursus honorum, the “course of honors” by which a man “rose through the ranks” to the Order of Presbyters. A man became a cleric through a rite known as “first tonsure.” This liturgical rite was not itself an ordination, but it opened the door to subsequent ordinations; it made a man capax — capable — of receiving ordination. The orders themselves were divided into four minor orders and three major orders. The minor orders were porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte; the major orders were subdeacon, deacon, and presbyter [priest]. This system was in place for many centuries. It is important to recognize that the minor and major orders were, in fact, ordinations.
  2. In 1972, St. Pope Paul VI responded to the recommendations of the bishops of Vatican II (1962-1965) that the sacrament of Holy Orders be streamlined to better meet the needs of the Church. The fact is, the various orders, except for the priesthood, had become little more than liturgical rituals celebrated in the seminaries before a man was eventually ordained a priest. No parish, for example, had the ordained ministry of a porter! Pope Paul, after considerable consultation with the world’s bishops, issued motu proprio the document Ministeria quaedam in 1972. This was tied with an additional document, Ad pascendum, which addressed some aspects of the newly-renewed order of deacons, which Paul implemented in 1967. Ministeria quaedam did a number of things.
  • Tonsure and Subdeacon were suppressed. A man now became a cleric upon ordination as Deacon.
  • The minor orders were also eliminated. At the same time, Pope Paul recognized the practical need for lectors and acolytes in parish life. However, rather than continuing as ordained ministries, he established these two ministries as rightfully lay ministries. So, they were no longer to be conferred through ordination but through installation by the bishop as lay ministries. It is significant to note that that these two installed ministries were open to men alone. This is what Pope Francis has now addressed.
  • Pope Paul further required that those in formation for ordination (to the diaconate and to the presbyterate) were to be installed in the ministries (not ordained) prior to ordination as Deacons. This was practical: these lay ministries offer valuable ministerial experience, and that is why the pope established this norm.

There are several things we need to keep in mind about the action taken by Pope Francis.

First, being installed a lector or acolyte is much more than just “reading at Mass” or “being an altar server.” We already have men and women who do that on a regular basis in our parishes. Being installed by the bishop into these ministries carries additional responsibilities, as outlined in Pope Paul’s Ministeria quaedam. Installed lectors and acolytes are diocesan ministers; one is not installed simply to serve in one parish.

Second, there is an expectation of leadership by these installed ministers. They are to assist in training other ministers of the Word and the Altar. They are to be knowledgeable of all aspects of their ministries and of the sacramental life of the Church. In fact, Pope Paul wrote that the responsibilities formerly assigned to Subdeacons could be assigned to these installed Lectors and Acolytes. [Ed. note: My fingers got away from me in the original post and said that the functions of the Subdeacon could NOT be assigned to installed Lectors and Acolytes; sorry for any confusion.]

Third, why have these lay ministries been experienced largely as liturgical steps required only for those on the road to ordination? The answers are complex, but many bishops did not see an immediate need to install lectors and acolytes formally because pastoral needs were being largely met by the ad hoc lectors and altar servers already serving in most parishes, and which involved both men and women. Many bishops were also reluctant to install lectors and acolytes formally because they could not admit women as well as men. Now, they can.

This is a good move, and one that should be applauded, not feared. It is consistent with what Pope Paul VI began, at the request of the world’s bishops, back in 1972.

A Servant’s Heart

Today, my daughter sent me a link to a video from an unlikely source: Arnold Schwarzenegger. She said the thing that struck her immediately was the Governor’s use of the phrase, “a servant’s heart.” I think she is absolutely right. I am passing along his video, not as a political act, or to condemn or criticize anyone. But as a career Naval officer, I watched with horror and growing anger the events of last Wednesday — the feast of the Epiphany of all days! — as our US Capitol was attacked and sacked. Like all military officers, I swore an oath that never expires, to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic.” And here was the secular temple of that Constitution being ransacked, with innocent staffers, visitors, members of Congress and even the sitting Vice President, assaulted and terrorized for several hours by fellow Americans. How can begin to move forward — together — as Americans?

As we all consider our next steps, the Epiphany reminds us that, whatever our perceived grievances, THIS is not the way to address them. This is not how a People, under God, treat each other. For Christians especially, who believe that God took on human nature in Christ out of love for us, what we saw was the antithesis of God’s will for humanity. At a Catholic Mass, the deacon adds a little water into the wine which will be consecrated and offered to God, and says, “Through the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” What happened on Wednesday was the farthest thing from sharing “in the divinity of Christ.”

Instead we need to heed the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. . . .” (Philippians 2:3-5). Imagine if each and every one of us took these verses to heart and acted on them! Not in conceit and pride, but putting the interests of others ahead of our own. These are not only religious truths: they apply to many forms of servant-leadership. In my years of Navy service I served with many such women and men. As a deacon I continue to serve with many such women and men, who constantly put themselves and their own needs last. That is the heart of the servant, the heart “that was in Christ Jesus,” the heart that should be in each of us.

The Governor is correct: what is needed now is a servant’s heart. Think what you will of the rest of the video. Don’t fixate on the cheesiness of using Conan’s sword as a prop. Rather, listen to his insight about a servant’s heart. On that, he is right on point.

Advent, Deacons, and the Humility of God

Advent begins in less than a month. The Deacon magazine is preparing for this holy season. Here is my contribution.

The themes of Advent come to us every year and find us in a different place. Just think back to last year’s Advent when most of us had never heard of COVID-19. This year, Advent and its themes resound in new ways. Not only is the world different this year, we ourselves are different. This fact is true every year, of course, but for most of us never in such a dramatic way.

Advent focuses our attention on the humility of God. We don’t often think of God as humble, but consider it closely. Think of what our God has done. We sing during Advent “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!” Our God is not only with us, our God has emptied himself into our human nature.

St. Paul reminds us to imitate Christ and to “do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others. Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:3-8).

Humility (from the Latin humus, “earth”) means being “grounded,” knowing who we are, with no illusions of grandeur at one end or a false, groveling humility at the other. Humility means being in relationship with “the other”; as St. Paul said to the Philippians, we are to see others as more important than ourselves and tend to others’ needs before our own. This, too, is a participation in the humility of God. God is always about pouring forth: God brings life; sustains and provides; heals, restores, and saves — all so we can share that life with God forever. The Son of God tells us often that he came not to be served but to serve: again, this reflects the humility of God.

What does that mean to us deacons during this year’s Advent? First, the Son of God teaches us that humility means not clinging to things, things that might even be ours by right. Therefore, for us who are baptized into the life of the Trinity and ordained into the servanthood of Christ, we must be similarly kenotic: no honor, glory, reputation, status.

But why did Christ pour himself out like that? To what end? And why should we?

Christ emptied himself so as to use that humanness to connect with us, to have human hands to touch us and heal us, human eyes to see us, even a human heart to burn with love for us. He uses that emptiness to elevate us, to fill us with his own mercy and compassion. He shows us how we, even in our own human weakness, can lift up others and bless them. Those who have strength give that strength to those who are weak. Those who have resources can raise others out of poverty. In short, whatever skills, strengths and gifts we may have, through the grace of God, are to be used for the good of others. Gifts received are gifts to be re-gifted to others.

The first week of Advent calls us to be on watch, to be alert to the actions of God. We watch for God’s presence in our lives and in the lives of our people. Our God is coming to us and does so not with trumpet blasts and military parades welcoming the conquering hero; we must be alert to God’s coming in a manger, in the powerless form of an infant. Around us are people who are themselves struggling due to depression, illness or loneliness. What can we pour out for them?

The second week of Advent calls us to prepare the way of the Lord, and the first reading from Isaiah begins, “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Only when this is done do we “make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” by filling in the valleys and bringing low the mountains. We are to give away, to pour out comfort to our sisters and brothers. The approaching holy days were challenging to many people even before the current pandemic and other crises that we face today. What will best give comfort to God’s people? What do we “have” that can be given for the comfort of others?

The third week of Advent focuses on John the Baptizer. Everything John did, even before his birth, pointed the way to Christ. His life and ministry was all about the One who would come after him. What a sublime act of humility: to constantly point away from oneself to highlight the Word of God! We are to do no less. John humbly surrendered his own ambition, family, even his very life to make sure Christ was proclaimed to the people.

Finally, the fourth week of Advent offers us the chance to encounter the humble young woman of Nazareth, Mary, as she receives the news about God’s plan. The great mystery of the Annunciation is that she could have said no! Salvation history hinged on that wonderful, humble fiat. Mary holds nothing back and pours everything she is into accepting that divine Will. Through her humility, the humble Christ comes to us.

Throughout Advent 2020, may we consider the humility of God. The disciple of Christ seeks to follow the Lord’s path, and this demands no less a kenosis on our part as deacons. In his reflections on Advent, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in “God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas” (Westminster John Knox Press, $16): “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness. … In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you.”

What would our Church look like if every member, from the newest neophyte to the pope, from bishop to novice, from cardinal to deacon, from curial prefect to parish staff volunteer, laid down “all power, honor, reputation, vanity, arrogance, individualism”? What if each and every member of the Church lived out St. Paul’s admonition to live “in humility, treating others as better than yourself”?

Have a Blessed and Humble Advent

Pope Francis and His Critics: Pastoral Perspectives

No one could have predicted the crises we face today, and they are slamming us all at once. Even before the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we were challenged by the erosion of credibility of all institutions, including churches. Our national politics were continuing their toxic descent into entrenched partisan screeching, and no one has been left unaffected. Add the pandemic to the mix and we have entered a whole new reality, affecting each and every one of us. Just when we need to come together to help each other through all of this, safety demands we be kept apart.

All of this has had profound effects on how we are called to be “Church” today: how we gather (or not), how we pray (no singing), and how we continue our mission of spreading the Good News.

Threatening to pull us even further apart, critics of Pope Francis have been doubling down on their accusations against him and his leadership of the church. These critics are adding even more confusion, anger and uncertainty to an already chaotic time. I recently contributed three reflections to Where Peter Is. Here are the links:

Part One is The Spirit of Vatican II: Out into the Deep” was published on Wednesday, August 19.

Part Two, “Reacting to Archbishop Viganò: A Pastoral Reflection,” was published Friday, August 21.

Part Three, The Matter of Words,” was published Monday, August 24.

“Do As I Have Done”: The Eucharist Has Consequences

A Holy Thursday Homily During a Time of Pandemic

Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, Pope Francis said, “God saved us by serving us.” He recounted all the times in the liturgies of Holy Week that we hear of the Christ who serves: for example, Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant”(Phil 2:7); the servant who washes the feet of his disciples; the suffering and victorious servant on Good Friday, and Psalm 42:1, where God says, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold.” God saved us by serving us. The Pope continued that while “we often think that we are the ones who serve God” it is God who freely chose to serve us, for he loved us first. Pope Francis said, “It is difficult to love and not be loved in return. And it is even more difficult to serve if we do not let ourselves be served by God — the lesson that Jesus taught Peter in the Gospel proclaimed tonight.

God serves us by giving his life for us. In the first reading tonight, we read of the first Passover, when God first saves his people and eventually leads them out of slavery into a new life. In the second reading, we have St. Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, in which Jesus tells his followers that the bread they are eating is his body which is being given up for them, and that the wine is his blood establishing a new Covenant with God. And in the Gospel Jesus washes the feet of disciples, a task so menial and filthy that even a slave could not be ordered to do it. Jesus goes even further, and reminds them that this act of service is more than what it seems; that it is a sign of his own pouring out of his life for them — and for us. Jesus tells them that they must do the same: “as I have done for you, you should also do.”

Simply put: The Eucharist has consequences. The Body and Blood of Christ is not given to us simply to adore, as important as that is. Rather, the Eucharist signifies a whole new relationship with God, a relationship to be lived out in service to others. God saves us by serving us; like Peter’s mother-in-law, once we are saved, we must save others by serving them, in imitation of Christ. “As I have done for you, you should also do”: The Eucharist has consequences.

Tonight we are celebrating this Mass of the Lord’s Supper under circumstances none of us could have imagined a few months ago. Yes, we are celebrating Mass and we are doing what Jesus commanded us to do in the second reading: we are doing this in remembrance of Him. But something is missing tonight: YOU! Without you here, we are unable to do what we customarily do at our parish: wash each other’s feet, as Christ commanded. This day is sometimes called “Maundy Thursday”. The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum”, which means a “mandate” or a “command.” Jesus commands his disciples to do as he had done: to wash feet, to pour out healing, comfort and care in service of others. In this time of “social isolation”, of “stay at home,” of being kept apart from one another, how can we follow Christ’s example in pouring out his life in such a concrete way as washing other people’s feet?

The Pope reminds us that during this time of pandemic we must be our most creative. In what concrete ways can we, in our “sheltering in place”, touch others in service? Some have suggested that maybe we could read this Gospel at home and then wash the feet of our family members. If you don’t want to wash feet, then perhaps wash each other’s hands instead. But maybe there are other ways, too, that fit your situation even better. Perhaps “wash feet” by reaching out to “clean up” or to “wash clean” a broken relationship, to “pour ourselves out” to a person who is isolated, or ill, or alone through a phone call or even something as simple as a text or e-mail. For example, speaking as a Grandfather myself, perhaps all grandchildren could check in with their poor old grandparents with a phone call, Skype, or even a text! Remember, the best way to overcome our own isolation is to reach out and serve someone else.

The Eucharist has consequences. THIS Eucharist has consequences. Tonight, those of you joining us through YouTube or Facebook will partake in the Eucharist through the proclamation of God’s Word and through Spiritual Communion. For all of us, this Eucharist here tonight has consequences no matter how we are celebrating it. No matter where you are, no matter how many of you are sheltered in the same space, no matter how confused, cranky, frustrated, or ill you might be, now is the time for us to imitate Christ and follow his command to reach out and serve someone else, in any concrete ways we can.

Go, wash some feet!

Palm Sunday 2020: Servants in a Servant Church for a Suffering World

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday in ways no one could have ever imagined, although there have been times in the life of the church when our ancestors had similar experiences. Pope Francis has given a wonderful Palm Sunday homily [here] to a world weary of illness, isolation and violence. His words remind us all of some very important truths, and for those of us who serve in the particular order of deacons: our service can only truly be understood against the more fundamental reality that the church herself is a servant. Indeed, peeling the layers back even more, we remember this Holy Week that we are a servant church precisely because our God — who is love — is Servant. As Pope France put it succinctly, “God saved us by serving us.”

Jesus — Second Person of the Trinity — “who came to serve, not to be served.”

All of us who are baptized disciples of Christ, are immersed into the life of God and are called to “the imitation of Christ,” who came to serve and not to be served. The Holy Father recounts how often, especially during the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week, Christ — the Second Person of the Trinity — is referred to as a Servant. Created in the image and likeness of God, we are to live as Christ did: pouring out his life for the health and salvation of others. In a moving passage, Pope Francis reminds us:

Dear brothers and sisters, what can we do in comparison with God, who served us even to the point of being betrayed and abandoned? We can refuse to betray him for whom we were created, and not abandon what really matters in our lives. We were put in this world to love him and our neighbors. Everything else passes away, only this remains. The tragedy we are experiencing at this time summons us to take seriously the things that are serious, and not to be caught up in those that matter less; to rediscover that life is of no use if not used to serve others. For life is measured by love. So, in these holy days, in our homes, let us stand before the Crucified One – look upon the Crucified One! – the fullest measure of God’s love for us, and before the God who serves us to the point of giving his life, and, – fixing our gaze on the Crucified One – let us ask for the grace to live in order to serve. May we reach out to those who are suffering and those most in need. May we not be concerned about what we lack, but what good we can do for others.

All of this applies to each and every one of us. What, then, can it mean to those of us who are deacons? It is a potent reminder to us that we are ordained, not simply to do what all of us are supposed to do as a result of our sacramental initiation (discipleship), but as a result of our ordination at the hands our bishop, to renew our commitment to be true leaders in service (apostleship). We are not ordained to serve so that others do not have to! We serve first as a result of new life in Baptism; we serve further as animators (to use St. Paul VI’s word) of that service by others. We share in the bishop’s own diakonia, a diakonia first lived through Paschal Mystery of Christ which we celebrate this week.

I encourage everyone, but especially deacons, to pray over Pope Francis’ wonderful homily today. May this Holy Week during a time of global pandemic be for all a time of renewal, of overcoming death, of new life in the Christ.

Deacons at Mass During the Time of COVID-19

Over the last several weeks, deacons and others have been wrestling with the notion of deacons assisting at the various live-streamed Masses going on around the country. Two major questions have emerged:

  1. Should deacons be assisting at all at these Masses?
  2. If deacons are present at Mass, should they abstain from receiving Holy Communion?

First, should deacons (or, really, ANY other ministers besides the priest) be assisting at a live-streamed Mass?

I would begin with a caveat. It depends! There may be logistical or other factors which would make the assistance by a deacon problematic. For example, if a sanctuary is so small (such as a private chapel in the rectory) that the deacon cannot remain some feet away from the priest, then perhaps he should forego assisting.

However, in general, it seems to me that whenever possible, the deacon should be present and assist at Mass. The liturgical witness of the deacon’s ministry at the Eucharist is important and a vital sign of the diaconal identity of the Church. As one of the bishops said at the Second Vatican Council, “The Church has a right to all of the graces given to her by God, and the diaconate is one of those graces.”

On a practical level, of course, the priest and deacon should be sure to discuss in advance the specifics of their liturgical “choreography.” As most of us realize, our normal positions vis-a-vis the presider can easily be adapted keeping “social distancing” in mind. Sure, we will temporarily be a bit closer when we hand the gifts to Father, but we can immediately return to a safer distance. On a personal level, I assisted and preached at last Sunday’s live streamed Mass from our parish, and Father and I were able to maintain a safe distance from each other while still carrying out our respective ministries. Given the layout of our sanctuary, it took very little adaptation to make it work.

Second, if deacons are present, what about Holy Communion? Should deacons abstain from receiving Holy Communion; in fact, CAN the deacon abstain?

Looking at these questions from a technical perspective, it is possible for the deacon to abstain from receiving Holy Communion. The only minister who MUST receive Communion is the priest-presider, since it is he who is offering the sacrifice in persona Christi — and the sacrifice must be consumed. This, however, is a minimalist approach to the Eucharist. For many years, many people did not receive Communion at every Mass for a variety of reasons. It was Pope Pius X who encouraged a greater reception of Communion by the people; this effort continued and was emphasized at the Second Vatican Council, so that now nearly everyone receives Communion at every Mass they attend.

But what about the Deacon, especially in today’s situation? I think we would all agree that it is best if the assisting deacon were to receive Holy Communion. This is true on many levels, including the sign value of seeing the deacon receive. Now, how might that be done safely today? It seems to me that one legitimate option would be for both priest and deacon to receive by means of intinction, with the deacon then consuming the remaining Precious Blood and purifying the sacred vessels. I realize that other deacons and priests are using the more traditional (at least in the Latin Church) approach, but intinction seems to offer the safest method, in my opinion.

I used the expression “sign value” above, and I think that’s an important consideration. Our sacraments are public; they are, as the Baltimore Catechism used to have it: “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.” Part of the outward sign of the Eucharist is the ministry of the ordained, which should be exercised in as complete and fulsome way as possible.

So, if at all possible, “it is good for us to be here” at the side of our priest-brother for the Eucharist, even while we remember to stay at a safe distance. And, if we’re there, we should receive Holy Communion, using the safest means available.

Just one deacon’s opinion.

Service of a Different Kind: The “Code Girls” of World War II and After

While in self-imposed quarantine, I have been enjoying Liza Mundy’s wonderful book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Codebreakers of World War II. The book has particular relevance for me. From 1971-1993 I served as a US Navy cryptologist, and two of my tours were at the National Security Agency, where I had the privilege of meeting one of the ladies featured in the book: Ann Z. Caracristi.

World War II: The young woman on the right is Ann Caracristi

Ms. Caracristi had been an English and History major in college, and during World War II she joined the Army Intelligence Service (which would later become the Army Security Agency) and was a standout at breaking Japanese codes. After the war she remained “in the business” and when the National Security Agency was created she joined its ranks. By the end of the 1950s she was already a “supergrade” civilian official. I first met Ms. Caracristi in 1978 when I was taking US Navy cryptologic direct support teams to sea on combatants of the Atlantic Fleet. I was a young Lieutenant at the time and she was the Chief of what was known as “A Group”: the offices directly involved with the former Soviet Union. There were a couple of occasions, following particularly significant patrols, where my crew and I would be asked to brief Ms. Caracristi on the operation. It was always an honor and a bit intimidating to do this, given her staggering intelligence and experience. We were also always struck by her genuine concern for our own safety and welfare on patrol.

2012 Hall of Honor Inductee:
Ann Z. Caracristi

By the time of my second tour at NSA, this time as a Navy Commander, Ms. Caracristi had retired, having finished her career serving as the Deputy Director of the entire National Security Agency. Her name was still whispered with respect throughout the Agency.

So, if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, I highly recommend Code Girls. Who knows? You may find someone you know in its pages!