Traditionis custodes: the new liturgy left on its own

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

We used to say in a playful way that the only way the mass of Vatican II could be saved was through the traditional mass. Classic-minded priests have to make constant efforts, whether they be inspired or have kept habits from the old way of celebrating and believing, to free the new liturgy from the banal motto of “being close to the people”. The truth is, the idea of a mutual enrichment supported by Benedict XVI was essentially made to give more substance to the new mass. But, now that Traditionis custodes wants to do away with the old liturgy, it is hurting this relation between the immemorial tradition and the new one.

The mass is no longer a sacrifice

In contemporary theological debates, to consider the most advanced positions allows to better understand those inspired by more balanced views.

We know that, among the various criticisms of the mass of Vatican II, one that is particularly noted is its weak expression of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Hence the interest in the interpretation given by Biblical scholar Martin Pochon in The Epistle to the Hebrews in view of the Gospels[1], as he considers that the sacrificial perspective of the mass, elaborated starting in the 2nd century and consecrated by the Council of Trent, strays from the Gospels to favor the Epistle to the Hebrews. And furthermore even, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, addressing judaizing Christians, it favors the middle section (7, 1-10, 18), which is the part most sacrificial.

In the Gospels, according to Pochon, Christ unveils the true face of the Father by the gift to us of his life: at the Last Supper, Christ identifies himself to the bread and wine, gifts of God which he remits gratuitously [meaning without the prerequisite of conversion] to the hands of his sinful disciples: Peter, who is going to deny him and Judas, who is going to betray him. Men were  given everything, God nothing, but all comes from Him: and according to Pochon, it is – the true meaning of the Cross. On the other hand, the Epistle to the Hebrews presents a figure of the Father which is fearful, with an obedient Son who has offered himself to God in sacrifice so to intercede for sinners and, thus, protect them from the wrath of God by making this sacrifice propitious. The Letter to the Hebrew and the subsequent liturgy have reversed the meaning of the Last Supper and of the mass. As a matter of fact, Christ chose to live the Last Supper in the perspective of Easter, memorial of the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery, with a lamb that we don’t offer to God – according to Pochon -, but that God offers us. Christ did not choose the feast of Yom Kippour, Day of Atonement, when sacrifices were offered in remission for sins against God so He would renew with his people, a ritual from which the epistle drew its inspiration to speak of the blood which seals once and for all the New Alliance. Nor did he choose the Tridentine mass, an hebraic mass, as it seems it should be understood.

In the same style, Jacques Musset, a former priest from the French diocese of Rennes, considers that the “drift” which consist in seeing in the mass the renewal of the expiatory sacrifice Jesus offered shedding his blood on the Cross for the salvation of sinners, would have appeared at the end of the period of the constitution of the New Testament, in the second century and through the third century[2]. This drift would be concomitant to the appearance of the monarchical episcopate, replacing a structure of a collegial administration of the Christian communities.

Musset is dependent on the late Jesuit Father Joseph Moingt, from the Centre Sèvres in Paris, who in his book The Spirit of Christianity[3] plays a score on the successful theme summarized in Loisy’s famous quote: “Jesus announced the Kingdom, and it is the Church that came.” Moingt discerned two simultaneous turning points at the end of the second century: on the one hand, the “religious turning point” which sees the diverse communities of evangelical life mutate into an “instituted religion” destined to worship God and to procure spiritual help to those attending, with a staff consecrated to this effect, distinct from other Christians, and with a unification of beliefs into “orthodoxy”; and on the other hand, the “sacrificial turning point”, through which the then imposing monarchical episcopate refers to the Old Testament to qualify as sacerdotal power by shifting the eucharist from the table to the altar and by making a sacrifice for sins. Supposedly, the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus would give testimony of all this.

Moingt yet reminds us of the words of Jesus during the Last Supper (body “given up”, blood “shed”; this is my Blood, the Blood of covenant, shed for many for the forgiveness of sins”, Mt 26, 28), which refer the Last Supper to his fast approaching death and present a possible relation with the sacrifices of the Temple. But, along with “the historians”, he doubts that these words have ever been pronounced by Christ, and he holds that the Church has only been able to consider the Last Supper and the mass as relating to the bloody sacrifice for the sins only because the liturgy is from then on “offered by a priest duly consecrated.”[4] Ordinary Christians have actually agreed with ease, all the more, to be striped of their native priesthood, that the neighboring idolatrous religions all had consecrated priesthoods and also that the ongoing recognition within the Christian community of the unity of both Testaments was transforming the priesthood and the jewish sacrifices into “figures” of those of the Church. In short, under the simultaneous action of paganism and judaism, Christianity became sacerdotal and sacrificial and remained so thereafter.

The mass of Vatican II, a compromise

In the time of the liturgical reform of Vatican II and its implementation, the issue concerning the sacrifice, much less radical, is very ecumenical. Within a perspective initiated notably by Odon Casel, the intention is to erase as much as possible the fact that the sacrifices of the mass – which we must hypothetically hold that they refer entirely to the sacrifice of the Cross they reproduce – make number with it and amongst themselves.[5] Furthermore, keeping with an ecumenical angle, there was the intention to erase what appears “too sacrificial” by insisting on the aspect of sacrifice of praise[6] – in perfect orthodoxy, of course, as suggested even by the use of the word Eucharist – rather than on the aspect of its propitiatory end.[7]

Whatever the intentions and influences, it is clear that the new missal shifted the attention that the liturgy of the mass gave primarily to the sacrifice of Good Friday, towards the paschal mystery altogether. In the midst of innumerable acts, the major diminishment resulted in the suppression of the traditional sacrificial offertory – the term offertory had actually always been understood in liturgy in the bold sense of sacrifice -, which strongly underlined the propitiatory character (Accept, O holy Father, this unspotted host, which I offer unto thee for my innumerable sins and those all here present… “), which was replaced by a “preparation of the Gifts” (“Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life”).

The eradication of the offertory did not take place without hard work. A “preparation of the Gifts” prayer was written like one that supposedly was used at the beginning of the Last Supper, which resembles the Jewish berakha blessing over the bread and over the cup of wine. It is the formulation of Joseph Gélineau, sj which eventually prevailed. The expressions of sacrificial offering, of “unspotted host”, for the sins of the priest and for the salvation of “all faithful Christians, both living and dead,” of the “chalice of salvation” for the salvation of the whole world, were all eliminated. Pochon recalls he often heard Gélineau explain that the Consilium of reform had tried to rectify the meaning of the mass: instead of a sacrifice of Jesus to his Father so that it would become propitiatory, we found again a reception of the offering of Jesus to men.[8]

It is true that Paul VI, in relation to the concerns he had expressed during the Council to bring those holding traditional doctrines to more easily accept novations, had introduced various items to soften up the novelty of the changes: the addition of the offerimus (though the French translation will say: “we present”); the re-introduction of the Orate fratres (“… my sacrifice and yours…”) and of the response Suscipiat (“May the Lord receive from thy hands …”), which the French translation also modified somewhat: “Let us pray together as we offer the sacrifice of the all Church.”

Martin Pochon takes this opportunity to say that this reform remained incomplete. But, in any case, what happened in regards to the development of the formation of dogma had never been seen: like in some documents of Vatican II (for example on ecumenism), as well as the proper mode of the lex orandi, the new doctrinal expression (notably on the sacrifice) is more impressionistic and uncertain that the one it came to replace.

After Traditionis custodes, what comes next?

In addition, the Protestant-leaning ecumenical atmosphere in which the liturgical reform took place inscribed itself within the general context of “openness to present conditions of the Church and of the world”, to follow Pierre Journel, one of the major artisans of the new liturgy[9]. There was a weakening of the expression of sacrifice, certainly, but within a general increasing blandness, an implosion of ritualism, a normalization of gestures, words, attitudes. Modernism and its developments are more characterized by nothingness rather than particular opposition.

This drift towards an insignificant message is however counteracted by a sort of Tridentine recollection which still lingers over the conciliar liturgy. It was considerably revived by the parallel celebration of the old rite. Martin Pochon speaks of the “blocage” of the evolution of the reform because of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum[10]: isn’t the success of the seminary of the Saint Martin Community, with altar facing God and gregorian chant, the indirect fruit of the pontifical document? To the extent that Gilles Drouin, director of the Institut Supérieur de Liturgie of the Catholic university in Paris, writes with relief after Traditionis custodes: “The ‘tinkering of the rituals’ that we have seen for a while and that are supposed to fill the rubrical void of the Novus Ordo with rites or practices inherited from the Vetus Ordo […] must be considered with the same rigor than the well known post conciliar abuse[11].”

But those who rejoice seeing the end of Summorum Pontificum might come to realize that Traditionis custodes is not to last long either. Indeed, in the reconfigurations which are going to  come following the present pontificate, the usus antiquior should be able to appear as an appropriate ecclesial solution because of all it represents. As it necessarily lives on and prosper within the small flock to which Catholicism is being reduced, in the Western World, it will be able to accompany a process of renewal for a Church Vatican II has made sick, and not just in regards to liturgy. That is, if we know to seize the opportunity.

Rev. Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] Cerf, 2020, 724 p.
[2] Jacques Musset, « Motu proprio, et après on fait quoi ? », (Motu proprio, and what do we do next?) in Golias, 26 August 2021, pp. 19-20.
[3] Temps présent, 2018.
[4] Op. cit., p. 124.
[5] See: Claude Barthe, La Messe de Vatican II. Dossier historique, Via Romana, 2018, pp. 178-182.
[6] See the tentatives of conciliation: Joseph Ratzinger, « L’Eucharistie est-elle un sacrifice? », Concilium April 1967, pp. 67-7.
[7] “Luther perceived a sacrificial element in the mass: the sacrifice of acknowledgment and praise”, said the 2017 Document for the Catholic-Lutheran Commemoration, n. 148.
[8] L’épître aux Hébreux au regard des Évangiles, op. cit., p. 696.
[9] « Le Missel de Paul VI », La Maison-Dieu, 3rd trimester 1970, p. 26.
[10] L’épître aux Hébreux au regard des Évangiles, op. cit., p. 697.
[11] « Le pape François et la liturgie préconciliaire, ou la fin de la récréation », la Croix, 12 August 2021.