Joseph Shaw

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French bishops should examine their own attitude to traditional Catholics and the ancient Mass

The traditional Catholic organization, Una Voce France, say that the bishops regard them as 'narrow-minded beings, without theology, without charity'
Mon Feb 8, 2021 - 2:04 pm EST
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Bishop Dominique Rey of Frejus-Toulon, the only French bishop who regularly ordains his own, diocesan priests using the older form. Mgr Dominique Rey / YouTube

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February 8, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — As LifeSiteNews has reported, a document emanating from the French Bishops’ Conference has found its way into the public domain on the subject of the Traditional Mass or Extraordinary Form (EF). It describes itself as a summary of the responses made by individual bishops on the application of Summorum Pontificum, the 2007 Apostolic Letter of Pope Benedict XVI which made it easier for priests to celebrate, and for people to request, the Mass in the form it had at the eve of the Second Vatican Council, in Latin.

The document has angered many French traditionalists for its hostile tone. Una Voce France, for example, fails to find in it “the slightest trace of empathy, cordiality, or ‘heart’.”

One should not too quickly assume that this tone is representative of the French bishops: the document is clearly the work of a middle-ranking functionary of the Conference staff, and not a very well-educated one at that, in light of its numerous errors of syntax and spelling. Nevertheless, it has some relationship with individual bishops’ reports, which are often quoted, and two themes in particular stand out.

One positive thing, which none of the bishops seem inclined to deny, is that Summorum Pontificum has brought peace: “appaisement” in French. It has in practice given most Catholics attached to the ancient Mass access to it, and by doing so removed a huge source of tension from the Church in France: and this is true in many other countries around the world. The frustration and bad feeling generated by the previous situation, in which the Traditional Latin Mass was only possible with the express permission of the bishop, and was regarded by many with deep suspicion, is largely a thing of the past.

Instead of simmering resentment, on both sides, we now have a developing situation, at least in northern Europe and North America, that Catholics can freely choose which Mass to attend, according to what best meets their spiritual needs. Since Catholics in all but the most isolated parishes could already choose between numerous varieties of the reformed, vernacular Mass, it is difficult to see why adding one more option could be anything but a good thing.

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This, however, raises the document’s second theme. Although it has brought peace, many bishops in France nevertheless fret that it is dividing the Church according to liturgical preference. They aren’t so worried, apparently, about immigrants attending Masses in minority vernacular languages, Catholics having a choice between charismatic, liberal, and conservative liturgies, or Catholics even within a single parish sorting themselves as the adherents of the “quick evening Mass’”, the “family Mass”, and “the High Mass”: yet these divisions can lead to different groups of Catholics hardly coming into contact with each other, and hearing nothing but what confirms them in their own liturgical preferences.

These divisions don’t worry the bishops, but the division between traditional and “Ordinary Form” congregations does. They sense a different kind of separation between the traditionalists and the rest of the Church, and, in particular, with them, the bishops. There is something, perhaps, of the “us and them” about this division. Why could that be?

It might be useful for the French bishops to examine their own contribution to this situation. The very terms of this document, indeed the very fact that it was written, suggests a degree of hostility to the ancient Mass, and a low opinion of the priests and people associated with it. The bishops see them, again to quote Una Voce France, as “narrow-minded beings, without theology, without charity.” It is pretty difficult to love a bishop who has this attitude towards you. 

The document also relates that some bishops find that their local EF congregations are reluctant to ask them to administer Confirmation? How strange! I doubt that is the case with those bishops who have made a genuine effort to be friendly, like Bishop Dominique Rey of Frejus-Toulon, who is picked out as the only bishop who regularly ordains his own, diocesan priests using the older form.

This kind of positive engagement with the ancient liturgy in relation to seminarians is also the key to another aspect of the French bishops’ problem. Many of them think that the EF would become more integrated into their dioceses if it were celebrated by more diocesan priests, and not just by priests of the traditional institutes who celebrate it exclusively. Supposing this is true, what obstacle is there to the bishops encouraging their own seminarians and younger priests to learn to say the EF? None, except themselves. In the same document we hear that seminarians mostly lack the Latin to learn the EF, and those who do learn it have to do so in their spare time. We also know from numerous other sources that in France, as in many countries, too open a liking for the EF can blot a seminarians’ copy-book. 

But if seminaries are hostile to the EF, and this is preventing a fuller integration of this form into the life of a diocese, then the bishops have only themselves to blame.


  catholic, extraordinary form, france, french bishops conference, summorum pontificum, traditional latin mass, una voce france

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