Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Catholic World News News Feature

“All We Ask is for the Mass” May 01, 2005

By Roger A. McCaffrey and Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

It didn't take Pope John Paul II sixty days after his election in 1978 to summon traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre to the Vatican for a talk.

Archbishop Lefebvre, who had been suspended a divinis two years earlier by Pope Paul VI for insubordination, made his case passionately to the new Pontiff. “All we ask is for the Mass,” the archbishop told the Holy Father. The Pope replied that he had no problem with Archbishop Lefebvre or with his apostolate, looking (according to the archbishop's account) plaintively at his two cardinal-associates.

A key papal aide, Cardinal Franjo Seper-then the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith-objected, accusing Lefebvre of promoting another agenda beyond the traditional Latin Mass. The new Pope excused himself to attend to other business.

After encountering opposition in the heart of his own administration, it says much about John Paul II's style and determination that he pursued other avenues to bring Archbishop Lefebvre back: avenues he knew might take a while to traverse. They were nevertheless easier to tread in those early days, because as Lefebvre insisted time and again, “all we ask is for the Mass.”

Pope John Paul tried to accommodate that request. Archbishop Lefebvre and the traditionalists were not at the top of the late Pontiff's “to do” list, but as he proved with his early meeting with the archbishop, they were certainly on it. Traditionalists who argue to the contrary are forgetting history-and underweighting the power of the ideology of Vatican II, which had gripped most of the men running the Church, and still does. Moderate change, key prelates believed, is not only good but required.


But some traditionalists also underrate John Paul's charity. He had no interest in reviving the old Mass. The Mass of the Council had replaced it, in his view. But he saw the pre-conciliar Missal as having a limited pastoral role. It was his aides who smelled trouble with that, and since popes have to rule through their staffs, John Paul was left to cope with their disagreement.

He did try. Cardinal Seper would go to his eternal reward, and Lefebvre's arch-enemy, the leftist Secretary of State, Cardinal Jean-Marie Villot, also passed away. Significantly, the latter was replaced by Cardinal Casaroli, a pragmatic liberal who did what the Pope asked and voted with a blue-ribbon commission of cardinals to lift restrictions on the old Mass.

Meanwhile, predictably, as the 1980s progressed, Archbishop Lefebvre, appalled at the drift to unorthodoxy both in parish life and in the Catholic academic world, kept raising his asking price for reconciliation. (The left gets everything it wants, so why can't we? reasoned the French prelate, all but explicitly.) Ironically, sophisticated conservative Catholics (many attached to groups like the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars) who resented Lefebvre's “strident” tongue-lashings of the Vatican were increasingly angry with Rome themselves. Nothing was being done; the liberals have taken over, they lamented privately.

Indeed, as the pontificate of John Paul II wore on, two contradictory facts became clear: he was planning on doing little to stop the liberals (except to give speeches and issue documents)-and he was as determined as in the first days of his pontificate to reconcile Archbishop Lefebvre and the traditionalists.

Looking back on the late Pope's plan, the appointment of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1981 as chief of doctrine was crucial. Cardinal Ratzinger, even in the 1970s, was voicing second thoughts about liturgical change, and by the mid-1980s was considered a full-fledged reactionary by most Church academics in Europe. He commenced informal talks with Archbishop Lefebvre and with his old friend Eric de Saventhem of Una Voce International, a lay group dedicated to the old Mass.

De Saventhem, a retired German diplomat and businessman with a cultured and soothing manner which would have appealed to Cardinal Ratzinger, played the crucial role in shaping an argument for rapprochement with traditionalists, a case that he thought would be bought by sincere Vatican adherents to the new Mass. He acted first as intermediary, then on his own, coached by writer Michael Davies, the key figure in traditionalist circles after Lefebvre himself. They attempted to work out a separate peace between non-aligned traditionalists and the Vatican, and eventually hit pay dirt.

The papal motu proprio of 1984 officially permitting bishops to re-introduce the old Mass in their dioceses “without prejudice to” the new rite was right out of de Saventhem's playbook, and he used it as a wedge to extract further concessions from Rome when Archbishop Lefebvre was declared schismatic in 1988. Traditionalists may shake their heads that “concessions” for the ancient Latin rite ever required “extraction” from Peter. But win them de Saventhem and Davies did.


In 1988 John Paul called for a “wide and generous application” of his indult of 1984. Ten years later, two-thirds of US dioceses had traditional Latin Masses offered through the indult-still a very small percentage of all parish Masses, but the old Mass once again had a foothold in the life of the Church.

Several thousand traditionalists traveled to Rome in 1998, the tenth anniversary of the Pope's 1988 motu proprio Ecclesia Dei, amid rumors-fed by Vatican sources-that to mark the occasion the Vatican was prepared further to relax restrictions on the old Mass. Other than a friendly papal address calling on the bishops yet again to respect and accommodate traditionalists' desire for the old Mass, the pilgrims left empty-handed. Some doubtless suspected the movement was losing momentum.

But additional concessions seemed to be in the cards as the new century opened. In 2000, thousands of the faithful of Archbishop Lefebvre's Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), along with their priests, went to Rome on the occasion of the jubilee year. A number of Roman prelates were favorably impressed by what they saw. Shortly thereafter, Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos met with the society's four bishops, at a meeting that both sides described as cordial. As the year progressed, Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos contacted Bishop Bernard Fellay, the superior general of the SSPX, to begin negotiations aimed at regularizing the SSPX and protecting them from hostile local prelates.

The situation seemed auspicious. “In noting your good will,” Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos later recalled in a letter to Bishop Fellay, “and based on the fact that your Fraternity certainly was not spreading any heretical doctrine and did not maintain schismatic attitudes, I had dared you to propose, without consulting anyone first, to set a possible date for reintegration.” Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos had suggested that such a happy occasion could occur as early as Easter, 2001.

By early 2001, Bishop Fellay was requesting that Rome make two initial concessions as gestures of good will: first, that the right to offer the traditional Latin Mass be acknowledged for every Roman-rite priest, and second, that the excommunications of the SSPX bishops be declared a nullity. According to all reports, the latter condition posed no difficulty. The former was more of an obstacle, given the intense opposition to the old Mass among some of the hierarchy-although word has it that Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos privately conceded that the old rite had never been forbidden to any priest.

Negotiations eventually broke down and communications between the two sides grew more and more acrimonious, though neither side repudiated the talks altogether. To many traditionalists this seemed a tragic missed opportunity. Rome was offering an agreement that was at least as favorable as the one that Archbishop Lefebvre himself had been prepared to accept in 1988. The Society would have kept its properties and its bishops, and would have been granted the right to the exclusive celebration of the traditional Mass and sacraments, along with the right to establish churches and schools throughout the Catholic world. Very significantly, they would have been answerable not to local bishops but directly to the Pope.


In the midst of these negotiations, an event of enormous significance for Catholic traditionalism took place: the reconciliation of the Society of St. John Marie Vianney (SSJV), a traditional apostolic administration in Campos, Brazil. In late 2001, amid great ceremony and much rejoicing, the members of this community were granted the right to offer only the traditional Mass and sacraments, and in general to carry on their apostolic work as they had been doing, except now with express Vatican approval. Michael Davies cheered the agreement, fully appreciating the significance of what had taken place.

To be sure, the Diocese of Campos is not exactly the center of gravity of the Catholic world. But its 30,000 traditionalist souls number more than the active traditionalists in New York City and Boston combined. And Campos could now serve as a model. Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, in his correspondence with Bishop Fellay, referred to the example of Campos as an indication of the kind of arrangement that the Vatican was prepared to implement for all traditionalists. Rome's decision to ordain Father Fernando Rifan a bishop to succeed Bishop Licinio Rangel, who was ill, as head of the apostolic administration served the additional purpose of demonstrating Vatican good will to a skeptical SSPX, since Father Rifan was deeply respected by his brother priests and his traditional credentials were not in doubt.

The very fact that a structure now exists in the world in which traditional priests and faithful may live and flourish, and in which offering the traditional Mass is spoken of as a right, indicates the evolution of Rome's position under Pope John Paul's guidance. In fact, traditionalists had already won the conceptual battle for the old Mass's enduring role in the life of the Church the minute John Paul signed his 1984 motu proprio. In doing so, the Supreme Pontiff, who agreed wholeheartedly with Paul VI regarding reform of the Mass, reversed the policy of his predecessor on a matter central to the life of the Church-and did so only six years after Paul VI died. He also showed a nobility and largesse, given his point of view on the Mass, that many a traditionalist prelate of the future would do well to imitate.

With the recent election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, still more progress is likely for traditionalists. Cardinal Ratzinger had long been a supporter of the old rite and a critic of the way the new was typically celebrated. His published work on the liturgy makes clear his impatience with the liturgical spirit that dominates so much of the Catholic world at present.

“I am of the opinion, to be sure, that the old rite should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it,” wrote the future Pope Benedict XVI in his 1997 book Salt of the Earth:

It's impossible to see what could be dangerous or unacceptable about that. A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent.

The new pontificate promises to be eventful indeed.

[AUTHOR ID] Roger A. McCaffrey is a publisher who founded Latin Mass and Sursum Corda magazines and presently heads Roman Catholic Books; he also consults for Ave Maria University's Sapientia Press. Thomas E. Woods, Jr., is the author, most recently, of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, a New York Times bestseller.



When traditionalist leader Michael Davies, who headed the International Una Voce Federation, died in 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger-the future Pope Benedict XVI-had this to say:

I have been profoundly touched by the news of the death of Michael Davies. I had the good fortune to meet him several times and I found him to be a man of deep faith and ready to embrace suffering. Ever since the Council he put all his energy into the service of the faith and left us important publications especially on the sacred liturgy. Even though he suffered from the Church in many ways in his time, he always truly remained a man of the Church. He knew that the Lord founded His Church on the rock of Peter and that the faith can find its fullness and maturity only in union with the successor of St. Peter. Therefore we can be confident that the Lord opened wide for him the gates of heaven. We commend his soul to the Lord's mercy.



1976- Vatican charter of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre's Seminary of St. Pius X is withdrawn. Archbishop Lefebvre is suspended by Pope Paul VI, who subjects him to an emotional outburst-to which Archbishop Lefebvre responds in kind. 1978- A new pope-John Paul II-initiates contact with Archbishop Lefebvre and receives him warmly at the Vatican, expressing the desire to reconcile the French archbishop and his Society of St. Pius X. 1981- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger becomes prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 1984- A papal indult, Quattor Abhinc Annos, is issued to all the bishops of the world, authorizing them to re-introduce the Latin Mass according to the 1962 Missal at will. 1986- Pope appoints a blue-ribbon advisory commission of cardinals-including the Secretary of State, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli-to examine the question of the Latin Mass; they conclude unanimously that the old ritual was never abrogated and priests have a right to use it. Informal talks (never absent) are intensified with Archbishop Lefebvre. 1986- Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Lefebvre reach a deal to regularize the burgeoning Society of St. Pius X-allowing the SSPX to maintain its own schools, seminaries, and convents, and to solemnize marriages. But Archbishop Lefebvre quickly retracts his agreement and expresses new mistrust of Rome. He is declared excommunicated latae sententiae, but the Pope also issues Ecclesia Dei Adflicta, a motu proprio recognizing the “rightful aspirations” of the faithful who wish to attend Mass in the old rite and encouraging bishops to accommodate them. 1988- The Fraternity of St. Peter is established by the Pope to train priests in the old rite and minister to traditionalist flocks worldwide. He also establishes a papal commission, Ecclesia Dei, to safeguard the right of Catholics to attend Mass using the Missal of 1962. 1988-98- The Fraternity of St. Peter's small army of priests, when combined with various other traditionalist orders, grows to serve close to 1 million faithful, by Vatican estimate (which includes the Society of St. Pius X's communities as well). 1998- Pope John Paul II convenes a special audience for thousands of traditionalist priests and faithful at St.Peter's, anticipating his Jubilee Year efforts to reconcile Archbishop Lefebvre's order through a new round of negotiations with Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos 2002- Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos consecrates the first bishop since Vatican II exclusively for a traditionalist community in Campos, Brazil, serving more than 30,000 faithful in that diocese alone. The traditionalist bishop answers directly to Rome and not to the diocesan ordinary-a situation virtually unique in the history of the Church. 2003- Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos celebrates the Old Mass in St. Mary Major, one of Rome's major basilicas, and delivers a rousing sermon insisting that Catholic traditionalists cannot be treated as if they were “second class citizens.” 2005- Pope Benedict XVI is elected, with known sympathy for lifting all restrictions on the old Mass.