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Are US dioceses 'in a corner' over Traditionis custodes?

Nearly a year on from its release, many U.S. dioceses are still working on plans to implement Traditionis custodes, the papal motu proprio on the celebration of the Mass according to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. 

But even some prominent archdioceses have struggled to issue a plan for the Extraordinary Form — bringing Pope Francis’ new norms into action has proven no easy task, even for bishops clearly eager to bring their diocese in line with the pope’s vision. And a particular challenge is posed by mandates both to listen to local congregations and to restrict a liturgical form that a cadre of practicing Catholics say is important to them.

Image Credit: Lawrence OP, (CC BY-ND 2.0)


That challenge is illustrated in the Archdiocese of Washington.

Several priests of the archdiocese told The Pillar this week that Cardinal Wilton Gregory approved a plan for the implementation of Traditionis custodes in the archdiocese weeks ago, but has not yet released the policy.

“Everyone knows the broad brush strokes at this point,” one senior diocesan cleric told The Pillar, “we’re all just kind of waiting for the big reveal — or the hammer to fall, depending on your point of view.”

The priest, along with several other diocesan clerics, agreed to speak with The Pillar on condition of anonymity, citing archdiocesan policy to refer all media contact to the chancery.

Several senior clergy told The Pillar that the plan, approved by Cardinal Gregory but as yet unpublished, will effectively prohibit the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in any archdiocesan or parish church, but would allow for a single weekly celebration at a church on the grounds of the Franciscan monastery in the DC neighborhood of Brookland.

“The cardinal has been clear: ‘We are going to do what the pope asks,’” another Washington priest told The Pillar, “that means no EF Mass in parish churches.” 

But the text is not yet released. One source close to the chancery attributed the delay to Gregory’s commitment to hearing feedback on the issue from both the priests of the archdiocese and from the local Catholic community, through the archdiocesan synodal listening sessions which concluded at the end of May.

The results of those sessions are being drawn up now, though it is unclear to what extent their conclusions could alter archdiocesan plans.

According to one account published last month, members of the parish of St. Francis de Sales in Washington held a vigil outside a synodal listening session attended by Gregory on May 14. The vigil-goers asked the cardinal to reconsider the widely-rumored plan that would close the EF celebration at that parish, a celebration which, several parishioners told The Pillar, accounts for the majority of weekly Mass attendees for the parish. 

One synodal delegate, a recently widowed mother of seven, reportedly told the cardinal in front of the synodal assembly that “I just buried my husband two days ago, please don’t make me lose my parish.”

If that kind of feedback is operative in archdiocesan consultations, a bishop like Gregory could be in a bind: eager to listen to synodal consultation, as the pope has urged, while at the same time eager to implement the pope’s liturgical vision in his own archdiocese.

Of course, the overall number of Catholics attending the Extraordinary Form is small, but it is also concentrated in some parish communities which have come to depend on it.

Weekly attendance numbers suggest that some parishes, like St. Francis, might struggle to remain viable if the Extraordinary Form is excised from the parish. 

“It’s ironic, really,” one archdiocesan priest who does not offer the Extraordinary Form Mass in his parish told The Pillar, “the rationale is that Traditiones requires the old Mass not be celebrated in parish churches. But closing the old Mass in some of these places will effectively close the parish, too. What community is that supposed to serve, exactly?”

“All the clergy of the diocese know this will be the effect, no one sees the need or the benefit, pastorally speaking, but I don’t think any amount of ‘listening’ and ‘reflection’ is going to move the needle.”

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One priest close to the archdiocesan chancery told The Pillar that Washington, and Cardinal Gregory, are “in a corner” over implementing Traditiones custodes.

“It’s the capital. There is a small but very vocal, very visible traditional liturgy community here, and everyone is watching,” he said.

“I think the cardinal is in a corner. What’s he to do? Implement anything less than the letter of the law and it will look like you are ignoring the pope — and setting an example for others to do the same. Do it without listening to your own clergy and people in the synodal sessions and you’re being unpastoral, and not following the pope’s lead either. ”

But what happens if the results of the synodal listening sessions and the advice of the archdiocesan clergy point towards a more moderate implementation of Traditiones custodes? There may be no easy answer for Cardinal Gregory, or for bishops in other dioceses facing a similar choice.

The tension facing many bishops, including apparently Cardinal Gregory, would seem to be the difficulty in reconciling a clear instruction from Rome with conflicting local pastoral concerns, and feedback on a liturgical issue from his congregation. 

What happens next in Washington could prove to be a weather vane: If that tension cannot be reconciled, and results in local rules that lead to parish closures, it could signal a shift that would de-emphasize the principles of subsidiarity and pastoral proximity for local bishops, in favor of strict adherence to a one-size-fits-all approach from Rome.

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