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Liturgical discipline: It’s about the people

On Christmas Day, Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich issued new policies tightening restrictions on the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy, in light of recent guidance from the Vatican on Pope Francis’ motu proprio Traditionis custodes.

The Chicago policy, which was highlighted by official Vatican media, says its aim is “communion” and fostering “the link between the way we worship and what we believe.”

After its promulgation, some commentators have noted prominent instances of novelty or abuses inserted into the Ordinary Form of the liturgy in different places, including the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Cardinal Blase Cupich. Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo


On Christmas Eve, the parish of St. Sabina celebrated a Mass featuring a light show, jazz musicians, and a number of departures from the liturgical texts for the Ordinary Form of the Mass by the celebrant — including deviations from the approved texts for the words of consecration. 

It was not a liturgy, some Catholic commentators have argued, which appears to embody what Cupich has said he wants to see in the archdiocese, namely the“full acceptance of the liturgical books.”

So will the cardinal crack down? To date, there has been no comment from the chancery, and the chances of a response are not high. 

Some Catholics in Chicago are likely to say silence at St. Sabina is a kind of proof that Cupich’s policy on the Extraordinary Form isn’t actually about fostering unity, or promoting the dignity of the Ordinary Form. Some will infer a kind of tacit approval for the liturgical departures modeled by the parish. 

But while there might be reasonable grounds to ask if liturgical discipline only applies in one direction, there could be a more practical reality in play as well: the cardinal’s pragmatic assessment of who will listen to him, and who will not.

If Cupich were minded to crack down on the kind of liturgical novelties modeled by Fr. Michael Pfleger at St. Sabina on Christmas Eve, the cardinal might pause before provoking a confrontation with the South Side parish community.

Pfleger is a uniquely prominent priest in the archdiocese, one with a history of community activism and leadership, and a dedicated personal following. He also has a long history of run-ins with archdiocesan leadership, having previously tried to face down the former archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, over plans to reassign him. 

Last year, Pfleger was temporarily removed from ministry by Cupich, following accusations of historical sexual abuse. Those claims were subsequently dismissed, and Pfleger was returned to ministry. But during the months in which Pfleger was sidelined, the parish community mounted a strident campaign against the cardinal’s decision to follow normal archdiocesan policy and bench Pfleger during the investigation.

When the parish said it would withhold money owed to the archdiocese until Pfleger was returned to ministry, Cupich had to issue public warnings about the harassment of archdiocesan staff by the priest’s supporters. Even that did little to resolve the pushback. 

The official response from those parish communities most directly affected by Cupich’s new liturgical policy has been very different.

The Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, whose eponymous parish is the flagship for Extraordinary Form liturgy in the archdiocese, issued a statement on the new policy, making clear an intention to comply fully with the cardinal’s wishes.

While the community received news of the new rules “with no little sadness,” the pastor said the canons will be “faithfully implementing the Archdiocesan policy in accord with our spiritual and pastoral patronage, as well as the guidance of the Archbishop of Chicago.”

The truth is that if Cupich doesn’t weigh in on the St. Sabina’s Christmas Eve Mass, it’s probably because he’s picking his battles, and not keen for another one with Pfleger’s parish.

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Nevertheless, claims of lopsided application of liturgical discipline aren’t without justification — and it is worth remembering that, in his own letter accompanying Traditionis custodes, Francis specifically condemned the kind liturgical practices many would say were modeled by St. Sabina’s Christmas Eve Mass. 

“I am saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides,” Francis wrote. “In common with Benedict XVI, I deplore the fact that ‘in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions.’”

At the same time, though, Francis made it clear that he is less concerned with the form of liturgy, qua liturgy, than he is with the people celebrating it, their ecclesiology, and their perceived attitude towards the teachings of Vatican Council II.

It’s not exactly about the liturgy, Francis has said. It’s about the people. 

That sentiment will probably seem evidenced in U.S. dioceses too.

There will likely be no shortage of criticism for examples of one-sided liturgical discipline in Chicago and other dioceses in the weeks to come, but they are likely to be shrugged off, because whatever the policy texts might say about necessary respect for liturgical norms on all sides, policy implementation tends to focus on the people involved, and to reflect human dynamics.

But, as other bishops wrestle with Rome’s latest guidance on how to implement Traditionis custodes, they might well take a leaf out of Cupich’s book — even as they go in another direction. 

The cardinal’s policy re-emphasized the principle that the diocesan bishop is “the moderator, promoter, and guardian of all liturgical life,” and claimed that the pope has “returned competency to the local bishop for the regulation of the use of the liturgical forms.”

Many bishops might decide that serving liturgical and ecclesiological communion in their own dioceses, and implementing the pope’s preference for more integration of traditionalist liturgical communities into ordinary parish life, is best done by first ensuring proper adherence to the approved liturgical texts by everyone, before acting to suppress any ongoing Extraordinary Form usage.

If they do, they could reasonably claim they are acting with the same intentions as Cupich, but in a manner best suited to their own flock’s needs.

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