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New Mass rules begin their 'study period.' How long will it last?

With few exceptions, most U.S. bishops have responded with something of a punt to the promulgation of Traditionis custodes, a piece of canonical legislation from Pope Francis which overhauls the Church’s approach to the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki exposes the Blessed Sacrament on an empty ice rink. Credit: Diocese of Springfield.


Several U.S. bishops have issued statements or notified their priests that they plan to study the legislation’s norms and make a plan of their response for their dioceses, but that, for the time being, the status quo for the Extraordinary Form remains in effect. 

Typical of that approach is that of Washington’s Cardinal Wilton Gregory, who said he would “will prayerfully reflect upon” the pope’s new norms, but that, in the meantime, those who currently celebrate Mass according to the 1962 Missal may “continue to do so this weekend and in the days to come, until further guidance is forthcoming." 

Other bishops, like Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis, have steered a similar line, citing the need for further reflection on and study of the new norms and permitting those priests already celebrating the Extraordinary Form to continue to do so. 

Hebda’s notification, like many others, also addressed directly a lingering question about the permitted venues for future Extraordinary Form celebrations, providing that “the Mass in the Extraordinary Form [can] continue in those locations where it is currently being offered in the Archdiocese,” for the time being. 

“Study” and “prayerful reflection” are the sort of things that often linger in diocesan chanceries with no end in sight. Sometimes, that’s even by design.

And while bishops may eventually issue long-term plans for restricting Masses in the manner Pope Francis prescribes, most — even those who are not usually identified as supporters of the usus antiquior —  seem in very little hurry to do anything.

There are probably a few reasons for that. 

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First, bishops who have seen tremendous discontent about the norms of Traditionis custodes are unlikely to want to bring the protests to their own door if they can help it. When they do make policies about the “Latin Mass,” they’re going to want to get it right, and they’re going to want to be prepared for the frustration that will bring to bear. 

Second, the motu proprio may be clear in its broad aims, but it is full of questions at the granular level. 

Bishops who seem not to be doing anything may be stuck with the problem of not knowing what to do. 

Pope Francis intends to turn more immediate power over to diocesan bishops to evaluate, on a case by case basis, those priests and communities who want to continue to use the EF, and to ensure that its usage does not become (or in some cases, at least according to the pope, cease to be) proxies for a wides theological or cultural rejection of Vatican Council II. 

But at the ground level, the norms are not so clear. One of the more ambiguous provisions of Traditionis is a prohibition on the celebration of the Extraordinary Form in “parochial churches,” that is, churches which are the seat of a parish.

How narrowly, retroactively, or flexibly that provision is intended to be applied is widely regarded as unclear.

But taken at face value it could produce very different outcomes in different parts of the world. 

In Italy, for example, most major cities, towns, and even villages are rich in churches, some of them centuries old. It is not uncommon for Italian dioceses to have many more churches than parishes. Insisting that the Extraordinary Form be celebrated somewhere other than the parochial church does not present a very difficult logistical hurdle.

In many parts of the United States, however, especially in more rural areas, the parish church is all there is — there may not even be a parish hall or gymnasium available to pinch hit. Even in cities with historically large Catholic populations, like Boston, Chicago, or Pittsburgh, neighborhoods that once saw multiple churches serving different communities within the same territory no longer have the same embarrassment of riches. 

Many former ethnic parishes have closed, and many U.S. dioceses have undertaken decades-long programs of parish consolidation, shuttering and selling old churches and combining their remaining congregations into more manageable one-church parishes. This process has been accelerated by a wave of bankruptcies in many places, often stemming from legal costs related to the sexual abuse crisis.

Absent alternatives, a rigorously applied ban on the EF in “parochial churches” could, in practice, amount to practical suppression for many groups in many places. And some canonists have suggested an internal incoherence in Traditionis custodes that needs to be meted out: While bishops are permitted to allow ‘personal parishes’ erected for the specific purpose of offering the Extraordinary Form to continue existing in their dioceses, they seem to be required to prohibit Mass in the churches of those parishes. 

That seems to be what the law requires. But it seems unlikely, at least to many, that’s what the pope had in mind. Rome may well be required to intervene for clarity, but any such response will probably take time. 

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Diocesan bishops hoping to navigate these different circumstances successfully will need both a careful eye on their own local circumstances, but also a clear sense of what the pope really wants, as much as what he has said.  

Because of uncertainty about points like the Mass in “parochial churches,” many bishops “studying” the question are probably really waiting for guidance or precedence from other bishops or from institutions they trust to set the tone. 

There will likely be workshops and guidebooks offered in the months to come on the implementation of the pope’s new norms, probably with competing viewpoints about how to interpret certain provisions. A few prevailing models will likely shake out.

Some diocesan bishops are probably hoping the metropolitan archbishop will set a policy, and they can simply follow suit. 

But the bishop of Springfield, Illinois, did not wait for a precedent before interpreting the text.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki, a well-regarded canon lawyer, issued a decree July 19 to implement the motu proprio

The bishop’s text addressed controversial questions without hesitation: Rather than note the ambiguities about the norms on the Extraordinary Form in parochial churches, Paprocki simply accepted the plainest reading of the law, and then dispensed two parish churches from its prohibition. Rather than wait for priests who celebrate the Extraordinary Form to request authorization to continue, as some suggest the pope’s text requires, Paprocki simply judged that he was in authority to extend them permission sua sponte, and he did it.

The decree was short, to the point, and clear: The pope says bishops should implement the law for the good of their people, and here’s what that means in the Diocese of Springfield. 

Paprocki’s approach is the first. It may not become the normative model, but it could be — whether other bishops will take up Paprocki’s decree as a model for their own dioceses remains to be seen. 

At least a few bishops, probably, are waiting to see whether anyone else will do that first. 

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