Just over a year since the promulgation of the motu proprio Traditionis custodes, dioceses around the United States continue to issue plans for implementing Pope Francis’ law on the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy.
In recent weeks, the bishops of both the Archdiocese of Washington and the neighboring Diocese of Arlington have published their local plans for Traditionis custodes, scaling back the availability of Extraordinary Form Masses, and prohibiting the use of preconciliar liturgical books for the celebration of other sacraments and funeral liturgies.
The words “unity” and “pastoral” feature prominently in recently issued plans, as they do in a policy issued previously in the Archdiocese of Chicago, on which the Washington policy appears to be substantially based.
But while pastoral unity might be the rhetoric, Catholics who attend Extraordinary Form Masses say the policies have caused serious disruption to the lives of established communities, and the parishes which they have called home. And at least some are asking whether their bishops actually intend to offer them “pastoral accompaniment” and, if so, what it will look like.
Following Traditionis custodes’ requirement that the Extraordinary Form not be celebrated in parish churches, many parishes which have been home for years to liturgically traditional communities for years have been told they can no longer host them.
In some cases, those communities actually make up the majority of the parish itself, and pastors are now facing the potential loss of a large portion of their flock — in some cases potentially challenging the viability of the parish itself.
On the other hand, newly designated venues for the Extraordinary Form are expected to accommodate several such communities combined, and to do so in much smaller venues than those they’ve grown used to.
While impacted Catholics are unhappy with these changes, bishops have noted that they are obliged to implement papal policy in their dioceses, even when that makes for uncomfortable situations.
Leaving aside the question of whether bishops can dispense from some provisions of Traditionis, it’s worth noting that the way policies are received often depends on how they are presented to the people affected by them.
But there is obvious disagreement about whether bishops have shown themselves “close to their flocks” as local Catholics try to adjust to changing realities.
In most places, it has been left to parish pastors to present the changes, with diocesan bishops choosing not to announce the changes in person, even to directly affected communities.
One pastor told The Pillar recently that he had been “abandoned” by his diocese, as he attempted to explain why his parish would no longer offer Extraordinary Form Masses.
“These are people I have known, and cared for, for years,” he said. “They feel like they are being told they are not welcome, not wanted. For all the talk about unity, I’ve been told to tear my parish family apart.”
Another priest, from the Archdiocese of Washington, told The Pillar that some priests of the archdiocese have felt singled out by Cardinal Wilton Gregory’s recent letter and policy on Traditionis custodes.
“The cardinal wrote that ‘the majority of priests’ who’ve been ministering to these communities are doing are best to pastorally care for them,” he said, “but then he turns around and says we need to assure him in writing that we accept Vatican II if we want to continue trying to care for these people.”
“The message,” he said, “is clear — we are all a suspect class: ‘Great job being close to the people, now deliver the bad news to them and convince me you’re not a heretic.”
Bishops like Washington’s Cardinal Gregory would probably be very uncomfortable with the kind of upset being expressed among some of their clergy. And few bishops, presumably, want to think that families among their flock felt unwelcome and unwanted in their own dioceses.
Some bishops and commentators argue that impacted Catholics are not unwelcome — that they can — and should — remain in their parishes and simply begin attending the regular celebrations of the Ordinary Form. That, they argue, is the point of Traditionis custodes — to foster liturgical unity among local communities.
But in reality, that seems unlikely to happen overnight, or because of policies released from bishops without actual and concrete pastoral intervention.
It’s become clear that implementing Traditionis custodes and fostering real unity requires more than banning the publication of Mass times in parish bulletins. In the months to come, bishops will either see communities of active Catholics perceive that they’ve been marginalized, or they will develop strategies by which they actually come to know those communities, and actually engage with them over an emotionally charged issue.
As it happens, that’s the kind of thing Pope Francis says bishops should be doing all the time anyway.
But if it doesn’t happen, “traditionalist” Catholics will start asking if unity was ever really the goal of Traditionis custodes in the first place. And the longer things fester, the more difficult bishops will find it to answer that question credibly.