Guarding the Tradition

When I walk into that quiet church on Sunday afternoon before Holy Mass, it is as if I have entered a different world. There are already several people kneeling silently in prayer, and from one corner of the church I can hear the muted murmur of others at confession. As I kneel and face the Tabernacle, the cares and concerns that were racing around inside my head begin to slow and drop away, and instead I begin to feel that hunger in my soul that only He can satisfy. I am so very glad to be here, a soul desperately in need of His grace, in a place where I know that I can find Him. “I will go in unto the altar of God . . .” As the ancient rite begins, those solemn prayers somehow draw me deeply into a sublime experience of the worship of God Himself, as they have for countless Christians before me.

I do not want to face the imminent loss of this most precious privilege, this treasure, of Catholic life. There is no doubt that the intent of Traditionis Custodes is to bring about the complete and total demise of the Mass that for 15 centuries was the principle form of worship of all Roman Catholics. [1] It is nothing less than a terrible tragedy. The question that begs to be answered is “Why?”

The Holy Father, citing a survey of the bishops, tells us that those who participate in the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) are causing disunity in the Church, and are undermining the teaching of Vatican II. [2, 3] But TLM attendees around the globe constitute only only a tiny fraction of Pope Francis’ flock – how could such a small number of souls have any substantial impact on the Church at large? Even if they have somehow covertly multiplied, the great majority of these people are not customarily disgruntled folks: on the contrary, they are humbly grateful and joyful to be able to worship within the solemn beauty and reverence of the Mass of the Ages. The last thing they would do would be anything to disrupt that joy. They have no reason to engage in conflict with their fellow parishioners who attend the Novus Ordo.

Yet we must accept that Pope Francis perceives in the TLM and its adherents a real, substantial threat to the Church. Perhaps the bishops responded to the survey with new data, not previously recognized in the aggregate, indicating rapid TLM growth. It is hard to find research in this area, although there are some indicators of growth, such as the compilation of TLM sites at the Latin Mass Directory[4] and the recent survey by Crisis Magazine. [5] Pew Research [6, 7, 8, 9], Gallup [10] and CARA [11] can tell you about the unfortunate declines in foundational beliefs, practice, and membership within the U. S. Church, but this information is not sorted by TLM and Novus Ordo categories. Since neither the motu proprio itself, nor the accompanying letter, provide evidence which would help us understand the specifics of the threat, the question remains: exactly what is it that this small group of Catholics is doing that is so dangerous to the Faith? How are they manifesting their disunity, and how are they expressing their lack of fidelity to the teachings of Vatican II?

One way to gain some insight into Traditionis Custodes is to examine it in light of Pope Francis’ consistent prior teaching. A key aspect of that teaching which immediately comes to mind with respect to the TLM is the emphasis on the concept of “rigidity:”

“According to one of his closest advisers, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, for Francis both the Church and the world are in constant flux, and so his pontificate is one of ‘discernment, of incomplete thought’ for which the rigidity of rules is an obstacle. The Holy Father, he added, doesn’t want to teach “a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world.” For him, Father Spadaro said, “neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems.” [emphasis added] [12]

It is important to note that the term “rigid,” as customarily used by Pope Francis, is not consistent with the normal usage of the word. In normal usage, identification of someone as rigid carries a negative connotation, implying that such a person is too rigid. The normal usage means unreasonably strict adherence to some belief or practice. In the context of morality, for example, rigidity could describe a person who has such a grim focus on sin that he engages in unhealthy scrupulosity, and is therefore unable to discern God’s will accurately.

Pope Francis, however, sees rigidity as any consistent and unchanging adherence to “rules,” regardless of the validity or reasonableness of those rules. Therefore, all rules which are inflexible and which do not admit of exceptions, are by definition rigid, and carry that negative characterization. This thought process is clearly illustrated in a homily from June 2016:

“Jesus always knows how to accompany us, he gives us the ideal, he accompanies us towards the ideal, He frees us from the chains of the laws’ rigidity and tells us: ‘But do that up to the point that you are capable.’ And he understands us very well. He is our Lord and this is what he teaches us.” [13]

“ . . . He frees us from the chains of the laws’ rigidity.” With this mode of thought, then, it is not much of a stretch to view the Commandments as mere ideals, which are no longer standards of Christian morality which must be followed. This concern with rigidity extends to religious practice as well. In the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, for example, Pope Francis voices his dismay with “a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy,” some groups of Christians giving “excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting,” and complicating the Gospel by becoming “enslaved to a blueprint that leaves few openings for the working of grace.” [14]

Viewed from this perspective, the Traditional Latin Mass is the quintessential example of rigid religious practice. The TLM has indeed been unchanging – although incremental modifications have been made over the centuries, it has remained essentially the same since the reign of Pope St. Gregory the Great. [15] The people who prefer that unchanging TLM tend to be willing to accept unchanging standards of morality even though they may find them difficult, and even though they might find it necessary to make frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance when they fail. If the bishops’ responses to the survey did in fact suggest strong growth and increasing influence of the TLM, then that TLM and its adherents represent a bastion of rigidity among the faithful, which by its very nature is opposed to the direction in which Pope Francis is trying to take the Church. A threat such as this, therefore, must be dealt with firmly and decisively – and that is exactly what Pope Francis has done with Traditionis Custodes.

However, in the near term the fate of the TLM will depend on the bishops, who may have sufficient latitude to allow it to survive. Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco thinks so, [16] and there are Canon Law authorities who believe that bishops can permit dispensations from the requirements of this motu proprio. [17] There has already been a wide spectrum of responses from various bishops, ranging from complete termination of the TLM in some dioceses to various limitations and even full approval to continue as before in others.

It might help the bishops as they consider their decisions to take a look back at what the Council actually required for the reform of the Mass. Laity who are not familiar with Sacrosanctum Concilium [18] may be surprised. While Pope Francis has emphatically declared the Novus Ordo to be the intended product of the reform of the liturgy directed by Vatican II, the specific liturgical mandates of the Council were relatively minimal, and, as pointed out by Father Fessio more than twenty years ago, bear little resemblance to many of the innovations we now experience in the Novus Ordo. [19] Here is a brief summary of the nine specific mandates of Sacrosanctum Concilium:

  • More readings from the Bible.
  • Better homilies.
  • Restoration of the Prayers of the Faithful.
  • A suitable place allotted to the mother tongue.
  • Hosts consecrated at the same Mass.
  • Communion under both species – in limited circumstances.
  • Attendance for the entire Mass by the congregation.
  • Concelebration permitted on a limited basis.
  • The congregation to sing or say together the ordinary parts of the Mass in Latin.

Here are innovations characteristic of the Novus Ordo which are not directly mandated in Sacrosanctum Concilium:

  • The removal of the many beautiful and inspiring prayers and parts of the Mass which are present in my 1962 Missal but have disappeared from the Novus Ordo.
  • The addition of the three new “Eucharistic Prayers.”
  • The priest facing the congregation.
  • Reception of Holy Communion in the hand and the removal of the Communion rail.
  • The banishment of the Tabernacle from the center of the altar.
  • The general lack of reverence often displayed in the Novus Ordo environment, expressed most clearly by dress only slightly more formal than beachwear.
  • Music “ministers” performing at the front of the Church.
  • The inferior music routinely presented by said music ministers.
  • Lectors.
  • Altar girls.
  • Extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.
  • The kiss of peace in the congregation.
  • Other miscellaneous practices which have crept in, like the holding of hands during the Our Father, or the congregation’s use of the orans posture for prayer.

Sacrosanctum Concilium did call for simplification of the Mass, and also sought as a priority “active participation” by the congregation. But that simplification was limited to removal of redundancy or “additions of little advantage.” Moreover, the reform was to be exercised with caution:

“Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.” [emphasis added] [18]

It is difficult indeed to make the case that the Novus Ordo innovations listed above grow organically from anything in the TLM. The wholesale changes evident in the Novus Ordo certainly exceed the measured approach to reform described in Sacrosanctum Concilium. It was not necessary to make sweeping changes to the structure and prayers of the Mass in order to meet the intent of the reform. For example, active participation can be accomplished in a variety of ways, even without any changes to the Mass at all. Pope St. Pius X eloquently described how the faithful should pray the Mass, in this beautiful instruction which appears in the 1962 Roman Missal:

“The Holy Mass is a prayer itself, even the highest prayer that exists. It is the sacrifice, dedicated by our Redeemer at the Cross, and repeated every day on the altar. If you wish to hear Mass as it should be heard, you must follow with eye, heart, and mouth all that happens at the altar. Further, you must pray with the Priest the holy words said by him in the Name of Christ and which Christ says by him. You have to associate your heart with the holy feelings which are contained in these words and in this manner you ought to follow all that happens at the altar. When acting in this way you have prayed Holy Mass.” [20]

Does this not reflect active participation at its best?

The fascinating thing here is that the TLM without any changes is actually much more closely related to the intent of the Council Fathers as reflected in the document Sacrosanctum Concilium than is the Novus Ordo with all of its changes. A look at a side by side comparison of the Novus Ordo to the TLM is astonishing in the contrast it presents. [21] It is as if the original, full strength, adult edition of the Mass was vigorously pruned to make it as simple as possible. The Novus Ordo is what remained after the Traditional Rite had been stripped down and reduced to its bare bones.

On the other hand, the Missa Cantata which I am fortunate to attend every Sunday due to the fervor of two holy parish priests, employs Gregorian Chant as a routine and integral component of Holy Mass. Gregorian chant, by the way, was not only the preferred musical form but also the primary means of active participation envisioned in Sacrosanctum Concilium. With respect to “a suitable place for the mother tongue,” I am able to pray every single word of every single prayer in that Mass in my native language, since the Missal incorporates English and Latin on facing pages. I am also able to join Father in his recitation of the Ordinary prayers in Latin as well, if that were to be required. Active participation in both the vernacular and Latin is therefore readily accommodated in the TLM. Regarding attendance for the entire Mass – I simply advise that if you wish to select a preferred seat, you should arrive early, because most people arrive well before Mass starts. And if you desire to leave the church immediately after Mass without hindrance, then you should position yourself at the end of a pew, since those TLM devotees almost universally kneel immediately after Mass is over and continue their contemplation, no doubt because they are profoundly conscious of the enormous significance of the Holy Eucharist they have just received, and wish to fully embrace that Real Presence before they head back out into the world. The Traditional Latin Mass as it is practiced today, before any changes to the structure, prayers, or form of the Mass have been made, is already compliant with most of the mandates of Sacrosanctum Concilium.

The bishops, while conducting their deliberations, should rest assured that Catholics who love the Traditional Latin Mass have no interest in fostering disunity with their Novus Ordo brethren. And in their devotion to the traditional form of Holy Mass they are endorsing, rather than rejecting, the teachings of Vatican Council II – and guarding the Tradition.


1. Bermudez, Alejandro. “Cardinal Burke questions Pope Francis’ authority to eliminate the Traditional Latin Mass.” Catholic News Agency. July 22, 2021.

2. Francis. “Traditionis Custodes. APOSTOLIC LETTER ISSUED “MOTU PROPRIO” BY THE SUPREME PONTIFF FRANCIS On the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970.” The Vatican. July 16, 2021.

3. “Letter of the Holy Father Francis to all bishops worldwide to present the Motu proprio “Traditionis custodes” on the use of the Roman liturgy prior to the Reform of 1970.” The Vatican. July 16, 2021

4. “Find Traditional Latin Masses Around the World.” Latin Mass Directory. Accessed August 6, 2021.

5. “The Growth of the Latin Mass: A Survey.” Crisis Magazine. July 26, 2021

6. Masci, David and Smith, Gregory A. “7 Facts About American Catholics.” Pew Research Center. October 10, 2018. Center. October 10, 2018.

7. Fahmy, Dalia. “8 Key Findings about Catholics and Abortion.” Pew Research Center. October 20, 2020.

8. Diamant, Jeff. “How Catholics around the world see same-sex marriage, homosexuality.” Pew Research Center. November 2, 2020.

9. Smith, Gregory A. “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ.” Pew Research Center. August 5, 2019.

10. Saad, Lydia. “Catholics’ Church Attendance Resumes Downward Slide.” Gallup. April 9, 2018.

11. “Frequently Requested Church Statistics.” Center for Applied Research In The Apostolate. Accessed August 5, 2021.

12. Pentin, Edward. “Pope Francis: Rigid People Are Sick.” National Catholic Register. October 24, 2016.

13. Westen, John-Henry. “Pope Francis: ‘Rigid… this or nothing’ Catholics are ‘heretical’ and ‘not Catholic.’” Lifesite News. June 9, 2016.

14. Francis. “Gaudete et Exsultate. Apostolic Exhortation on the Call to Holiness in Today’s World.” The Vatican. 19 March 2018. Sections 57, 58, 59.

15. Williams, Brian. “Busting the Myth of the Tridentine Mass.” Liturgy Guy. July 23, 2021.

16. Rousselle, Christine. “Archbishop Cordileone: Traditional Latin Mass Will Continue in San Francisco.” Catholic News Agency. July 16, 2021.

17. Boniface. “Cardinal Cicognani on Canonical Dissimulation.” Unam Sanctam Catholicam. August 2, 2021.


19. Fessio, Joseph. “The Mass of Vatican II.” Catholic World Report. July 23,2021. Editor’s note: This essay appeared originally in the September/October 2000 issue of Catholic Dossier and is based on a lecture on the liturgy given by Father Fessio in May, 1999.

20. The Roman Catholic Daily Missal, 1962. Angelus Press. 2004, 835.

21. “New and Traditional Side by Side – A COMPARISON BETWEEN THE TEXTS OF THE TRADITIONAL MISSAL AND THE NEW MISSAL OF 2011.” Latin Mass Society of England and Wales. Accessed August 8, 2021.