My managing editor, the inestimable John Blewett, has informed me that he needs this letter by late afternoon today (January 9) or else I'll have missed the deadline for the printer. I've stalled as long as possible in the hope that the universally expected motu proprio lifting the restrictions on the traditional Mass of Pius V would be published before my deadline and I would have the opportunity to share with you even some limited initial thoughts about its contents. The prospect of being afforded that privilege diminishes by the minute.
I presume (I hope not with excessive optimism) that by the time you read this letter the contents of the motu proprio will have been revealed and that a plethora of commentaries and reactions addressing it will have been articulated. Regardless, however, of its existence or the reception it receives, I am preoccupied by a recent disturbing development which should add perspective to the moment -- despite what has or has not occurred.
At the 1999 Una Voce International meeting in Rome, the Polish delegate addressed the assembly and lamented that, ten years after the collapse of Communism, unmistakable signs of deterioration were appearing throughout the Church in Poland. He listed various indications for this contention, but among the most curious pieces of evidence he offered was this one: "Recently some of the Polish bishops made an unsuccessful attempt to introduce the practice of Communion in the hand." Evidently, Papa Wojtyla rejected the petition of the Polish episcopate. Remember, at the beginning of his papacy, the Pontiff would not permit Communion in the hand during any papal Mass anywhere in the world.
John Paul was hardly cold in his tomb when on March 6, 2006 (11 months after his death) the Polish bishops again asked the Holy See for permission to distribute Holy Communion in the hand. In an official document dated April 21, just a little more than a month later, the president of the Polish Bishops Conference received notification that faculties for the change in the reception of Holy Communion had been granted by the Congregation of Divine Worship. Not only was authorization given, consent was offered according to the language of the official protocol, "with great pleasure" ("perlibenter" in the text).
This is continued proof that Roman Congregations tend to develop memory lapses regarding their very own paper trails. If one reads the original document which gave bishops the right to petition for an indult permitting Communion in the hand, it would be difficult to conclude that it radiated any sense of "great pleasure." Thirty seven years ago, the Congregation of Divine Worship which expressed such effusive glee to the Polish bishops published Memoriale Domini (May 29, 1969). The text was unequivocal (all emphases are mine): "This method of distributing holy communion [on the tongue] must be retained, taking the present situation of the Church in the entire world into account, not merely because it has many centuries of tradition behind it, but especially because it expresses the faithful's reverence for the Eucharist."
Not being content with that plea for caution, it continued, "Further, the practice which must be considered traditional ensures, more effectively, that holy communion is distributed with the proper respect, decorum and dignity. It removes the danger of profanation of the sacred species...."
Memoriale Domini goes on to reveal that the Holy See actually polled the episcopate around the world on this issue, and reports: "From the returns it is clear that the vast majority of bishops believe that the present discipline [reception of the Eucharist on the tongue] should not be changed, and that if it were, the change would be offensive to the sentiments and the spiritual culture of these bishops and of many of the faithful." It concludes with an ill-disguised slap-down of those who would have the temerity to petition for a change: "The Apostolic See therefore emphatically urges bishops, priests and laity to obey carefully the law which is still valid and which has again been confirmed. It urges them to take account of of the judgment given by the majority of Catholic bishops, of the rite now in use in the liturgy, of the common good of the Church." I suppose, using the universal language of progressives who witness attitudinal and policy reversals favorable to their way of thinking, it could be said that the Congregation for Divine Worship "has grown": from unambiguous reluctance to permit Communion in the hand (precisely because it removed the protective tissue of tradition) to outright enthusiasm for the idea.
So, permit me to assume that as you read this that a motu proprio has been promulgated, the ostensible purpose of which is to make the ancient Latin Mass much more widely accessible to Catholics. The rubrics for this Mass (as quoted from the standard guide for priests, Fortescue and O'Connell's The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described) state the following: "From this moment [the consecration of the sacred Host] till the ablutions at the end [after the distribution of Holy Communion] the celebrant keeps the thumb and forefinger of each hand joined, except when he touches the consecrated Host. In turning the pages [of the Missal], holding the chalice, or doing any other such action, he must be careful to use the other fingers in such a way as not to separate the thumb and index."
Does anyone else see a bit of incongruity here? The very same Holy See that presumably by now has granted greater access to this Mass, the rubrics of which diligently protect every particle of the Blessed Sacrament, permits almost a simultaneous breath of a national episcopal conference the option to receive Communion in the hand without regard for the inevitable oblivious scattering of Eucharistic fragments. Will the real Catholic Church please kneel?
There is one other puzzling aspect to this story from Poland. There was no clamoring among the majority of the laity for a change in the reception of Holy Communion. It sprang insistently from the ideological disposition of the Polish bishops and the intellectual elite among some of the Polish intelligentsia and academic class.
As I write, the recently appointed Archbishop of Warsaw (the primatial see of Poland) has had to resign because of revelations that he had cooperated with the secret police of the communist regimes for most of his priesthood (the rector of the cathedral in Krakow has had to resign for the same reason). The Polish episcopate is resisting pressure to investigate its membership for similar activities. There is a story emerging this morning out of Radio Polinia reporting a published account in a credible journal concerning "the collaboration with the communist secret police of 12 bishops working in high places in the late 1970s. The bishops were to be instructed by the communist police to influence the choice of the new primate of Poland who was to succeed Cardinal Wyszynski, a person highly uncomfortable for the communist authorities." If true, obvious questions arise about whom these bishops eventually named or maneuvered into the Polish episcopate and who are presently in office. Is it coincidental that this episcopate has been doggedly determined to dismantle the traditional manner of safeguarding the reception of the sacrament most holy?
Reading these accounts coming from Poland brings to mind the testimony of Bella Dodd, a former communist agent and eventual "revert" to Catholicism: "In the 1930s, we put eleven hundred men into the priesthood [in the United States] in order to destroy the Church from within." Another former communist, Manning Johnson, testified to Congress: "In the earliest stages it was determined that with only small forces available to them, it would be necessary to concentrate Communist agents in the seminaries.... This policy of infiltrating seminaries was successful beyond even our communist expectations."
Before this recent debacle in Poland, mentioning the testimonies of Dodd and Johnson would have been labeled (and probably will be still) by the progressive elite within the Church as nothing more than the ravings of crackpot conspiracy theorists. They cannot erase, however, the historical parallel between the persistent endeavor of the Polish bishops to dismantle traditional sacred norms and the same pervasive effort for decades within the American episcopate. As I write, Catholics are under the authority of an episcopate populated with bishops who consider kneeling to receive Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament as a display of schismatic tendencies.
Whether or not a motu proprio loosening restrictions on the ancient Roman liturgy ever sees the light of day, permit me to reiterate a well worn personal refrain: we must never forget that we are committed to the restoration of the traditional Mass and sacramental rites because they promulgate and protect the traditional Faith. Any other agenda exposes us to a peril Pope Benedict has described as the "dictatorship of relativism ... that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one's own ego and one's own desires as the final measure."
In Domino et Domina,
Fr. James McLucas
[The present editorial, "Still in the Dark," was originally published in Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Winter 2007), pp. 2-3, and is reproduced here by permission of Latin Mass Magazine, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.]