“Every Liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a Sacred action surpassing all others,” the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the Liturgy proclaims. “No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy” (7).

Sacrosanctum Concilium continues, “The Liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. From the Liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us; and the Sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their end, is achieved in the most efficacious possible way” (10).

These truths, which faithful Catholics across the centuries have affirmed, are key to understanding why the questions involved in Pope Francis’ July 16 motu proprio on the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass, Traditionis Custodes, as well as in Pope Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio on the same subject, Summorum Pontificum, are so important.

The Liturgy, especially the Mass, brings about in the most powerful way God’s glory and man’s holiness. Its importance in Christian life cannot be overstated. It is the starting point and end of everything the Church does. It is meant to express and bring about communion with God and with each other.

Since “the Eucharist makes the Church,” since lex orandi lex credendi (“the law of prayer is the law of faith”), and since Catholics lives as they pray, popes, bishops, theologians, saints and faithful have all necessarily taken Liturgical questions seriously. Because the Liturgy is so central, Liturgical confusions, abuses, deformations and divisions can be enormously harmful and dangerous to the life of the Church and believers.

Traditionis Custodes and Summorum Pontificum are, therefore, far more than disciplinary decrees. The way Catholics understand, approach and celebrate the Mass matters. Since the Liturgy is a font, erroneous ideas about the Mass can poison the well of the Catholic life; since it is a summit, gravely defective notions can direct believers toward a wrong destination.

Therefore the points raised, and actions taken, by Popes Francis and Benedict — and before them by John Paul II, Paul VI and the fathers of the Second Vatican Council — must be understood and evaluated in this larger context, beyond the particular preferences and emphases of clergy and faithful. Let us look at a few of the larger themes found in the two papal decrees.

The first is genuine appreciation for, and love of, the Mass.

Pope Francis is justly concerned about those Catholics who regard the 1970 Mass of Paul VI as invalid, who obsessively pillory its supposed deficiencies and who undermine gratitude for this means by which Jesus Christ becomes Sacramentally present on the altar. Even among those who acknowledge its validity, some reject it at a practical level, like priestly institutes that refuse to celebrate it and faithful who don’t and won’t attend it, even when there are no other options.

Catholics who love the Lord should have nothing but appreciation and wonder for every valid means — whether Roman, Mozarabic, Ambrosian, Bragan, Dominican, Carmelite, Carthusian, Anglican-use, Maronite, Melkite, Coptic, Syro-Malankara, Syro-Malabar, Armenian, Chaldean, Ruthenian, Ukrainian, and others — by which the Son of God made man humbly becomes present.

This attitude of gratitude must similarly extend toward the 1570 Mass of Pius V, the traditional Latin Mass (TLM) celebrated with the 1962 Missal of John XXIII, which has nourished the Church for centuries and produced countless saints. Pope Benedict justly addressed issues whereby some clergy and faithful have treated the traditional Latin Mass not as holy but almost as if it evil and dangerous. “What earlier generations held as Sacred, remains Sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful,” he wrote to the bishops of the world. While no one regards the TLM as invalid, many treat it with practical disdain, wanting to see it extirpated, regardless of how many are nourished by it still.

With regard to those who oppose either expression of the Roman rite, the popes have respectively drawn attention to the central question: If we recognize the Mass for what it is, isn’t the reality of what occurs infinitely more important than the valid form of the Mass by which the Son of God becomes present, and how can anyone genuinely moved by the Holy Spirit oppose a means by which Jesus Christ is made Sacramentally present Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity?

The second major theme is Church unity. The Church is, as Sacrosanctum Concilium emphasized, the “Sacrament of unity.” During the first Mass, Jesus Himself repeatedly begged God the Father for the gift of Christian unity, that believers may be as united as the persons of the Blessed Trinity so that the world might believe in Him and in the Father’s love (Jn 17:20-26).

By liberalizing permission to celebrate Mass according to the 1962 Missal, Pope Benedict not only wanted to foster the conditions by which to reconcile the clergy and faithful of the Society of St. Pius X but also to correct those bishops who were not preserving Catholic unity by denying priests and faithful in their diocese access to the traditional Latin Mass celebrated in ecclesial communion. He gave priests permission to celebrate the Mass publicly whenever a group of the faithful requested it.

Pope Francis sought to address another tendency, wanting to correct those priests, especially young priests, who, taking full advantage of the permission given by Pope Benedict, were creating division in their parishes through introducing or substituting Masses celebrated according to the 1962 Missal when parishioners were not asking for it. He required them to do so, once again, with the permission and guidance of their bishops.

The mind of the Church, seen through these actions, seems clear: bishops should ensure that Catholics in communion with the Church have access to the Mass in what Pope Benedict called the “extraordinary form” but that priests should not be zealously promoting the form and increasing the desire for it, but rather offering it when, together with their bishop, they determine there is genuine need.

The third theme is the attitude toward the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis insisted that bishops were to ensure that those who celebrated according to the 1962 Missal accepted the Second Vatican Council and the Liturgical reforms that flowed from it. Even though the vast majority of TLM celebrants and attendees do, some influential prelates and lay people, like some members of the Society of St. Pius X, have sought to promote the TLM through trying to undermine not just the Liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council but the Council itself. Such broadsides against an ecumenical council are simply not doctrinally or morally acceptable and undermine the faith of believers.

At the same time, there are some who erroneously treat any support for the TLM as an ipso facto rejection of the Council and the Liturgical reforms it advocated.

Sacrosanctum Concilium called for devout and active participation, a greater use of Sacred Scripture, homilies rather than sermons, removal of Liturgical duplications, the prayers of the faithful, and, under certain circumstances, openness to concelebration and Communion under both species. It also said, “The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” and that the faithful should be formed to say or sing all the Mass parts in Latin.

What Vatican II did not call for was the iconoclastic “wreckovation” of churches, jackhammering of altar rails, ripping out of high altars, whitewashing of Churches, the substitution of Sacred music with saccharine and occasionally heretical hymns, hideous banners, clown Masses, Liturgical free-for-alls and so forth.

Many of those — especially among the young — who are attracted to the TLM are drawn not because they prefer the 1962 Missal per se, but because they love the reliable Sacrality of its celebration, Mass celebrated ad orientem, Gregorian chant and exquisite polyphony, a spirit of silence, Communion kneeling on the tongue, beautiful vestments, and several other things that were never called to be eliminated by the Liturgical reforms of Vatican II — and all of which are still legitimate options in Mass celebrated according to the 1970 Missal.

To reject the post-conciliar Liturgical iconoclasm and Liturgical abuses is not to reject the Council or its Liturgical reforms. Popes Benedict and Francis both spoke out about Liturgical abuses and eccentricities, which scandalize the faithful, wound the unity of the Church, are unfit for the reverence that true worship of God demands and have contributed to so many giving up the regular practice of the faith.

The Liturgical abuses widely tolerated, not to mention the worldly and excessively horizontal way Masses can sometimes be celebrated in the ordinary form, need to be addressed if Pope Francis’ desire to have the Church “return to a unitary form of celebration” will be realized, not to mention “the Sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God” advanced.

Anchor columnist Father Roger Landry can be contacted at fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.