Earlier this month Pope Benedict XVI published an Apostolic Letter under the title Summorum Pontificum. In so doing he was both allowing for and promoting a wider use of the liturgical books that were in force back in 1962. Some folks are fearful that the document takes away from the authority of the Second Vatican Council since one of its essential decisions, namely, the liturgical reform, seems to be called into question.

The Holy Father says such a fear is unfounded. He reminds us that the missal published after the Council by Pope Paul VI and also republished in two subsequent editions by Pope John Paul II remains the normal form of the Eucharistic liturgy. The last version of the Roman Missal before the Council, published with the authority of Pope John XXIII in 1962, may also be used as an extraordinary form of the liturgy. The Holy Father states that it’s not correct to speak of these two versions of the Roman Missal as if they were “two rites.” He describes the situation as “a matter of a two-fold use of one and the same rite.”

Many people today are completely unfamiliar with the extraordinary form. Others for some time now have been insisting on their preference of the extraordinary form and bemoaning its relative unavailability in Catholic churches the world over. Frankly in our own country this has not been a major problem. But it has been a concern in some of the European nations like France, Germany and Switzerland.

Many of you recall that after the Council a movement away from Rome was led by a French prelate, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. One of his churches is located here in our own archdiocese in Veneta. Fidelity to the old missal became for this group an external mark of identity. But, as one of the Lefebvrite bishops pointed out shortly after the publication of Pope Benedict’s letter, the reasons for the break were at a deeper level, theological and even political. But the Lefebvrites were not the only ones who remained attached to the earlier Roman missal of Pope John XXIII. The Pope’s intervention at this time is a genuine plea for the restoration of unity and a greater spirit of generosity on the part of all involved in making accommodations for those who see things differently.

The new directives of the Holy Father take effect on September 14 of this year, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Prior to that date priests were required to seek the permission of the local bishop to use the extraordinary form, that is, the missal of Pope John XXIII. But from that day forward any priest of the Latin Church may celebrate the extraordinary form in a Mass without the people at any time except during the sacred Triduum. Pastors will decide when the extraordinary form will be used publicly in parishes where a stable group of the faithful gives evidence of their attachment to the preconciliar form.

Unfortunately, very few of our priests are suitably qualified for the celebration of the Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal. That liturgical expression requires the use of Latin. Many of our younger clergy were not schooled in this beautiful language during their priestly formation as were those of us ordained in preconciliar times. Interestingly, one of my first assignments was to pursue a graduate degree in Latin so that I could teach the language to young seminarians. By the time I earned my degree, Latin was on the decline in the seminary curriculum.

Some days ago I received an inquiry from a parishioner about special directives for the use of the extraordinary form here in the Archdiocese of Portland. I see no need for further clarification since the papal document is quite explicit. But the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy is holding a special meeting next month in order to offer bishops around the country some guidance in their responsibility of supervising the sacred liturgy now that there is to be a more generous availability of both forms.

Every bishop is the moderator of the liturgy in his own diocese. In that capacity he is required both to implement the universal norms of the church and to intervene to prevent abuses from arising with regard to liturgical celebrations in his diocese. That can be a ticklish situation at times because nowadays hierarchical directives are often suspect. Fortunately here in our local church we have a wonderful liturgical commission and good pastors who collaborate faithfully with me in overseeing the full, conscious and active participation of our people in the sacred rites, as they are to be celebrated according to the liturgical norms.

Two of my serious concerns about the pre-conciliar form were the more limited use of texts from Sacred Scripture, particularly the exclusion of Old Testament readings on Sundays, and the perception that the active participation of the people should remain internal and not external. The Pope’s letter opens the door to the amelioration of these and other matters of concern.

Some will be worried about possible divisions and tensions that will occur in our parishes as a result of the call for a more generous response to the use of both forms. For all practical purposes, given the limited number of priests who could even respond to such requests, this is quite unlikely. The Roman missal of Paul VI remains the ordinary form of the Roman rite, not only because that is the directive of the church, but also because it has been widely received and greatly appreciated in Catholic parishes across the world.

The Pope was hopeful that eventually new saints and some of the new prayers from the post-conciliar missal could be integrated into the 1962 missal by his commission in Rome. He acknowledges what many pastors have heard, namely, that the pre-conciliar form is attractive to many people because of its sacred nature. He offers this challenge with respect to the ordinary form: “the most sure guarantee that the Missal of Paul VI can unite parish communities and be loved by them consists in its being celebrated with great reverence and in harmony with the liturgical directives.”

We pastors shall do our best to heed the Holy Father’s plea for generosity and unity in our liturgical celebrations. But a challenge far greater than providing Eucharistic celebrations in the extraordinary form is simply providing any Sunday Eucharistic celebration in every parish and mission each and every weekend, given the growth and diversity of our Catholic population. Please join the Holy Father and all his brother bishops in praying for “charity and pastoral prudence” in the implementation of his Apostolic Letter.