The statements contained in the letter from Cardinal Sarah with regard to the “individual Mass” must be read in the light of an age-old question. Ever since the Roman Church has given itself a centralized bureaucracy, this organization has begun to assume the role of a “corporation” within of the Roman Church, shaping traditions from a unique and very one-sided notion of ecclesial life. All this started already in the Middle Ages and became even more accentuated after the Council of Trent. Hence it is not possible to understand the words of Sarah’s letter except by placing them within the context of the “form of life” that the Roman curia has imposed on its members for many centuries.
This environment clearly exerts pressure for the precise institutional purpose it pursues. It directly affects the experience of the subjects who are part of it. It is the “form of life” that becomes embodied in particular understandings and practices. Since the Middle Ages, the prayer secundum usum Romanae Curiae (“according to the use of the Roman Curia”) imposed itself on all clerics. This created that form of the “breviary” which became, for centuries, the ordinary form of prayer for all clerics. Note that this form was lightened in its burden of psalms and prayers due to the bureaucratic work required of curia officials.
In a similar way, the Roman curia, with its inevitably bureaucratic forms of life – that is, by reason of the duties to be performed by its members – has left its profound mark on the experience of the Eucharistic celebration, often reducing it to a “private mass” before the workday begins. It still happens today that many “officers,” before starting their workday, approach prayer and Mass in a strictly private form: alone, without community or people.
I am told that even the youngest members of the Roman curia, e.g. the numerous young priests who serve in the Congregation of Bishops which affects the life of various national Churches, often experience prayer and Eucharist rigorously individualistically, without community or people. They are to contribute to the choice of pastors but do not themselves live any sort of pastoral life. This anthropological, pastoral, spiritual, and theological limitation of the Roman curia then has the potential to inform all the curias of the universal church.
It is no coincidence that one of the most worrying implications of this trend was the idea, boldly conceived and proposed by the Roman curia, that we can speak of the right of every priest freely to decide “in Masses celebrated without a congregation… to use either the Roman Missal published in 1962 … or the Roman Missal promulgated in 1970” (no. 2). This article, which stands at the beginning of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, is a sort of premise necessary to understand the reactions to the ban on “individual Mass” imposed by the Secretariat of State.
On this very delicate point, every priest – read every official of the Roman curia – is convinced that he does not have to answer to anyone. And we are entirely within that understanding, in full force for 1300 years, in which the Mass has been spoken of as an ecclesiasticum officium (“ecclesiastical office”). This distortion of worldview and perspective took on an apologetic in the last 100 years which was at first anti-modern and then anti-conciliar.
Thus it is that a norm arises from the particular environment of the Roman curia with all its inevitably determinative anthropological and ecclesiological characteristics. This norm endangers a more spiritually and theologically pastoral norm which would make the “individual Mass” a rare exception for extreme cases. Then the Mass, understood as a communal act rather than individual act, would normally be celebrated or concelebrated with the people for the salutary benefit of the priest’s spiritual and personal nourishment.
It is not surprising that Robert Sarah, as cardinal of the curia, acted along with three other cardinals of the curia – Burke, Mueller, Brandmueller. The strength of the usum Romanae Curiae overcomes any reasonable theology, spirituality, or anthropology. Sarah is able to put forth the strangest and most idiosyncratic arguments to make his case and to guard jealously those privileges that bureaucratic practice has imposed on the homines curiae (“men of the curia”).
By God’s grace, not everyone in the Roman curia aligns with these extreme ideas. There are notable examples that move in different and even opposing directions. But the Masses at the side altars of St. Peter’s have almost become, over the decades, symbols of the reliability and loyalty of obedient curial officials. This comes about in general silence, nourishing a sort of parallel life on the liturgical level, and it leaves its mark.
Inevitably, even the liturgical reform is perceived by the Roman curia as an excessive, unnecessary, and optional symbolic-ritual apparatus compared to the normal practice for curia officials. The normal practice is individual acts, in a language no longer in use, and this practice runs the danger of forming not just curial profession identity, but even Christian and ministerial identity.
The ancient privilege is defended with such fragility and theological naivety. But more important than the arguments themselves is the urge to use any available argument, even less reasonable ones, to stay within one’s cocoon. Even to the point of arguing that it would be better for each official to celebrate another private Mass than for two or ten curia officials to come together to concelebrate – so as not to “diminish the gift of grace” and bring about “immeasurable damage.”
But grace has nothing to do with it. The only thing at stake here is the freedom to remain what we are: lesser or greater princes who “say Mass” on their own, in Latin, perhaps with the old missal, without responding to anyone but God. At the heart of the Roman curia, for centuries, the highest obedience has been combined with the most radical and indifferent anarchy. Bringing the spirit of the liturgical reform into the Roman curia is the first major reform of the curia. It concerns the most delicate roots – i.e., the symbolic and ritual roots – of a different ecclesial and pastoral self-understanding, so that the pyramid is truly inverted.
Until the pyramid is turned upside down, the private Mass will always appear to be the purest, most intense, and most pious Mass. And there will always be a free-ranging theologian ready to demonstrate that a private Mass can be more public and participatory than a Mass with a crowd of people.
And thus it will be possible to keep sleeping peacefully and in the grace of God in the largest of the seven rooms of your 300 square meter apartment: because the curial style, at least at its most notable degrees, is about much more than the individual Mass.
Andrea Grillo teaches liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome.
Reprinted with permission from Munera. Translation awr.
Featured image: Pope Francis celebrates daily Mass with a community in Santa Marta.