By Andrea Gagliarducci
Pope Francis has allowed the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) to continue celebrating according to the ancient rite with a decree delivered directly to members of the Fraternity who visited him on Feb. 4.
The document, however, was not officially communicated through a bulletin of the Holy See press office. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether it will be published next year in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, which collects all the decrees and laws promulgated by the Apostolic See each year.
The Fraternity said that on “Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, two members of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, Fathers Benoît Paul-Joseph, Superior of the District of France, and Vincent Ribeton, Rector of the Seminary of St. Peter in Wigratzbad, were received in private audience by the Holy Father, Pope Francis, for almost an hour.”
It noted that “the meeting went well, in a very cordial atmosphere. Referring to the birth of the Fraternity in 1988, the Pope said he was very impressed by the approach of its founders, by their desire to remain faithful to the Roman Pontiff, and by their trust in the Church. He said this gesture should be ‘preserved, protected and encouraged.’”
Pope Francis, therefore, clarified that institutes such as the FSSP are not affected by the general provisions of his 2021 motu proprio Traditionis custodes. Later, he sent “a decree signed by him and dated Feb. 11, the day on which the Fraternity was solemnly consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, confirming to the members of the Fraternity the right to use the liturgical books in force in 1962, namely: the Missal, the Ritual, the Pontifical and the Roman Breviary.”
News of the concession surprised those who thought that, after Traditionis custodes, the Mass known improperly as the “Traditional Latin Mass” would be bound, always and in every case, to the permission of the Apostolic See.
The motu proprio established that the liturgy outlined after the Second Vatican Council, known as the Novus Ordo, is “the unique expression of the lex orandi [law of prayer] of the Roman Rite.” In this way, the criterion of biritualism is applied to the ancient liturgy, which uses the 1962 Missal. This is to say that a priest can celebrate in the ancient liturgy, but it is considered a different rite. For this, the permission of the Apostolic See is needed.
Traditionis custodes put an end to the liberalization of the ancient rite enacted by Benedict XVI with the 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. It seemed to close the dialogue with the traditionalist world completely.
The pope’s latest decision seems, however, to offer a glimmer of hope for the traditionalist milieu, even if it should be noted that nowhere in the motu proprio is there any mention that it applies to those institutes born precisely with the vocation to celebrate with the 1962 Missal.
The FSSP was established in 1988 with a decision taken by the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. The commission has been established to manage relations with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X (SSPX), founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
In 1988, Lefebvre ordained four bishops without papal consent, incurring excommunication for him and the bishops. When Lefebvre’s intentions had become clear, a group of SSPX priests asked the Vatican for permission to maintain their characteristics but remain in communion with Rome.
Thus the Fraternity was founded, erected as a society of apostolic life, and composed at the time of a dozen priests and about 20 seminarians. According to the most recent data, the FSSP has 341 priests and 185 seminarians (including 17 deacons), who serve 147 dioceses, with 259 places of worship, including 47 personal parishes. Of the members, 33% are American (176), 24% French, and 10% German.
After the FSSP’s creation, a joint declaration was signed with the Holy See, in which the Fraternity’s members promised fidelity to the Church and the pope, assenting explicitly to the 25th section of Lumen gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council.
Furthermore, the FSSP had to declare itself in favor of an attitude of study and communication with the Holy See, recognize the validity of the sacraments celebrated in the Novus Ordo, and respect the general discipline of the Church and canonical laws.
The promulgation of Traditionis custodes had, therefore, also cast doubt on the very existence of groups such as the FSSP, born precisely with the vocation of celebrating according to the usus antiquor (“ancient usage”).
It is worth remembering that in July 2021, an FSSP group was expelled from the Archdiocese of Dijon, eastern France, where it had been for 23 years, precisely because some of its priests refused to concelebrate in the Novus Ordo.
Pope Francis instead confirmed the FSSP’s particularity. Is this a decision that is part of Pope Francis’ strategy to absorb, step by step, the traditionalist world?
It should be noted that he has also extended his arms many times toward the so-called “Lefebvrists.” In 2015, Pope Francis decreed that confessions and weddings celebrated by SSPX priests during the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy were canonically valid. At the end of the Holy Year, he made this decision permanent in the apostolic letter Misericordia et misera.
In that same year, Cardinal Aurelio Poli, who succeeded Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as archbishop of Buenos Aires, gave the OK to the Argentine government to register the SSPX as a diocesan association.
Also in 2015, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) appointed the then SSPX superior Bishop Bernard Fellay as a judge of the first appeal in an abuse case involving an SSPX member. It was the first time that the CDF had appointed an SSPX member as a judge. However, it has been a standard procedure that the Society appealed to Vatican authorities in cases of delicta graviora, i.e., the gravest crimes, including abuse.
Pope Francis’ generous attitude toward the Lefebvrist world did not extend to other traditional movements within the Catholic Church, such as the group Familia Christi in the Italian Archdiocese of Ferrara, the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles of Brussels, or the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, all of which saw Vatican interventions. But the pope did show a similarly open attitude toward the FSSP, which is in communion with the Church, but still with some prerogatives.
Time will tell if the pope wants to absorb the traditionalists’ realities in the Catholic Church or keep good relations with those who already enjoy their prerogatives, waiting for the moment to absorb them too — or finally marginalize them.