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'Summorum Pontificum'

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"Summorum Pontificum": Pope Benedicts' Hermeneutic of Continuity

By Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
Catholic Online


On December 22, 2005 , Pope Benedict XVI addressed his annual Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia. True to form, the message is theologically precise and deeply inspiring. We have a wonderful theologian in the current occupant of Peter's chair. However, this expert theologian is also a true pastor of pastors with keen prophetic insights.

Within this address he reflected upon the mixed implementation of the Second Vatican Council. He did so by asking several insightful questions and then answering them within a framework, a lens, what theologians call a "hermeneutic". In fact, he contrasted two hermeneutics and then articulated the proper way to proceed, giving direction to all the Shepherds of the Church of Jesus Christ . I set forth a substantial portion of this address because it helps to understand his recent action of liberalizing the use of the Older Western Liturgical Rite:


"...What has been the result of the Council? Was it well received? What, in the acceptance of the Council, was good and what was inadequate or mistaken? What still remains to be done? No one can deny that in vast areas of the Church the implementation of the Council has been somewhat difficult, even without wishing to apply to what occurred in these years the description that St Basil, the great Doctor of the Church, made of the Church's situation after the Council of Nicea: he compares her situation to a naval battle in the darkness of the storm, saying among other things: "The raucous shouting of those who through disagreement rise up against one another, the incomprehensible chatter, the confused din of uninterrupted clamoring, has now filled almost the whole of the Church, falsifying through excess or failure the right doctrine of the faith..." (De Spiritu Sancto, XXX, 77; PG 32, 213 A; SCh 17 ff., p. 524).

"We do not want to apply precisely this dramatic description to the situation of the post-conciliar period, yet something from all that occurred is nevertheless reflected in it. The question arises: Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult? Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or - as we would say today - on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarreled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

"On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

"The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.

"These innovations alone were supposed to represent the true spirit of the Council, and starting from and in conformity with them; it would be possible to move ahead. Precisely because the texts would only imperfectly reflect the true spirit of the Council and its newness, it would be necessary to go courageously beyond the texts and make room for the newness in which the Council's deepest intention would be expressed, even if it were still vague. "In a word: it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the Council but its spirit. In this way, obviously, a vast margin was left open for the question on how this spirit should subsequently be defined and room was consequently made for every whim. The nature of a Council as such is therefore basically misunderstood. In this way, it is considered as a sort of constituent that eliminates an old constitution and creates a new one.

However, the Constituent Assembly needs a mandator and then confirmation by the mandator, in other words, the people the constitution must serve. The Fathers had no such mandate and no one had ever given them one; nor could anyone have given them one because the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord and was given to us so that we might attain eternal life and, starting from this perspective, be able to illuminate life in time and time itself.

"Through the Sacrament they have received, Bishops are stewards of the Lord's gift. They are "stewards of the mysteries of God" (I Cor 4: 1); as such, they must be found to be "faithful" and "wise" (cf. Lk 12: 41-48). This requires them to administer the Lord's gift in the right way, so that it is not left concealed in some hiding place but bears fruit, and the Lord may end by saying to the administrator: "Since you were dependable in a small matter I will put you in charge of larger affairs" (cf. Mt 25: 14-30; Lk 19: 11-27).

"These Gospel parables express the dynamic of fidelity required in the Lord's service; and through them it becomes clear that, as in a Council, the dynamic and fidelity must converge.

"The hermeneutic of discontinuity is countered by the hermeneutic of reform, as it was presented first by Pope John XXIII in his Speech inaugurating the Council on 11 October 1962 and later by Pope Paul VI in his Discourse for the Council's conclusion on 7 December 1965.

"Here I shall cite only John XXIII's well-known words, which unequivocally express this hermeneutic when he says that the Council wishes "to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion". And he continues: "Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us...". It is necessary that "adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness..." be presented in "faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another...", retaining the same meaning and message (The Documents of Vatican II, Walter M. Abbott, S.J., p. 715)."


The Motu Proprio: "Summorum Pontificum"
On July 7, 2007 ( 07/07/07 ) Pope Benedict issued his long anticipated Motu Proprio liberalizing the use of the older Roman Rite for the Sacred Liturgy. It is often called the Tridentine rite because it is identified with the liturgical reforms of the Council of Trent. This form of the Liturgy was the Catholic Mass of the Western Church, as it was celebrated for centuries prior to the more recent reform of 1970. The term Motu Proprio is a Latin expression which simply means that this Papal decree was issued on the Holy Father's his own authority. The title "Summorum Pontificum", as with other Church teachings, simply comes from the first two words of the Latin text.

This anticipated pontifical action has been the subject of extraordinary interest, intense speculation and much prayer among Catholics and other Christians for many months. Upon its release it was enthusiastically received in many circles. In others, it is being cast as some kind of "throwback" to a former age or, a rejection of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this action of Pope Benedict XVI is a perfect example of the hermeneutic of continuity and reform of which he spoke in the 2005 address partially set forth above.

I welcomed this action with great joy. I believe that it continues the "reform of the reform" the genuine ongoing work of liturgical reform which is currently underway in the Catholic Church. I am a Catholic Deacon who loves - and tries to live - the Sacred Liturgy. I currently serve as a deacon at a so called "Novus Ordo" Mass. That term means "new order" of service and refers to the Liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. I have the privilege of assisting at the side of a priest who faithfully adheres to the proper rubrics of the Mass without improperly inserting any of his own innovations, because he understands his role as a priest at the heart of the mystery of our beloved Catholic Christian faith.

Our Liturgies every weekend progress in both their formality and the use of Latin. We move from a "low Mass" in the early morning, said entirely in vernacular, to a "High Mass" with full choir and the use of incense at 11 A.M. Every Mass follows the rubrics as set forth in the General Instructions of the Roman Missal without variance. They are all quite beautiful, drawing the faithful into participation in the Mystery which is made present at the altar of sacrifice at every Mass.

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I am also authorized to serve the Divine Liturgy as it is celebrated by Byzantine Catholics. I received this approval several years ago from the Roman Rite Bishop who ordained me and Bishop John Elya, the now retired Eparch of all Melkite Greek Catholics. I requested the approval because I love the Eastern Liturgy and have a deep appreciation for Eastern Christian theology and worship. The "Divine Liturgy" is the Liturgy that all Eastern Christians, Orthodox and Catholic, have celebrated for centuries.

Now, with the issuance of the Papal decree, I will learn to serve as a deacon at this beautiful ancient Mass, now made available, without any special permission, to any priest. Whether my current parish will offer this Mass or not, I do not know. However, I want to learn to serve as a Deacon at this Mass in order to be available at the side of a priest no matter which Liturgy he offers. The Liturgy is the very heart of the ancient Catholic faith.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi

This Latin maxim is roughly translated "The Law of Worship, the Law of Belief and the Law of Life". It means that as we worship so we will believe and so we will live. This trajectory is crucial to understanding Pope Benedict's recent action. The Divine Liturgy or Mass is not some formality that we engage in, subject to the whim of a celebrant and easily changed. Nor is one form superior to another. The Eucharistic Liturgy, properly and beautifully celebrated, is the Churches liturgy and a fountain of grace for all the faithful.

Grace flows from the altar and is incarnated in the practice of the Catholic faith as it is lived within the Church. The Church really is the Body of Christ, sent into the world to continue the redemptive Mission of Jesus Christ.

The Eucharistic Liturgy constantly nourishes the faithful and gives direction to the development of an authentically Catholic lifestyle which is meant to then inform a Christian "culture", a pattern of living. When celebrated with the fidelity, dignity and centrality which it deserves, the Mass bears abundant fruit as evidenced in the piety of the faithful, the practice of authentic community and growth of true charity and holiness of life. In the words of the Catechism:

"The Eucharist is 'the source and summit of the Christian life.' "The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch."

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"The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being. It is the culmination both of God's action sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit." Finally, by the Eucharistic celebration we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all. In brief, the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith: "Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking." (CCC. #1324-1327)

The Church is not simply an organization or association where we Christians meet, a sort of organizational "add on" to the Christian life. The Church is Christian life because the Church is Christ, still present, risen from the dead, continuing His redemptive and sanctifying mission through the Holy Spirit in His Body. The Eucharistic Liturgy is not simply some kind of memorial service, it is the Sacrifice of Calvary made truly present and the very heart of our participation in the Trinitarian communion. The Church is fundamentally relational, a communion, the place of our continuing encounter with Divine Life, (grace), which is mediated through the Sacraments and most especially through the Eucharist.

Through our Baptism, the Church has now become our home and our mother, the place in which we now live our lives in Christ. She is, properly understood, a Sacrament of Christ as He is the Sacrament of the Father: "The Church, in Christ, is in the nature of a sacrament - a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men". (Lumen Gentium# 1) The Church really is Christ's Body and His Bride. This reveals the reason why the word "Mysterion" (Mystery), is so often used to describe the Church. That word is translated as "Sacrament" in the West. The Sacrament confected on the altar is Christ made present.

Christ promised He would not leave us orphans. He has sent the Holy Spirit. The Magisterium is a gift, a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. What the Church teaches, Christ teaches. The grace mediated through the sacraments comes through Jesus Christ. This understanding of Catholic ecclesiology is more than an academic or theological concept. It should inform the way in which we live and how we worship in the Church. In the Church we come, in and through Jesus Christ, into communion with the Trinity. And, in the Church, we are joined, in Him, with one another and for the world.

This kind of ecclesial identification is also more than a source of inspiration or piety for the Catholic Christian; it is to become the pervading reality of our lives, now lived in Christ. To perceive, receive and live this reality requires a continuing and dynamic, ongoing encounter, a continual conversion. That happens in the Church and, in a special way, is renewed at every Mass. The early Church Fathers spoke of the Church as "the world reconciled." As sons and daughters of the Church we now carry forward in time the continuing redemptive mission of Jesus Christ who is the Head of His Body. In its treatment of this "mystery" of the Church, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

"845 To reunite all his children, scattered and led astray by sin, the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son's Church. The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation. The Church is "the world reconciled." She is that bark which "in the full sail of the Lord's cross, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, navigates safely in this world." According to another image dear to the Church Fathers, she is prefigured by Noah's ark, which alone saves from the flood. [St. Augustine, Serm. 96, 7, 9: PL 38, 588; St. Ambrose, De virg. 18, 118: PL 16, 297B; cf. already 1 Pet 3:20-21] [30, 953, 1219]"

At the heart of this ecclesial identity is the Divine Liturgy, the Mass. Sadly, too many of the faithful have suffered through Liturgies which have been less than what the Church has requested and directed. Sometimes this was "justified" by a misguided reference to the "spirit of the Council".

My sincere hope is that the liberalization of the use of older form of this mystery will raise the water level of all the proper Liturgical celebrations in the One Church ! May the hermeneutic of continuity be demonstrated and embraced by all of Christ's faithful and, in particular by priests. May the Novus Ordo Mass, the Tridentine Mass and the Byzantine Liturgy, all be celebrated with the beauty, dignity and fidelity that the faithful deserve and may the Holy Spirit continue to guide the Church into this new missionary millennium.

May Pope Benedicts' Hermeneutic of Continuity continue the authentic reform of the reform.


Third Millennium,LLC VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-9580




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