30 March 2021

Exclusive. Cardinal Sarah Asks the Pope to Lift the Ban on “Individual” Masses at St. Peter's

Good on His Eminence, but remember, Francis waited until the Cardinal was safely retired from the CDW before issuing his diktat.

From Settimo Cielo

By Sandro Magister

For a week now, the basilica of St. Peter has been a silent desert. It is no longer enlivened, every morning, by the many Masses celebrated on its numerous altars. And all this on account of an ordinance issued on March 12 by the first section of the secretariat of state - the one that through the substitute has a direct line to the pope - that has banned all “individual” Masses and allowed only collective Masses, no more than four per day and at set times and places.

The order is on letterhead paper, but lacks signature and protocol number. Nor is it addressed to the one who should be its natural recipient, the cardinal archpriest of the papal basilica built on the site of the martyrdom and burial of the apostle Peter. It’s a juridical scrawl.

Yet it has taken effect. But it has also raised authoritative protests.

The following, entrusted to Settimo Cielo for publication, is by Cardinal Robert Sarah, until last February 20 prefect of the congregation for divine worship and the discipline of the sacraments, therefore the most qualified to speak out on the subject.

His protest ends with this appeal to Pope Francis:

“I humbly beg the Holy Father to order the withdrawal of the recent norms issued by the secretariat of state, which are as lacking in justice as in love, do not correspond to the truth or the law, do not facilitate but rather endanger the decorum of the celebration, devout participation in the Mass, and the freedom of the children of God.”

It remains to be seen if Francis will respond, and how.



by Robert Card. Sarah

I would like to spontaneously add my voice to those of cardinals Raymond L. Burke, Gerhard L. Müller and Walter Brandmüller, who have already expressed their thoughts regarding the provision issued last March 12 by the Vatican secretariat of state, which prohibits individual celebration of the Eucharist on the side altars of St. Peter's Basilica.

The aforementioned cardinal confreres have already noted several problems related to the text of the secretariat of state.

Cardinal Burke has highlighted, as the excellent canonist he is, the considerable juridical problems, as well as providing other useful considerations.

Cardinal Müller has likewise noted a certain lack of competence, that is, of authority, on the part of the secretariat of state in issuing the decision in question. His Eminence, who is a renowned theologian, has also made some brief but substantial references to significant theological questions.

Cardinal Brandmüller has focused on the question of the legitimacy of such a use of authority and has also hypothesized - based on his sensibilities as a great Church historian - that the decision on Masses at the basilica could represent a “ballon d'essai” in view of future decisions that could affect the universal Church.

If this be true, it becomes even more necessary that we bishops, the priests, and the holy people of God all make our voices heard respectfully. I therefore propose some brief reflections below.


1. Vatican Council II certainly manifested the Church’s preference for the community celebration of the liturgy. The constitution “Sacrosanctum concilium” teaches in no. 27: “Whenever rites, according to their specific nature, make provision for communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, so far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private.”

Immediately afterwards, in the same paragraph, the Council Fathers - perhaps foreseeing the use that could have been made of their words after the Council - add: “This applies with especial force to the celebration of Mass and the administration of the sacraments, even though every Mass has of itself a public and social nature.” The Mass, therefore, even if celebrated by the priest alone, is never a private act and even less does it therefore represent an undignified celebration.

It should be added, incidentally, that there may be undignified and sparsely attended concelebrations and very decorous and well attended individual celebrations, depending both on the external furnishings and on the personal devotion of both the celebrant and the faithful, when present. The decorum of the liturgy is therefore not obtained automatically simply by prohibiting the individual celebration of the Mass and by imposing concelebration.

In the decree “Presbyterorum ordinis,” then, Vatican II teaches: “In the mystery of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in which priests fulfill their greatest task, the work of our redemption is being constantly carried on; and hence the daily celebration of Mass is strongly urged, since even if there cannot be present a number of the faithful, it is still an act of Christ and of the Church” (no. 13).

Not only is it confirmed here that, even when the priest celebrates without the people, the Mass remains an act of Christ and of the Church, but its daily celebration is also recommended. St. Paul VI, in the encyclical “Mysterium fidei,” took up both of these aspects and confirmed them with even more incisive words: “Even though active participation by many faithful is of its very nature particularly fitting when Mass is celebrated, still there is no reason to criticize but rather only to approve a Mass that a priest celebrates privately for a good reason in accordance with the regulations and legitimate traditions of the Church, even when only a server to make the responses is present. For such a Mass brings a rich and abundant treasure of special graces to help the priest himself, the faithful, the whole Church and the whole world toward salvation—and this same abundance of graces is not gained through mere reception of Holy Communion.” (no. 32). All this is reconfirmed by can. 904 of the Code of Canon Law.

In summary: when possible, community celebration is preferred, but individual celebration by a priest remains the work of Christ and the Church. The magisterium not only does not prohibit it, but approves it, and recommends that priests celebrate Holy Mass every day, because from every Mass there flows a great quantity of graces for the whole world.


2. At the theological level, there are at least two positions currently held by experts, regarding the multiplication of the fruit of grace due to the celebration of the Mass.

According to an opinion that developed in the second half of the twentieth century, whether ten priests concelebrate the same Mass or they individually celebrate ten Masses makes no difference as to the gift of grace that is offered by God to the Church and to the world.

The other opinion, which is based among others on the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and on the magisterium of Pius XII in particular, argues on the contrary that by concelebrating a single Mass the gift of grace is reduced, because “in more Masses the oblation of the sacrifice and therefore the effect of the sacrifice and of the sacrament is multiplied” (Summa Theologiae, III, q. 79, a. 7 ad 3; cf. q. 82, a. 2; cf. also Pius XII, “Mediator Dei,” part II; Address of 2.11.1954; Address of 22.9.1956).

I do not intend here to settle the question of which of the two theses is more credible. The second thesis, however, has a number of points in its favor and should not be ignored. It should be kept in mind that there is at least the serious possibility that, by forcing priests to concelebrate and thus reducing the number of Masses celebrated, there will be a decrease in the gift of grace given to the Church and to the world. If so, the spiritual damage would be incalculable.

And it must be added that, in addition to the objective aspects, from the spiritual point of view there is also a sting in the peremptory tone with which the text of the secretariat of state establishes that “individual celebrations are suppressed.” In a statement put this way one perceives, particularly in the choice of the verb, a sort of unusual violence.


3. On account of the instructions that have been published, priests who would like to celebrate Mass according to the ordinary form of the Roman rite will now be forced to concelebrate.

Forcing priests to concelebrate is also a singular fact. Priests are welcome to concelebrate if they wish, but can concelebration be imposed on them? It will be said: if they do not want to concelebrate, let them go elsewhere! But is this the welcoming spirit of the Church that we want to embody? Is this the symbolism expressed by Bernini’s colonnade in front of the basilica, which in spirit represents the open arms of Mother Church welcoming her children?

How many priests come to Rome on pilgrimage! It is entirely normal that they, even if they do not have a group of faithful in tow, should nourish the healthy and beautiful desire to be able to celebrate Mass at St. Peter's, perhaps on the altar dedicated to a saint for whom they nurture special devotion. For how many centuries has the basilica welcomed such priests? And why now does it no longer want to welcome them, unless they accept the imposition of concelebration?

On the other hand, concelebration by its nature - as conceived and approved by the liturgical reform of Paul VI - is rather a concelebration of presbyters with the bishop than (at least ordinarily, on a daily basis) a concelebration of none but presbyters. As an aside I would note that such an imposition is taking place while humanity is fighting against Covid-19, which makes it less prudent to concelebrate.


4. What is to be done by those priests who come to Rome and do not know Italian? How will they concelebrate at St. Peter’s, where concelebrations are held only in Italian? On the other hand, even if a correction were decided on this, by admitting the use of three or four languages, that could never cover the vast number of languages ​​in which it is possible to celebrate Holy Mass.

The three cardinal confreres mentioned above have already cited can. 902 of the Code of Canon Law, which refers to “Sacrosanctum concilium” no. 57, which guarantees priests the possibility of personally celebrating the Eucharist. And also in this regard it would be sad if one were to say: do they want to make use of this right? let them go elsewhere!

I would like to add the reference to can. 928: “The eucharistic celebration is to be carried out in the Latin language or in another language provided that the liturgical texts have been legitimately approved.”

This canon provides, first of all, that Mass should also be celebrated in Latin. But now this cannot be done at the basilica, with the exception of celebration in the extraordinary form, to which I will return later.

In the second place, the canon provides for celebration in another language, if the relative liturgical books have been approved. But even this cannot be done now at St. Peter's, unless the celebrant has a group of faithful with him, in which case, following the new rules, he will still be diverted to the Vatican Grottoes, keeping Italian the only language admitted in the basilica.

St. Peter's Basilica should be an example for the liturgy of the whole Church. But these new rules impose criteria that would not be tolerated in any other place, in that they violate common sense as much as they do the laws of the Church.

In any case, this is not just about laws, since it is not a matter of mere formalism. Beyond the requisite respect for the canons what is at stake here is the good of the Church as well as the respect that the Church has always had for legitimate variety. The choice on the part of a priest not to concelebrate is legitimate and should be respected. And the possibility of being able to celebrate Mass individually should be guaranteed at St. Peter’s, given the common law but also the very high symbolic value of the basilica for the whole Church.


5. The decisions made by the secretariat of state also give rise to a heterogenesis of ends. For example, it does not seem that the text aims at an expansion of the use of the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, the celebration of which is relegated, by the recent instructions, to the grottoes beneath the basilica.

But on the basis of the new rules, what should a priest do who legitimately wishes to continue celebrating Mass individually? He would have no choice but to celebrate it in the extraordinary form, since he is prevented from celebrating individually in the ordinary form.

Why is it forbidden to celebrate the Mass of Paul VI individually at St. Peter’s Basilica, when - as reported above - pope Montini himself in “Mysterium fidei” approved this way of celebrating?


6. That of the priests who every morning take turns at the altars of the basilica to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass is an ancient and venerable custom. Was it really necessary to break it? Does such a decision really produce greater good for the Church and greater decorum in the liturgy?

How many saints have, over the centuries, perpetuated this beautiful tradition! We think of the saints who worked in Rome, or who came for a period to the Eternal City. They normally went to St. Peter’s to celebrate. Why deny the saints of today - who thank God exist, are among us, and visit Rome at least from time to time - as well as all the other priests such an experience, so profoundly spiritual? On the basis of what criterion and for the sake of what hypothetical progress does one break a centuries-old tradition and deny many the chance to celebrate Mass at St. Peter’s?

If the aim is - as the document states - that the celebrations “be enlivened liturgically, with the help of readers and singers,” this result could easily have been achieved with a minimum of organization, in a less dramatic and above all less unjust way. The Holy Father has often lamented the injustice present in today's world. To emphasize this teaching, His Holiness has even created a neologism, that of “inequity.” Is the recent decision of the secretariat of state an expression of equity? Is it an expression of magnanimity, welcome, pastoral, liturgical, and spiritual sensitivity?

Since I have talked about the saints who celebrated at St. Peter’s, let’s not forget that the basilica houses the relics of many of them and several altars are dedicated to the saint whose mortal remains are kept there. The new instructions establish that it is no longer possible to celebrate on these altars. The maximum allowed is only one Mass a year, on the day on which the liturgical memorial of that saint occurs. In this way, such altars are almost condemned to death.

The main, not to say the only, role of an altar is in fact that the Eucharistic sacrifice be offered on it. The presence of the relics of the saints under the altars has a biblical, theological, liturgical, and spiritual value of such magnitude that there is no need even to mention them. With the new norms the altars of St. Peter’s are destined to serve, except one day a year, only as tombs of saints, if not as mere works of art. Those altars, instead, must live, and their life is the daily celebration of the Holy Mass.


7. Also singular is the decision concerning the extraordinary form of the Roman rite. From now on, it - in the maximum number of four daily celebrations - is allowed exclusively in the Clementine Chapel of the Vatican Grottoes and is completely prohibited on any other altar in the basilica and in the Grottoes.

It is even specified that such celebrations will be carried out only by “authorized” priests. This indication, in addition to not respecting the norms contained in the Motu Proprio “Summorum Pontificum” of Benedict XVI, is also ambiguous: who should authorize those priests? Why should it never again be possible to celebrate the extraordinary form in the basilica? What danger does it represent for the dignity of the liturgy?

Let’s imagine that one day a Catholic priest of a rite other than the Roman rite shows up in the sacristy of St. Peter's. Of course he could not be forced to concelebrate in the Roman rite, so the question arises: could that priest celebrate in his rite? St. Peter’s Basilica represents the center of catholicity, so it comes naturally to think that such a celebration would be allowed. But if a celebration carried out according to one of the other Catholic rites can be carried out, for the sake of equality it would be all the more necessary to recognize the freedom of priests to celebrate in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite.

For all the reasons set out here and for yet others, together with a boundless number of baptized persons (many of whom do not want to or cannot express their thoughts) I humbly beg the Holy Father to order the withdrawal of the recent norms issued by the secretariat of state, which are as lacking in justice as in love, do not correspond to the truth or the law, do not facilitate but rather endanger the decorum of the celebration, devout participation in the Mass, and the freedom of the children of God

Rome, March 29 2021

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