Monday, April 21, 2008

A New Development in Papal Liturgy - Maybe

Pope Benedict barely having returned from his Apostolic Visit to the USA, the Office of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff is announcing that the funeral for His Most Reverend Eminence Alfonso Cardinal López Trujillo (the President of the Pontifical Council for the Family who died last Saturday - requiescat in pace) will be celebrated this Wednesday at 11 a.m. at the altar of the Chair in St. Peter's Basilica. The celebrant of the Holy Mass will be the Most Eminent Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the Sacred College. The announcement goes on to say (my translation): "At the end, the funeral liturgy will be presided over by the Holy Father Benedict XVI, who will hold the homily and perform the rite of the Ultima Commendatio and of the Valedictio."

So far the facts. What does this deviation from recent practice (begun in the early pontificate of John Paul II, if memory serves), which had seen the pope personally celebrate the Requiem Masses for deceased members of the Sacred College, mean? (And let me note quite clearly that all which follows is purely speculation on my part for the sake of interest.) This could simply be a way of giving the Holy Father some more time to recuperate after his demanding visit to the US. This is the easiest and most practical explanation, which also makes sense given that the normal Wednesday General Audience had already before been suspended, presumably for exactly this reason.

But there is another possible explanation, and both explanations are actually not mutually exclusive. For this could also be a return to the traditional practice for Cardinals's funerals. The traditional practice had been to have the Requiem celebrated by another Cardinal in the presence of the Supreme Pontiff - in terms of the extraordinary form of the Roman rite: a Mass coram Pontifice. (Of course this presupposes that the pope is actually present during the entire Mass, which the announcement doesn't say explicitly.) Whether this is the case we will only find out the next time such a sad occasion arises.

Supposing however hypothetically that it is indeed a return to this traditional practice, one might further speculate as to the reasons for this return. In addition to the value of expressing continuity, which we have seen in so many words and deeds of this pope, it might be a way of stressing the importance of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass itself, rather than the person of the celebrant. Also, if we are thinking that Benedict and Msgr. Marini are trying to gradually restore much of the ritual solemnity which had traditionally been characteristic for papal Masses, it may become more difficult to have these celebrations with the frequency we have seen in recent decades, and less desirable to see the pope publicly celebrate Masses with reduced ceremonial. If this is the case, the reintroduction of the option of a Mass celebrated in the presence of but not by the Pope might be a very adequate solution - after all, this was also at least part of the rationale behind this traditional practice. It might also be very good to have this option established once pope Benedict - and God grant this day may still be far away! - becomes due to increasing age less capable of celebrating in person these exhausting liturgies.

And lastly - and this is of course most speculative - reestablishing the Mass coram Pontifice might also pave the way for a possible future celebration of the extraordinary form in St. Peter's. As has been previously discussed on the NLM, the traditional rules for a solemn papal Mass in the usus antiquior are very complex, were last performed 40 years ago, and presuppose many elements which would either be difficult to recuperate or would else have to be modified. The possibility, then, to have a Solemn Pontifical Mass celebrated by a Cardinal coram Pontifice would avoid all these difficulties.

Bl. John XXIII assisting at a Mass coram Pontifice at the altar of the Chair in 1959

Bl. John XXIII assisting at a Requiem coram Pontifice for a Cardinal (corpore moraliter praesente; also note the galero) in one of the transepts of St. Peter's in the early 1960s. Note that the pope is himself performing the absolutio, a possibility forseen for the Missa pro defunctis coram Epsicopo in the old Cæremoniale Episcoporum II, xii, 6. This would be, I think, the equivalent of the "liturgia exsequialis" which pope Benedict will preside over this Wednesday.

It will be interesting to observe whether this really is a new development in the papal liturgies, and if so, what may come of it.

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