Universae ecclesiae, Friday Penance, Feast Days

Pope Benedict with the Bishops of England, Wales and Scotland (Photo: Press Association)

It’s been a big day for Catholic news, especially the kind favoured by Catholic nerds and anoraks like me, with the release of the long expected Instruction for the Motu Proprio Summorum pontificum. (The Church’s penchant for snappy titles means it’s called the Instruction Universae ecclesiae). Reactions from both sides of the liturgical spectrum can be found here and here .

Archbishop Vincent Nichols addressed Universae ecclesiae in the press conference covering the biannual Bishops’ Conference meeting, drawing attention to paragraphs 13, 15 and 19 of the document: which respectively assert the bishop’s authority, define that enigmatic “stable group” and spell out that the Mass in the Extraordinary Form cannot be requested by people who are against validity or legitimacy of the ordinary form or who suggest the Pope is not the Church’s supreme pastor.

When asked whether seminaries in England and Wales would teach the Extraordinary form as is recommended by the Vatican document, Archbishop Nichols answered that this depended on the phrase “where pastoral need suggests it” and said the requirement was “provisional” not “absolute”. He added that the document was the product of a “process of consultation conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in which every bishop around the world was asked, how this was going, and was asked to assess to the needs”. The diocese of Westminster, he continued, asked if any priests were willing to learn—and there were “plenty”—and therefore the needs were met.

He said: “Personally I don’t think it needs to be added to an already crowded seminary programme because it’s a skill that can be learned later in a priest’s life.”

Meanwhile there have been some interesting snippets of news for the local Church. As promised the Bishops have followed up their emphasis on Lent as the season of penitence by renewing emphasis on Friday penance. The practice, which was never abrogated—the faithful continue to have an obligation to do some sort of penance on Fridays—has fallen out of use since it was changed from abstinence from meat to any sort of penance. So the bishops hope to remind the faithful about their obligation by restoring the tradition of Friday fish days, to begin on September 16 in commemoration of the Holy Father’s visit last year. This certainly seemed to delight the mainstream hacks at the press conference.

Catholics in this country, who have bemoaned the feasts and Holy Days which have been transferred to the Sunday, will be pleased to learn that this was a topic of discussion during the bishops’ plenary meeting. According to Archbishop Nichols, the bishops discussed the merits of celebrating on the Sunday—allowing more people to take part in the celebration—or on the actual feast which allowed for the rhythm of the life of the Church. No body was pleased when the feasts were moved. Now it seems that bishops are going back to their dioceses to “reflect” on the merits of returning the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany and Ascension back to their proper days in the liturgical calendar. There is hope.

Another interesting aspect of the meeting was the General Secretary Fr Marcus Stock’s plan for the Bishops’ Conference. Looking at the Church documents which define the purpose of a bishops’ conference and the Holy Father’s talks during his visit to Britain, Fr Stock has listed the principle purposes and core objectives of such a structure. The bishops have agreed on the three priorities he has set “Proclaiming the universal call to holiness in Christ by promoting a culture of vocation in the Church”, “Proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom by supporting integrity in public life, cohesion and mutual respect in society and serving the marginalised an vulnerable people and lastly “Proclaiming Christ and his Gospel as saving truth by fostering and encouraging a culture of dialogue and solidarity”. Fr Stock has been tasked with now creating a practical framework, one which looks at the actual existing structures at Eccleston Square and examines whether they are fit for purpose. He will then propose budgets, allocate funding, set concrete targets and so on for the next three to five years at the November plenary session.

While the objectives are quite nebuolous at the moment it will be interesting to see how this develops. It appears to be the first time the bishops’ conference has gone about planning its objectives in such a structured and organised way. This is something to watch out for and could be very good.

It was Mgr Keith Newton’s first meeting of the Bishops’ Conference as the leader of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and he had to give the first report of the plenary session. He’s very British and funny about the situation. They still haven’t got a principal Church and are still looking to house all the clergy but he remains optimistic.