Why do our Bishops pull out candidates for the priesthood from seminaries which teach the Extraordinary Form? Why are they so intent on defying the Pope?

Photo: CNS

About three months ago, I wrote a piece about the pastoral letter from all the bishops on the subject of the new translation of the Novus Ordo—a letter which I said was another example of “a pattern of behaviour which the bishops have been exhibiting more and more since the papal visit”. I was thinking also of the welcome given by them to the Ordinariate (a stark contrast to their behaviour 15 years ago when they crushed any such idea before it had chance to be born), and also of the restoration of two of our holy days of obligation, the return of Friday abstinence from meat, and so on.

All this was very welcome, and I had hopes that it portended not a selective tactical retreat but a permanent and irreversible cultural revolution. But a blog posted on Monday by Fr Christopher Smith, tellingly headlined “Why Are Seminaries Afraid of the Extraordinary Form?” tells a different story: the revolution in English Episcopal thinking has some way to go yet. Anglicanorum Coetibus may have attracted the support of our bishops: but Summorum Pontificum has so far attracted stiff Episcopal opposition to the Pope’s wishes, an attitude which may tell the real truth about what they think of him and his vision for the Church’s future. Why are seminaries afraid of the Extraordinary Form? Simple: as Fr Hill puts it, “what does a good seminary rector do when he knows that Tradition-unfriendly Bishops will pull their guys out of their seminaries if they begin to teach the EF?”

The fact is that these “Tradition-unfriendly Bishops”—if it really is, quite shockingly, the case that they are likely to pull their ordination candidates out from any seminary which teaches the Extraordinary Form—may think that they are being progressive and forward looking in defending their dioceses from the Pope’s vision of liturgical pluralism: but they are in fact being just as as reactionary and backward looking as those who they believe scandalously stood in the way of the Second Vatican Council (even though many of them were actually opposed to the distortion of the Council by people like them).

And their reactionary and authoritarian views on Summorum Pontificum (though they oppose the pope’s wishes on the bogus grounds that the Extraordinary form is divisive) are themselves, by leading those bishops who hold them secretly to subvert or even openly to oppose the Pope’s wishes for the liturgy, in fact profoundly divisive if not actually schismatic—as well as tyrannically authoritarian.

They are, it has to be said, prolonging an essentially totalitarian attitude towards the Old Rite and the liturgical ideas of the present Pope which has a long and inglorious history. If you want a flavour of what used to happen and probably still does, read Fr Smith’s blog. It opens with a chilling story, which I would have found as incredible as it should be, if it were not for the fact that I have heard variants of it so many times before from a wide variety of different sources:

I had just entered the seminary when Cardinal Ratzinger’s book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, came out. I had an English copy expressed to me and brought it with me into the chapel as my spiritual reading during our daily community Holy Hour. One of the older men knelt next to me as I was engrossed in Ratzinger’s chapter on Rite and whispered, “Do you want to get kicked out of the seminary? Change the book cover now.” All of my attempts to not publicise the fact that I actually knew the Old Latin Mass had apparently been blown out of the water by this defiant act of wanton schism. Suddenly seminarians began to knock on my door and counsel me how to survive the seminary, and so I exchanged Ignatius Press’ book cover for one entitled “The Pastoral Letters of Paul VI.”

The hostility, however, wasn’t simply towards what we now know as the Extraordinary form, but also towards even the Novus Ordo in Latin, to which many ordinary Parishioners (like me for one) are attracted if for no other reason than their distaste for the cack-handed English translation from which we are soon to be, and not before time, so gloriously liberated (“And also with you” indeed: yuk, even after 20 years).

But willingness quite within the rules to celebrate the Ordinary form in Latin was (and still is, I suspect) in many dioceses something to be rooted out, to the extent that the liberal ex-nuns and other lay malcontents who are so often made responsible for weeding out undesirables from the diocesan ministry use it as a criterion: a friend of mine who teaches theology in Oxford (no names, no pack drill) supervising the doctoral thesis of a young man certain of his vocation to the priesthood told me in exasperation that he had been turned down by a lay busybody working for one diocese because he foolishly answered a trick question designed to elicit whether he was favourably disposed to the Mass in Latin: Did he have any hostility to it? Answer “no” and you are (or were) out. Traditionalist candidates for the priesthood have to be as wily as serpents as well as innocent as doves as they go through the diocesan machinery. Maybe it’s different now, who knows? But I have my doubts.

There has to be a major shift in the mindset which still holds sway in too many dioceses, both towards the Extraordinary form itself, and to the whole rich and diverse liturgical traditional of what we still call the Church of the Latin Rite. There should be, as Fr Hill says,

…. a joyous welcome to the EF within [seminaries’] daily life.…

The most important reason is that the Magisterium has made it very clear that there are two forms of the same Roman Rite and that both are equal in dignity. If all priests of the Latin Rite have the right to celebrate both forms, it follows that seminaries should then form all priests in both forms. Then, they will be ready to fulfill the requests of those faithful who desire the EF and they will broaden their own pastoral horizon.

The enthusiastic welcome of the EF into seminary life will also unmask the tension that has been growing over EF-friendly seminarians in houses of formation. If they are not formed properly in the seminary to be able to offer the EF, many will embark on an auto-didactic parallel formation which will keep their minds, hearts and often their bodies out of the seminary formation environment. When seminarians begin such an autodidactic parallel formation, the tendency is to develop a form of duplicity to be able to engage in such formation. And given the state of the clergy in today’s Church, no seminary can afford to give seminarians a blank check to get their formation elsewhere.

A Plan for Integrating the EF into Seminary Life

But how can the EF be integrated into seminary life? First of all, all of those involved in priestly formation must come to accept what Pope Benedict XVI has done for the Roman liturgy: he has declared that there are two forms of one Roman rite, and every priest has a right to celebrate both. If that is true, the question must be asked: Why is every seminarian in the Latin Rite not trained in both forms? Some seminaries have offered some limited training to those who are interested in it, but that still makes it seem like the EF is a hobby for some priests, or some kind of eccentric movement barely tolerated within the Church, and not of equal value with the OF.

Yet before any seminary can integrate the EF into seminary life, seminaries must offer a comprehensive training in the Latin language and sacred music. These two subjects, which were once part and parcel of every seminary training, have been relegated to a few optional classes in many places, when they should undergird the curriculum.

Father Smith has raised serious questions to which we are all entitled to an answer. There should indeed be as a matter of urgency “a plan for integrating the EF into seminary life”. The bishops above all should support such an objective: if they don’t, they will be fomenting disunity within the Church, and subverting the authority of the Magisterium. Do they really want that?