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The Knights of Malta’s Mass ban is hardly chivalrous

Benedict XVI hoped that liberating the Old Mass would heal divisions. But not everyone shares his view

Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre, the Grand Master of the Order of Malta, has informed members that henceforth all Masses celebrated in the context of Order events must be celebrated according to the Ordinary Form: that is to say, there must be no more Traditional Latin (Extraordinary Form) Masses.

This will come as a heavy blow to many of those associated with the Order in England and Wales, where it has long had celebrations in both Forms. It is one more example of an ongoing problem, however: that even as the Church’s ancient liturgy becomes more and more a normal part of Catholic life around the world, some religious orders have found it difficult to handle.

Under Summorum Pontificum – Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 apostolic letter freeing the Old Mass – the priests of religious orders, like all priests, have the right to celebrate in either Form. In practice, it has been easier for diocesan clergy to celebrate the Extraordinary Form than for religious clergy – diocesan priests are not constantly under the eye of their superiors and have always had a degree of autonomy in running their parishes. But there is another issue as well.

In many parishes where the Traditional Mass is well established, it has become as popular as any Sunday Mass in the parish. This may irritate parishioners with an ideological objection to it, but it makes no difference to their ability to go to another Mass, or for that matter to another parish. If the Traditional Mass becomes popular within a religious community, however, the natural development is for it to become a regular option at conventual Masses (celebrated for the community as a whole). In this situation community members with strong objections to it are unable simply to ignore it as an eccentricity of a few of their confrères. Having their noses rubbed in it gives them a powerful motivation to make a fuss.

The Order of Malta is unique in many ways, but it has this in common with other religious orders: despite not living in community, members (both professed religious and lay) are encouraged to worship together as often as possible, on retreats, pilgrimages and other special occasions.

Disagreements about the way Mass is celebrated have long been the bane of some religious communities, with liturgical differences overlapping or reinforcing other conflicts. In the case of the Traditional Mass, its die-hard opponents often feel that, despite everything said about the Old Mass in Rome, it remains in some vague way illegitimate, and they sense that if they press their objections aggressively the authorities will ultimately side with them. This is exactly what has happened, first with the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, which has been all but suppressed as an order, and now with the Order of Malta.

After half a century in which members of all kinds of religious associations have endured endless battles about the liturgy, and not a few egregious liturgical abuses, one might think that a form of Mass which has the explicit approbation of Benedict XVI, which can be attended in St Peter’s in Rome, and which half a dozen English bishops have celebrated, would be at least occasionally tolerable. Among some, however, particularly of the older generation, dislike of the older form of Mass borders on hatred, and the Ordinary Form in Latin is regarded as just as bad.

In this context, the Order of Malta’s relationship with the Traditional Mass in Britain has become increasingly tortured. Rather than settling into a pattern, liturgical issues have remained a matter of ongoing conflict and renegotiation. Unlike other communities, the Order has never allowed the Latin Mass Society to include its Traditional Masses in online Mass listings. Most recently, presumably in an attempt to stop members picking and choosing among its Masses, advance information about which Form is to be used at services has not even been given to its members.

No doubt these measures seemed necessary at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight they hardly exhibit the plain dealing of the chivalric ideal. The perception of high-handedness is not difficult to understand.

The simple answer for all religious communities may seem to be for those attached to the Extraordinary Form to join communities that use it exclusively. Many have done so, despairing of finding reasonable accommodation anywhere else, and the traditional communities’ gain has been others’ loss.

But there is a more fundamental problem for religious orders at issue here: the problem of their relationship with their own historic charism.

The Grand Master justifies his intervention in terms of the “cohesion and communion” of the Order. The implication is that the Order’s spiritual centre of gravity is incompatible with the liturgical tradition with which the Order was founded, which sustained it through its darkest moments, and accompanied its greatest triumphs, such as the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.

Is it really the case that the Mass familiar to Blessed Adrian Fortescue, an English Knight of Malta martyred by Henry VIII, is outside the “cohesion and communion” of the Order? Or the Mass which another member, the Italian Blessed Ildefonso Schuster, expounded in a beautiful multi-volume commentary in the 1920s?

Such a suggestion undermines the idea that the Order has such a thing as a spirituality and way of life which persists through time, and which enables the knights of today to lay claim to be the spiritual sons of Blessed Gerard, their founder. But the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of any long-standing order, and it is true also for the Church as a whole.

All orders were called on by the Second Vatican Council, in accordance with the Church’s perennial advice to religious orders, to recover the “original spirit” of their foundation, and to live that spirit in ways fruitful for the present. This is impossible if the liturgical manifestation of this “original spirit” is forbidden.

This problem was clearly in Pope Benedict’s mind when he promulgated Summorum Pontificum. He had written earlier: “A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden, and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent.”

Pope Benedict’s gracious act, in freeing the Traditional Latin Mass, was not simply for the gratification of its small number of devotees, or even just for the spiritual benefit of the slightly larger number who might discover it in the future. It was an attempt to heal a division not only among people in the present, but also between the Church of the present and the Church of the past. This reconciliation is absolutely necessary for the future of the Church, and the struggle for reconciliation is being played out in microcosm in dioceses and in religious communities all over the world.

Some, like the Dominicans and Oratorians in England, are handling the question successfully, with a harmonious integration of the “former liturgical tradition” into the life of the present. In other communities, things are not going so well. Let us hope, for the sake of the great charitable work done by the Order of Malta, that it too can secure its future by reconciling with its past.

Joseph Shaw is chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales