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Cardinal Sarah and the Vatican: what people are saying

Cardinal Robert Sarah (CNS)

Cardinal Robert Sarah’s request to priests to celebrate mass ad orientem, and the response from the Vatican, have provoked much commentary. “It is highly unusual for the Vatican to publicly slap down a Prince of the Church,” wrote Christopher Lamb, seeing the Vatican statement (which followed a private audience between pope and cardinal) as a rebuke to Cardinal Sarah.

That was the standard interpretation – though Jeff Ostrowski asked where, exactly, the rebuke was supposed to be. For a start, Ostrowski pointed out, the Vatican merely clarified that there would be no new rules – a possibility which Cardinal Sarah had not actually raised.

But the terms of the Vatican statement were soon questioned by some observers. In particular, these words were challenged:

It is therefore good to recall that in the General Order of the Roman Missale (Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani), that contains the norms relating to the Eucharistic celebration and (which) are still fully in force, No. 299 states that “the altar is built separated from the wall, so as to be able to move around it easily and to celebrate looking towards the people, which thing is convenient to realize wherever possible.”

The same passage was quoted by Cardinal Nichols in his request to priests not to accede to Cardinal Sarah’s request. Bloggers including Corpus Christi Watershed, Fr Ray Blake, and Fr John Zuhlsdorf argued that this was a mistranslation. The “wherever possible” clause referred to where you put the altar, not which way you celebrate Mass. But Jonathan Day interpreted the clause as ambiguous.

Meanwhile, Joseph Shaw argued that the episode vindicated a traditionalist critique of post-Vatican II liturgical reform: “I admire and support priests who make the change to ad orientem in the Ordinary Form. What I can’t do is defend them against the kinds of arguments which will inevitably be brought against them: that what they are doing is contrary to thrust of the post-Conciliar reform. Because it is.”

However, Fr Hugh Somerville-Knapman suggested that the cardinal’s invitation would eventually bear fruit: “The young laity and the young clergy and seminarians, in whose hands lies the future of the Church on earth for the next few generations at least, are now far more up to speed on the issues … when the forces seeking to put Cardinal Sarah’s genie back in its bottle use highly deficient arguments, the young will see it, and will spurn it, even scorn it.”

In tomorrow’s Catholic Herald , Fr Mark Drew argues that we really can have it both ways. Stay tuned…