Polish Priest Issues Open Letter to Pope Francis on “Traditionis Custodes”

Jamna, August 17, 2021
His Holiness Pope Francis
Domus Sanctae Marthae
The Holy See
Vatican City

For the attention of:
Rev. General Master of the Order, Gerard Francisco Timoner III OP
Rev. Provincial of the Polish Province, Paweł Kozacki OP
H.E. Bishop of the Tarnów Diocese, Andrzej Jeż
Rev. Superior of the House in Jamna, Andrzej Chlewicki OP
Brothers and Sisters in the Order
Rev. Superior of the Polish District of the Fraternity of St Pius X, Karl Stehlin FSSPX
Omnes quos res tangit

Most Holy Father,

I was born 57 years ago and joined the Dominican Order 35 years ago. I took my perpetual vows 29 years ago and have been a priest now for 28 years. I had only vague recollections from my early childhood of the Holy Mass in its form predating the reforms of 1970. Sixteen years after my ordination, two lay friends (unknown to each other) urged me to learn how to celebrate the Holy Mass in its traditional form. I listened to them.

It was a shock to me. I discovered that the Holy Mass in its classical form:
– directs the entire attention of both priest and faithful towards the Mystery,
– expresses, with great precision of words and gestures, the faith of the Church in what is happening here and now on the altar,
– reinforces, with a power equal to its precision, the faith of the celebrant and of the people,
– does not lead either priest or faithful towards any invention or creativity of their own during the liturgy,
– places them, quite on the contrary, on a path of silence and contemplation,
– offers by the number and nature of its gestures the possibility of incessant acts of piety and love towards God,
– unites the priest and faithful, placing them on the same side of the altar and turning them in the same direction: versus Crucem, versus Deum.

I said to myself: so this is what the Holy Mass is! And I, a priest of 16 years, did not know it! It was a powerful eureka, a discovery, after which my idea of the Mass could not remain the same.

From the beginning it had struck me that this rite is the opposite of the stereotype. Instead of formalism, free expression of the soul before God. Instead of frigidity, the fervour of divine cult. Instead of distance, closeness. Instead of strangeness, intimacy. Instead of rigidity, security. Instead of the passivity of the laity, their deep and living connection to the mystery (it was through the laity, after all, that I was led to the traditional Mass). Instead of a chasm between priest and the faithful, a close spiritual union between all those present, protected and expressed by the silence of the Canon. In making this discovery it became clear to me: this very form is our bridge to the generations who lived before us and passed on the faith. My joy in this ecclesial unity which transcends all time was enormous.

From the beginning, I experienced the powerful force of spiritual attraction of the Mass in its traditional form. It was not the signs in themselves which attracted me, but their significance, which the soul knows how to read. The very thought of the next celebration filled me with joy. I sought every opportunity to celebrate with eagerness and longing. Very soon a complete certainty matured within me, that, were I to celebrate Mass (as well as every Sacrament and ceremony) only in its traditional form till the end of my days, I would not miss the post-conciliar form in the least.

Had someone asked me to express with a single word my feelings about the traditional celebration in the context of the reformed rite, I would have replied “relief.” For it was indeed a relief, one of indescribable depth. It was like that of someone who, having walked all his life in shoes with a pebble in them that rubs and irritates his feet, but who has no other experience of walking, is offered, 16 years later, a pair of shoes with no pebble and the words: “Here,” “Put them on,” “try them!” Not only did I rediscover the Holy Mass, but also the astounding difference between the two forms: that which had been in use for centuries and the post-conciliar one. I had not known this difference because I had not known the earlier form. I cannot compare my encounter with the traditional liturgy to a meeting with someone who has adopted me and has become my adoptive parent. It was a meeting with a Mother who has always been my Mother, yet I had not known her.

I was accompanied in all this by the blessing of the Supreme Pontiffs. They had taught that the missal of 1962 “had never been legally abrogated and remained therefore, in principle, always permitted,” adding that “what had been sacred for previous generations remained sacred and great also for us, and could not suddenly become completely forbidden nor even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed through the faith and prayer of the Church and to give them their proper place” (Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops, 2007). The faithful were also taught: “On account of its venerable and ancient use, the forma extraordinaria is to be maintained with the honour due to it”; it has been described as “a precious treasure to be preserved” (Instruction Universae Ecclesiae, 2011). These words followed earlier documents which made it possible for the faithful to use the traditional liturgy after the reforms of 1970, the first being Quattuor abhinc annos of 1984. The foundation and source for all these documents remains the Bull of Saint Pius V, Quo primum tempore (1570).

Holy Father, if, without forgetting the solemn document of Pope Pius V, we take into consideration the lapse of time covering the declarations of your immediate predecessors we have a duration of 37 years, from 1984 to 2021, during which the Church said to the faithful, concerning the traditional liturgy, and ever more strongly: “There is such a way. You may walk along it.”

I therefore took the path offered to me by the Church.

Whoever takes this road—whoever wants this rite, which is the vessel of divine Presence and divine Oblation, to bear fruit within his own life—should open himself entirely so as to entrust himself and others to God, present and acting within us through the vessel of this holy rite. This I did, with complete confidence.

Then came the 16th of July 2021.

From your documents, Holy Father, I learnt that the path I had been walking on for 12 years had ceased to exist.

We have affirmations of two Popes. His Holiness Benedict XVI had said that the Roman Missal promulgated by Saint Pius V “must be considered the extraordinary expression of the lex orandi of the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite.” Yet His Holiness Pope Francis says that “the liturgical books promulgated by Popes St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II (…) are the only expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” The affirmation of the successor thus denies that of his still-living predecessor.

Can a certain manner of celebrating Mass, confirmed by immemorial, centuries-old Tradition, recognized by every Pope, including yourself, Holy Father, until the 16th of July of 2021, and sanctified by its practice over so many centuries, suddenly cease to be the lex orandi of the Roman Rite? If this were the case, it would mean that such a characteristic is not intrinsic to the rite but is an external attribute, subject to the decisions of those who occupy places of high authority. In reality, the traditional liturgy expresses the lex orandi of the Roman Rite by its every gesture and every sentence and by the whole that they compose. It is guaranteed also to express this lex orandi, as the Church has always held, on account of its uninterrupted use, since time immemorial. We must conclude that the first papal affirmation [of Benedict] has solid foundations and is true and that the second [of Francis] is groundless and is false. But despite its being false, it is nevertheless given power of law. This has consequences about which I will write below.

Concessions regarding the use of the Missal of 1962 now have a different character than earlier ones. It is no longer about responding to the love with which the faithful adhere to the traditional form, but about giving the faithful time—how much time, we are not told—to “return” to the reformed liturgy. The words of the Motu Proprio and your Letter to the Bishops make it entirely clear that the decision has been taken, and is already being implemented, to remove the traditional liturgy from the life of the Church and cast it into the abyss of oblivion: it may not be used in parish churches, new groups must not be formed, Rome must be consulted if new priests are to say it. The bishops are now indeed to be Traditionis Custodes, “custodians of Tradition,” yet not in the sense of guardians who protect it, but rather in the sense of custodians of a jail.

Allow me to express my conviction that this will not happen, and that the operation will fail. What are the grounds for this conviction? A careful analysis of both Letters of July 16th exposes four components: Hegelianism, nominalism, belief in the Pope’s omnipotence, and collective responsibility. Each one is an essential component of your message and none of them can be reconciled with the deposit of the Catholic faith. Since they cannot be reconciled with the faith, they will not be integrated into it either in theory or in practice. Let us examine each of them in turn.

1) Hegelianism. The term is a conventional one: it does not mean literally the system of the German philosopher Hegel, but something that derives from this system, namely the understanding of history as a good, rational, and inevitable process of continuous changes. This way of thinking has a long history, from Heraclitus and Plotinus, to Joachim of Fiore, down to Hegel, Marx, and their modern heirs. The characteristic of this approach is to divide history into phases, such that the beginning of each new phase is joined to the end of the preceding one. Attempts to “baptize” Hegelianism are nothing other than attempts to endow these supposed historical phases with the authority of the Holy Spirit. It is assumed that the Holy Spirit communicates to the next generation something that He has not spoken of to the preceding one, or even that He imparts something that contradicts what He has said before. In the latter case, we must accept one of three things: either in certain phases the Church failed to obey the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Spirit is subject to change, or He carries contradictions within Him.

Another consequence of this world-view is a change in how we understand the Church and Tradition. The Church is no longer seen as a community uniting the faithful by transcending time, as the Catholic faith holds, but as a set of groups belonging to the various phases. These groups no longer have a common language: our ancestors had no access to what the Holy Spirit says to us today. Tradition itself is no longer one message that is continuously studied; it consists rather in receiving again and again new things from the Holy Spirit. We then come to hear instead, as in Your Letter to the Bishops, Holy Father, of “the dynamic of Tradition,” often with an application to specific events. An example of this is when you write that this dynamic’s “last stage is the Second Vatican Council, during which Catholic bishops gathered in order to listen and discern the way shown to the Church by the Holy Spirit.” This line of reasoning implies that a new phase requires new liturgical forms, because the former ones were suited to the previous stage, which is over. Since this sequence of stages is sanctioned by the Holy Spirit, through the Council, those who hold on to the old forms despite having access to new ones oppose the Holy Spirit.

Such views, however, are contrary to the faith. Holy Scripture, the norm of Catholic faith, provides no grounds for such an understanding of history. Rather, it teaches us an altogether different understanding. King Josiah, having learned about the discovery of the old book of the Law, ordered that the celebration of Passover be conducted in accordance with it, despite an interruption of half a century (2 Kgs 22-23). In the same way, Ezra and Nehemiah on their return from the Babylonian captivity celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles with the entire people, strictly according to the ancient records of the Law, despite many decades having passed since the previous celebration (Neh 8). In each case, the old documents of the law were used to renew the divine worship after a period of turmoil. No one demanded a change in the ritual on the ground that new times had arrived.

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