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Pope Francis and the Franciscan Friars

It all started with a clickbait headline in my Facebook news feed. Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert writing in Rome, declared,For the First Time, Francis Contradicts Benedict. Magister reported, in the tabloid fashion typical of Italian journalism:

[The] Franciscans of the Immaculate are one of the most flourishing religious communities born in the Catholic Church in recent decades, with male and female branches, with many young vocations, spread over several continents and with a mission in Argentina as well.

They want to be faithful to tradition, in full respect for the magisterium of the Church. So much so that in their communities they celebrate Masses both in the ancient rite and in the modern rite, as moreover do hundreds of religious communities around the world—the Benedictines of Norcia, to give just one example—applying the spirit and the letter of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum of Benedict XVI.

But precisely this was contested by a core group of internal dissidents, who appealed to the Vatican authorities complaining of the excessive propensity of their congregation to celebrate the Mass in the ancient rite, with the effect of creating exclusion and opposition within the communities, of undermining internal unity and, worse, of weakening the more general sentire cum Ecclesia.

The Vatican authorities responded by sending an apostolic visitor one year ago. And now comes the appointment of the commissioner.

Had the Franciscans of the Immaculate merely been given a commissioner, the story wouldn’t have been nearly as huge. What gave the story journalistic juice was this additional intervention by the Vatican:

In addition to the above, the Holy Father Francis has directed that every religious of the congregation of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate is required to celebrate the liturgy according to the ordinary rite and that, if the occasion should arise, the use of the extraordinary form (Vetus Ordo) must be explicitly authorized by the competent authorities, for every religious and/or community that makes the request.

Basically, Pope Francis signed off on a decision to restrict the celebration of the extraordinary form of the Roman rite liturgy by the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate. The friars are “required to celebrate the liturgy according to the ordinary rite,” with occasional celebration of the extraordinary form permitted when “explicitly authorized by competent authorities.”

For all the squalling in cyberspace that this intervention “contradicts”Summorum Pontificum, the motu proprio itself states:

Communities of institutes of consecrated life and of societies of apostolic life, of either pontifical or diocesan right, wishing to celebrate Mass in accordance with the edition of the Roman Missal promulgated in 1962, for conventual or "community" celebration in their oratories, may do so. If an individual community or an entire institute or society wishes to undertake such celebrations often, habitually or permanently, the decision must be taken by the superiors major, in accordance with the law and following their own specific decrees and statutes.

In other words, Summorum Pontificum provides that the celebration of the extraordinary form within religious communities is dependent to one degree or another on the decisions of the superiors major of those communities, acting “in accordance with the law and following their own specific degrees and statutes.”

Well, then the freakout in cyberspace commenced. Rorate Caeli, a Traditionalist blog, crashed out of the gate, opining:

[T]he Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate are not just a small religious order or congregation occupying a tiny niche of the Traditional Catholic world; with more than 130 priests, they are the second largest canonically-regular religious congregation or society among those that primarily or de factoexclusively offer the Traditional Latin Mass. (The FSSP is the largest.) The family of female monasteries and convents under the spiritual care of the FFI have no other parallel in the Traditional Catholic world outside the SSPX. Anything that restricts the ability of the FFI to offer the Traditional Latin Mass will of necessity be deeply felt by the Traditional Catholic world.

If that does not scare you about Pope Francis’s presumed dark intentions toward the extraordinary form liturgy, another Traditionalist Catholic blog complained that there hasn’t been (inthis blogger’s estimation) like censure against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR):

After all the scoldings, after all the statements that "you had better change, young old lady!," in terms of action, essentially nothing has happened to them or their member orders. A very small handful of truly amazingly heretical women have been forced from teaching positions they were in the process of leaving anyways (almost always for greener pastures at a more openly secular college or institute), and a few orders have had their hands slapped here and there, but for the most part, after over 20 years of investigation, pondering, press releases, etc., the Leadership Conference of Women's Religious [sic], probably at least a third of whose members openly deny that God became Incarnate on this earth, and almost all of whom deny the special efficacy of the Church for salvation, still has never received a single, across the board disciplinary action.

But the Franciscans of the Immaculate, because they adhere to Tradition, are squashed (for that is what this is, if this action persists for any length of time, they will be gravely wounded) over the complaints of a mere handful of priests and religious.

Translation: The complaint familiar to parents and playground monitors the world over, “But I didn’t do anything wrong! What about what he did?!”

In working as an apologist for Catholic Answers for a decade now, I’ve had to keep an eye on the Traditionalist Catholic movement, and I think this story and its fallout demonstrates well some worrisome tendencies in the movement.

Jumping to the worst conclusion: Rather than wait and see how a story develops or try to find alternative explanations, the tendency is to treat every development that is not 100 percent positive in favor of Traditionalism as if the sky was falling. In this case, Traditionalist commentators jumped straight from a limited restriction on the celebration of the extraordinary form to doomsday predictions that the EF as we know it was imperiled.

Blaming others: Rather than focus on what is going on within the Traditionalist sphere, some could not resist the temptation to once more complain that “We’re just faithful to Tradition! What about those ‘old ladies’ in the LCWR who deny God and his Church?” Even setting aside the question of charity in regards to over-generalization, there is still the question of whether it is appropriate to complain about the alleged bad deeds of others when it is your own actions that are under review.

Acting like those you disagree with: There was something deeply amusing about Traditionalist Catholics raging over “Vatican takeovers.” When the Vatican has intervened in the past with groups like the LCWR, those on the conservative to Traditionalist end of the Catholic spectrum jump to the Vatican’s defense, pointing out that the Vatican is just doing its job and those on the receiving end of the shepherd’s staff should take their lumps and like them. But when it is their turn for some chastisement, their complaints are indistinguishable from those with whom they disagree.

So, what is the bottom line for this episode? Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger, a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, probably said it best:

Many of us—I would hope most of us—Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, welcome the Holy Father's intervention into our life and trust fully that Holy Mother Church knows exactly what she is doing, even when the journalists do not. We entrust ourselves to her care, just as we do to the Immaculate.

Please pray for our Institute.


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