Today as the Church pays homage to In Cathedra S. Petri Apóstolo (the Chair of St. Peter), members of the Fraternitas Sacerdotalis Sancti Petri (FSSP) worldwide are celebrating with relief and gratitude Pope Francis’ February 11 decree providing a seeming exemption from the general provisions of Traditionis Custodes. The decree acknowledges the Fraternity’s right to continue using the 1962 liturgical books essential to its celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass and Sacraments. By extension, other traditional orders such as the Institute of Christ the King appear to also be granted this privilege.
Meanwhile, most Catholics—including many who attend the Traditional Latin Mass—are not aware of the authority that the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter brought to the preservation of Latin in Holy Mother Church sixty years ago. Indeed, it was on February 22, 1962, that Pope Saint John XXIII, with the highest degree of papal grandeur, promulgated Veterum Sapientia (wisdom of the ancient world), in the form of an apostolic constitution—the highest and most solemn form of legislation that can be issued by a pope.
Why was Latin so urgently important to John XXIII in the months leading up to Vatican II?
Veterum Sapientia outlines three primary justifications for Latin as the official language of the Church. Pope John no doubt foresaw the potential (and now realized) chaos resulting from the Vatican II propensity to make peace with the modern world. Quoting Pope Pius XI, the document explains (emphasis mine): For the Church unity, precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time…of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.
We can certainly appreciate the need for a universal language—i.e., one that is unbiased and inclusive of all cultures and peoples. And we need look no further than the evolution of our language over the past fifty or so years to understand how words change. But non-vernacular? Wasn’t the thrust of Vatican II to increase laity participation in the Mass by celebrating it in a language we can understand?
Turns out, the vernacular Mass was wrong-headed. Finally, the Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord, says Pope John. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular. This explains in spades what I mean when I tell others the Latin Mass embodies all that is true, beautiful, and good about our Catholic faith.
And so it was, on the High Altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, witnessed by two hundred bishops, forty red-hatted princes of the church, packed pews and the news media, His Holiness Pope John XXIII most ceremoniously marked the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter by placing his papal seal on a legal document that mandates the restoration of Latin “to its position of honor, and to do all We can to promote its study and use.” As reported by New Liturgical Movement, emphasis mine:
Pope John’s Constitution contained, in its sixth and final page, an order for the immediate writing of regulations to ensure it would be implemented speedily and properly. These regulations, called in Latin the Ordinationes (English “Ordinances” or “Statutes”) were finished and published just two months later by the Sacred Congregation for Seminaries and Universities. The Ordinationes were slated to come into legal force in every Catholic university and seminary on earth in October of 1963; had they done so, we would today be living in an utterly different world.
Why don’t we know about this?
Alas, Pope John died a little more than three months later on June 3, 1962, providing modernist churchmen the opportunity to effectively “cancel” his Ordinationes from Church history. In the ensuing decades, Latin Mass aficionados have been relegated to the very margins of the church. While Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, empowered the TLM movement, it never succeeded in restoring the Latin Rite to its place of primacy in the Church. With Pope Francis’ Traditionis Custodes, the final nail seemed to have been nailed in the TLM coffin.
Yet, Pope Saint John Paul XXIII still speaks with the voice of magisterial authority. Veterum Sapientia is binding, and forces are at work to follow the document to the letter of the law. Take heart, fellow afficionados of the Traditional Latin Mass. Francis has never had the authority to abrogate the Usus Antiquior—our heritage—nor can he decide who does and does not have the right to it.