An Extraordinary Tridentine Rite Milestone

Archbishop Burke Presides Over High Mass in St. Peter’s

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Robert Moynihan

ROME, OCT. 19, 2009 ( There has been almost no coverage anywhere in the mainstream press about an extraordinary event that occurred yesterday morning in St. Peter’s Basilica — the celebration by Archbishop Raymond Burke, head of the Apostolic Signature, of the first High Mass according to the old Latin rite in St. Peter’s Basilica in 40 years, since 1969.

And because of that lack of press coverage, the old Mass, that «mysterious tapestry of texts and actions,» as Cardinal Ratzinger once termed it — sometimes illogical, sometimes jumbled, but nevertheless always wonderful — returned to St. Peter’s Basilica after 40 years without any special notice at all, almost, as it were, silently, almost like «a thief in the night.»

Oct. 18 was the Feast of St. Luke, author of one of the Gospels, and also of the Book of Acts.
Luke has a special connection with Mary. Luke is the only Gospel writer who tells us the story of the Annunciation, of the visit to Elizabeth, of the Presentation, and of Jesus’ disappearance in Jerusalem. Some scholars believe this is because Luke knew Mary, and heard these stories directly from her.
The Gospel for yesterday’s historic Mass was taken from Luke’s Gospel. It tells the story of the rich young ruler whose son is dying. He asks Jesus to heal his son, and Jesus does so.

The chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament, which is on the right side of St. Peter’s Basilica, was filled to overflowing by the time the Mass began at just after 9:30 am.

Full house

Outside, it was raining, and a bit of water pooled and glistened in different places on the marble floor where those present repeatedly knelt down on the hard stone during the celebration.

I myself found a place to stand in the back, as all the seats were taken. About 400 people were present.

Archbishop Burke, formerly bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri, now the head of the Apostolic Signature of the Holy See, was flanked by about 70 priests who joined him in procession across the main nave of the basilica before and after the Mass.
The Apostolic Signature is an office more or less comparable to the «Supreme Court» of the Catholic Church. The head of this office is, according to Church custom, a cardinal. This means that, barring some change, Burke should relatively soon be made a cardinal. The decision of a probable future cardinal to celebrate this Mass gives the event a certain weight and seriousness it might not otherwise have had.
Many low old rite Masses have been celebrated in different chapels of the basilica over the years, especially in the past two years since the promulgation on July 7, 2007, of «Summorum Pontificum,» Benedict XVI’s «motu proprio» calling for wider celebration of the old Mass.
But this was the first High Mass in the old rite since 1969.
Monsignor Guido Pozzo, recently appointed by Benedict XVI to head the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the commission in charge of dialogue with the Society of St. Pius X, which wishes to celebrate the Mass only in the old rite — was also present.
A unique spiritual experience

The two choirs, of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, one of brothers and one of sisters, were extraordinary.

As one Italian who attended put it, «It seemed we were immersed in choirs of angels. The presence of the celestial dimension of the rite was almost tangible. Believe me, I am not exaggerating.»

But the morning was marked by a bit of confusion.
Instead of beginning at 10 a.m., the Mass was moved forward to 9:30 a.m. This meant that some dozens of people, who had planned to arrive at 10 a.m., found the Mass already 30 minutes under way when they arrived, and the chapel full. Many of them were turned away by Vatican ushers, as I witnessed with my own eyes, looking out the window from the back of the chapel where I standing.
I was told that the reason for this change was that another Mass was scheduled soon after, and it was necessary to move this Mass up to an earlier time so as not to interfere with the Mass following.

But some of those present said they were puzzled why the Vatican seemed to treat this Mass like a «poor sister,» assigning it to a small chapel, and changing the celebration time at the last minute.
Burke’s homily
Archbishop Burke’s homily was in Italian. It concentrated on two things: on the meaning of the Gospel passage from St. Luke, and on the meaning of the celebration of this Mass in the old Latin rite.
Standing in the back of the chapel, I was able to scribble a few phrases on a sheet of paper as he spoke.

«Today’s Gospel tells us the story of the miraculous healing of the son of the young ruler, who came to Jesus seeking his help,» the archbishop said.
«But the physical healing we read about in Luke’s Gospel is a sign of a deeper, spiritual healing, which Jesus brings,» he continued. «It is a sign of the healing of sin, and of the most profound effect of sin, death eternal.
«We too can be healed,» Archbishop Burke continued. «Just as the young ruler believed the word Jesus spoke to him, and his son was healed, as he later learned, ‘at that very moment,’ so too we should believe the word Jesus speaks to us, and that word can be the beginning of our own healing.»
«In the Holy Mass,» he continued, «the Son renews his sacrifice on Calvary, the sacrifice through which he will accomplish the perfect healing of our souls. Every gesture of the Mass signifies our encounter with Christ, who comes to heal us. In the sacrifice of the Mass, earth and heaven meet.
«As the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council taught, the Holy Mass is the source and summit of our faith. The Popes throughout the ages all took great care that the celebration of the Eucharist be carried out correctly and with great reverence.
«And our current Pope, Benedict XVI, in his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, has taught clearly that there is no contradiction between the two forms of the Mass in the Latin rite, the old Mass according to missal of St. Pius V, and the new Mass of Pope Paul VI. There is progress, but no rupture with the past.»
«And Pope Benedict has made very clear that the old rite, now called the extraordinary form of the Latin rite, cannot be rejected or regarded as dangerous in any way,» Archbishop Burke noted. «The double rite is a gift to the Church. The two forms will mutually enrich each other.
«For example, with regard to the old rite, new saints’ feast days, and new prayers, can be added. And, the sense of the sacred which so permeates the old Mass can exert a positive influence on the new form of the Latin rite.»

After the Mass, when Benedict XVI prayed his noon Angelus from his window above St. Peter’s Square, he did not make any direct mention of the Mass.
However, he did greet warmly those in the square «after attending a conference in Rome on ‘Summorum Pontificum'» — a reference to the people who had just marked the close of their conference by the celebration of the Mass in the old rite.

Papal high Mass?

The question that comes to mind after attending this event is, could the Pope celebrate such a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica?

There are some impediments.

The ceremonial for a pontifical High Mass in the old rite is elaborate, and it has been so many years since one has been celebrated that many feel it would not be celebrated smoothly, if the Pope decided to do it.

And many Vatican officials seem reluctant, at best, to embrace the return of the old Mass.

No high-ranking Vatican officials were present at the Mass except for Monsignor Pozzo.

And Vatian Radio yesterday broadcast a report on a Mass celebrated elsewhere in the Basilica for the 400th anniversary of St. Leonardi, but made no mention at all of Arch
bishop Burke’s Mass.

And so the Mass was celebrated quietly, almost unobserved.

And after Mass, in the square, the sun broke through the clouds, and bathed the piazza in a warm October light.

* * *

Robert Moynihan is founder and editor of the monthly magazine Inside the Vatican. He is the author of the book «Let God’s Light Shine Forth: the Spiritual Vision of Pope Benedict XVI» (2005, Doubleday). Moynihan’s blog can be found at He can be reached at:

— — —

On the Net:

Brief segment of the Mass:

The end of the Mass:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation