“The privileged first-class are those who adhere to the reformed liturgy,” Bishop Schneider asserts, “and the second-class Catholics, who will now barely be tolerated, include a large number of Catholic families, children, young people and priests” who, through the traditional liturgy, have “experienced, with great spiritual benefit, the reality and mystery of the Church.”
The bishop also contends that the “astonishingly narrow-minded attitude” and “disparaging tone” displayed in the motu proprio and accompanying letter stand in “glaring contrast” not only to the guiding principles of the current pontificate, but also fly in the face of the “conciliar” claim of “openness to diversity” and rejection of liturgical “uniformity.”
In this exclusive interview, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary of Astana, Kazakhstan, discusses his chief concerns about the document, offers counsel to seminarians and young priests who fear they may be prohibited from celebrating the traditional Mass, and addresses Pope Francis’ claim that his chosen course of action is analogous to that taken by Pope St. Pius V.
He also defends Catholics who attend the traditional Mass against what he sees as the document’s unjust accusations that they sow division and deny Vatican II. A “considerable portion” of young Catholic families and others who attend the traditional Mass “keep away” from discussions on Vatican II and ecclesial politics, the bishop maintains. “They just want to worship God in the liturgical form through which God has touched and transformed their hearts and lives.”
Bishop Schneider also praises his brothers in the episcopate who have supported the faithful in response to the new measures, and says he is convinced the new decree will ultimately have a “boomerang effect.” The “continuous growth” of the traditional Mass across the globe, he says, is “undoubtedly the work of the Holy Spirit, and a true sign of our time.”
He therefore encourages Pope Francis and those charged with implementing the new measures to heed the “wise counsel” of Gamaliel to those persecuting the early Christians (Acts 5:38-39), lest they find themselves to be “opposing God.”
Here is our full interview with Bishop Athanasius Schneider.
Diane Montagna: Your Excellency, Pope Francis’ new apostolic letter, issued motu proprio on July 16, 2021, is called “Traditionis Custodes” (Guardians of Tradition). What was your initial impression of the choice of this title?
Bishop Schneider: My initial impression was of a shepherd who instead of having the smell of his sheep, is angrily beating them with a stick.
What are your general impressions of the Motu Proprio and of Pope Francis’ accompanying Letter to the bishops of the world, in which he explains his rationale for restricting the Traditional Latin Mass?
In his programmatic Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis advocates “certain attitudes which foster openness to the message: approachability, readiness for dialogue, patience, a warmth and welcome which is non-judgmental” (n. 165). Yet in reading the new Motu Proprio and accompanying Letter, one has the opposite impression, namely, that the document, as a whole, exhibits a pastoral intolerance and even spiritual rigidity. The Motu Proprio and accompanying Letter communicate a judgmental and unwelcoming spirit. In the document on Human Fraternity (signed in Abu Dhabi on February 4, 2019), Pope Francis embraces the “diversity of religions,” whereas in his new Motu Proprio he resolutely rejects the diversity of liturgical forms in the Roman Rite.
What a glaring contrast in attitude this Motu Proprio presents, compared to the guiding principle of Pope Francis’ pontificate, i.e., inclusiveness and a preferential love for minorities and those on the peripheries in the life of the Church.
What a glaring contrast in attitude this Motu Proprio presents, compared to the guiding principle of Pope Francis’ pontificate, i.e., inclusiveness and a preferential love for minorities and those on the peripheries in the life of the Church. And what an astonishingly narrow-minded stance one discovers in the Motu Proprio, in contrast to Pope Francis’s own words: “We know that we are tempted in various ways to adopt the logic of privilege that separates, excludes and closes us off, while separating, excluding and closing off the dreams and lives of so many of our brothers and sisters” (Homily at the Vespers, December 31, 2016). The new norms of the Motu Proprio demean the millennial form of the lex orandi of the Roman Church and, at the same time, close off “the dreams and lives of so many” Catholic families, and especially of young people and young priests, whose spiritual lives and love for Christ and the Church have grown and greatly benefited from the traditional form of the Holy Mass.
The Motu Proprio establishes a principle of a rare liturgical exclusivity, by stating that the new promulgated liturgical books are the only [unica] expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite (Art. 1). What a contrast this position, too, is with these words of Pope Francis: “It is true that the Holy Spirit brings forth different charisms in the Church, which at first glance, may seem to create disorder. Under his guidance, however, they constitute an immense richness, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of unity, which is not the same thing as uniformity” (Homily of Pope Francis at the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Istanbul, Saturday, November 29, 2014).
What are your greatest concerns about the new document?
As a bishop, one of my chief concerns is that, instead of fostering a greater unity by the coexistence of diverse authentic liturgical forms, the Motu Proprio creates a two-class society in the Church, i.e. first-class Catholics and second-class Catholics. The privileged first-class are those who adhere to the reformed liturgy, i.e. the Novus Ordo, and the second-class Catholics, who will now barely be tolerated, include a large number of Catholic families, children, young people and priests who, in the last decades, have grown up in the traditional liturgy and experienced, with great spiritual benefit, the reality and mystery of the Church thanks to this liturgical form, which earlier generations held as sacred and which formed so many saints and outstanding Catholics throughout history.
An almost one thousand-year-old valid and highly esteemed liturgical treasure is not the private property of a pope, which he can freely dispose of.
The Motu Proprio and accompanying letter commit an injustice against all Catholics who adhere to the traditional liturgical form, by accusing them of being divisive and of rejecting the Second Vatican Council. In fact, a considerable portion of these Catholics keep far away from doctrinal discussions regarding Vatican II, the new Order of Mass (Novus Ordo Missae), and other problems involving ecclesiastical politics. They just want to worship God in the liturgical form through which God has touched and transformed their hearts and lives. The argument invoked in the Motu Proprio and accompanying letter, i.e., that the traditional liturgical form creates division and threatens the unity of the Church, is disproven by the facts. Furthermore, the disparaging tone taken in these documents against the traditional liturgical form would lead any impartial observer to conclude that such arguments are merely a pretext and a ruse, and that something else is at play here.
How convincing do you find Pope Francis’ comparison (in his accompanying letter to bishops) between his new measures and those adopted by St Pius V in 1570?
The time of Second Vatican Council and the so-called “conciliar” Church has been characterized by an openness to a diversity and inclusivity of spiritualities and local liturgical expressions, along with a rejection of the principle of a uniformity in the liturgical praxis of the Church. Throughout history, the true pastoral attitude has been one of tolerance and respect towards a diversity of liturgical forms, provided they express the integrity of the Catholic Faith, the dignity and sacredness of the ritual forms, and that they bear true spiritual fruit in the lives of the faithful. In the past, the Roman Church acknowledged the diversity of expressions in its lex orandi. In the apostolic constitution promulgating the Tridentine Liturgy, Quo Primum (1570), Pope Pius V, in approving all those liturgical expressions of the Roman Church that were more than two hundred years old, recognized them as an equally worthy and legitimate expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Church. In this bull, Pope Pius V stated that he in no wise rescinds other legitimate liturgical expressions within the Roman Church. The liturgical form of the Roman Church that was valid until the reform of Paul VI did not arise with Pius V, but was substantially unchanged even centuries before the Council of Trent. The first printed edition of the Missale Romanum dates back to 1470, thus one hundred years before the missal published by Pius V. The order of Mass of both missals is almost identical; the difference lies more in secondary elements, such as the calendar, number of prefaces, and more precise rubrical norms.
Pope Francis’ new Motu Proprio is also deeply concerning in that it manifests an attitude of discrimination against an almost one thousand-year-old liturgical form of the Catholic Church. The Church has never rejected that which, over the span of many centuries, has expressed sacredness, doctrinal precision and spiritual richness, and been exalted by many popes, great theologians (e.g. St Thomas Aquinas) and numerous saints. The peoples of Western and, in part, of Eastern Europe, of Northern and Southern Europe, of the Americas, Africa, and Asia were evangelized and doctrinally and spiritually formed by the traditional Roman Rite, and these peoples found in that rite their spiritual and liturgical home. Pope John Paul II gave an example of a sincere appreciation of the traditional form of the Mass, when he said: “In the Roman Missal, called ‘of St. Pius V,’ as in various Eastern Liturgies, there are beautiful prayers with which the priest expresses the deepest sense of humility and reverence before the holy mysteries: they reveal the very substance of any liturgy” (Message to Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, September 21, 2001).
Seminarians and young priests must ask for the right to use this common treasure of the Church, and should they be denied this right, they can use it nevertheless.
It would go against the true spirit of the Church of all ages to now express contempt for this liturgical form, to label it as “divisive” and as something dangerous for the unity of the Church, and to issue norms aimed at making this form disappear in time. The norms enshrined in Pope Francis’ Motu Proprio seek to unmercifully rip out of the souls and lives of so many Catholics the traditional liturgy, which in itself is holy and represents the spiritual homeland of these Catholics. With this Motu Proprio, Catholics who today have been spiritually nourished and formed by the traditional liturgy of Holy Mother Church, will no longer experience the Church as a mother but rather as a “stepmother,” consistent with Pope Francis’ own description: “A mother who criticizes, who speaks ill of her children is not a mother! I believe you say “stepmother” in Italian.... She isn’t a mother” (Address to Consecrated Men and Women of the diocese of Rome, May 16, 2015)
Pope Francis’ apostolic letter was issued on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, patroness of Carmelites (such as St. Thérèse of Lisieux), who pray especially for priests. In light of the new measures, what would you say to diocesan seminarians and young priests who had hoped to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass?
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke about the limitation of the powers of the pope regarding the liturgy, with this illuminating explanation: “The pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law; rather, he is the guardian of the authentic Tradition and, thereby, the premier guarantor of obedience. He cannot do as he likes, and he is thereby able to oppose those people who, for their part, want to do whatever comes into their head. His rule is not that of arbitrary power, but that of obedience in faith. That is why, with respect to the Liturgy, he has the task of a gardener, not that of a technician who builds new machines and throws the old ones on the junk-pile. The “rite”, that form of celebration and prayer which has ripened in the faith and the life of the Church, is a condensed form of living Tradition in which the sphere using that rite expresses the whole of its faith and its prayer, and thus at the same time the fellowship of generations one with another becomes something we can experience, fellowship with the people who pray before us and after us. Thus the rite is something of benefit that is given to the Church, a living form of paradosis, the handing-on of Tradition.” (Preface to “The Organic Development of the Liturgy. The Principles of Liturgical Reform and Their Relation to the Twentieth-century Liturgical Movement Prior to the Second Vatican Council” by Dom Alcuin Reid, San Francisco 2004).
The norms enshrined in Pope Francis’ Motu Proprio seek to unmercifully rip out of the souls and lives of so many Catholics the traditional liturgy, which in itself is holy and represents the spiritual homeland of these Catholics.
The traditional Mass is a treasure that belongs to the entire Church, since it has been celebrated and deeply regarded and loved by priests and saints for at least a thousand years. In fact, the traditional form of the Mass was almost identical for centuries before the publication of the Missal of Pope Pius V in 1570. An almost one thousand-year-old valid and highly esteemed liturgical treasure is not the private property of a pope, which he can freely dispose of. Therefore, seminarians and young priests must ask for the right to use this common treasure of the Church, and should they be denied this right, they can use it nevertheless, perhaps in a clandestine manner. This would not be an act of disobedience, but rather of obedience to Holy Mother Church, who has given us this liturgical treasure. The firm rejection of an almost one thousand-year-old liturgical form by Pope Francis represents, in fact, a short-lived phenomenon compared to the constant spirit and praxis of the Church.
Your Excellency, what has been your impression thus far of the implementation of “Traditionis Custodes”?
Within a few short days, diocesan bishops and even an entire bishops’ conference have already begun a systematic suppression of any celebration of the traditional form of the Holy Mass. These new “liturgy-inquisitors” have displayed an astonishingly rigid clericalism, similar to that described and lamented by Pope Francis, when he said: “There is that spirit of clericalism in the Church, which one feels: the clerics feel themselves superior, the clerics turn away from the people, the clerics always say: ‘this is done like this, like this, like this, and you go away!’” (Daily meditation in the Holy Mass from December 13, 2016).
Pope Francis’ anti-traditional Motu Proprio shares some similarities with the fateful and extremely rigid liturgical decisions made by the Russian-Orthodox Church under Patriarch Nikon of Moscow between 1652 and 1666. This eventually led to a lasting schism known as the “Old Ritualists” (in Russian: staroobryadtsy), who maintained the liturgical and ritual practices of the Russian Church as they were before the reforms of Patriarch Nikon. Resisting the accommodation of Russian piety to the contemporary forms of Greek Orthodox worship, these Old Ritualists were anathematized, together with their ritual, in a Synod of 1666–67, producing a division between the Old Ritualists and those who followed the state church in its condemnation of the Old Rite. Today the Russian-Orthodox Church regrets the drastic decisions of Patriarch Nikon, for if the norms he implemented had been truly pastoral and allowed the use of the old rite, there would not have been a centuries-long schism, with many unnecessary and cruel sufferings.
What is urgently needed is a Motu Proprio with strict norms suppressing the practice of such “LGBT-Masses,” since they are an outrage to the divine majesty.
In our own day we are witnessing ever more celebrations of the Holy Mass, which have become a platform for promoting the sinful lifestyle of homosexuality—the so called “LGBT-Masses,” an expression which in itself is already a blasphemy. Such Masses are tolerated by the Holy See and many bishops. What is urgently needed is a Motu Proprio with strict norms suppressing the practice of such “LGBT-Masses,” since they are an outrage to the divine majesty, a scandal to the faithful (the little ones), and an injustice towards sexually active homosexual persons, who by such celebrations are confirmed in their sins, and whose eternal salvation is thereby being put in danger.
And yet a number of bishops, particularly in the United States but also elsewhere, such as in France, have supported the faithful of their diocese who are attached to the Traditional Latin Mass. What would you say to encourage these your brother bishops? And what attitude ought the faithful to have toward their bishops, many of whom were themselves surprised by the document?
These bishops have shown a true apostolic and pastoral attitude, as those who are “shepherds with the smell of the sheep.” I would encourage these and many other bishops to continue with such a noble pastoral attitude. Let neither the praises of men nor the fear of men move them, but only the greater glory of God, and the greater spiritual benefit of souls and their eternal salvation. For their part, the faithful should demonstrate toward these bishops, gratitude and filial respect and love.
In time, a worldwide chain of catacomb-Masses will surely arise, as happens in times of emergency and persecution.
What effect do you think the Motu Proprio will have?
Pope Francis’s new Motu Proprio is ultimately a pyrrhic victory and will have a boomerang effect. The many Catholic families and ever-growing number of young people and priests—particularly young priests—who attend the traditional Mass, will not be able to allow their conscience to be violated by such a drastic administrative act. Telling these faithful and priests that they must simply be obedient to these norms will ultimately not work with them, because they understand that a call to obedience loses its power when the aim is to suppress the traditional form of the liturgy, the great liturgical treasure of the Roman Church.
In time, a worldwide chain of catacomb-Masses will surely arise, as happens in times of emergency and persecution. We may in fact witness an era of clandestine traditional Masses, similar to that so impressively depicted by Aloysius O’Kelly in his painting, “Mass in Connemara (Ireland) during Penal Times.” Or perhaps we shall live through a time similar to that described by St Basil the Great, when traditional Catholics were persecuted by a liberal Arian episcopate in the fourth century. St. Basil wrote: “The mouths of true believers are dumb, while every blasphemous tongue wags free; holy things are trodden under foot; the better laity shun the churches as schools of impiety; and lift their hands in the deserts with sighs and tears to their Lord in heaven. Even you must have heard what is going on in most of our cities, how our people with wives and children and even our old men stream out before the walls, and offer their prayers in the open air, putting up with all the inconvenience of the weather with great patience, and waiting for help from the Lord” (Letter 92).
The admirable, harmonious and quite spontaneous spread and continuous growth of the traditional form of the Mass, in almost every country of the world, even in the most remote lands, is undoubtedly the work of the Holy Spirit, and a true sign of our time. This form of the liturgical celebration bears true spiritual fruits, especially in the life of the youth and converts to the Catholic Church, since many of the latter were attracted to the Catholic faith precisely by the irradiating power of this treasure of the Church. Pope Francis and the other bishops who will execute his Motu Proprio should earnestly consider the wise counsel of Gamaliel, and ask themselves if they actually are fighting against a work of God: “In the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39). May Pope Francis reconsider, with a view to eternity, his drastic and tragic act, and courageously and humbly retract this new Motu Proprio, recalling his own words: “In truth, the Church shows her fidelity to the Holy Spirit in as much as she does not try to control or tame him.” (Homily at the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Istanbul, Saturday, November 29, 2014)
For the time being, many Catholic families, young people and priests on every continent are now weeping, for the Pope—their spiritual father—has deprived them of the spiritual nourishment of the traditional Mass, which has so greatly strengthened their faith and their love for God, for Holy Mother Church and for the Apostolic See. They may, for a time, “[go] out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, but they shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with them” (Psalm 126:6).
These families, young people and priests could address to Pope Francis these or similar words: “Most Holy Father, give us back that great liturgical treasure of the Church. Do not treat us as your second-class children. Do not violate our consciences by forcing us into a single and exclusive liturgical form, you who always proclaimed to the entire world the necessity of diversity, pastoral accompaniment, and of respect for conscience. Do not listen to those representatives of a rigid clericalism who counseled you to carry out such an unmerciful action. Be a true family father, who “brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt 13:52). If you will hear our voice, on the day of your judgment before God, we will be your best intercessors.”
RELATED: Many traditional Catholics will remember what "clandestine" Masses were like. The brief video below took place in the basement of Michael Matt's house when the Traditional Movement was very small, and had on its side only two bishops in the whole world: