Mass With the Society of St. Pius X

And More on Stoles

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ROME, JUNE 21, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I am going to be visiting some dear friends this summer. They recently began attending the Society of Pius X after a great deal of prayer and study, including consultations with a canon lawyer. I am still struggling with the answer to it all. Would you please help me to discern where the Church stands on this issue so that I can make the right decision about where I should attend Mass while I am visiting? -- A.Z., Regina, Saskatchewan

A: I believe it is necessary to distinguish between attending a Mass celebrated according to the norms of the 1962 Roman Missal (the extraordinary form) and attending a Mass celebrated according to this form by priests associated with the Society of St. Pius X. In the wake of Benedict XVI's apostolic letter "Summorum Pontificum," any Catholic can freely attend, and most priests may celebrate, Mass according to the 1962 missal. Thus it should become increasingly easier to find such a Mass.

Attending a Mass of the Society of St. Pius X is a different case. This society was founded in 1970 by French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. For doctrinal rather than disciplinary reasons, the society has no canonical status in the Catholic Church. As the Holy Father said in his letter of March 10, 2009, concerning his remission of the excommunication of the four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X: "Until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers -- even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty -- do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church."

With respect to the status of the members of this society, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesiae Dei has issued several private replies to individuals which have later been published on the Internet. One of the most recent, from 2008, reflects earlier replies. Regarding the status of adherents to the society, it states:

"The priests of the Society of St. Pius X are validly ordained, but suspended, that is prohibited from exercising their priestly functions because they are not properly incardinated in a diocese or religious institute in full communion with the Holy See (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 265) and also because those ordained after the schismatic Episcopal ordinations were ordained by an excommunicated bishop.

"Concretely, this means that the Masses offered by the priests of the Society of St. Pius X are valid, but illicit, i.e., contrary to Canon Law. The Sacraments of Penance and Matrimony, however, require that the priest enjoys the faculties of the diocese or has proper delegation. Since that is not the case with these priests, these sacraments are invalid. It remains true, however, that, if the faithful are genuinely ignorant that the priests of the Society of St. Pius X do not have proper faculty to absolve, the Church supplies these faculties so that the sacrament is valid (cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 144).

"While it is true that participation in the Mass at chapels of the Society of St. Pius X does not of itself constitute 'formal adherence to the schism' (cf. Ecclesia Dei 5, c), such adherence can come about over a period of time as one slowly imbibes a schismatic mentality which separates itself from the teaching of the Supreme Pontiff and the entire Catholic Church. While we hope and pray for a reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X, the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei" cannot recommend that members of the faithful frequent their chapels for the reasons which we have outlined above. We deeply regret this situation and pray that soon a reconciliation of the Society of St. Pius X with the Church may come about, but until such time the explanations which we have given remain in force."

Thus I think it is fairly clear. The mere fact of assisting at a Mass of this society is not a sin. It would only become so if a person attended this Mass with the deliberate intention of separating himself from communion with the Roman Pontiff and those in communion with him.

I would say, therefore, that a conscientious Catholic should not knowingly attend a Mass celebrated by a priest not in good standing with the Church. Doing so deprives participation at Mass of that fullness of communion with Christ and his Church which the Mass, by its very nature and in all its forms, is called to express.

Therefore, the first thing to do would be to investigate the availability of Mass (in the ordinary or extraordinary form) in another locale during your visit. If it is not available, then you could attend any Eastern Catholic celebration.

Only if there is objectively no alternative should one attend the Mass celebrated by a priest from the Society of St. Pius X. If one has to do so, then I would say that one may go in good conscience.

At the same time, it is our ardent prayer and desire, as it should be for all Catholics, that the doctrinal issues with the Society of St. Pius X will be resolved as soon as possible so that these priests may return to full communion and canonical good standing within the Church.

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Follow-up: Wearing Stoles Over the Chasuble

Pursuant to our article on wearing the stole over the chasuble (see June 7, a reader from Nairobi, Kenya, asked: "Why should the color of an alb be white? Can the seasonal colors of Advent, Lent and ordinary time be used in making the alb?"

The short answer is no, at least as regards the Latin rite. Alb derives from the Latin word for white, and it has always been that color in our liturgy.

The alb derives from the white tunic worn as a basic garment by most men in Roman times. As the empire fell under barbarian influence, laymen abandoned the tunic in favor of leggings and similar garments. The more conservative clergy conserved the tuniclike habit for both ordinary and liturgical use.

In time, the color of the alb led to its association with purity (along with the cincture) and with the white garments of the saints as found in the Book of Revelation. This can be seen from the prayers the priest may recite while putting on these vestments.

As he puts on the alb he says, "Purify me, Lord, and cleanse my heart so that, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I may enjoy eternal bliss."

As he ties the cincture, he says: "Lord, gird me about with the cincture of purity and extinguish my fleshly desires, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide within me."

The cincture, however, unlike the alb, may correspond to the color of the liturgical season or festivity.

Some non-Latin liturgies have vestments with a function analogous to the alb, such as the Byzantine sticharion, which can be of several colors, including blue and gold.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.