July 20, 2007


China, Latin Mass, true Church

(Listen to this editorial being read)

Pope Benedict XVI was busy in the weeks leading to his summer vacation.

First, he issued the long-awaited letter to Chinese Catholics, expressing his love for and closeness to them, and appealing for unity and reconciliation among them. The Criterion reported on that letter in its July 6 issue.

Then, on July 7, he released the equally long-expected apostolic letter that permits greater use of the Mass of Blessed John XXIII, also known as the Tridentine Mass.

Finally, the Holy Father approved a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that reaffirmed that the Catholic Church is the one, true Church—even if elements of truth can be found in separated Churches and communities. The Criterion reported on both of the latter two documents in our July 13 issue.

It’s easy to understand why the pope wants to affect unity among Chinese Catholics. It’s estimated that there are today 12 million Catholics in mainland China, including more than 100 bishops, 3,200 priests, 6,000 nuns and 2,300 seminarians.

But they’re divided between what are called the “underground Church” (those who have practiced their faith furtively since Mao Zedong came to power in 1949 and began to persecute Christians), and the “official Church” (the members of the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association). The pope avoided both terms in his letter.

The pope sent an advance copy of his letter to the Chinese government. He assured Chinese authorities that the Holy See doesn’t wish to interfere in China’s internal political affairs, but also insisted that state entities must not “interfere unduly in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church.”

One of the obstacles to unity among China’s Catholics is the matter of apostolic succession of the bishops appointed by the Chinese government. The pope acknowledged that solving this problem “cannot be accomplished overnight.”

However, at least 90 percent of China’s bishops are now in full communion with Rome, and Pope Benedict invited those who are not to seek reconciliation.

Perhaps, with China trying to be on its best behavior while preparing for the Olympic Games next year, it’s a good time to try to get better cooperation in resolving the problems that China’s fervent Catholics are experiencing.

The letter allowing greater use of the Tridentine Mass, using the missal published by Pope John XXIII in 1962, may be more important in other countries than it is here.

Many Catholics, though, retain a love for the Mass in Latin. For some, it’s nostalgia, but others believe that it’s more reverent.

In Indianapolis, this Mass is being celebrated on both Sundays and weekdays at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Church. The Tridentine Mass is also celebrated daily at SS. Philomena and Cecilia Church in Oak Forest in the Batesville Deanery. It remains to be seen if more Catholics in the archdiocese will ask for it to be celebrated in their parishes.

One practical problem is that most priests today don’t know Latin. Many priests can’t even say the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles Creed in Latin because they didn’t learn Latin in the seminary.

Of the three documents released recently, the one confirming that the Catholic Church is the one true Church is clearly the most controversial. It shouldn’t be because it doesn’t state anything new, but the plain fact is that many Catholics today have come to believe that one Christian denomination is as good as another.

The Catholic Church has always taught that Christ founded a Church and that all of its elements have historically endured, or subsist, in the Catholic Church.

The sanctifying elements that exist in other faith communities derive their value, in some mysterious way, from the “fullness of grace and truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church,” as the Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on Ecumenism” said.

Certainly, the most controversial part of the new document is the part that says that Protestant communities cannot be called “Church” in the way that Catholic theology defines the term. Essential to this definition is the apostolic succession of bishops, the ordained priesthood and the Eucharist, which Protestant communities have not preserved.

The new document reaffirmed Vatican II’s acknowledgement that the Orthodox Churches are true Churches.

We’ll be hearing more about reaction to that letter, but it’s best to clarify exactly what the Catholic Church teaches, and that document does that.

— John F. Fink

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