A Case for the Restoration of the Sarum Rite in the Roman Catholic Church

by Bernard Brandt

An acquaintance of mine who is both a Jesuit priest and a capable mathematician told me the following joke:

“A Jesuit priest and a Franciscan friar were once riding in the same car of a train. As it was noon, they both pulled out their breviaries and each began reading their prayers for the Sixth Hour. As the Jesuit was doing so, however, he pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and began to smoke. The Franciscan was so surprised by this that he interrupted his prayers and asked the Jesuit, “But Father, does your Bishop permit you to smoke while praying?”

“Why certainly, reverend friar,” said the Jesuit. “I asked my bishop, and he allowed me to.”

“But reverend father, I asked my bishop if I could smoke while I was praying, and he forbade me to.”

The Jesuit smiled, and said, “Why, there’s your problem. I asked my bishop if I could pray while I was smoking, and he allowed it. You must ask the right question.”

One example of not asking the right question seems to have happened in 1997, when a Catholic group in Oxford, the Society of St. Osmund attempted to celebrate Mass according to the ancient and venerable rite of Sarum. One onlooker to those proceedings, whom I will only describe as a Mr. K, wrote a series of letters to various prelates, asking whether all this was proper.

On February 8, 1997, Mr. K wrote a letter to His Eminence, Basil Cardinal Hume, who responded on February 11 by referring Mr. K to the Secretary of the Cardinal’s Liturgy Conference, Fr. Allen Morris. Mr. K then wrote to Fr. Morris on February 12, asking much the same question. Fr. Morris responded on February 13, opining that while Sarum was a valid rite, it had since lapsed, and if it were to be restored, it would have to follow the prescriptions of the Vatican II document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, article 4.

Apparently unsatisfied with this answer, on February 17, Mr. K wrote a letter to an Archbishop Luigi Barbarito, asking the same question, and asking the good Archbishop for the address of an appropriate congregation in Rome. On February 20th, Archbishop Barbarito referred him to His Eminence, Javier Cardinal Ortaz, of the Congregation of Divine Rites, to whom Mr. K wrote on February 21st, again asking his question.

In the meantime, on March 18, no doubt after all of Mr. K’s questions, a letter with the Congregation’s letterhead from one signing himself only as “G. M. Agnelo” reported to His Excellency, the Most Excellent Maurice Couve de Murville, Archbishop of Birmingham, that the Congregation had received “a report of an unlawful celebration of Holy Mass which took place recently at Merton College, Oxford, under the auspices of a group calling itself the Society of St. Osmund.” The writer requested the Archbishop to see what could be done about ending “the abuse.”

And so, on March 18, the Congregation also sent Mr. K the following letter, which I quote in its entirety:

Dear Mr. K,

Thank you for your letter of 21 February in which you speak of a group known as the Society of St. Osmund which is promoting celebrations of the Holy Mass according to texts of the former use of Sarum.

Such celebrations are not lawful and the reasons advanced to justify them are specious. As a Catholic in good standing you should have nothing to do with such activities. The celebration of the liturgy is a most serious matter and is not to be subjected to esoteric whims.

You do not say explicitly whether the celebration was in Latin. It would be even more regrettable were it to have taken place in an unauthorized English translation.

If you are interested in the Latin liturgy, you will note that in fact the Roman Missal promulgated by the late Pope Paul VI is of superior quality to previous editions from all points of view, and is a point of logical progression in the gradual evolution of the Latin liturgy since the Middle Ages. The books of the Sarum use which are available in print represent indeed a minor local variant of the Roman Rite and are outdated academic editions. They present books which, while estimable in their time, have failed to benefit from textual and other reforms begun in earnest by the Council of Trent, carried forward by numerous Popes and brought to term according to the decrees of the Second Vatican Council. Such texts could not be used without explicit permission of the Holy See, and this would not be granted without the consent of the local Bishops.

With every good wish for your studies and for a blessed Easter,

Yours sincerely in Christ,

Mons. Carmelo Nicolosi

Under Secretary

Unfortunately, the result of all of Mr. K’s “questions” was that a dubium was placed by the Congregation of Divine Rites on the use of the Sarum rite in Great Britain, and the Society of St. Osmund in particular was forbidden by the Congregation and the local Ordinary from further celebrations of Mass in the Sarum rite. At this point, I must thank Fr. Seán Finnegan, his excellent weblog, and for his entry here, in which he generally describes the events which led to the imposition of the dubium.

I must also thank Fr. Seán in particular for his kindness in sharing with me scanned copies of the correspondence of Mr. K. and of others which led to the dubium. In the interest of preserving the right to privacy of Mr. K., I have refrained from doing more than summarizing the text of his letters, and identifying to whom they were sent. I have published only the dubium of Msgr. Nicolosi, in part because it still has legal effect upon many innocent people, and because it appears that the good Monsignor has since fallen asleep in the Lord.

Without wishing to open old wounds, I think it a great pity that the then Mr. K did not make use of his postgraduate theological education to answer his questions himself. He had the right tools to do so. But then, in order to do so, as in the punch line of my jest at the beginning of this essay, he would have had to have asked the right questions. So, I will have to do that for him.

  1. Was the Sarum Rite one of continuous custom for two hundred years or more before the promulgation of Quo Primum?

The brief answer to that question is ‘yes’.

The longer answer is that Quo Primum, which was promulgated on July 14, 1570, issued what has since been called the Tridentine Mass. All Catholic churches were required to adopt this new form of Mass

“…saving only those in which the practice of saying Mass differently was granted over two hundred years ago simultaneously with the Apostolic See’s institution and confirmation of the church, and those in which there has prevailed a similar custom followed continuously for a period of not less than two hundred years; in which cases We in no wise rescind their prerogatives or customs aforesaid. Nevertheless, if this Missal which We have seen fit to publish be more agreeable to these last, We hereby permit them to celebrate Mass according to this rite, subject to the consent of their bishop or prelate, and of their whole Chapter, all else to the contrary notwithstanding.”

For those who would like to read the quoted text in the original, then:

…nisi ab ipsa prima institutione a Sede Apostolica adprobata, vel consuetudine, quae, vel ipsa institutio super ducentos annos Missarum celebrandarum in eisdem Ecclesiis assidue observata sit: a quibus, ut praefatam celebrandi constitutionem vel consuetudinem nequaquam auferimus; sic si Missale hoc, quod nunc in lucem edi curavimus, iisdem magis placeret, de Episcopi, vel Praelati. Capitulique universi consensu, ut quibusvis non obstantibus, juxta illud Missas celebrare possint, permittimus;

Both the Wikipedia and Catholic Encyclopedia articles on the Sarum rite indicate that it was in existence in England from the early 11th Century A.D. and into the Sixteenth Century. More particularly, in its entry on “Sarum, Use of” in Tudor England: An Encyclopedia, the author of that article notes that soon after 1075, St. Osmond established a cathedral chapter at old Sarum, and probably compiled its first guidelines of the chapter and its new rite, The Institution.

While Queen Elizabeth I outlawed that rite in England in the year 1559, it endured in persecution and martyrdom into the Seventeenth Century. More particularly, as the Reverend Father John Hunwicke has pointed out, there is evidence that at the English Seminary in Douai, which supplied the priests who still served in England, the seminarians there were not instructed in the use of the Tridentine Mass until 1577, seven years after the promulgation of Quo Primum. The above cited article from the Tudor Encyclopedia also states that “Sarum liturgies continued surreptitiously among recusants such as William Byrd, and, until 1577, at the English College at Douai.”

Finally, I would like to point out that there is another historical reference which indicates that the Sarum Mass was still celebrated at the time of Quo Primum That is Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium, which appears to have been commissioned by the Duke of Norfolk sometime before his execution in 1573. This celebrated 40-voice motet was originally a reading from Sarum Matins, and taken from the Vulgate Book of Judith. Among other things, this motet is an indication that the church services at the Duke’s private chapel, at least until his death two years after Quo Primum, were Sarum.

It is thus plain that the Sarum Rite had been in continuous existence for at least four hundred, and nearer to five hundred years, before Quo Primum. And thus, that Rite more than qualifies for the franchise which Pope Pius V gave through Quo Primum. This leads me to my next question.

  1. Was the privilege accorded to the Sarum Rite lost, either through the failure of British clergy to make use of it after the restoration of Catholicism in England, or through the canon law concept of desuetude?

The brief answer to that question is: No.

The more extensive answer is this: Catholics became tolerated again in Great Britain with the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, and were restored as a Church with the right to hold property and to worship freely in 1829. At that time, the Catholic hierarchy in Great Britain decided to adopt the Tridentine rite for their worship, as was permitted them under Quo Primum.

But the operative paragraph of Quo Primum says nothing whatsoever about the franchise to practice the earlier rite failing or ending upon the choice of the hierarchy to use the Tridentine rite. And while several witnesses here, including the author of the Catholic Encyclopedia article, have suggested that the Sarum rite has lapsed because of the canon law concept of desuetude of custom, both the Pian/Benedictine Canon Law of 1917, and the Joanno-Pauline Canon Law of 1983, forbid the application of such law.

Canon 2 of the 1917 code states:

This Code, for the most part, decides nothing concerning the rites and ceremonies that, in accord with liturgical books approved by the Latin Church, are to be observed especially in  the celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass, in the administration of the Sacraments and Sacramentals, and in conducting other sacred matters. Therefore, all liturgical laws retain their force, unless any of them are expressly corrected in this Code.

Similarly, Canon 2 of the 1983 code states:

This Code for the most part does not define the rites that are to be observed in celebrating liturgical actions. Therefore current liturgical norms retain their force unless any of them are contrary to the Canons of this Code.

Though I am not a canon lawyer (as yet), I am indebted to Dr. Edward Peters, for the above information. One can read his informative article on the relation of canon 2 to liturgical law here.

Even assuming, arguendo, that Canon Law somehow applies to the Sarum rite, Canon 28 of the 1983 code has this to say about custom:

Without prejudice to the prescript of can. 5, a contrary custom or law revokes a custom which is contrary to or beyond the law (praeter legem). Unless it makes express mention of them, however, a law does not revoke centenary or immemorial customs, nor does a universal law revoke particular customs. (Emphasis added)

I have been able to find nothing in canon law which expressly revokes the Sarum rite, which definitely qualifies as a centenary if not an immemorial custom, nor even mentions that rite. I therefore conclude that canon law is inapplicable to that rite, under Canons 2 and 28.

Those who wish to read those canons in the original may do so it the links to the 1917 and the 1983 versions.

This leads to my third question.

  1. Given the above findings, what is the current legal status of the Sarum rite with the Roman Catholic Church?

The short answer to that question is: The Sarum rite is of equal dignity, right and law with the Novus Ordo, the Tridentine rite, the Mozarabic rite, and the Ambrosian rite.

The longer answer is that when Fr. Allen Morris responded to Mr. K in his 1997 letter, he was entirely correct in his conclusion that section 4 of the Vatican II document on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, applied to the Sarum rite. Fortunately, it is short enough, as well as important enough, to be quoted in its entirety.

“Lastly, in faithful obedience to tradition, the sacred Council declares that holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way. The Council also desires that, where necessary, the rites be revised carefully in the light of sound tradition, and that they be given new vigor to meet the circumstances and needs of modern times. (Emphasis added)

I believe it important, for the following reasons, to present the original Latin as well:

Traditioni denique fideliter obsequens, Sacrosanctum Concilium declarat Sanctam Matrem Ecclesiam omnes Ritus legitime agnitos aequo iure atque honore habere, eosque in posterum servari et omnimode foveri velle, atque optat ut, ubi opus sit, caute ex integro ad mentem sanae traditionis recognoscantur et novo vigore, pro hodiernis adiunctis et necessitatibus, donentur. (emphasis added)

I will note that when the Council Fathers say “aequo iure atque honore habere”, this means more than “to have equal right and honor”. The Latin word “ius” means much more than “right”: it also includes the meaning of the English word “law”. For example, the original title for our current “Code of Canon Law” is “Codex Iuris Canonici”.

I would therefore argue that both history and Quo Primum indicate that the Sarum rite was and remains a lawfully acknowledged rite of the Roman Church. I would also argue that the text of Sacrosanctum Concilium, Section 4, indicates that Sarum, like other rites, including the Vetus Ordo and others such as the Mozarabic and the Ambrosian rites, are of equal right, law and dignity. Finally, I would argue that it was the intent of the Council Fathers in Sacrosanctum Concilium that rites, such as the Sarum rite, be encouraged as much as possible.

I would further argue that since the Sarum Rite was and remains a valid and lawfully acknowledged rite, it should be available as a matter of right to the people of Great Britain in particular, and more generally to the Christian faithful under Canon Law, and more particularly, under canons 213 and 214.

To begin with, Canon 213 states:

The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments.

More particularly, though, Canon 214 states:

The Christian faithful have the right to worship God according to the prescripts of their own rite approved by the legitimate pastors of the Church and to follow their own form of spiritual life so long as it is consonant with the doctrine of the Church.

The people of Great Britain certainly have the right to receive the sacraments according to the Rite of Paul VI. They have also been given the indult (which some have called the “Agatha Christie indult”) to receive the Rite of Pius V. That right was also given by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI through Summorum Pontificum. I would argue that since, as we have seen, the Sarum rite is a lawfully acknowledged rite of the British people, those same people have the right under Canon 214 to its service.

Further, Canon 214 grants to all of the Christian Faithful the right “…to follow their own form of spiritual life so long as it is consonant with the doctrine of the Church.” As we have already seen that the Sarum rite is entirely consonant with that doctrine, I would conclude that the Sarum rite is not limited to the British people, but to ALL of the Christian Faithful who would wish to make it a part of their spiritual life.

Thus, I conclude that the Sarum rite is a lawfully acknowledged rite of the Roman Catholic Church, under the terms of Quo Primum and Sacrosanctum Concilium, and both the British people and all of the Christian Faithful have the right to receive its service under Canon 214. This leads to my last question.

  1. How can the Society of St. Osmond, or other interested Catholic individuals or groups, exercise their rights to the Sarum rite, in light of the present dubium?

Again, I think it a great pity that Mr. K did not bother to ask these questions himself, but chose instead to stir up a hornet’s nest with all of his letters. Whether or not it was his intent to cause the Church authorities of the time to take the actions which they did, his actions in fact directly caused the issuance of the dubium. As an individual with his education would or should know the results of his actions, I believe that Mr. K bears at least some responsibility for them.

But enough of the unfortunate Mr. K. It has long been the practice of some zealots and partisans in the Church to promote their own ‘spirituality’ at the expense of others. The iconoclasts of the fourth and fifth centuries attempted to use Byzantine Imperial support to prevent others from venerating icons. Charlemagne attempted to use his own imperial authority to suppress the Ambrosian rite. At least one pope similarly attempted to suppress the Mozarabic rite. And for the last fifty years, at least some of the partisans of the rite of Pope Paul VI have attempted to suppress the Tridentine rite.

I believe that from the tenor of his letter, Monsignor Nicolosi, who wrote or at least signed the dubium, was one of those last. While it is a pity that he made use of his position to deny to many their legitimate rights to the Sarum rite, the good Monsignor has since fallen asleep in the Lord. Let us therefore pray for his soul, and simply say regarding him, de mortuis nil nisi bonum.

But the question remains, what to do now that the dubium has been issued?

I believe that the answer to that question is that if people wish to obtain their rights under Church law, they must first understand what those rights are, and then to exercise them.

The first of those rights is expressed in Canon 215:

“The Christian faithful are at liberty freely to found and direct associations for purposes of charity or piety or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world and to hold meetings for the common pursuit of these purposes.”

Thus, the Society of St. Osmond, and indeed, all the Christian Faithful, have the right to found, direct, and to be members of associations for, among other things, piety, including the right to the Sarum rite. They also have the right to meet and to act in accordance with those purposes.

But more relevant to the current situation is Can. 221 §1.:

The Christian faithful can legitimately vindicate and defend the rights which they possess in the Church in the competent ecclesiastical forum according to the norm of law.

As the Congregation of Divine Rites was the group which originally issued the dubium, (and is now named the Congregation of Divine Worship) it would perhaps be reasonable to investigate the procedure which would be involved in addressing, and perhaps correcting, the present dubium. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to answer that part of the question, I would be happy to do the research, or to make the inquiries, which would be necessary to accomplish that task.

In closing, though, the Sarum rite, together with its sister rites of York and Hereford, is an important legacy of English history, literature, and spirituality. It was the worship of Chaucer, Gower and Malory. It was the prayer of all of the Kings recorded in the Histories of Shakespeare, from John to Henry VIII. It was the Mass for which the English Martyrs and Recusants died, and were willing to die. It remains an important part of Anglican spirituality, and is a part of the present Anglican Patrimony to the Catholic Church. It deserves better than being left to the dustbins of history.

POSTSCRIPTUM: I would like to acknowledge and to thank Fr. Seán Finnegan, Fr. John Hunwicke,  Dr. William Tighe, and Dr. Edward Peters for their assistance, either direct or indirect, in the drafting of this entry. All of their help was invaluable. Any errors in this entry are solely mine.

POST-POSTSCRIPTUM: For those interested in the liturgical texts and the chant of the Sarum rite, by far both the most scholarly and the most accessible texts of those may be found here, including pdfs of the texts and chant, and mp3s of that chant’s proper performance, in Latin, Tudor English, and Contemporary English. For those wishing to contribute financially to this worthy cause, the PayPal link to the Gregorian Institute, which hosts and helps the cause of Gregorian as well as Sarum chant, may be found here.

POST-POST-POSTSCRIPTUM (Oh dear, this is beginning to look like the end of Gandalf’s letter to Frodo in Book I, Ch. 10 of LotR!): One important member of the above group, who is performing signal efforts both to put the Sarum rite into English, and to promulgate the practice of that rite, is Fr. Anthony Chadwick. His weblog is here. His comments particularly on the use of Sarum, which are voluminous and most helpful, are here.