A (proposed) Open Letter regarding the Restoration of the Sarum Rite

by Bernard Brandt


Those of my seven or eight readers who actually go down below the most recent entry of my poor weblog will note that I have written somewhat about the Sarum Rite, and of its possible restoration in the Roman Catholic Church. Please allow me to tell you why I’ve not been writing much about it, until recently.

Basically, I had been given to understand that the priest who had been disciplined by the Roman Congregation of Divine Worship was working with a liturgical theologian of considerable note on a proper response. I did not wish to interfere with what he was doing. Recently, however, I had been given to understand that the priest and the theologian had decided not to pursue matters further. As the theologian in question would prefer his privacy, I’m afraid that I am not at liberty to indicate just who he is. Nor shall I.

That said, I have made inquiries among friends who have either lived in Rome, or who are studying there now. Their advice to date has been that if I were to write to the Congregation of Sacred Worship, it were better that the letter were short and to the point. They also suggested that the more ‘periti’ or experts included as signators, the better.

So, I have come up with the following letter. If there are any among you who are both liturgical or theological experts, and who would be interested in being signators to this letter, please write me privately. My email address is bfbrandt AT hotmail COM. But I would suggest celerity, as I shall be sending this in the next few days.

His Eminence, Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect

His Most Reverend Archbishop, Albert Roche, Secretary

Congregation for Divine Worship

Your Eminence and Your Excellency,

I write regarding the case of Fr. Sean Finnegan, who was the subject of discipline in 1997 by the predecessor of the Congregation of which you are Prefect, Prot. 550/97/L. Enclosed are copies of the documents which Fr. Finnegan received in the course of his discipline.

I write because I believe that the decision taken by your predecessors deserves further review, especially on the basis of a development of doctrine by His Holiness Emeritus, Benedict XVI, or of its clarification, since the date of the decision in question.

Briefly, Fr. Finnegan was disciplined because he served Mass at Merton College, Oxford, in Latin, and in the Sarum Rite or Use. The former Congregation gave Fr. Finnegan no opportunity to explain, justify, or even to excuse his actions. And, save for a brief statement given in a letter to the informant who apprised the former congregation of Fr. Finnegan’s actions, no reason was given by the former Congregation for the blanket prohibition of the Sarum Rite mass.

In a review of that letter, it would appear that the reason for the former Congregation’s suppression of the Sarum Rite was the tacit assumption that that rite had been suppressed by the promulgation of the Mass of Pius V, just as the latter Mass had been suppressed by the promulgation of the Mass of Pope Paul VI.

But the decree of Pius V, Quo Primum, promulgated on July 14, 1570, stated that the Mass of and after the Council of Trent only suppressed those liturgical rites which did not have an attested use of more than two hundred years as of the date of that decree. A close reading of history would show that the Sarum rite had an attested historical use from the time of St. Osmund after 1075 A.D, and even after its suppression by Elizabeth I of England in 1559, up at least until the English seminary in Douai began instructing its seminarians in the Mass of Pius V in 1577.

Thus, a fair and accurate reading of both Quo Primum and the history of the time would show that the Sarum Rite was one of continuous use for more than two hundred years, and that it was still being served as of the time that Quo Primum was promulgated. To the best of my knowledge, there is no later papal, conciliar or even local document specifically suppressing its use. Therefore, under both Quo Primum and canon 28 of the Code of Canon Law, as well as earlier such canons, the Sarum Rite qualifies as a centenary custom which remains current, and as a lawful rite of the Roman Catholic Church.

In that context, section 4 of the Vatican II document, Sacrosanctum Concilium includes the following: “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.” (Emphasis added). If the Sarum rite is indeed a lawfully acknowledged rite, then it would be one of equal right and dignity with all other such rites, and that it should be preserved and fostered, and not treated as the earlier Congregation had done in its action against Fr. Finnegan.

The earlier decision of the previous Congregation was perhaps understandable, as at that time there was the general belief among many in the Church that the Mass of Pius V had been somehow suppressed or banished. It would be thus understandable that if the mother Gregorian Rite was so treated, so also would the daughter Sarum Rite.

But the recent words and actions of His Holiness Emeritus, Benedict XVI, have served as a corrective to that erroneous view. In His Holiness’ letter to the Bishops on the Occasion of the Publication of the Apostolic Letter ‘Motu Proprio Data’ Summorum Pontificum, He informed His bishops that “As for the use of the 1962 Missal as a Forma extraordinaria of the liturgy of the Mass, I would like to draw attention to the fact that this Missal was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted.”

By the same logic, since the Sarum Rite was also never judicially abrogated, that Rite was also in principle always permitted. In that context, the following words of His Holiness Emeritus from the above letter are most apt to a reconsideration of the Sarum Rite: “In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”

I would also offer my poor words beside those of His Holiness Emeritus. The Church venerates the memory of the English Martyrs, including St. Thomas More, who heard the Sarum Mass; the hundreds of priest martyrs, who died while attempting to serve that Mass; and the thousands of English faithful, particularly those in the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, who died in defense of that Mass. It would be a poor veneration indeed to remember those many martyrs, but to attempt to forget or to erase from memory the Mass for which they were willing to die, and because of which they were martyred.

I would also offer the following argument. If, under Quo Primum, the Sarum rite is a lawful rite of the Roman Catholic Church, and if, under Sacrosanctum Concilium, all such lawful rites are of equal right, law and dignity, and deserving of all attempts to preserve and foster them, then the Sarum rite is of equal right, law and dignity with both the Ordinary and Extraordinary rites of the Church. Further, as His Holiness Emeritus has recognized that all priests have the right to celebrate privately both the Ordinary and Extraordinary forms of the Mass, if the Sarum rite is indeed of equal right and dignity with those forms of the Mass, then it follows that all priests would have the right to celebrate privately the Sarum Mass.

Such a decision would be entirely consistent with the mind of His Holiness Emeritus Benedict XVI, and of the Blessed Ioannes Paulus Magnus. It would also be consistent with the stated will and intent of the Council Fathers in Sacrosanctum Concilium. And it would be in fulfillment of the rights of all of the Christian Faithful to receive from the treasury of the sacraments, and to follow their own religious life, under Canons 212 and 213 of the Code of Canon Law. Finally, it would be a fitting memorial to and veneration of the many English Martyrs who died in defense of, or in the service of, that Mass.

I therefore respectfully offer this opinion, which I believe to be both my right and my duty under Canon 212 §3. With all filial devotion and submission, I am

Very truly yours,

Bernard Brandt