In the early evening of 19 April 2005 myself, another priest and the Master of ceremonies awaited in the sitting room of my parish, with baited breath, the election of a new Successor of St Peter. When the name of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was announced we were, it has to be said, ecstatic. I didn’t know whether to run and open the champagne already chilling for such happy news or to rush to the church and give praise to God. In fact, we went to the church first to dismantle the catafalque and six unbleached candles surrounding it that had been standing in the sanctuary since Pope John Paul’s death and set up the altar for a Mass of Thanksgiving. The church had no bells but the people knew well enough to turn up at hearing the news and so we celebrated Mass with a goodly congregation of about 50 people. Thus began for me the reign of Pope Benedict XVI.
Not the reign of the Panzar Cardinal, of course - an image conjured up by the liberal media and fed by their counterparts within the Church but the reign of a man deeply aware of the needs of the Church and the terrible evil of the dictatorship of relativism that has been inflicting its relentless agenda on Europe since the so-called “Enlightenment” and which has infected even God’s holy Church:
"Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of education is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognising nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own ego."
In other words, we each create our own little world-view and it is inevitably limited, narrow and bound up only with our own concerns.
Engaging the battle with this modern evil (the direct successor of the Modernism condemned by Pope St Pius X) has been at the heart of Pope Benedict’s pontificate. I think that one of the means he sees of doing this is to draw into powerful unity within the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church all who should be there - both dissenters within the Church and those outside the full unity of communion with the See of Peter. He says in his letter accompanying the Moto Proprio about the Traditional Mass:
"I now come to the positive reason which motivated my decision to issue this Motu Proprio. It is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church. Looking back over the past, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. This glance at the past imposes an obligation on us today: to make every effort to enable for all those who truly desire unity to remain in that unity or to attain it anew."
Thus it is that we have recently seen the invitation into the Church to those Anglicans who are willing to be rescued in the Barque of Peter. And the Moto Proprio Summorum Pontificum is yet another facet of that same concern, for it opens the way to a return to full unity to those who are attached to the Traditional Mass who had gone their own way. But it is not just a crumb thrown to them or the window dressing of an ecclesiastical spin-doctor, for it has changed the mood of the Church itself, the feel, the timbré, of who we are and where we are going, of what is and is not acceptable. The Church is now different and that is why its approach to others and their approach to us is different. I say “different” from what is was in the recent past but not new - for the difference is that we are once more in touch with our heritage, our Traditio
· and I include in that rootedness in the past, the Gospels themselves and the saving events they describe.
Here is the real reason we can never be a church that understands itself by a hermeneutic of disruption or discontinuity with the past. For the past, those saving events, are our reason for being here and they are not in the past at all - they are made present to us by the saving Sacrifice of the Mass, where we stand at the foot of the cross and at the open tomb together with every man and woman who has knelt before the altar since then.
Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII put is succinctly when he said to Count Geleazzi, in relation to the warnings of Fatima:
"I am concerned about the confidences of the Virgin to the little Lucia of Fatima. The persistence of the Good Lady in face of the danger that threatens the Church is a divine warning against the suicide that the modification of the Faith, liturgy, theology, and soul of the Church would represent.
I hear around me partisans of novelties who want to demolish the Holy Sanctuary, destroy the universal flame of the Church, reject her adornments, and make her remorseful for her historical past. Well, my dear friend, I am convinced that the Church of Peter must affirm her past, or else she will dig her own tomb.
I will fight this battle with the greatest energy both inside and outside the Church, even if the forces of evil may one day take advantage of my person, actions, or writings, as they try today to deform the History of the Church".
It is surely an awareness of this continuity, this communion, with all the previous generations of Christians - and future generations - that gives us our strength and that shows up most starkly that we cannot each make up our own selfish little world view. And it is in the Mass of Ages that this is most beautifully expressed. As the Holy Father says:
"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."
The Mass that is recognisable to all ages is the very antithesis of relativism. Even the ordained minister of the Sacrament - be he priest, bishop or Pope is submerged and subsumed into it and at its service. The vestments and the whole ritual of the Mass hide the man and show forth the Saviour.
It is an awareness of these eternal and universal (Catholic) values that coalesce in the Mass and call us back to our foundation, our rock, Christ himself - rooted in history and yet of cosmic significance. The Holy Father must, I think, see in the Mass which we celebrate tonight - on this feast of the teaching and ruling office of the Popes - something that will strengthen and assist the re-foundation of the fullness of the Faith that is missing from so many Christian hearts in our day. As we pray, so we shall believe and live.
Today is the feast of the teaching and ruling authority of the Vicar of Christ and so it should be no surprise that the call to action, to unity to the fullness of faith issues forth from the successor of St Peter. There is the place to which we must look to keep our hearts and minds at one with all those down the ages who have come to the altar of God. And just when the gates of hell might seem to prevail is precisely when the words of Christ to Peter should thunder in our ears. If you too would prevail against the gates of hell, then you must stand at Peter’s side:
Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.