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Pope Francis alarms some traditionalists

| Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, 8:30 p.m.
REUTERS
Pope Francis has his skull cap removed by a child during an audience with children assisted by volunteers of Santa Marta institute in Paul VI hall at the Vatican December 14, 2013. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito (VATICAN - Tags: RELIGION TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY SOCIETY)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis may have been named Time magazine's Person of the Year, but he has come under scathing criticism from a growing number of traditionalist Catholics for cracking down on a religious order that celebrates the old Latin Mass. The case has become a flashpoint in the ideological tug-of-war going on in the Catholic Church over Francis' agenda, which has thrilled progressives and alarmed some conservatives.

The matter concerns the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, a small but growing order of several hundred priests, seminarians and nuns that was founded in Italy in 1990 as an offshoot of the larger Franciscan order.

Then-Pope Benedict XVI launched an investigation into the congregation when five of its priests complained that the order was taking on an overly traditionalist bent, with the old Latin Mass being celebrated more and more at the expense of the modern liturgy.

The dispute goes back to differing interpretations of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which include the use of local languages in Mass that some considered a break with the church's tradition.

Benedict relaxed restrictions on using Latin for the service in 2007.

The Vatican in July named the Rev. Fidenzio Volpi, a Franciscan Capuchin friar, as a special commissioner to run the order with a mandate to quell the dissent within its ranks and get a handle on its finances. In the same decree appointing Volpi, Francis forbade the friars from celebrating the Mass in Latin without special permission.

Four tradition-minded Italian intellectuals wrote to the Vatican accusing it of violating Benedict's 2007 edict, saying the Holy See was imposing “unjust discrimination” against those who celebrate the ancient rite.

Volpi though was undeterred, and on Dec. 8 took action, issuing a series of sanctions in the name of the pope that have stunned observers for their seeming severity: He closed the friars' seminary and sent its students to other religious universities in Rome. He suspended the activities of the friars' lay movement. He suspended ordinations of priests for a year and required those who wish to be ordinated to formally accept the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and its new liturgy or be kicked out. And he decreed that current priests must commit themselves in writing to following the existing mission of the order.

Traditionalists have charged that a double standard is at play, with a conservative, tradition-minded order being targeted for particular sanction on ideological grounds by a pope with a progressive bent.

“I hope that I am not being intemperate in describing this as rather harsh,” the Rev. Timothy Finigan, a British priest whose blog is much read in traditionalist circles, wrote last week.

Francis has called Benedict's 2007 decree allowing wider use of the Latin Mass “prudent,” but has warned that it risks being exploited on ideological grounds by factions in the church.

A group of tradition-minded lay Catholics has started an online petition asking for Volpi's ouster, but it's not clear how many signatories have yet signed on; an email seeking figures wasn't returned on Saturday.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, defended Volpi as a sage administrator and dismissed calls for his ouster.

The Rev. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at the Opus Dei-run Pontifical Holy Cross University, said he was certain that the pope wasn't opposed to the old Latin Mass.

“Liturgy is always a surprisingly sensitive topic,” he said. “It can be extremely controversial and can upset communities even when the substance of the disagreement is minuscule. So, I think Francis is pushing for community peace and unity which may entail a temporary reduction in some use” of the old Latin Mass.

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