Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre
Volume 3, Chapter XV

Dominicæ Cenæ

Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II
to the Bishops of the World
on the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist

24 February 1980

This is the second Holy Thursday Letter of Pope John Paul II. It complements the Letter on the Priesthood of 1979, and like that letter, contains much sound traditional theology. Although, as always, the Pope makes frequent references to the teaching of Vatican II, the theology of this letter is far more reminiscent of the Council of Trent.

The Pope teaches that the Mass is above all else a sacrifice directed to the Father through Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Ghost. The celebrant confects the Holy Sacrifice acting in the person of Christ, in persona Christi, and the Eucharist is the very raison d’être of the priesthood. Great stress is laid on all traditional forms of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. The necessity of frequent confession to avoid the unworthy reception of Holy Communion receives considerable stress: "It is not only that Penance leads to the Eucharist, but that the Eucharist also leads to Penance. For when, we realize Who it is we receive in Eucharistic Communion, there springs up in us almost simultaneously a sense of unworthiness, together with sorrow for our sins and an interior need for purification.” The Pope expressed his disquiet concerning a contemporary phenomenom: entire congregations receive Holy Communion with very few of the faithful having taken " due care to approach the Sacrament of Penance." He attributes this phenomenon to a false conception of the Mass as nothing more than" a banquet in which one shares by receiving the Body of Christ in order to manifest above all else, fraternal communion."

The Holy Father makes no attempt to conceal his disquiet concerning the practice of Communion in the hand. He notes that in some cases this has led to" a deplorable lack of respect towards the Eucharistic species." He reminds bishops that the hands of priests are consecrated, and that "to touch the sacred species and to distribute them with their own hands is a privilege of the ordained." It might have been hoped that he would order the bishops to bring an end to the abuse of Communion in the hand, but, alas, he went no further than making his own preference clear. He was certainly aware of the fact that any such command would have been almost totally ignored where the abuse had been established, particularly as it had, in fact, been established as an act of rebellion to which the Holy See capitulated.2 The Pope urged bishops to bring an end to some of the more flagrant liturgical abuses which, he commented, could be said to denote a lack of faith on the part of the priests perpetrating them.

One of the most interesting and enigmatic sections of the letter refers to the duty of bishops to respect and accommodate the sentiments and desires of those educated on the basis of the old liturgy in Latin, and who experience a lack of this one language. “The Roman Church has special obligations towards Latin, the splendid language of ancient Rome, and she must manifest them whenever the occasion presents itself.” Unfortunately, the Pope seemed to imagine that the sentiments and desires of traditional Catholics could be accommodated “as is provided for in the new dispositions.”

There is some reason to believe that, in fact, the Pope had orginally intended to cater for traditional Catholics by removing restrictions placed upon the celebration of the Tridentine Mass, but had been assured by Cardinal Knox, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, that the desire among the faithful for the Tridentine Mass had been greatly exaggerated, and was confined to a minuscule and unrepresentative minority. This, he is alleged to have assured the Pope, could be proved by a consultation with

Dominicæ Cenæ contains one of the most astonishing statements which can ever have been made by Roman Pontiff:

I would like to ask forgiveness – in my own name and in the name of all of you, venerable and dear Brothers in the Episcopate – for everything which, for whatever reason, through whatever human weakness, impatience or negligence, and also through the at times partial, one-sided and erroneous application of the directives of the Second Vatican Council may have caused scandal and disturbance concerning the interpretation of the doctrine and veneration due to this great Sacrament. And I pray the Lord Jesus that in future we may avoid in our manner of dealing with this sacred mystery anything which could weaken or disorient in any way the sense of reverence and love that exists in our faithful people.

Until the years following the Second Vatican Council no Catholic would have believed it possible that a day might come when the Vicar of Christ, the visible head of the Church on earth, would feel obliged to apologize to the faithful for the fact that on many occasions they were unable to fulfil their Sunday obligation without being scandalized by the manner in which Mass was celebrated. Yet, impossible as it may seem, there is an even more astonishing statement in Dominicæ Cenæ. Bear in mind the unprecedented papal apology which has just been cited; bear in mind the Pope’s anxiety concerning the sacrilegious reception of Holy Communion as a result of the decline in confessions; bear in mind his alarm at the deplorable lack of respect towards the Eucharistic species resulting from the abuse of Communion in the hand; bear in mind his concern at the widespread impression that the Mass is no more than a fraternal banquet (which is precisely what is taught in most contemporary catechetical publications), bear in mind the fact that he found it necessary to ask bishops to curb serious liturgical abuses which indicated a lack of faith in the priests concerned; bear all these facts in mind and then consider the statement which follows. In the very same letter in which he had shown that beyond any possibility of doubt there had been an alarming decline in reverence for Eucharist, Pope John Paul II felt able to inform the bishops of the world that: “The encouragement and the deepening of the eucharistic worship are proofs of that authentic renewal which the council set itself as an aim and of which they are the central point.” (Emphasis in original.) This, of course, is sheer fantasy, and, surely, the Pope must have known it. He must also be aware that throughout the West there has been a catastrophic decline in Mass attendance, in countries such as France and Holland of well over fifty percent. How can the Pope possibly describe as a renewal a process which is emptying our churches?

The 24 December 1984 English edition of L’Osservatore Romano included an admission from Cardinal Ratzinger that the Council had been followed not be a renewal but by “a progressive process of decadence.” The Cardinal also accepted that “it is incontrovertible that this period has definitely been unfavorable for the Catholic Church.” The fury of the Liberal establishment was vented upon the Cardinal for what The Tablet termed “his pessimism.” B. A. Santamaria, undoubtedly the greatest Australian layman of this century, came to the defense of Cardinal Ratzinger in the 3 August 1985 issue of The Tablet. He pointed out that since the Second Vatican Council in France, Italy and Holland over 80% of Catholics do not practice their faith. In his own country of Australia, Mass attendance has plummeted from 53% in 1960 to 25% in 1985. Mr. Santamaria commented:

If we project these figures into the future, short of a religious miracle, what figures are we seriously entitled to expect ten years from now? Facts cannot be “optimistic” or “pessimistic.” Facts can only be true or false. If these facts are false, let them be shown to be so. If they are true let us not conclude our assessment with the monumental absurdity that, in proportion as Catholics vote with their feet and empty once-full churches, the Holy Ghost is "renewing” what is visibly ceasing to exist.

Dominicæ Cenæ provides an only too typical example of the enigmatic personality of Pope John Paul II, and of the effectiveness of his pontificate. It contains much admirably orthodox teaching, manifests a clear desire to curb abuses, shows pastoral concern for traditional Catholics, and combines all this with statements concerning the Council and its reforms which fully deserve to be described as monumental absurdities. Furthermore, this letter had no more effect in bringing an end to liturgical abuses and initiating a return to more reverence than did Catedtesi tradendæ in bringing about a return to orthodox catechesis. As Mr. Santamaria observed so aptly, facts can only be true or false, and the fact concerning Catechesi tradendæ is that since its publication the progressive decadence in the religious education given to Catholic children has intensified; and the fact concerning Dominicæ Cenæ is that since its publication the progressive decadence in the liturgy of the Roman Rite has intensified. However good the Pope's intentions, he has been unable to implement them. In this respect his pontificate resembles that of Pope Paul VI very closely. This is not to deny that in certain isolated instances, the case of Hans Küng for example, he has had the courage to implement his decisions.

1. Complete Text in Flannery II (see bibliography).
2. Detailed documentation concerning the abuse of Communion in the hand is available in the Angelus pamphlet A Privilege of the Ordained (see bibliography).
the bishops of the world. While this allegation cannot be proved, it is certainly significant that the Cardinal did indeed conduct such an enquiry in which the results were carefully manipulated to give a totally false picture of the desire for the traditional Mass among the faithful throughout te world.

Chapter 14

Courtesy of the Angelus Press, Regina Coeli House
2918 Tracy Avenue, Kansas City, MO 64109