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African Cardinal Asks Pope Francis to Reinstate Individual Masses at St. Peter’s Basilica

Cardinal Robert Sarah offers Mass in St. Peter's Basilica for his 50th anniversary of priesthood in 2019. / Credit: Evandro Inetti/CNA.

Robert Cardinal Sarah has asked Pope Francis to reinstate the celebration of private Masses at the side altars in St. Peter’s Basilica, after individual Masses were suspended earlier this month in favor of concelebration.

“I humbly beg the Holy Father to order the withdrawal of the recent norms issued by the secretariat of state,” Cardinal Sarah wrote in an essay published Monday on the blog of Vatican journalist Sandro Magister.

The cardinal said the new norms “are as lacking in justice as in love, do not correspond to the truth or the law, do not facilitate but rather endanger the decorum of the celebration, devout participation in the Mass, and the freedom of the children of God.”

Sarah, prefect emeritus of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, joins Cardinals Raymond Burke, Gerhard Muller, and Walter Brandmuller, in publically voicing disagreement with the ban on individual Masses, which went into effect March 22.

The new protocols, which were decreed by the First Section of the Secretariat of State, said priests will be invited to take part in several concelebrated Masses at St. Peter’s every day, but will not be permitted to offer private Masses at the basilica’s many side altars.

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It was a long-standing custom in the basilica that priests would offer individual Masses in the early morning hours at some of the side altars in the basilica. Sometimes priests said the Mass alone or with only a deacon, and other times they would be accompanied by small groups of Catholics.

Priests traveling with pilgrim groups were also permitted to reserve an altar for a private Mass.

There are a total of 45 altars and 11 chapels in St. Peter’s Basilica.

In his essay, Cardinal Sarah asked if it was necessary to break this “ancient and venerable custom,” writing, “does such a decision really produce greater good for the Church and greater decorum in the liturgy?”

The cardinal said “the main, not to say the only, role of an altar is in fact that the Eucharistic sacrifice be offered on it.”

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“The presence of the relics of the saints under the altars has a biblical, theological, liturgical, and spiritual value of such magnitude that there is no need even to mention them,” he added. “With the new norms the altars of St. Peter’s are destined to serve, except one day a year, only as tombs of saints, if not as mere works of art. Those altars, instead, must live, and their life is the daily celebration of the Holy Mass.”

Sarah also recalled that, over the centuries, there have been many saints who offered Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica when they were in Rome.

He questioned why this experience is now being denied to “the saints of today -- who thank God exist, are among us, and visit Rome at least from time to time.”

Cardinal Sarah referenced canon 902 of the Code of Canon Law, which refers to “Sacrosanctum concilium” no. 57, and “guarantees priests the possibility of personally celebrating the Eucharist.”

He also noted that there are priests who come to Rome and do not speak Italian, and who would therefore find it difficult to concelebrate one of the official Masses at St. Peter’s Basilica, as the new norms dictate.

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The cardinal quoted the decree “Presbyterorum ordinis,” from the Second Vatican Council, which says: “In the mystery of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in which priests fulfill their greatest task, the work of our redemption is being constantly carried on; and hence the daily celebration of Mass is strongly urged, since even if there cannot be present a number of the faithful, it is still an act of Christ and of the Church.”

“Not only is it confirmed here that, even when the priest celebrates without the people, the Mass remains an act of Christ and of the Church, but its daily celebration is also recommended,” Sarah commented.

“When possible, community celebration is preferred, but individual celebration by a priest remains the work of Christ and the Church. The magisterium not only does not prohibit it, but approves it, and recommends that priests celebrate Holy Mass every day, because from every Mass there flows a great quantity of graces for the whole world,” he said.

Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Sarah's resignation as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on Feb. 20, after Sarah turned 75 in June 2020.