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"Pope Paul VI intervened to prevent the publication of the book... Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer of Campos, Brazil, wrote a letter to Paul VI, and respectfully adopted as his own the concerns expressed by Dr. Xavier da Silveira": Role of Priests and Laymen in the Crisis Within the Church

Shortly after the introduction of a new rite of the Mass more than five decades ago, a Brazilian lay theologian, Arnaldo Xavier da Silveira, wrote a lengthy study documenting the doctrinal concerns that were shared by many Catholics. In September of 1973 Pope Paul VI intervened to prevent the publication of the book, but on January 25, 1974, Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer of Campos, Brazil, wrote a letter to Paul VI, and respectfully adopted as his own the concerns expressed by Dr. Xavier da Silveira.  At that time the book had circulated privately in mimeographed form in four languages (Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English), and in 1977 Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre described it as the best book on the new Mass.1

The timeliness of having such a book published now, when the motu proprio of Pope Francis has given rise to a renewed debate about the liturgical reforms, will be obvious to many.  What is in some way unique is that it was written by a lay theologian rather than by a priest.  Receiving the approval of Archbishop Lefebvre and Bishop de Castro Mayer – the two bishops most known for working to preserve the traditional rite of the Roman liturgy – it stands out among the contributions of laymen to their own defense of the traditional rite.

The publication now of this book is another manifestation of the respective roles of priests and laymen in the present crisis in the Church.  The popes of the early twentieth century were very attentive to the role of the laity, that of assisting the hierarchy in defending the Church against modern errors, and against hostile governments persecuting the Church. When, for example, Pope Pius XI was told by French writer Henri Bourdeaux, “Your Holiness, politics should defend religion and Christian ethics,” Pius XI replied, “No, precisely the contrary is the case. It is religion which defends politics.  And every time politics ignores the lessons which religion teaches, it becomes bad politics.”2  In the context of his pontificate it was clear that by religion Pius XI meant not only the hierarchy, but also the lay apostolate collaborating with the priests and bishops, in what St. Pius X and his immediate successors referred to as Catholic Action.

However, because of the crisis that the Church faced in the twentieth century, divisions arose within Catholic Action as Catholics themselves debated the role of the lay apostolate.  Profound political divisions among Catholics served to highlight the nature of that crisis.  On one hand the Popes sought to remain above the conflicts, but after the Second World War Pius XII indicated that the Church cannot always remain neutral, and that the Church’s judgments anticipate in some way the final judgment.3

In the 1950s Pius XII sought to provide further clarification of the role of the lay apostolate, by explaining its multiple forms, manifested by the various degrees in which these apostolates are guided by the hierarchy.4  After his death, with the coming of the Second Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII, the vigilance of the previous popes was replaced by a certain optimism.  And the concept of the People of God included an effort to exalt the role of the laity.  But that in turn brought further debate about the respective roles of priests and laymen.

Archbishop Lefebvre saw a crisis in the priesthood that would put less emphasis on the administration of the Sacraments, and more on preaching and social activism.  And in the midst of the liturgical reform, the new rite of the Mass introduced by Pope Paul VI, as shown by Dr. Xavier da Silveira in his book, sought to introduce ecumenical elements into the Mass.  This in turn had effects on civil society, prompted by an emphasis on collaboration with non-Catholics and governmental initiatives, overshadowing the organized lay apostolate promoted by the popes prior to the Council.

In the midst of these developments, there appeared a growing movement to preserve the traditional Roman rite, participated in by both priests and laity, but in ways proper to their different states of life.  While Archbishop Lefebvre devoted himself to the formation of priests to celebrate the traditional rite, a growing lay apostolate dedicated itself in turn to a doctrinal defense of Tradition, including the Church’s ancient Roman rite.  The book on the problems with the new Mass by Arnaldo Xavier da Silveira is an example of central importance, insofar as it demonstrated what Cardinal Ottaviani had stated in his letter to Paul VI, when presenting the pope with the short critical study of the novus ordo missae by a group of theologians – that the new rite departed from the doctrine of the Mass taught by the Council of Trent.5

Various priestly societies that were founded for the celebration of the traditional Mass, unlike the Society of St. Pius X which preceded them, have generally avoided public debate, concentrating on the central act of their priestly vocation – the celebration itself of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  If they were to engage in doctrinal debates, they might jeopardize their canonical status, and risk suspension or suppression of their communities.  The laity, on the other hand, are freer to discuss the doctrinal implications of the novus ordo missae.  Arnaldo Xavier da Silveira accepted this challenge and responsibility, and his book received the approval of Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer, and later of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

The theological and canonical literature justifying such action on the part of the laity is sufficient to demonstrate their fidelity to the Church.  Pope Pius XII was very emphatic in clarifying the multiple forms of the lay apostolate, explaining the different degrees of their relationship with the hierarchy.  And the new Code of Canon Law is explicit in recognizing the right of the faithful to express their concerns to ecclesiastical authority.6 The book by Arnaldo Xavier da Silveira was written before the new Code was promulgated but manifests a natural right to appeal to ecclesiastical superiors.  Preserving Christian Publications, therefore, is now honored to help make this timely book available to concerned Catholics.


1 Archbishop Lefebvre made this statement to a seminarian in September 1977, in the house of the Society of St. Pius X in Albano-Laziale, near Rome – at that time the motherhouse of the Society’s sisters, when they were in the process of moving to their new motherhouse in France.

2 Cited by Anthony Rhodes, The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators 1922-1945 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974), p. 106.

If the Church speaks about human affairs, Pius XII affirmed, “it is in virtue of her divine mission willed by God.  If she speaks and makes a judgment on the problems of the day, it is with the clear conscience of anticipating, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the sentence which at the end of time her Lord and Head, Judge of the universe, will confirm and sanction.” Radio Message, December 24, 1951, in the Monks of Solesmes, Les Enseignements Pontificaux: La Paix Intérieure des Nations (Desclée & Cie., 1962), p. 579.

Cf. Pius XII’s address to the 2nd World Congress of the Apostolate of the Laity, October 5, 1957, in the Monks of Solesmes, Directives to Lay Apostles (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1963), pp. 238 ff.

5 “…the Novus Ordo represents, both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Session XXII of the Council of Trent.”  Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani’s letter to Pope Paul VI, September 25, 1969.

“In accord with the knowledge, competence and preeminence which they possess, they have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and…to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful…” (Canon 212).


Two Timely Issues:
The New Mass and the Possibility of a Heretical Pope

Arnaldo Xavier da Silviera
Translated by John R. Spann & José Aloisio Schelini
2022 365p $24.00 #3117


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