Cardinal Zen opposes ban on private Masses in St. Peter’s Basilica in feisty letter

Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong has called for the reduction of what he describes as the “excessive power” of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State after learning of restrictions on the celebration of private Masses inside St. Peter’s Basilica.

In an open letter the outspoken 89-year-old Cardinal Zen said he is greatly upset by the restriction on private Masses in the upper side chapels of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican that went into force March 22.

“Pain and indignation invade my heart to hear certain incredible news: They have forbidden private Masses in St. Peter’s!?” the retired prelate of Hong Kong said.

“If it were not for the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus, I would take the first flight to come to Rome and get on my knees in front of the door of Santa Marta (now the Papal residence) until the Holy Father has this edict withdrawn,” Cardinal Zen said in his letter posted on his website March 30.

According to Catholic News Agency(CNA) the new protocols, issued by the First Section of the Vatican Secretariat of State, said that 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.

CNA said that the decree says the changes are intended to ensure “the Holy Masses in St. Peter’s Basilica take place in a climate of recollection and liturgical decency.”

The 45 altars and 11 chapels in St. Peter’s Basilica had always been used every morning by priests, mostly Vatican officials, to celebrate their daily Mass, CNA reported. It was a long-standing custom.

The interior of St. Peter’s Basilica on Jan. 20, 2020 in the Vatican. (Photo by Sandra SWC/

In his letter Cardinal Zen wrote about the importance of private Masses during his visits to Vatican.

“It was the thing that strengthened my faith most every time I came to Rome: At exactly seven o’clock I would enter the sacristy (where I almost always would meet that holy man, the archbishop, then Cardinal Paolo Sardi); a young priest would come forward and would help me to dress in the vestments, and then they take me to an altar (in the Basilica proper or in the grottoes, that would make no difference to me, we were in St. Peter’s Basilica!),” wrote the cardinal who has been a defender of Catholics persecuted in China.   

“I think these were the Masses that, in my life, I celebrated with more fervor and emotion, sometimes with tears praying for our living martyrs in China (now abandoned and pushed into the bosom of the schismatic church by the ‘Holy See’ [as that document of June 2020 was presented without signatures and without the revisions of the Congregation for Doctrine]).”

Cardinal Zen has been a vocal critic of the Vatican’s accord with communist China which he has likened to making a deal with the devil. Last year he travelled to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis but after four days failed to have an audience. He wanted to see the pope to personally deliver a letter asking for a new bishop for Hong Kong.

In this picture taken on Sept. 11, 2020, Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, walks through the library at his residence in Hong Kong. (Photo by Isaac Lawrence/AFP)

Cardinal Zen’s recent letter implied a greater issue than the restrictions on the celebration of private Masses inside St. Peter’s Basilica.

“It is time to reduce the excessive power of the Secretariat of State,” Cardinal Zen said referring to the central papal governing bureaucracy of the Catholic Church. “Remove these sacrilegious hands from the communal home for all the Faithful in the world!” he said.

“Let them content themselves with playing worldly diplomacy with the father of lies. Let them make the Secretariat of State ‘a den of thieves’ but leave the devoted people of God alone!” he said, concluding his letter.

Cardinal Zen’s open letter was addressed to Cardinal Robert Sarah, the former prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship who has also voiced his opposition to the restrictions on private Masses. Cardinals Raymond Burke, Gerhard Müller, and Walter Brandmüller have done likewise.

Cardinal Burke, former prefect of the Church’s highest court, wrote that the Secretariat of State lacks the competent authority to issue directives regarding the offering of Mass at St. Peter’s.

He said that the new decree “imposes concelebration” on priests wishing to celebrate Mass at the basilica, “in violation of his freedom to offer the Holy Mass individually.”

CNA reported, the First Section of the Secretariat of State is an office normally in charge of all the Curial offices’ direction and coordination but typically not liturgical celebrations.

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