November 2013 Print

St. Joseph and the Canon

by Fr. Peter Scott

This question is once again of topical interest, given the recent decision of Pope Francis decreeing that St. Joseph be invoked in Eucharistic Prayers II, III, and IV of the New Mass, the name of St. Joseph already being in the First Eucharistic Prayer from the time of the first publication of the New Mass in 1969.

The decree, signed by Cardinal Llovera, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, on May 1, 2013, has this to say:

“The faithful in the Catholic Church have shown continuous devotion to Saint Joseph and have solemnly and constantly honored his memory as the most chaste spouse of the Mother of God and as the heavenly Patron of the Universal Church. For this reason Blessed Pope John XXIII, in the days of the Most Holy Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, decreed that Saint Joseph’s name be added to the ancient Roman Canon. In response to petitions received from places throughout the world, the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI deemed them worthy of implementation and graciously approved them. The Supreme Pontiff Francis likewise has recently confirmed them.…Accordingly, mature consideration having been given to all the matters mentioned here above, this Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, by virtue of the faculty granted by the Supreme Pontiff, Francis, is pleased to decree that the name of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is henceforth to be added to Eucharistic Prayers II, III, and IV, as they appear in the third typical edition of the Roman Missal…”

Of course, the addition of the name of St. Joseph does not stop the New Mass from being “as a whole and in detail, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Holy Mass as it was formulated in Session XXII of the Council of Trent” (Cardinals Ottaviani & Bacci), of being destructive of the Catholic Faith, and consequently evil. However, since the lists of the saints, that so well express the union of the Church militant here on earth with the Church triumphant in heaven, are so necessary to expressing the fruit of the Mass, the sanctification of souls, it can clearly be understood how regrettable was the exclusion of such lists in the Novus Ordo. Consequently, no one with the sense of the Faith could ever object to the very minor addition of the name of St. Joseph in these Eucharistic Prayers, nor would anybody question the authority of Pope Francis, working through the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in making such an addition.

What about in the Traditional Mass?

More delicate is the question of the addition of the name of St. Joseph to the Canon of the traditional Mass just over 50 years ago, announced by the Cardinal Secretary of State, Cardinal Cicognani, to the 18th General Congregation of Vatican II on November 13, 1962, to take effect as of December 8, 1962. It was at the time, and still remains to some extent, questioned from two opposing perspectives. Certain traditional Catholics objected to it on the grounds that it violated the Bull Quo Primum of St. Pius V, which Bull has never been abrogated (as Pope Benedict XVI admitted on July 7, 2007). For this Bull granted the right “in perpetuity” for all priests to celebrate the Mass as codified by St. Pius V—“this Missal may be followed absolutely, without any scruple of conscience or fear of incurring any penalty.…We likewise order and declare that no one whosoever shall be forced or coerced into altering this Missal.” It was not St. Joseph that they objected to, but the fact of making a change in the sacrosanct Canon of the Mass, which change could easily be seen as opening the gate for many other changes. They also object that this insertion of St. Joseph was only legislated by a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, signed by Cardinal Larraona, and that consequently it does not have sufficient authority to overturn the Bull Quo Primum. They also object to the reason given by the decree for the insertion of St. Joseph’s name, namely that Pope John XXIII did not only want St. Joseph to be the heavenly protector of the Second Vatican Council, but that he “also decreed that his name should be mentioned in the Canon of the Mass both as a desired memorial and as a product of that Council.” Given the destruction in the Church wrought by Vatican II, the insertion of St. Joseph as a memorial of it is hardly something to be proud of.

The second opposing opinion is that of the modern theologians. They objected to the sudden announcement of the insertion of St. Joseph’s name in the Canon of the Mass on the grounds that the decision was not collegial, done by the Council, but unilaterally by Pope John XXIII himself, and also because they considered it a retrograde step to focus on saints rather than on human dignity. Fesquet reported it thus: “A bombshell fell on the general congregation Tuesday. Cardinal Cicognani, Secretary of State, announced that the Pope has decided to insert the name of Saint Joseph after that of the Virgin Mary in the canon of the mass” (The Drama of Vatican II, p. 69). This is the commentary of Fr. Ralph M. Wiltgen in The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, p. 45: “Cardinal Montini later described this unexpected move as ‘a surprise for the Council from the Pope.’ In some quarters Pope John was severely criticized for taking what was termed independent action while the Ecumenical Council was in session.”


In order to form a correct judgment on this question, it is important to put everything into perspective. This is done by Wiltgen (ibid.):

“Actually, this decree was only the culmination of sporadic but intensive campaigns, dating back to 1815, through which hundreds of thousands of signatures of the hierarchy and the laity had been gathered and sent to the Vatican. The campaigns had become particularly intensive at the announcements of Vatican I by Pope Pius IX, and of Vatican II by Pope John.…Chiefly responsible for the action taken by Pope John, however, were Frs. Roland Gauthier and Guy Bertrand, directors of the Center of Research and Documentation at the St. Joseph Oratory in Montreal, who in 1961 composed a seventy-five page booklet giving the history of these campaigns. They explained that the placement of St. Joseph’s name after that of the Virgin Mary in the Canon of the Mass would, doctrinally and liturgically, give official recognition to St. Joseph’s eminence in sanctity, after Mary, over all other saints.…In mid-March 1962, Pope John was presented with six volumes containing the signed petitions of 30 cardinals, 436 patriarchs, archbishops and bishops, and 60 superiors general. While examining the signatures, Pope John said, ‘Something will be done for St. Joseph.’ ”

Several of the Fathers of Vatican II in their speeches on the Liturgy also requested the insertion of the name of St. Joseph in the Canon of the Mass. However, the most noteworthy is this story, as told by Xavier Rynne, in Vatican Council II, pp. 75-76:

“The aged Bishop Petar Cule (Mostar, Yugoslavia) put in a long plea for the inclusion of the name of St. Joseph in the Canon of the Mass, but as he talked on, nervously repeating himself, murmurs began to be heard and Cardinal Ruffini was prompted to interject:

“ ‘Complete your holy and eloquent speech. We all love St. Joseph and we hope there are many saints in Yugoslavia.’

“…Winding up the day’s proceedings at 12:45 with the customary Angelus and Gloria Patri, the Cardinal President brought down the house with a loud invocation of the name of St. Joseph.

“It was this cutting off of Bishop Cule that prompted Pope John to order the insertion of the name of St. Joseph in the Canon of the Mass on his own authority (decree announced November 13th, effective Dec. 8, 1962), without waiting for any conciliar recommendation in the matter. This caused great astonishment, but few were aware that the pope, following the debates on closed circuit television in his apartments, knew Bishop Cule personally and also knew that his nervous manner of speaking had a tragic source: he had suffered through one of those long trials made famous by the Communists and was sentenced to four years in a concentration camp in Yugoslavia. He and other prisoners were then put on a train which was deliberately wrecked in an attempt to kill all aboard. The bishop survived, but both his hips were broken. In poor health, he had nevertheless made great effort to attend the Council and speak up for St. Joseph. Thus his wish was fulfilled.”


With this perspective in mind, we can now answer the objections, firstly against the modernists. No Catholic can doubt that the Sovereign Pontiff, who is the supreme legislator in the Catholic Church, and in the Latin rite, can motu proprio, by his own initiative, make liturgical changes, such as the insertion of the name of St. Joseph, as Pope Francis has just done. Nor can any Catholic question the importance of veneration of St. Joseph, nor that St. Joseph is immediately after the Blessed Virgin Mary in sanctity and that he ought to be honored directly after her. The more profound understanding of the role of St. Joseph in the mystery of the Incarnation is a development of mystical and dogmatic theology, especially since the 17th century.

The difficulty in answering the objections of those who were opposed to any change in the Canon of the Mass, for any reason at all, lies in the fact that for 150 years, despite the petitions, the Canon was not in fact changed. This was not due to any lack of devotion to St. Joseph, but precisely because of the respect due to the most ancient Canon of the Mass. Many popes had made rubrical changes over the centuries, added new Propers and feast days and suppressed other feast days, but none made any change in the Canon of the Mass. A similar difficulty lies in the rather rapid and inconsiderate manner in which Pope John XXIII is said to have come to his decision. Clearly, he was not at all concerned by the objection of those who felt that nothing should be done to the Canon. On top of this comes the linking of this decision with Vatican II itself, as if it would be a fruit of it. If this were true, nothing could more dissuade a traditional Catholic from accepting the insertion of the name of St. Joseph.

However, again perspective is very important. Just as the addition of St. Joseph by Pope Francis makes no real change to the new rite, so likewise was it that the insertion of St. Joseph in the traditional Mass made no real change to the rite. The insertion of a name in the list of saints can hardly be considered an alteration of the Missal in the real sense of the term, since there is no change in meaning of the Communicantes prayer. If some priests could use Quo Primum for affirming that they cannot be bound to include this name in the Mass, they would demonstrate a punctilious small-mindedness more reminiscent of the Pharisees than of the Catholic Church. But no one could use Quo Primum to affirm that a priest must not add in this name, given that it has been decreed by order of the Sovereign Pontiff. To the argument that the decree ordering the insertion of St. Joseph was not signed by the Pope himself, the argument is very simple. Quo Primum itself was not signed by St. Pius V, but by Cardinal Caesar Glorierius. If the insertion of St. Joseph be considered as no substantial change in the traditional rite, then it needs no act of greater authority than the decree of Cardinal Larraona, just as the insertion by Pope Francis was signed by Cardinal Llovera.


Moreover, in liturgical matters, as in Church law in general, custom plays a very important role. This is a concept that is not familiar to those of us who are used to a modern and purely positive concept of law, without reference to the purpose and intention of the law. The principle is given by Canons 25-29 of the 1917 Code (also Canons 23-28 of the 1983 Code): “Custom can obtain the force of law in the Church only by the consent of the competent ecclesiastical superior” (Can. 25) and “Custom is the best interpreter of laws” (Can. 29). In their Practical Commentary of the Code of Canon Law, Woywood and Smith have this to say: “This axiom is taken from the old law, and it is to be understood of customs in harmony with the law. Such customs are the practical applications of the law to the life and activity of the subjects of the Church” (I, p. 17).

Custom is the rule that enables us to know how to deal with the insertion of St. Joseph. The universal custom of the insertion of the name of St. Joseph gained force of law, both because it was by order of the ecclesiastical superior and also because it was universally accepted by orthodox Catholics, giving the interpretation of the law. For amongst traditionally-minded Catholics at the time of Vatican II, there was no real objection to the insertion of the name of St. Joseph, many of them having signed the petitions in its favor. The custom had already been established of accepting this insertion by the time the New Mass was introduced in 1969. It was then retroactively, after the disaster of the New Mass had been seen, that objections began to be raised, and that the New Mass, doing away with the most ancient Canon, started to be traced back to the insertion of St. Joseph in the Mass in 1962, affirming rashly that this was the beginning of the destruction of the traditional rite. However, if the New Mass had never come about, these questions would never have seriously been raised. In fact, a quasi-unanimity of traditional Catholics accepted the insertion of the name of St. Joseph in the Canon. They did so, firstly because they saw no real change in the prayers of the Canon and secondly because they understood that this was not at all the fruit of Vatican II, as Pope John XXIII claimed, but actually the fruit of the development of Catholic doctrine and devotion to St. Joseph.

Consequently, even if one might think that the decree of 1962 in itself does not strictly oblige to the insertion of the name of St. Joseph, and even if one questions the prudence of this decision, and even if one would prefer the absolutely literal immutability of the Canon by the exclusion of St. Joseph, one’s behavior ought to be determined by the universal custom amongst traditional Catholics, a custom which is in harmony with the law, and not opposed to Quo Primum interpreted according to custom, namely that the insertion of the name of St. Joseph does not mean any significant change in the Mass of all time.