Pope Benedict XVI has approved a document that relaxes restrictions on celebrating the Latin Mass used by the Roman Catholic Church for centuries until the modernizing reforms of the 1960s, the Vatican said Thursday.
Benedict discussed the decision with top officials in a meeting on Wednesday and the document will be published in the next few days, the statement said. The meeting was called to “illustrate the content and the spirit” of the document, which will be sent to all bishops accompanied by a personal letter from the pope.
The decision comes after months of debate. Some cardinals, bishops and Jewish leaders have opposed any change, voicing complaints about everything from the text of the old Mass to concerns that the move will lead to further changes to the reforms approved by 1962-65 Second Vatican Council.
The 16th century Tridentine Mass was sidelined by the New Mass that followed the council. The reforms called for Mass to be said in local languages, for the priest to face the congregation and not the altar with his back to worshippers and for the use of lay readers.
To celebrate the Latin Mass now, a priest must obtain permission from the local bishop. Church leaders are anxiously awaiting the details of Benedict’s decision, to see how far he will go in easing that rule.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, told reporters Thursday that the bishop will still have a “central role,” but he did not elaborate. Bertone called the old Mass a “great treasure” for the Church.
Reaching out to ultra-traditionalists
Benedict’s move is widely seen as an attempt to reach out to an ultra-traditionalist and schismatic group, the Society of St. Pius X, and bring it back into the Vatican’s fold.
The late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded the society in 1969 in Switzerland in opposition to the Vatican II reforms, particularly its liturgical changes. The Vatican excommunicated Lefebvre in 1988 after he consecrated four bishops without Rome’s consent. The bishops were excommunicated as well.
Benedict has been keen to reconcile with the group, which has demanded freer use of the old Mass as a precondition for normalizing relations.
There was no immediate reaction from the Lefebvre group.
Some cardinals and bishops, particularly in France — where Lefebvre’s group is strong — have objected publicly to any liberalizing of the old rite, saying its broader use could lead to divisions within the church, and could imply a rejection of other Vatican II teachings.
Other concerns have come from groups involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue, because the Tridentine rite contains prayers that some non-Christians find offensive. The Tridentine liturgy predates the landmark documents from Vatican II on improving relations with Jews and people of other faiths.
“A good half of the (Catholic) fundamentalists in the world are in France. This is why French Catholics are particularly concerned about their influence on the pope,” said the Rev. Michel Kubler, religious editor of the French Catholic daily La Croix.
He said bishops were also worried that any major change “could erode their ability to control how the faith is practiced.”
In a 1988 document, Pope John Paul II urged bishops to be generous in granting “indults,” or special dispensation, to allow the Tridentine rite to be celebrated. But many proponents say bishops have been stingy — either for personal reasons or because they simply don’t have enough priests who know how to celebrate it.
Benedict has made clear for years that he greatly admires the Tridentine rite and has already incorporated Latin into Masses at St. Peter’s Basilica.
In a recent document, Benedict urged seminarians and the faithful alike to learn Latin prayers, and in the 1997 book “Salt of the Earth” he said it was “downright indecent” for people who are still attached to the old rite to be denied it.
“I am of the opinion, to be sure, that the old rite should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it,” then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said. “It’s impossible to see what could be dangerous or unacceptable about that.”