Pope Benedict, in a decree issued yesterday, authorised wider use of the old Latin Mass and told the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics that his nod to traditionalists was nothing to be afraid of.
In a letter to bishops, the German-born Pontiff rejected criticism within the Church that his long-awaited move could split Catholics and roll back the clock on reforms introduced in the 1960s, and which are opposed by many traditionalists.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) replaced Latin with local languages in the liturgy, reached out to other religions and struck texts – which may now stage a comeback – that Jews found particularly offensive.
“This fear is unfounded,” the Pope said in the letter.
“What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”
Catholics around the world will have the Pope’s blessing to request their local priest to celebrate Mass in Latin – and even get baptised or married according to the old Latin rite.
If the priest refuses, they can appeal to their bishop who, the Pope said, “is strongly requested to satisfy their wishes”.
If still unsuccessful, they can go all the way to the Vatican.
Previously, local bishops had the power to authorise or deny use of the Latin mass.
The Pope said his intention was to reconcile with traditionalists, some of whom were so angered by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council that they broke from the Church, causing the first schism of modern times.
The traditionalists’ major flag-bearer is the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), founded by the late French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and which claims about one million members.
“It is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church,” the Pope said.
“Looking back over the past, to the divisions … not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation or unity.”
Jewish community leaders had expressed concern that the Pope’s decree would also revive a 1962 missal praying for the conversion of the Jews.
But the Pope’s decree was not immediately clear on that.
The Good Friday missal in question asks God to “take the veil” off Jewish hearts, and to show mercy “even for the Jews”.
“To placate them they are willing to set the clock back on such a historic reconciliation,” asked Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a US-based Jewish civil rights group.
The Pope chastised parts of the Church for taking the reforms of the Second Vatican Council too far.
He said some clergy had understood them incorrectly as “authorising or even requiring creativity” and causing deformations “hard to bear”.
“I have seen how arbitrary deformations of the liturgy caused deep pain to individuals deeply rooted in the faith of the Church,” the Pope wrote.
Still, the Pope only took his bid to reconcile with traditionalists so far.
He warned that priests could not “as a matter of principle” rule out saying the newer missal, which many followers of Lefebvre reject.
He also acknowledged that the reasons behind the break of Lefebvre’s followers “were at a deeper level” than just use of the old Latin Mass.