VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI has decided to loosen restrictions on use of the old Latin Mass, making a major concession to ultraconservatives who split with the Vatican to protest liberalizing reforms, a Vatican official said Wednesday.
The pope's intent is to "help overcome the schism and help bring (the ultraconservatives) back to the Church," said the official, who asked that his name not be used because the papal document has not yet been released.
It was not immediately clear when the pope will make his decision public, but the Vatican official said it was expected soon. The Times of London, in a report Wednesday, said the pope had already signed the order and it could be published in the next few weeks.
The late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded the Swiss-based Society of St. Pius X in 1969 in opposition to the reforms of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, particularly allowing Mass to be celebrated in local languages instead of Latin. The Vatican excommunicated Lefebvre in 1988 after he consecrated four bishops without Rome's consent.
Benedict has indicated he wants relations with the St. Pius X group to be normalized. He met last year with the current head of the society, Bishop Bernard.
The Tridentine Mass, the name of the old Latin Mass, can now only be celebrated with permission of the local bishop. In addition to the use of Latin, the priest faces the altar — away from the worshippers — and there are no lay readers as in the modern Mass.
The issue of the Mass will only be one of the points in the papal document that will reach out to the ultraconservatives, the Vatican official said.
The pope already took a concrete step in that direction when in September he approved an institute for French priests who left the movement. The small group based in Bordeaux, made up of five priests and some seminarians, is allowed to celebrate the old-style Latin Mass in exchange for their recognition of the pope's authority.