VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI removed restrictions on celebrating the old form of the Latin Mass on Saturday in a concession to traditional Catholics, but he stressed that he was in no way rolling back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Benedict issued a document authorizing parish priests to celebrate the Tridentine Mass if a "stable group of faithful" request it. Currently, the local bishop must approve such requests — an obstacle that fans of the rite say has greatly limited its availability.
"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," Benedict wrote.
The document may anger Jews, since the Tridentine rite contains a prayer on Good Friday of Easter Week calling for the conversion of Jews. The Anti-Defamation League called the move a "body blow to Catholic Jewish relations," the Jewish news agency JTA reported.
In addition to Jewish concerns, some bishops in France and liberal-minded clergy and faithful elsewhere had expressed concerns that allowing freer use of the Tridentine liturgy would imply a negation of Vatican II, the 1962-65 meetings that modernized the Roman Catholic Church. They also feared it could create divisions in parishes since two different liturgies would be celebrated.
Benedict sought to allay those concerns in a letter to bishops accompanying the Latin text.
"This fear is unfounded," he said.
He said the New Mass celebrated in the vernacular that emerged after Vatican II remained the "normal" form of Mass while the Tridentine version was an "extraordinary" one that would probably only be sought by relatively few Catholics.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Benedict was in no way refuting Vatican II.
The document, he said, "doesn't impose any return to the past, it doesn't mean any weakening of the authority of the council nor the authority and responsibility of bishops."
Benedict was acting in a bid to reach out to the followers of an excommunicated ultratraditionalist, the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who split with the Vatican over the introduction of the New Mass and other Vatican II reforms.
The group said in a statement that it rejoiced over the document and thanked the pope for it.
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 Lefebvre's group, the Society of St. Pius X, which has demanded freer use of the old Mass as a precondition for normalizing relations. The other precondition is the removal of the excommunication decrees.
In his letter to bishops, Benedict acknowledged that freer use of the old Mass will not heal the split since the reasons behind the break "were at a deeper level."
Indeed, the current head of the society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, said in a statement that difficulties remain. But he said he hoped "the favorable climate established by the new dispositions of the Holy See will make it possible after the decree of excommunication which still affects its bishops has been withdrawn to consider more serenely the disputed doctrinal issues."
Fellay has insisted that the Vatican engage in an in-depth discussion over doctrinal questions arising from Vatican II, including ecumenism, religious liberty and the sharing of power with bishops.
But Benedict said his overall goal was to unify the church, something he complained that his predecessors hadn't worked hard enough at doing.
"Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the church's leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity," he wrote.
The document was sure to be welcomed by traditional Catholics, who remained in good standing with Rome but simply preferred the Tridentine liturgy and have demanded freer access to it. They have long complained that bishops had been stingy in granting access to it.
Not only did Benedict take the issue out of the bishops' hands, he also allowed priests to celebrate other sacraments, including baptisms, marriages and funerals according to the old rite.
However, there were some elements in the document that may fall short of their demands: Benedict said the Biblical readings could be delivered in the vernacular, as opposed to Latin, and suggested that some amendments should be made to the old Mass.
"There will always be some people that will see this as a threat," said the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a columnist for the Catholic weekly The Wanderer, who celebrates the old rite as well as the New Mass.
Benedict also said further changes might also be necessary, asking bishops to write the Vatican about their experiences in three years.
And he also demanded that Lefebvre's followers accept the New Mass as legitimate.
"The total exclusion of the new rite would not in fact be consistent with the recognition of its values and holiness," he wrote.
It wasn't immediately clear how the Vatican would handle any controversy over the prayer for the conversion of Jews. The Vatican has set up a commission to look into any complaints.