The Return of the Latin Mass

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Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful at his summer residence outside of Rome, October 2006

Long before his run-in with the Malibu sheriff's department, Mel Gibson found himself in a very different kind of fix. Back in 2003, while filming The Passion of the Christ, the devout Catholic director couldn't find a real-life priest to his liking. The problem wasn't that he was shooting in an exotic location — they were at Rome's Cinecitta' movie studio, just down the road from the Vatican. But Gibson had a special requirement that was tough to satisfy even in the eternal city: he wanted his daily Mass celebrated in Latin.

In the 1960's, the Second Vatican Council — along with other changes meant to bring the rite closer to the faithful, such as having the priest face the congregation — replaced the traditional liturgy with Mass in local languages. To celebrate the Latin, or Tridentine rite, today, a pastor needs special permission from his bishop. So Gibson had to hunt out a particular 90-year-old French priest to officiate every morning on set.

Well, Mel's luck may be turning. Pope Benedict XVI is said to be preparing to widen the use of the old Latin rite again. He expected to issue a"motu proprio,"a document of his own initiative, which would loosen the permission requirement.

The new permission, or "indult," would most immediately address a longstanding schism with the ultra-traditionalist group founded in 1969 by the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who opposed the Vatican II reforms. Lefebvre was excommunicated in 1988 after he consecrated four bishops without Rome's consent. But Benedict is believed to want to bring the Lefebvrites back in the fold.

Yet his olive branch may complicate matters in the American Church. Certainly, traditionalists who had to drive a hundred miles to find a priest with permission will be thrilled. More theologically liberal Catholics, however, may see it as a Lefebvrite-tinged step back from the principles they feel inspired Vatican II. "This would make it much more difficult for people to engage in full conscious and active participation, which was the goal of the Council," says Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine America. Congregations could theoretically split on the issue, and many current priests would have to learn the old Mass (and more Latin, if they wanted to understand it).

Even some Vatican conservatives are skeptical. The Lefebvrite critique extended beyond the Mass to other reforms such as efforts to build bridges with other faiths. A senior Vatican official comments that the Mass is "only one demand they have. The real problem is that they don't recognize the authority of the Pope."

There is no clear indication exactly how loose an indult would be, and whether some approval would still be required for individual priests to perform the Latin rite. So far, the Lefebvre group has not commented on the latest news. Nor has Mel Gibson.