Why the Pope is Boosting Latin Mass

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Vincenzo Pinto / AFP / Getty

Pope Benedict XVI blesses pilgrims in Rome, June 28, 2007.

After months of intense speculation, Pope Benedict XVI has eased restrictions on the Catholic Church's traditional Latin Mass — a move that could raise controversy both within the Church, and in its interfaith relations, given the fact that the old rites include a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews.

The decree, called a motu proprio, or personal initiative of the Pontiff, was made public Saturday along with an explanatory letter to the world's bishops acknowledging the recent "news reports" and "confusion" about the lifting of restrictions for access to the old rite. Known as the Tridentine rite — delivered in Latin with the priest usually facing the altar, his back to the congregation — the old Mass (though never banned) had effectively been replaced, following the mid-1960s reforms of the Second Vatican Council, by a liturgy recited in the vernacular. Some Vatican insiders caution that Benedict's new ruling will simply ease restrictions on access to the old liturgy, which has continued to be followed by a small minority of traditionalists. But others predict that the decree could turn into the most explosive internal Church policy of Benedict's papacy, bound to undercut decades of reform and sharpen divisions among the faithful. Here's why both may be true.

What changes

The old Tridentine rite was never actually abolished, but local bishops had to grant approval for a priest to say the Mass. Benedict's ruling authorizes parish priests to celebrate the Tridentine rite if a "stable group of faithful" requests it, without needing their bishop's permission. It also permits the old rite for weddings, funerals and other liturgical proceedings.

Why now

For more than a year, Vatican insiders knew Benedict was keen to ease restrictions on the Tridentine mass. Indeed, in the first months of his papacy, he'd met with leaders of the "schismatic" followers of the late ultratraditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who'd split with the Vatican over the introduction of the vernacular and other Vatican II reforms. In his explanatory letter, Benedict says this decree alone will not heal the rift, which is on "a deeper level." So the Pope seems to be showing the ultratraditionalists — who want to undo all the Vatican II reforms — that he will move, but only so far, to accommodate their concerns. Benedict also acknowledged the document required many months of "reflection, numerous consultations and prayer."

Bishops in the West, particularly in France, had shared their concerns that widening access to the old Mass would deepen the rifts and create splinter movements among their followers. The Pope also listened to concern about how this document could affect inter-faith affairs, given the inclusion of the Good Friday prayer calling for the conversion of Jews. Though much less offensive than a reference to "perfidious Jews" that Pope John XXIII eliminated in 1962, some Jewish leaders are bound to ask why, after years of growing mutual respect, the Pope would not simply excise the conversion prayer.

The Pope says he knows some wonder if the document calls into question the very heart of the Second Vatican Council. "This fear," Benedict declares, "is unfounded." As for the precise timing of the release of the document, one can wonder (with a wink) if it's more than coincidence that it came out just before Benedict zips out of Rome for a three-week mountain retreat.

Why it may not be as big a deal as it seems

In practical terms, the vast majority of Catholics — even among the most traditionalist — are unlikely to relinquish the vernacular Mass. The number of priests who have the language skills or liturgical training for the old Latin Mass is small, and likely to get smaller. Undoubtedly reflecting his own personal experience, the 80-year-old Pope cites Catholics for whom the Tridentine rite "had been familiar to them from childhood." As those generations pass there may be ever fewer faithful who are attached to the old Mass, and Benedict is simply providing a sort of bridge for the current over-50 crowd.

Why it may be an even bigger deal than it seems

The symbolic weight of this decision may actually be heavier than the practical effect. Church progressives, and indeed some conservatives, are asking why Benedict went out of his way to reopen a hot-button issue that, for the vast majority of Catholics, has long been settled. With traditionalists emboldened and progressives feeling under siege, the Church hierarchy and local bishops may wind up caught in the crossfire. Still, on a more substantive level, Benedict's real long-term objective may be a sort of "counter-reform" of the alternative practices of the new Mass rather than a widespread return to the old one. He says the Vatican II reform "was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear." This document is certainly a clear warning to those progressives who have their own ideas about reforming the Mass.

What it says about Pope Benedict

The Pope, in any case, does seem to have an affinity for the old Latin Mass, as he does generally for the Church's ancient traditions. His explanatory letter states: "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." Still, even as he continues to show his traditionalist stripes, Benedict wants all corners of the Church to know that he is open to at least listen to their input. What remains to be seen is whether this latest decree is ultimately more about the future, or simply the past.