Pope Benedict XVI yesterday authorized wider use of the 16th-century Tridentine Mass, restoring the use of Latin and the sense of awe surrounding the most sacred rite in the Roman Catholic Church.
His four-page apostolic letter is a historic concession to Catholics who believe the Tridentine Mass is unique and that essential elements of worship were lost when it was phased out after the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965.
The pope's decision angered Jews because the Tridentine rite contains a prayer said on Good Friday for their conversion.
"The language is insensitive. The language is insulting," Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, told Reuters.
Since the end of the Second Vatican Council, the Novus Ordo Mass, which uses local vernacular, has been the norm. The Tridentine rite was seen by many bishops as schismatic and anti-modern.
A directive to bishops, which accompanied the pope's letter, twice uses the term "unfounded" to describe any reservations they may have about the Tridentine Mass.
"There is this fear that [this] document detracts from the authority of the Second Vatican Council," the pontiff wrote. "This fear is unfounded. ... It is not appropriate to speak of these two versions [of the Mass] as if they were 'two rites.' Rather it is a matter of a twofold use of one and the same rite."
John Blewett, editor of Latin Mass magazine, said he thought the pope was "well-meaning" on the issue.
"If the bishops will cooperate with him and not create a lot of problems — and that is a big 'if' — maybe the [Latin] rite will become the predominant rite. He has to get around the problem that so many of these bishops are attached to Vatican II and the supposed liturgical reforms it brought about."
The decision will allow Catholics to ask their priests to celebrate Mass in Latin or get baptized or married according to the old rite. Bishops previously had to approve such requests.
In May 1988, the pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was the Vatican's top negotiator with French Archbishop Marcel LeFebvre, whose Society of St. Pius X broke with the Catholic Church over the near-shutdown of the Tridentine Mass. The two signed a letter of agreement by which the society would return to the church and one bishop would be consecrated to serve it. But the archbishop broke the agreement by consecrating four bishops. He was then excommunicated.
Since then, the pope has made it clear in various writings that he wants the approximately 600,000 laity and priests who still belong to the society to return to the Catholic Church.
However, his order to widen the use of the Tridentine Mass, effective Sept. 14, may create problems in dioceses where few priests know the complexities of the rite.
"Priests will have to sit down and learn the language, as most of them don't know much Latin these days," said Monsignor Charles Pope, the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Church on Capitol Hill and one of the few priests in the Archdiocese of Washington who know the Latin Mass.
The difference between the two Masses is "a question of spirituality and aesthetics," he said. The former "is beautiful, rich in symbolism, and there is a great deal of sung beauty and solemnity to it. Some Catholics are hungry for that."
Monsignor K. Bartholomew Smith, pastor of St. Bernadette's Church in Silver Spring, said he will try the rite at his parish.
"People who are my age and curious would enjoy seeing it," the 42-year-old priest said. "If the interest is there, I'd enjoy doing it."
One point made yesterday in the papal letter was that young people are attracted to the Tridentine Mass. That point was confirmed by the Rev. Edward C. Hathaway, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal, Va., where 300 people attend a Tridentine Mass.
"It's mostly young people," Father Hathaway said. "It's a rediscovery of their Catholic heritage. There is a certain mystery that is communicated through the symbols of the traditional Mass that appeals to a certain segment of the Catholic population."