Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday authorized wider use of the long-marginalized Latin Mass, a move that delighted Catholic traditionalists but worried others who fear the erosion of important church reforms.
Revival of the old service, which largely had been supplanted by the modernizing spirit of the Second Vatican Council, also angered Jewish groups because it contains a passage calling for their conversion.
In a decree known as a “motu propio,” essentially a personal decision, the pope urged priests to celebrate a 1962 version of the 16th-century Tridentine Mass when their congregations requested it.
Until now, priests could use the Latin Mass only with permission from their bishops, which was not always forthcoming.
The much-anticipated decision, nearly two years in the making, is an attempt to win back disaffected conservatives and to unite the church, Vatican officials said. It is also a reflection of Benedict’s personal preference for traditional liturgy and incantations in Latin, a language he extols as beautiful and holy.
“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 said.
But the pope’s announcement risks alienating some of the faithful. It could sow rather than mend divisions, undermine other reforms and harm interfaith relations, several church leaders and Catholic experts said.
The Tridentine Mass was largely replaced by newer liturgy approved during the Second Vatican Council, which took place between 1962 and 1965. In the newer rite, local languages replaced Latin, priests faced their congregations instead of turning their backs on them, and some wording deemed offensive to Jews was changed.
Attempting to reassure the doubters, the pope said Saturday that because both the Tridentine Mass and the current more modern liturgy would be available, there should be no concern that the church was turning back the clock.
Benedict noted that the older liturgy was never outlawed; rather, he said, it fell out of favor in part because some bishops thought its use would challenge the broader Vatican II reforms. But the reforms were sometimes misinterpreted as “authorizing or even requiring creativity,” he said, deforming the liturgy and driving people from the church.
“I am speaking from experience, since I too lived through that period with all its hopes and its confusion,” said the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, long-time watchdog of church dogma. “And I have seen how arbitrary deformations of the liturgy caused deep pain to individuals totally rooted in the faith of the Church.”
In the United States, several experts said, the effect of easing the restrictions will be minimal.
In a nation of about 69 million Catholics, only about 150,000 attend Latin services weekly, according to Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit who is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center.