VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict, in a decree issued on Saturday, authorized wider use of the old Latin mass and told the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics that his nod to Church traditionalists was nothing to be afraid of.
The decree met with mixed reaction from Catholics, ranging from concern among liberal lay groups to a wary welcome from schismatic traditionalists. Two cardinals who had warned about restoring the old rite supported the way the Pope had done it.
One prominent Jewish leader criticized the revival of a prayer for the conversion of Jews, saying the old text was “insensitive ... insulting” and said it could set back the historic reconciliation between Catholics and Jews.
In a letter to bishops, the German-born Pontiff rejected criticism within the Church that his long-awaited move could split Catholics and turn back the clock on reforms introduced in the 1960s, which are opposed by many traditionalists.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) replaced Latin with local languages in the liturgy, reached out to other religions and struck out texts that Jews found particularly offensive.
“This fear is unfounded,” the Pope wrote. “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.”
Catholics around the world will have the Pope’s blessing to ask priests to celebrate mass in Latin or get baptized or married according to the old rite. However, the new rights will continue to be the norm, and few are expected to want to return to the formal old rite in a language they do not speak.
The Pope said he wanted reconciliation with traditionalists, some of whom were so angered by the 1960s reforms that they broke with Rome, causing the first schism of modern times.
Traditionalists thanked Benedict for the decree, but their further reaction differed according to whether they were still loyal to Rome or in the schismatic group led by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was excommunicated in 1988.
“The traditional mass is a true a gem of the Church’s heritage, and the Holy Father has taken the most important step toward making it available to many more of the faithful,” said Michael Dunnigan, chairman of Una Voce America.
Father John Zuhlsdorf, columnist for the U.S. Catholic weekly the Wanderer, said: “People who want to avail of this extraordinary use are not second rate citizens. They may not be treated any longer like the nutty aunt in the attic.”
The schismatic Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), based in Switzerland, stressed it had to iron out doctrinal differences with the Vatican before a reconciliation could take place.
The decree made no change in the 1962 missal -- the main prayer book for the old rite -- which includes prayers on Good Friday for the conversion of the Jews.
“The language is insensitive. The language is insulting,” said Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a U.S.-based Jewish civil rights group.
The Second Vatican Council repudiated the idea of collective Jewish guilt for Christ’s death. Relations improved markedly under Benedict’s predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II.
French Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard said the Good Friday prayer could be changed if it caused difficulties with Jews. Church sources said it would rarely be prayed because the old rite was an exception and the new rite -- which drops this text -- would be used in most churches around the world on that day.
Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris and Sam Cage in Zurich