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Latin mass a looming headache for Catholic parishes

PARIS (Reuters) - Pope Benedict’s decision to promote the old Latin mass is a dream come true for delighted Roman Catholic traditionalists and a looming headache for the harried priests now expected to celebrate it.

Pope Benedict XVI blesses the crowd gathered below in St. Peter's square during his weekly Angelus prayers at the Vatican, July 8, 2007. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

By issuing his decree on Saturday, Benedict aimed to end a 40-year “culture war” between the overwhelming majority of his 1.1-billion strong Church and a small minority that never accepted the modernising reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

His solution was to allow the long-sidelined traditionalists to ask their local priests to offer the 16th-century liturgy and protest all the way to the Vatican if they don’t comply.

His letter to bishops explaining the step skated over some practical problems that local pastors now face. Few priests know how to say the old rite mass. The clergy’s thinning ranks already have their hands full saying the usual masses on Sunday.

Many mainstream clergy are also worried by the tenacity of the traditionalists, who have spent decades bucking the trend and are expected to promote the Latin mass with renewed vigour.

“Where there are groups that want it, it’s going to be a real pain in the neck for the pastor,” said Father Tom Reese S.J. of the Woodstock Theological Centre at Washington’s Georgetown University. “He’s going to be pressured to do it.”

Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, head of the French Bishops’ Conference, chose a old baker’s saying to hint the transition to using two very different rites may not be smooth. “There’ll be some lumps in the dough,” he quipped to journalists in Paris.


Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholic mass was an elaborate ritual led in Latin by a priest with his back to the congregation. Vatican II reduced the formality and had the priest face the faithful to pray in their local language.

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Traditionalists rejected the new style’s sing-along hymns and guitar music. Many missed the Latin rite’s sense of mystery and awe and the centuries-old Gregorian chant that went with it.

Some went further, denouncing Council reforms including respect for Jews and cooperation with other faiths. Leaders of the biggest group, the 600,000-strong Fraternity of Saint Pius X (SSPX), were excommunicated in 1988 for defying the Vatican.

Both the SSPX and traditionalists loyal to the Pope hailed the decree. But SSPX Bishop Bernard Fellay upped the ante by saying Rome must end his excommunication before he can even start to discuss the doctrinal disputes that separate them.

Many bishops seem concerned that the decree will revive the heated debates between modernisers and traditionalists that followed the Council, even though Benedict made clear the new mass remains the rule and the Latin rite a permitted exception.

Another argument Benedict made -- that promoting the old Latin mass did not mean reversing other Vatican II reforms -- also seems to have met with some scepticism in the Church.

Bishop Luca Brandolini, an Italian liturgy expert, said after the decree he was in mourning and fighting back tears.

“A reform for which many people worked, with great sacrifice and only inspired by the desire to renew the Church, has now been cancelled,” he told the Rome daily La Repubblica.

“The Holy Father says in the document that his desire of course is to help to foster unity,” said Father Keith Pecklers, liturgy professor at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.

“A concern on the part of many bishops is that in reaching out to this very small minority who desire this rite ... (it) will actually bring about disunity in the mainstream Church.”

Germany’s top bishop, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, said Catholics there mostly liked the new mass, but added: “I hope we can get the hotheads from both sides to move to the middle.”

Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Silvia Aloisi in Rome. Editing by Giles Elgood;; +33 1 4949 5085