Alessia Giuliani/AFP/Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI visits the Church of Santa Giustina Martire in Auronzo, Italy, during his summer holidays on July 24, 2007.
Pope Benedict XVI visits the Church of Santa Giustina Martire in Auronzo, Italy, during his summer holidays on July 24, 2007. Alessia Giuliani/AFP/Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI has substantially eased restrictions for priests who want to celebrate what is officially called the Tridentine Mass.
The 16th century liturgy was all but abolished after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
The mass introduced in 1970 allowed priests to face the faithful and speak in the local languages and allowed the laity to play a bigger role.
Pope Benedict wants to end the culture wars that followed the Second Vatican Council and woo back a small minority of traditionalists who never accepted the modernizing reforms of Vatican Two.
"It signals the end of a certain kind of persecution," said Raphaela Schmid, the director of the Becket Institute for Religious Freedom.
"To some extent he is addressing a problem created by bishops because bishops have been incredibly intolerant about lay people who still loved the old mass. It was considered subversive," she said.
It is considered so subversive that it is hard to find one even in Rome. Lovers of the old liturgy refer to it in code and have had to go to YouTube to experience its mystique.
But many bishops — especially in France and Germany — worry that the existence of two liturgies will create further divisions among the faithful and that the Pope's focus on traditional Catholic identity will harm ecumenical and interfaith dialogues.
On the day the decree was issued, Italian Bishop Luca Brandolini said it was a day of mourning for him because it cancelled a key reform of the Catholic Church.
Vatican expert Luigi Sandri went further. "It is a counter-reformation, an attempt to minimize the most important reforms of Vatican Two — namely the concept of religious freedom and relations with Jews. Those reforms were a radical break with 2000 years of history — when heretics were burned at the stake and Jews were condemned as the betrayers of Christ.
In fact, Jewish leaders were particularly hurt that the return of the Latin mass will bring back a Good Friday prayer calling for the conversion of Jews.
Abe Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, said it is a step backward after four decades of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation.
It still talks about the blindness of the Jews, the need to convert them in order to make them whole. It goes so contrary to John Paul. Why go back to painful, insensitive, insulting words?" said Foxman.
Following widespread criticism, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the second-ranking Vatican official after the Pope, suggested, "We could simply study" the possibility of substituting the Good Friday prayer, prayer that had been cast aside by Vatican Two.
A few days after allowing wider use of the Latin mass, a Vatican document reasserted the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church above all other Christian religions. It spoke of "defects" in the Orthodox and Protestant faiths that suffer from a wound because they are not true churches.
The document angered Protestants, who said it is hurtful.
At the Anglican Centre in Rome, the Rev. Sara MacVane, said it will make ecumenical dialogue harder. But, she added, 40 years of intense interaction cannot be erased. There is a big difference, she said, between what happens at the top and Christians on the ground.
"Of course, Catholics and non-Catholics all over the world receive communion together in Catholic masses and in non-Catholic Eucharistic celebrations. Nobody is supposed to say that, but it means that Christians among themselves perceive themselves as part of the same body of Christ. And this may be what is actually worrying the hierarchy," she said.
Since becoming Pope two years ago, Benedict has made clear his central mission is reaffirming a strong Catholic identity in a Europe undergoing intense secularization.
But many Vatican observers point out that today, two-thirds of Catholics live in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And, they say, it will be very difficult to turn back the clock in a Catholic Church that speaks hundreds of languages.