STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This next story shows the importance that people place on the language they use, especially the language they use to worship. This month, Pope Benedict approved wider use of the old Latin mass. Traditionalists rejoiced, but many Catholics worry the church is moving backward.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Pope Benedict has substantially eased restrictions for priests who want to celebrate what's 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 the laity to play a bigger role. 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.
Ms. RAPHAELA SCHMID (Director, Becket Institute for Religious Freedom): It signals the end of a certain type of persecution.
POGGIOLI: Raphaela Schmid is the director of the Becket Institute for Religious Freedom.
Ms. SCHMID: To some extent, he is addressing a problem that was created very much by bishops, because bishops have been incredibly intolerant about lay people who still love the old mass. It was something that was considered subversive.
POGGIOLI: So subversive it's hard to find one even here in Rome. Lovers of the old liturgy refer to it in code and have had to go to YouTube to experience its mystique.
Unidentified Man: (Latin spoken)
POGGIOLI: 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 because it cancelled a key reform of the Catholic Church. Vatican expert Luigi Sandri went further.
Mr. LUIGI SANDRI (Vatican Expert): (Through translator) 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 the 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.
POGGIOLI: 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's a step backward after four decades of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation.
Ms. ABE FOXMAN (Director, Anti-Defamation League): 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?
POGGIOLI: Following widespread criticism, 11 days later, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the second-ranking Vatican official after the Pope suggested, we could simply study the possibility of substituting the Good Friday prayer, a 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, Reverend 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 among Christians on the ground.
Reverend SARA MACVANE (Anglican Centre): 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's actually worrying the hierarchy.
POGGIOLI: 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 living languages in dozens of different alphabets.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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