By NICOLE WINIFIELD, Associated Press Writer
Pope Benedict XVI is to issue a decree Saturday allowing greater use of the traditional Latin Mass, part of his efforts to reconcile with followers of an ultratraditional excommunicated bishop and bring them back into the Vatican's fold.
The document is expected to be accompanied by a letter from Benedict to bishops explaining his reasons for relaxing restrictions on celebrating the Tridentine Mass, Vatican officials said Thursday.
Traditional Catholics have rejoiced over the pending release, but more liberal clergy have voiced concern that it represented a rollback of one of the key liberalizing reforms that emerged from the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council: the New Mass, celebrated in the language of the country.
Jewish groups have also expressed concern over a prayer in the Tridentine rite for the conversion of Jews. It is not clear how Benedict will address that issue in his document.
While the old Latin Mass was never abolished, its use became restricted after the New Mass was introduced. Local bishops had to authorize it, and many did not — either because they did not want to or thought there was not the demand, or because they did not have priests who knew how to celebrate it.
In 1969, the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded a group, the Society of St. Pius X, that insisted on celebrating the old rite because he was opposed to the New Mass and other Vatican II reforms.
The Vatican excommunicated Lefebvre in 1988 after he consecrated four bishops without Rome's consent — a move that then-Pope John Paul II called a "schismatic act." The bishops were excommunicated as well.
Benedict has been eager to reconcile with the group, which has demanded freer use of the old Mass as a precondition for normalizing relations. The other precondition has been the removal of the excommunication orders.
"By making the Latin Mass more available, the Holy Father is hoping to convince those disaffected Catholics that it is time for them to return to full union with the Catholic Church," wrote Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, after attending a meeting at the Vatican with the pope last week in which cardinals were briefed on the pending document.
However, even with Saturday's document, there was no indication reconciliation is near.
The society's current leader, Bishop Bernard Fellay, has said the situation "will be practically unchanged" unless the return to the old Mass is accompanied by an "in-depth discussion" with the Vatican on key doctrinal issues that also emerged from Vatican II.
"Ecumenism, religious liberty and collegiality remain the points of contention over which we will not budge," Fellay wrote earlier this year.
Fellay has said the current "crisis" in the Catholic Church — low Mass attendance, low vocations and other spiritually rooted problems — is largely due to what he calls the loss of Catholic tradition that the New Mass and Vatican II represented.
Currently, the society has six seminaries with 160 seminarians. It boasts four bishops and 463 priests.
Traditional Catholics who remain in good standing with Rome but simply prefer the Tridentine rite have long demanded freer access to it. And they have been rejoicing in recent weeks as Vatican officials confirmed the document was nearing completion and would soon be issued.
Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press.