In the storm following the Pope's decision to lift the excommunication of four bishops-- triggered by the revelation that Richard Williamson, one of the bishops from the Priestly Society of St. Pius X, was a Holocaust denier and 9/11 conspiracy theorist -- a profound message about the future of Catholicism was obscured. "This does have broader significance for Benedict's vision of the 21st century Catholicism as a ‘creative minority'," said John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and author of numerous books on the papacy.
"[He wants] a distinct presence on the landscape that can infuse badly needed values into the broader cultural bloodstream. To do that, Benedict believes that Catholics must be clear about their own identity, so fostering a strong sense of Catholic identity is job number one of his pontificate.
"His authorization for wider celebration of the Latin Mass is one expression of this effort, because that rite has been such a classic carrier of traditional Catholic identity over the centuries."
For those who identify with the traditional movement in the Church, Vatican II made a huge error in making the Latin Mass seem out of touch and even reactionary. Though the Latin rite was never outright banned, it eventually became necessary to get special permission for its use.
In 2007, Pope Benedict lifted any restrictions on the Latin Mass and since then the return of the old rite has been growing. It is estimated that about seven million Catholics worldwide now use the Latin rite, and most of those are not schismatics.
To those outside the Church, the language and style of worship might appear a minor matter, an issue of style over substance. For Catholics, though, the mass is the epitome of worship and the most important of sacraments. And anything that might diminish the holiness of the mass, diminishes the connection to God and strikes at the heart of the Church.
"Latin was the language of the liturgy for well over 1,500 years," said Fr. Howard Venette, a member of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter in Toronto, a group in full communion with Rome. "Latin raises the liturgy to something above street level. And it adds to historicity and the nature of the mass as an expression of the Church's prayer, not just the individual in the pew. And it unites us to the mystery."
He said even the form of the service has been misunderstood. The Latin rite is usually described as the priest conducting the service with his back to the congregation.
"It's not my back to the people, it's everyone facing God together."
Christopher Bellitto, a professor of Church history at Keane University in Union, N.J., said to understand Pope Benedict's mission it has to be contrasted to the papacy of John Paul II.
"The Italians have an expression: fat pope; skinny pope," he said.
John Paul II ran a big, dramatic papacy that evangelized to the world and helped bring about the fall of communism in Eastern Europe; Pope Benedict's papacy has a narrower focus but is still having a huge impact.
"He's clearly made a decision that he would rather concentrate on shoring up Catholic identity rather than worrying about offending dialogue partners outside of Catholicism. I don't think he meant to show disrespect to Muslims, Protestants or Jews [during his papacy]. But look at it from his perspective: He is head of the Catholic church. So if he decides he's going to spend his time on Catholicism within, that's his right."
Others believe that part of Pope Benedict's strategy in reaching out to the Priestly Society of St. Pius X was to make sure that those who are attracted to elements of the traditionalist movement, do not bring their faith to schismatics.
David Gibson, author of The Rule of Benedict, said the Pope was not only attempting to draw schismatics back but was also saying to traditionalists they could be in communion with the Catholic Church and still have a Latin Mass.
"It was a way to draw people away from the schismatic groups. Why would you go to this schismatic group if you could have the main thing you want in the Catholic Church?"
Mr. Gibson believes that Pope Benedict is trying to reorient the Church in the wake of Vatican II toward a greater reverence for older tradition. But that does not mean that the Pope Benedict in any way rejects the massive reforms of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, the four bishops whose excommunication was lifted will still not be able to exercise their offices until they accept Vatican II.
"Pope Benedict is a man of the church, he respects real tradition. For him they cannot dismiss Vatican II. You can interpret in different ways. But you can't outright reject it."