VATICAN CITY – Sometime soon, Pope Benedict XVI is expected to broaden permission to use the Tridentine Mass, a long-standing request of traditionalists who favor the rite used before the Second Vatican Council.
The move is aimed at ending a liturgical dispute which has simmered for more than 20 years. In the process, it could clarify how the pope intends to implement what he once described as a “liturgical reconciliation” in the modern church.
The pope will enunciate the new policy in a document to be released after more than a year of debate and discussion at the Vatican. The Roman Curia had mixed views on expanding the use of the Tridentine rite, and so did the world’s cardinals and bishops – all of which has lent a certain drama to the outcome.
From the outside, allowing the old Mass has been seen primarily as a concession to the followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was excommunicated in 1988 for his intransigence on liturgical and other reforms of Vatican II.
But some Vatican officials believe that aspect has been overblown. More than making peace with Archbishop Lefebvre’s followers, they said, the pope is trying to make peace with the church’s own tradition.
One big clue to the pope’s thinking came in his 1997 book, titled “Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977” and written when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in which he sharply criticized the drastic manner in which Pope Paul VI reformed the Mass in 1969.
The almost total prohibition of the old missal, which had been used for 400 years, was unprecedented in the history of the liturgy, he said in the book.
In effect, he said, “the old building was demolished” and a new one put in its place. Thus the liturgy ceased to be a living development and was treated as something manufactured by experts, which has caused the church “enormous harm,” he said.
Even before he wrote those words, then-Cardinal Ratzinger had caused a stir when he said it made sense for the priest to celebrate Mass facing the same direction as the congregation, in the pre-Vatican II style, although he also said it would be confusing to turn the altar around once again.
Over the years, he has sharply criticized what he sees as a tendency for the worshiping community to celebrate only itself.
All of that led some to presume that, as pope, he would preside over a rollback of liturgical reform.
But the picture is not so clear-cut. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he said he considered the new missal a “real improvement” in many respects, and that the introduction of local languages made sense.
In one revealing speech to Catholic traditionalists in 1998, he said bluntly that the old “low Mass,” with its whispered prayers at the altar and its silent congregation, “was not what liturgy should be, which is why it was not painful for many people” when it disappeared.
The most important thing, he said at that time, was to make sure that the liturgy does not divide the Catholic community.
With that in mind, knowledgeable Vatican sources say the pope’s new document will no doubt aim to lessen pastoral tension between the Tridentine rite and the new Mass, rather than hand out a victory to traditionalists.
Under Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger conducted the unsuccessful negotiations with Archbishop Lefebvre in 1988, before the archbishop broke off talks and ordained new bishops in defiance of the pope.
Cardinal Ratzinger insisted then that the Lefebvrists accept the new Mass and other major teachings of Vatican II. It’s a position he has repeated in his ongoing contacts as pope with Lefebvrist leaders, sources said.
It was Pope John Paul who in 1984 first made it possible for groups of the faithful to worship according to the Latin-language 1962 Roman Missal, the last Vatican-approved missal prior to the post-conciliar reforms.
Pope John Paul set conditions for this special permission, or indult. The main requirement was that those who used the Tridentine rite must make publicly clear “beyond all ambiguity” that they do not call into question the validity of the new Roman Missal.
In 1988, Pope John Paul relaxed the conditions for the indult, but groups still had to accept the new Mass and were still expected to obtain the permission of their local bishop.
The role of the bishop in approving and overseeing use of the Tridentine rite has been a crucial issue in the recent debate. Last fall, when rumors were swirling that a bishop’s permission would no longer be needed, the bishops of France issued a statement saying that the return of the pre-Vatican II Mass should be regulated and not left to “personal tastes and choices.”
The French bishops also said traditionalist groups that use the Tridentine rite should be expected to give “an unequivocal gesture of assent to the teachings of the church’s authentic magisterium,” its teaching authority.
For these reasons, many will be looking at Pope Benedict’s document not only for a liturgical verdict, but also for a sign of his reconciling skills.