ROME, July 7 — Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday authorized a wider use of the old Latin Mass, dismissing fears that its revival could divide the church or dilute the reforms of the Second Vatican Council that made standard worship in the languages of Catholics around the world.
In gentle but firm language, the pope acknowledged in an accompanying letter to bishops the depth of opposition to the change, voiced in recent months by European bishops and Jewish groups. He proposed, in fact, a review after three years to determine “if truly serious difficulties come to light.”
He stressed that the current Mass that was approved in 1970 would remain the standard one — and that he did not expect any widespread return to the old rite, known as the Tridentine Mass. In it, the priest faces away from the congregation and prays, sometimes in a whisper, in Latin, a language unfamiliar to most of the world’s one billion Roman Catholics.
But the pope said that the change could both heal rifts with traditionalist groups that favor the Latin Mass as well as reconnect the church with a 1,500-year-old form of worship that faded since the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965.
“What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us, too, and it cannot be, all of a sudden, entirely forbidden or even considered harmful,” he wrote.
He noted “that young persons too have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them.”
Amid opposition from other Jewish groups, the Anti-Defamation League condemned the change on Saturday, calling it a “body blow to Catholic-Jewish relations.” While an earlier reference to “perfidious Jews” was removed officially from the Tridentine Mass just before the council, which set the stage for progressively better relations between Jews and Catholics, the group condemned a remaining prayer on Good Friday calling for Jews’ conversion.
“We are extremely disappointed and deeply offended that nearly 40 years after the Vatican rightly removed insulting anti-Jewish language from the Good Friday Mass, that it would now permit Catholics to utter such hurtful and insulting words by praying for Jews to be converted,” Abraham H. Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s president, said in a statement.
For several months, church officials have signaled the pope’s decision, and so the announcement on Saturday was expected and more notable for the specifics.