VATICAN CITY — The current “talks” between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X are not “negotiations” among two political powers, but “a dialogue for reconciliation,” according to a person close to the situation.

"One can see that they are Catholics in a situation a bit difficult; and the attempt is to get them to return to the house of the Father,” the source said.

In the past couple of months, amidst a swirl of rumors that “talks” are taking place to reunite the Lefebvrists with the Holy See, the situation has been difficult to understand. Relationships are quite delicate and all the sources contacted for this article wanted to remain anonymous. Others said they could not say a word. The Society, meanwhile, has a Web site regularly updated with the latest information.

"This is not so much about making dialogue between two powers, but rather creating a climate to arrive at pardon, the pardon of the prodigal son returning home,” one source said.

The Vatican, therefore, is handling the issue in a very sensitive manner. The Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei is the Vatican Body set up to care for traditional issues after the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of France consecrated four bishops against the will of Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Darìo Castrillòn Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, is president of the Commission. His office, however, refers all inquiries about the Society to the Vatican Press Hall.

Toward the end of March, the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, issued a three sentence statement on the alleged “negotiations” that had been taking place. His statement has been the only “official” word from the Church on the entire affair.

"I can confirm that there have been formal contacts between the Holy See and the Fraternity of St. Pius X,” said Navarro-Valls. He added, “these contacts, wished for by the Holy Father, are still in progress.”

Why is the Vatican so tight-lipped about these “contacts”? “It's because the current situation is about reconciliation” is one possible explanation given by a source familiar with the state of affairs. This person added, “Therefore you can only do this in secret, without a lot of press statements and things of that nature.”

Another source likened the situation to a husband and a wife having a disagreement: “It's better not to have opinions and rumors circulating around them, it could really make the situation worse. It must be worked out in private.”

But, despite the “no word on contacts” policy that many in the Vatican are strictly adhering to, one of the Commission's newest members made a few comments. “I wish, I hope, and I pray that the wound will be healed,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said recently at a book presentation in Milan, “but we still have a long way to go.”

The remarks by the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith left several people in the Vatican very surprised. Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Ratzinger as a member of the Pontifical Commission earlier this year along with three other top liturgical figures in the Church.

The members are the first Ecclesia Dei has had since it's inception in 1988. The appointment of the four members was the second act of great significance in the past 12 months. The first was the Pope's nomination of Cardinal Castrillón as head of the Commission.

Before these personnel changes, Ecclesia Dei was composed of an Italian Cardinal at retirement age and two monsignors, not a very hefty staff to deal with the Lefebvrist schism.

A source close to the question commented that the Pope has always had great concern for the old Mass and other traditional issues, but in the past year he made administrative moves to do something about it. Cardinal Castrillón, upon taking over as head of the commission, immediately got to work attempting to resolve the situation.

What exactly are the “traditional issues” in question? Many people, it seems, associate the Society of St. Pius X primarily with the traditional Roman Rite Mass, also called the Tridentine Mass. The group strictly adheres to celebrating the old Mass and, in fact, it might seem as though they themselves put the pre-Vatican II liturgy at the forefront of the debate.

One attendee of a traditional Roman liturgy in Rome said it was rumored that the Society had called off all “talks.” He said the reason for the cancellation was that the Lefebvists’ two requests of the Vatican have not been answered.

One “condition” is that the censure be lifted from all their bishops. The other is that all priests be allowed to celebrate the traditional Mass, even if only in private.

Satisfaction of these two conditions, however, would not be enough to bring about reunion of the Society of St. Pius X with the Holy See. The issue goes much deeper than the Mass. The objections on the part of the Society had been building for many years before 1988 and involve many different Church issues.

The Church wants the Society to address their issues from a position within the Church. So, Cardinal Ratzinger seems correct in saying that there's a long way to go and even a “hardening” on the part of the Society.

There may be some urgency to healing the divisions soon. For a church 2,000 years old, 13 years is a very fresh schism. The danger is, however, that as time goes on, the parties involved could become more polarized.

There are reasons, however, to remain optimistic. The Society's Web site has a link called “His Holiness” that “professes filial devotion and loyalty to Pope John Paul II, Successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ.”

The society seemed to be putting action behind these words when some 5,000 members flooded into Saint Peter's Basilica last year for a Jubilee pilgrimage.

In the meantime, “members of the Church can pray and go about this in an ecumenical manner,” one source said. He added, “There will be wounds, but there needs to be reconciliation first, like the prodigal son, and then to eventually begin to live in brotherhood.”

John Drogin writes from Rome.