ROME — Pope Benedict XVI’s decree to allow wider celebration of the Mass according to the 1962 Missal of Blessed John XXIII has a twofold purpose.

Its primary and explicit purpose is to advance the cause of unity with traditionalist Catholics who have gone into schism — for example, members of the Society of St. Pius X, founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

Its second and implicit purpose is to foster the renewal of the liturgy for the Church as a whole.

“It will underscore organic continuity in the life of the Church,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston told the Register. “While there won’t be a groundswell for it, this might make Latin a little more respectable and move us to rescue some of our treasures — the prayers, Mass settings and hymns that belong to our Latin tradition.”

Perhaps it is easiest to understand the decree of the Holy Father in Summorum Pontificum as an attempt to return the “Tridentine” Mass to a normal place in the life of the Church.

After the reform of 1970 and the introduction of the “Novus Ordo” of Pope Paul VI, the 1962 missal was never “abrogated,” as the motu proprio is careful to note. For example, some older priests retained permission to offer it, and it was permitted for wider use in Britain.

Yet it was certainly pushed to the margins — if not abrogated, then perhaps exiled.

In 1984, and again in 1988, Pope John Paul II allowed the 1962 missal to be used if the local ordinary gave permission. While it further showed that the Tridentine Mass was not abrogated, it remained an exception to the norm.

Benedict’s decree now speaks of one Latin rite with two “uses” or “forms” — the ordinary form is the Novus Ordo, last updated by John Paul II in 2000, and the extraordinary form is the missal last updated by Blessed John XXIII in 1962.

In North America, where the number of traditionalists in schism is relatively few, the impact of the new decree will likely be limited. Indeed, the new decree will have no direct impact on the vast majority of parishes.

“The use of the old Missal presupposes a certain degree of liturgical formation and some knowledge of the Latin language; neither of these is found very often,” the Holy Father writes in the letter to bishops accompanying the new decree. “Already from these concrete presuppositions, it is clearly seen that the new Missal will certainly remain the ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, not only on account of the juridical norms, but also because of the actual situation of the communities of the faithful.”

Yet in some countries — France, Germany, Switzerland — where there are substantial numbers of Catholics who follow the old Mass and are not in full communion with Rome, the decree liberalizing use of the 1962 missal is hoped to have a reconciling effect.

Whether that will happen remains to be seen, as the Holy Father himself concedes that the roots of the division are “deeper” than the liturgy, even if it remains a potent sign of “identity” for traditionalists in schism.

Clearly though, the Holy Father’s initiative is one of great goodwill done explicitly as an opening to the Lefebvrists.

Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the Society of St. Pius X, was quoted July 8 saying, “This is really an historic day. We convey to Pope Benedict XVI our profound gratitude. His document is a gift of Grace. It’s not just any step, it’s a step in the right direction. It’s an act of justice, extraordinary supernatural help in a moment of grave ecclesial crisis.”

But Bishop Fellay, who along with three other priests of the society was ordained a bishop illicitly by Archbishop Lefebvre, added that the Pope’s reaffirmation of the post-conciliar Mass meant discussions on “doctrinal issues must continue,” but said the document is a “fundamental step which will accelerate the way [to reconciliation], and we hope to tackle the question of excommunication in a state of calm.”

Liturgical Cues

There is another dimension though, left largely unsaid in the publication of the decree. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has for many years complained that while the Novus Ordo of 1970 was valid and holy, the way it had been introduced created the impression of a rupture in the Church’s tradition, in which the Latin Mass and everything associated with it were simply discarded.

That wasn’t the intent of the Council Fathers, but the idea took hold, even as it became common to refer to the pre-Vatican II Mass and the post-Vatican II Mass.

In restoring the old Mass as an extraordinary form of the Church’s liturgy without requiring special permission, it is certain that Benedict hopes to replace the theme of rupture with one of continuity.

The simple fact that the 1962 Mass, with its long history, is now a legitimate option will lead to more priests and liturgically-minded lay people studying it, bringing it in from exile, so to speak.

Those treasures, the Holy Father hopes, will enrich the ordinary form of the liturgy, as celebrated daily in nearly all parishes. And it is likely that some priests will now study and celebrate the 1962 Mass even if they had no previous interest in it. After all, until Benedict’s decree it was plausible to regard the Tridentine Mass as a former part of the Latin rite; now it is clear that it is one form of the Latin rite in current usage.

Jews’ Objections

The Holy Father, who has written for decades about the need for a “reform of the reform” in liturgical matters likely intends Summorum Pontificum to advance that by bringing the traditions and riches of the old rite into contact with the new.

The decree makes clear that this enrichment is mutual.

For example, it permits the use  of the cycle of readings from the 1970 reform, even in the vernacular languages, with the 1962 Mass. Given that the wider use of Scripture in the 1970 Mass, and its proclamation in the vernacular, is near-universally acknowledged as an improvement, Benedict indicates that this should not be lost, even by those who use the 1962 Missal.

This does raise a challenge. While the ordinary form of the Mass is subject to ongoing development — as was last done by John Paul II in 2000 — the 1962 Missal remains frozen in time. To correct this, the Holy Father has asked the responsible Vatican office to study ways to introduce new saints and new prefaces into the old missal, so it too can develop.

That “frozenness” gave rise to one of the controversies surrounding the publication of Summorum Pontificum.

Several critics claimed that the decree would bring into wider circulation the Good Friday “Prayer for the Jews” which describes them as “unbelieving” and prays for their conversion.

But the decree specifically excludes the liturgies of the Sacred Triduum, including Good Friday, from its provisions, so nothing at all has changed in that regard.

As for reaction among Catholic bishops, at least one said he plans to celebrate the Mass himself.

“I am the only bishop in Wisconsin who does not now give permission for the Mass of Blessed John XXIII, as I did not feel the adequate catechesis was in place,” Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison told the Register. “But now that the Holy Father has indicated his desire for this extraordinary form to be more widely used, not only will the decree be implemented, but I intend to take the lead. I hope myself to celebrate this Mass, through which I found my own vocation.”

Father Raymond J. de Souza was the Register’s Rome correspondent  from 1999-2003.