VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI is going ahead with his plan to allow more churches to use the old Latin Mass, a concession to traditionalists that has caused concern among those fearing a rollback of one of the Vatican's key liberalizing reforms.
The pope explained his plans to a group of prelates from Europe and the United States, the Vatican said Thursday, in what was considered an unusual meeting underlining the resistance created by his proposal.
The statement said the meeting was called to "illustrate the content and the spirit" of the document, which will be sent to all bishops, accompanied by a personal letter from the pope, and be made public in the next few days.
The decision follows months of debate. Some cardinals, bishops and Jews have opposed any change, voicing complaints about everything from the text of the old Mass to concerns that the move will lead to further changes to the reforms approved by 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council.
The 16th-century Tridentine Mass was sidelined by the so-called New Mass that followed the council. The reforms called for Mass to be said in local languages, for the priest to face the congregation and not the altar with his back to worshippers and for the use of lay readers. Latin could still be the language, but in celebration of the New Mass.
With the text still not public, it remained unclear how wide a use of the old rite will be allowed.
To celebrate the old Latin Mass now, a priest must obtain permission from the local bishop. Roman Catholic Church leaders are anxiously awaiting the details of Benedict's decision, to see how far he will go in easing that rule.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, told reporters Thursday bishops will still have a "central role" _ but he didn't elaborate. Bertone called the old Mass a "great treasure" for the church.
Benedict's move is widely seen as an attempt to reach out to an ultra-traditionalist and schismatic group, the Society of St. Pius X, and bring it back into the Vatican's fold.
The late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded the society in 1969 in Switzerland, in opposition to the Vatican II reforms, particularly its liturgical changes. The Vatican excommunicated Lefebvre in 1988 after he consecrated four bishops without Rome's consent. The bishops were excommunicated as well.
Benedict has been keen to reconcile with the group, which has demanded freer use of the old Mass as a precondition for normalizing relations.
There was no immediate reaction from the Lefebvre group. No one answered the phone at its headquarters in Switzerland.
Some cardinals and bishops, particularly in France - where Lefebvre's group is strong - have objected to any liberalizing of the terms for using the old rite, saying its broader use could lead to divisions within the church, and could imply a rejection of other Vatican II teachings.
Other concerns have come from groups involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue, because the Tridentine rite contains prayers that some non-Christians find offensive, including references to "perfidious" Jews. The Tridentine liturgy predates the landmark documents from Vatican II on improving relations with Jews and people of other faiths.
"A good half of the (Catholic) fundamentalists in the world are in France. This is why French Catholics are particularly concerned about their influence on the pope," said the Rev. Michel Kubler, religious editor of the French Catholic daily La Croix.
He said bishops were also worried that any major change "could erode their ability to control how the faith is practiced."
"The real issue here is not limited to liturgy but has wider implications for church life," the Rev. Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit liturgical expert, said in an e-mail. He said proponents of the old Mass "tend to oppose the laity's increased role in parish life and worship since Vatican II along with the Catholic Church's ecumenical collaboration with other Christians and its dialogue with Jews and Muslims."
Visitors to the Gesu e Maria church in Rome, which celebrates a Tridentine rite Mass on Sundays, appeared divided.
Marie Borg, an 80-year-old Italian, said "celebrating Mass the traditional way reminds us of the importance of religion and the authority of the church, which is a good thing." But Tamas Moritz, 40, visiting from Hungary, said "it seems archaic."
In a 1988 document, Pope John Paul II urged bishops to be generous in granting dispensations to allow the Tridentine rite to be celebrated. But many proponents say bishops have been stingy - either for personal reasons or because they don't have enough priests who know how to celebrate it.
Benedict appears wary of ignoring tradition. This week, he changed the rules for the election of a pope, reinstating the rule changed by John Paul requiring a two-thirds majority for election of the pontiff.
In the 1997 book "Salt of the Earth" Benedict said it was "downright indecent" for people who are still attached to the old rite to be denied it.
"I am of the opinion, to be sure, that the old rite should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it," then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said. "It's impossible to see what could be dangerous or unacceptable about that."