A plan by the Pope to authorise the widespread return of the controversial Latin Mass, despite concerns that parts of it are anti-Semitic, has provoked a backlash among senior clergy in Britain and threatens to divide the Catholic Church worldwide.
The 16th-century Tridentine Mass - which includes references to "perfidious" Jews - was abandoned in 1969 and replaced with liturgy in local languages, to make worship more accessible to the bulk of churchgoers. But the Pope announced on Thursday that a long-awaited document liberalising the use of the Mass, which some clergy fear will also limit the Church's dialogue with Jews and Muslims, will be released next week.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, has written to the Pope to say that no changes are needed. Concerns about the prospect of the introduction of the Mass were also underlined on Thursday at an unusual meeting to underline resistance to it. But the Pope subsequently issued a statement revealing that he had illustrated "the content and the spirit" of next week's document, which will be sent to all bishops, accompanied by a personal letter from him.
There have been months of debate about the impending statement within the higher echelons of the Church. Cardinals, bishops and Jewish leaders are concerned by the text of the "old" Mass, which has passages, recited every Good Friday, which say Jews live in "blindness" and "darkness", and pray "the Lord our God may take the veil from their hearts and that they also may acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ".
There are also fears that a reintroduction may be the precursor of further changes to the reforms approved by the Second Vatican Council, which sat between 1962 and 1965 and which called for the Mass to be said in local languages, for the priest to face the congregation, and for the use of lay readers. Latin could still be used to recite the Mass, but the "new" Mass will be used, not the "old" Mass.
To celebrate the old Latin Mass now, a priest must obtain permission from the local bishop and the Roman Catholic Church in Britain. "It is standard practice to follow Rome, but we don't know yet what the [statement] will say," a spokesman for the Church in Britain said yesterday. "When we have the document, bishops and cardinals will consider it."
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, said bishops would still have a "central role" - but hinted at the Vatican's new enthusiasm for the old Mass by calling it a "great treasure" of the Church.
Pope 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 fold. The late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded the society in 1969 in Switzerland, in opposition to the Second Vatican Council's reforms.
The Rev Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit liturgical expert, said: "The real issue here is not limited to liturgy but has wider implications for church life." He added that proponents of the old Mass "tend to oppose the laity's increased role in parish life... collaboration with other Christians and its dialogue with Jews and Muslims".