On July 7, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI opened a new chapter in the Church's liturgical history. The pontiff published motu proprio ("of his own accord") the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, which deals with the use of what has been commonly known as the traditional Latin Mass. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about the document, based on its contents and the contents of an accompanying explanatory letter from the Pope.

What is the purpose of the Apostolic Letter?

This document allows for a wider use of the liturgical books that were in force in 1962, before Masses in the Latin rite were commonly celebrated in the vernacular (the everyday languages of the people). These Latin texts -- especially the Roman Missal, but also the Roman Breviary -- were used for centuries, with some revisions, up until 1970.

The Missal specifies the rites for Masses, administration of the sacraments (other than holy orders), Christian funerals and other occasional celebrations; the Breviary contains the daily prayers of the Divine Office.

Why did the Holy Father consider the letter necessary?

In 1970, Pope Paul VI approved for the Latin-rite Church reformed liturgical books (Novus Ordo) that were translated into the vernacular languages, resulting in what is essentially the form of the rite most often used today. Many Catholics, however, were devoted to the traditional form of the Mass and desired to continue using it.

In his explanatory letter, Pope Benedict notes that use of the older (1962) Missal was never actually abrogated and so, "in principle, was always permitted." Nevertheless, while some bishops allowed the 1962 Missal to be used in their dioceses by those who requested it, others were reluctant to do so.

To address the situation, Pope John Paul II issued a special indult in 1984 granting the faculty to use the 1962 Missal. He also provided, in a 1988 motu proprio, some guidelines for that Missal's use, asking for a generous response of bishops toward the "legitimate aspirations" of the faithful who requested this particular form of the Roman rite.

Why didn't Pope John Paul's motuproprio resolve the issue?

Problems persisted in part, as Pope Benedict notes, because these documents lacked "detailed prescriptions" and "precise juridical norms." In addition, some bishops feared that "the possibility of a wider use of the 1962 Missal would lead to disarray or even divisions within parish communities." The present document provides the prescriptions and norms that were previously lacking, along with a reassurance from the Pope that such fears are "quite unfounded."

In addition, we should note that since the extensive liturgical changes beginning in 1970, a number of Catholics who are devoted to the older form of the Mass have found themselves alienated from the Church and in particular from its new liturgical forms. Pope Benedict hopes that the provisions of this letter will help us overcome the resulting divisions as we seek "an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church."

Does this mean that the Church will now be using two Roman rites?

No. This document clarifies that the 1962 liturgical books represent one (extraordinary) form of the Roman rite, and the 1970 books represent a second (ordinary) form of the Roman rite -- not two rites, but "a twofold use of one and the same rite."

What are the letter's specific provisions?

Any priest of the Latin-rite Church may, without any further permission from the Holy See or his bishop, use the extraordinary (1962) form of the Roman Missal to celebrate a Mass without the people (private Mass) at any time except during the Sacred Triduum. If members of the faithful want to attend these Masses, they may do so.

Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life who wish to celebrate Mass in their own oratories according to the 1962 form may also do so.

In parishes where a group of the faithful desires the older form of the Mass, they may approach the pastor with their request, who is to support their petition willingly. A pastor may also grant them permission for the celebration of the other sacraments, Christian funerals or other occasional celebrations (such as pilgrimages) according to the older form.

In addition, the local ordinary (bishop) may erect a personal parish for celebrations according to the older form of the rite.

Won't priests need special training to celebrate using the 1962 Missal?

Some priests are already capable of celebrating the older form of the Mass, but others will need additional training to do so. To use the 1962 Missal, the Pope says, priests must be suitably qualified and not prohibited by any impediments. This means, among other requirements, that they must have a knowledge of Latin and the rubrics sufficient to say the Mass correctly.

What happens if a pastor is unable to fulfill a request of the faithful to celebrate the older Mass?

The letter states: "Where some group of lay faithful ... does not obtain what it requests from the pastor, it should inform the diocesan bishop of the fact. The bishop is earnestly requested to grant their desire. If he cannot provide for this kind of celebration, let the matter be referred to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei" (No. 7).

Are there any changes anticipated in the 1962 Missal itself?

In his explanatory letter the Pope noted that "new saints and some of the new prefaces can and should be inserted in the old Missal." The Ecclesia Dei Commission will be assigned the task of studying this possibility.

Are Catholics who seek to use the 1962 Missal mainly older people who are attached to the form of the rite they knew in their youth?

The explanatory letter notes: "Immediately after the Second Vatican Council it was presumed that requests for the use of the 1962 Missal would be limited to the older generation which had grown up with it, but in the meantime it has clearly been demonstrated 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."

Is the role of the diocesan bishop in supervising the liturgy diminished by this document?

Not at all. In his explanatory letter, Pope Benedict tells the bishops:

"I very much wish to stress that these new norms do not in any way lessen your own authority and responsibility, either for the liturgy or for the pastoral care of your faithful. Each bishop, in fact, is the moderator of the liturgy in his own diocese. ... Nothing is taken away, then, from the authority of the bishop, whose role remains that of being watchful that all is done in peace and serenity. Should some problem arise which the parish priest cannot resolve, the local ordinary will always be able to intervene, in full harmony, however, with all that has been laid down by the new norms of the motu proprio."

Could this document detract from the authority of Vatican II by calling into question the liturgical reforms it sought?

The Pope says in his explanatory letter that "this fear is unfounded. In this regard, it must first be said that the Missal published by Paul VI and then republished in two subsequent editions by John Paul II, obviously is and continues to be the ordinary form ... of the Eucharistic Liturgy."

At the same time, Pope Benedict observes, we should keep in mind that certain forms of experimentation in the liturgy followed the Second Vatican Council that were not at all envisioned by the council.

"In many places," he notes, " celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear."

For this reason, a wider use of the older form of the rite can actually have a salutary influence on the celebration of the newer form as the Church acts wisely to "preserve the riches which have developed in the Church's faith and prayer and ... give them their proper place."

Does the wider use of the older form of the Holy Week rites reflect a reversal in the Church's condemnation of anti-Semitism?

No. The 1962 Roman Missal already included Blessed John XXIII's revision of the liturgical language that was often construed as anti-Semitic. In 1965, in the declaration Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council repudiated all forms of anti-Semitism, and Pope Benedict is firm in that commitment.

When do the new provisions take effect?

They take effect Friday, Sept. 14, on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In anticipation of the coming changes, the Pope asks the Church to heed St. Paul's exhortation: "Widen your hearts!" (2 Cor 6:13, RSV). "Let us generously open our hearts," the Pope urges, "and make room for everything that the faith itself allows." TCA

For an unofficial English translation of the relevant documents, visit www.usccb.org/liturgy/bclnewsletterjune07.pdf.

Paul Thigpen, Ph.D., is editor of The Catholic Answer. Visit his personal website at www.PaulThigpen.com.