(Alessandra Tarantino ~ Associated Press)
Now, little more than a generation later, Pope Benedict XVI is poised to revive the 16th-century Tridentine Mass.
In doing so, he will be overriding objections from some cardinals, bishops and Jews -- whose complaints range from the text of the old Mass to the symbolic sweeping aside of the council's work from 1962-1965. Many in the church regard Vatican II as a moment of badly needed reform and a new beginning, a view at odds with Benedict, who sees it as a renewal of church tradition.
A Vatican official, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, confirmed earlier this month that Benedict would soon relax the restrictions on celebrating the Tridentine Mass because of a "new and renewed interest" in the celebration -- especially among younger Catholics.
In recent decades, priests could only celebrate the Tridentine Mass with permission from their bishop. Church leaders are anxiously awaiting Benedict's decision, to see how far he will go in easing that rule.
Castrillon Hoyos denied the move represented a "step backward, a regression to times before the reforms." Rather, it was an attempt to give the faithful greater access to a "treasure" of the church.
Benedict also was acting, Castrillon Hoyos told bishops in Brazil, to reach out to an ultratraditionalist 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, opposed to Vatican II's reforms, particularly its liturgical reforms. 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.
But bishops in neighboring France, where Lefebvre's group is strong, have objected publicly to any liberalizing of the old rite, saying its broader use could lead to divisions within the church, and could imply a rejection of other Vatican II teachings.
"Such a decision risks endangering the unity among priests as well as the faithful," according to a statement issued late last year from the bishops of Strasbourg, Metz and Besancon.
Progressive Belgian Cardinal Godfried Daneels echoed that concern, saying that greater celebration of the Tridentine Mass could polarize the church and, depending on how the document is written, could lead to the "negation" of Vatican II reforms such as support for religious freedom.
"The rite is not the important thing, but what comes after," Daneels told The Associated Press. "We can't go back. Vatican II is a council like all the others."
Other concerns have come from groups involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue, because the Tridentine rite contains prayers that some non-Christians find offensive. By its very nature, the Tridentine liturgy predates the landmark documents from Vatican II on improving relations with Jews and people of other faiths.
Rabbi David Rosen, who is in charge of interfaith relations at the American Jewish Committee, said he wrote to several cardinals in March expressing concern about a prayer for the "unfaithful" in the Mass, as well a prayer used during the church's Holy Week liturgy which had contained references to "perfidious," or faithless, Jews.
He was assured by Cardinal Walter Kasper, who is in charge of the Vatican's relations with Jews, that the Tridentine missal used now doesn't contain the reference to the "perfidious" Jew.
But in a letter, Kasper added: "I was unable to obtain a clear answer" concerning the prayer for the unfaithful.
Monsignor James Moroney, the liturgy expert at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he didn't think the move would have a terribly significant impact because it affects so few people.
However, he said that in resurrecting and promoting the old rite "by definition you are rejecting the judgment on liturgical matters of pontifical and episcopal development" over the last 40 years.
Despite such concerns, Benedict is going ahead with the document, though a date for its release hasn't been announced.
The Tridentine rite differs significantly from the New Mass that emerged after Vatican II.
In addition to the Latin prayers, which are different from those used in the modern liturgy, the priest faces the altar, so that he is seen as leading the faithful in prayer. The rank and file don't participate actively in the service.
The pope's plans are being welcomed by "traditionalist" Roman Catholics who are still in good standing with Rome. These Catholics simply prefer the Tridentine service over the modern one -- and their numbers are reportedly growing, particularly among the young for whom the old Mass is actually new.
"I don't think the pope would be addressing this if there weren't a growing number of people ... an increased interest not just among laity but among clergy," said Michael Dunnigan, the U.S. chairman of Una Voce, an international lay movement that seeks to preserve the Latin liturgy.
There are no global statistics on participation in Tridentine Masses. But in the United States -- where demand appears to be higher than in much of Europe -- 105 of the 176 Roman Catholic dioceses offer at least one traditional Mass each Sunday, Dunnigan said.
Ginevra Crosignani, 34, is a regular at the 10 a.m. Tridentine rite celebrated each Sunday at the Gesu e Maria church in central Rome. She says she started coming about 10 years ago and finds it a much more transcendent experience than the modern services, which she said were more like going to a "nightclub" because of the music and showman-like role of the priest.
"The New Order became a social celebration rather than a religious celebration," she said one recent Sunday as she put away the white lace scarf she wore over her head.
The pews at the Mass had been full -- and more than half the people looked to be under 40.
"Before, it was more old people attached to that rite," she said. "I think young people (now) are looking for something, they're eager to find it and they don't find it in the New Order."
In a 1988 document, Pope John Paul II urged bishops to be generous in granting the so-called indults to allow the Tridentine rite to be celebrated. But many proponents say bishops have been stingy -- either for personal reasons or because they simply don't have enough priests who know how to celebrate it.
To counter that, Una Voce is teaming up with the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, a traditionalist community, to run a training seminar for priests to teach them the ritual-filled Latin Mass. "We've got a waiting list now," said Dunnigan.
Similarly, the seminaries of another small traditionalist community, the Institute for Christ the King, are overflowing, said the institute's vicar general, Monsignor R. Michael Schmitz.
"There is no vocation shortage at all," he said. "On the contrary, we have so many vocations we can't take them all."
Benedict has made clear for years that he greatly admires the Tridentine rite and has already incorporated Latin into Masses at St. Peter's.
In a recent document, Benedict urged seminarians and the faithful alike to learn Latin prayers, and in the 1997 book "Salt of the Earth" he 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."
Associated Press writer Rachel Zoll contributed from New York.