VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI met Monday with the head of the ultraconservative schismatic movement founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and both sides said they had agreed to take steps to resolve their differences.

Both the Vatican and Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X, said the meeting was held in a spirit of love for the church. But the society has spurned previous efforts by the Vatican to bring it back into its fold.

Lefebvre founded the Switzerland-based society in 1969, opposed to the liberalizing reforms of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, particularly its call for Mass to be celebrated in local languages and not in Latin.

He was excommunicated in 1988 after consecrating four bishops without Rome’s consent and died in 1991. All four bishops, including Fellay, also were excommunicated.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the meeting was held with “a desire to arrive at perfect communion.”

“While knowing the difficulties, the desire to proceed by degrees and in reasonable time was shown,” Navarro-Valls said in a statement.

Fellay concurred, saying the two sides discussed the “serious difficulties” between them and had agreed to take steps to resolve them.

“The Society of St. Pius X prays that the Holy Father can find the force to end the crisis of the Church by ‘restoring all things in Christ,”‘ he said in a statement.

The society claims about 450 priests, 180 seminarians and has a presence in 26 countries.

Benedict, who also opposed what he considered excesses of Vatican II, had worked to head off the excommunication order, negotiating with the society to try to keep its members in the fold.

Just months before the excommunication order was made, Benedict, who was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, signed a protocol with Lefebvre that had indicated reconciliation of the society with Rome was imminent. Lefebvre later rejected the accord.

With Benedict now pope, some have speculated that there might be a new push to bring the society back under Rome’s wing.

Fellay, for example, welcomed Benedict’s April 19 election, saying there was a “gleam of hope” that the new pope might find a way out of what he called the “profound crisis” in which the Catholic Church finds itself.

Fellay had said he would ask Benedict at the audience, which he requested, to rescind the excommunication order and also to allow Catholics who wish it, to celebrate Mass in Latin without having to ask permission first. He said those were preconditions for returning to negotiations.

Monday’s meeting took place at the pope’s summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome. Also attending was Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who heads a commission created after the 1988 excommunication to try to negotiate with the society, the Vatican statement said.

In a recent interview with the international Web site of the Society of St. Pius X, Fellay said a return to the Latin Mass would mark the start of a “change of atmosphere and spirit in the church,” which he believes has been spoiled by the Vatican II reforms.

The pope has said he supports greater celebration of the Latin, or Tridentine Mass, but said that alone won’t resolve the problems of the church.

“I am of the opinion, to be sure, that the old rite should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it,” he said in his 1997 book “Salt of the Earth.” “But a simple return to the old way would not, as I have said, be a solution. Our culture has changed so radically in the last 30 years that a liturgy celebrated exclusively in Latin would bring with it an experience of foreignness that many could not cope with.”

Another excommunicated bishop, Bishop Richard Williamson, has warned against any reunion with Rome. In an Internet newsletter earlier this month that announced Monday’s meeting Williamson said the “resistance” movement would carry on without the society if it were to rejoin Rome.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, former editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said the Vatican had “bent over backwards” in the past to try to reach out to the society, and that Benedict was likely to continue the policy since he helped form it as a cardinal.

“The problem is that these concessions have not been enough for the schismatics,” Reese said in an e-mail. “They want the rest of the church to follow them in rejecting Vatican II, which they consider illegitimate.”


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