Rebel Catholic traditionalists who champion the old Latin mass have accused Pope Benedict of caving in to "foreign pressures" by dropping negative comments about Jews from a rare prayer in the Church's official language.
The Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), which was expelled from the Church in 1988, denounced the change in a Good Friday prayer that it said was one of the oldest in Christianity, dating back to the third century.
On February 5, the Vatican revised the prayer, removing a reference to Jewish "blindness" over Christ and deleting a phrase asking God to "remove the veil from their hearts".
Jews criticised the new text because it still says they should recognise Jesus Christ as the saviour of all mankind. It asks that "all Israel may be saved" and keeps an underlying call to conversion that Jewish leaders had wanted omitted.
"Following foreign pressures on the Catholic Church, the Pope felt obligated to change the very venerable Prayer for the Jews which is an integral part of the Good Friday liturgy," the SSPX news service DICI said in a report at the weekend.
"While the necessity of accepting the Messiah to be saved has been retained, one can only profoundly deplore this change," it said. DICI did not elaborate on the "foreign pressures".
The change in the prayer will only be heard by a tiny minority of Catholics who attend services on Good Friday, the day marking Jesus Christ's crucifixion, that are held in Latin rather than in their local languages as usual.
Rabbi supports pope
Changing the Good Friday text was necessary after Pope Benedict allowed wider use of the old Latin mass last year. The Good Friday prayer said in local languages was revised in 1970 to drop all references that Jews had found offensive.
Widening the use of the old Latin or Tridentine mass was partly meant to attract followers of the SSPX back to Rome. The SSPX claims about a million followers, a small fraction of the 1.1-billion strong Church.
The leadership of the Swiss-based SSPX is still resolutely opposed to reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), including changes in liturgy and in relations with Jews. The Vatican says they must accept the Council to be readmitted.
The SSPX was expelled from the Church in 1988 when its founder, French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, consecrated four bishops without Vatican approval.
Jewish groups have criticised the new text of the Latin prayer as offensive. An assembly representing Conservative rabbis worldwide expressed dismay over it and called on the Vatican to clarify the text's meaning.
But the Pope received support from a prominent Jewish scholar on Saturday. Rabbi Jacob Neusner of New York wrote in the German Catholic daily Die Tagespost: "Israel prays for non-Jews, so the other monotheists - including the Catholic Church - should have the same right without anyone feeling hurt."
Sometimes called "the Pope's favourite rabbi", Neusner was frequently cited in Benedict's 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth.