Vatican City: The Vatican said talks held on Monday with a group of breakaway traditionalist Catholics were cordial and will continue over the coming months.
The Vatican issued a statement at the end of an inaugural meeting between Vatican officials and a delegation from the Society of St Pius X, which split from Rome following the modernising reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Pope Benedict XVI has been keen to reconcile with the group — even though one of their bishops denied the Holocaust — because of his greater aim of unifying the church and putting a highly conservative stamp on it. Just last week, he took a major step in that direction by making it easier for Anglican traditionalists to convert to Roman Catholicism.
Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi said the meeting marked "the beginning of a new phase of relations" and there was a "sense of trust for the meeting and its prospects" that hadn`t existed before.
The late ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded the Swiss-based society in 1969, opposed to Vatican II`s reforms which included outreach to Jews and other Christians and the celebration of Mass in the vernacular rather than Latin.
In 1988, the Vatican excommunicated Lefebvre and four of his bishops after he consecrated them without papal consent.
Benedict has worked for two decades to bring the group back into the Vatican`s fold. In 2007, he relaxed restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass, which the traditionalists had demanded. In January, he answered another one of their demands by approving a decree lifting the bishops` 1988 excommunications.
But on the same day the Vatican decree was signed, British Bishop Richard Williamson was shown on Swedish state television saying historical evidence "is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed" during World War II.
The outcry was immediate, with both Jews and members of the Catholic hierarchy criticising the pope`s rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denier. While condemning Williamson`s remarks, the Vatican defended its decision, only saying later that it hadn`t known about his very public views about the Holocaust.
The society`s opposition to Vatican II, particularly its teachings on ecumenism and religious freedom, remains at the heart of the dispute with Rome and is the focus of the talks.
The Vatican statement said the two sides on Monday identified the "outstanding doctrinal differences" between them that would be discussed in meetings expected to take place twice a month for several months.
Such an intense workload "shows that they want to go ahead with a certain amount of determination," Lombardi said.
Prior to the start of talks, the society`s delegation leader, Bishop Alfonso de Galarreta, had said negotiations may take years.
The Vatican statement said the work was conducted "in a cordial, respectful and constructive climate."
It listed a host of issues stemming from Vatican II that are on the table, including the principles of ecumenism and the relationship between Christianity and non-Christian religions.
There was no immediate comment from the society.
The Vatican has said the society`s members must "fully recognize" Vatican II as well as the teachings of all the popes who came after it if they want to be fully reintegrated into the Church.
The society says it is upholding true Catholic tradition by rejecting elements of Vatican II`s teachings, and says the Church`s current problems, including a shortage of priests, are a direct result of the 1962-65 meetings.
The Vatican has set out particular conditions for Williamson to be fully brought back in, saying he must "absolutely and unequivocally" distance himself from his Holocaust remarks if he ever wants to be a prelate in the church.
Williamson has apologized for causing scandal to the pope but hasn`t publicly repudiated his views.