Saturday, March 2, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI and Liturgical Renewal

The following reflections are taken from a talk I gave at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York a few years ago under the title "An Unfinished Agenda: Pope Benedict XVI and the Liturgical Renewal."  I offer it here for your reflection during this Sede Vacante.

Shortly after the publication of Summorum Pontificum, I recall seeing a secular Newspaper summary of the Holy Father’s Apostolic Letter.  “Pope Restores Pre-Conciliar Mass,” the headlines roared hysterically.  And to listen to some of the liturgical commentators at the time, you would think that, indeed, the Holy Father was renouncing the Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum concilium, and the liturgical reform which preceded it.

Such commentators would find it hard to picture a young Bavarian boy reveling in the Missals of the liturgical reform as described in his own autobiography:

 “Penetrating the mysterious world of the liturgy which was celebrated at the altar in front of us was an exciting adventure,” he recalls. “I realized with increasing clarity that I was encountering something which had been created neither by an individual, by a great mind nor by Church officials. This mysterious tapestry of texts and actions had developed over centuries, out of the Church’s faith. It carried the fruit of history, yet it was more than the product of human history. Each century had left its mark. The explanations in the missal allowed us to see what was ancient, what medieval, and what was modern. Not everything was logical. Some things were jumbled. In places it was difficult to find one’s way. But despite all, it was a wonderful building, a spiritual home. . . . The inexhaustible reality of Catholic liturgy has thus been my companion through all the stages of my life.” 

This same young man would be ordained a priest and write in 1964 of the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council.  What was needed at that time, he observed was an understanding that “behind the protective skin of Latin lay hidden something that even Trent’s cutting away of late medieval ornamentations had failed to remove. The simplicity of the liturgy was still overgrown with superfluous accretions of purely historical value. It was now clear, for example, that the selection of biblical texts had frozen at a certain point and hardly met the needs of preaching. The next step was to recognize that the necessary revamping could not take place simply through purely stylistic modifications, but also required a new theology of divine worship. Otherwise the renewal would be no more than superficial”

This same young German theologian writing in 1966 described five mandates of the Council Fathers:

(1) “the return to Christian origins and the pruning of certain accretions that often enough concealed the original liturgical nucleus;

(2) a stronger emphasis on the Word as an element of equal value with the sacrament:”

(3) “a more active participation of the laity, the inclusion of the whole table-fellowship of God in the holy action”.

(4) “the decentralization of liturgical legislation,” so that Conferences of Bishops would enjoy responsibility for various dimensions of the implementation of the liturgical reform “not by delegation from the Holy See, but by virtue of their own independent authority.”

(5) the language of the liturgy, responding to a “new confrontation between the Christian mind and the modern mind. For it can hardly be denied that the sterility to which Catholic theology and philosophy had in many ways been doomed since the end of the Enlightenment was due not least to a language in which the living choices of the human mind no longer found a place.”1

That young German theologian was, of course, to become Pope Benedict XVI, and his analysis of the ways in which the Liturgy stood in need of reform in 1964 remain as true today as they were then.

The Implementation of the Reform: An Incomplete Work

Truly the postconciliar years were to be met with great successes and great failures.  Indeed, in his first Christmas address to the Roman Curia, the newly elected Pope was to recall St Basil’s description of “the Church's situation after the Council of Nicaea:  he compares her situation to a naval battle in the darkness of the storm, saying among other things:  ‘The raucous shouting of those who through disagreement rise up against one another, the incomprehensible chatter, the confused din of uninterrupted clamoring, has now filled almost the whole of the Church, falsifying through excess or failure the right doctrine of the faith...’2

While the Holy Father admitted that things were not quite that bad after the Second Vatican Council, “yet something from all that occurred is nevertheless to be reflected on.”  The fault, he indicates, was not so much in the reform of the liturgical books, as in the widespread misperception that the celebration of the Liturgy is not so much an act of obedient acceptance of a treasure to be celebrated, as an act of creativity by which a priest and people re-imagine what the liturgy is meant to be.  Such a mistaken view, the Holy Father candidly admits in his cover letter to Summorum Pontificum, “frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear. I am speaking, he notes, “from experience, since I too lived through that period with all its hopes and its confusion. And I have seen how arbitrary deformations of the liturgy caused deep pain to individuals totally rooted in the faith of the Church.”


In an imperfect world and an equally imperfect implementation of the conciliar vision, what then is called for by Pope Benedict XVI to correct our errors and reform this liturgical reform?

The question of orientation orientation at the Liturgy frequently comes to mind as an example of this unfinished agenda. There are three ways in which I suggest that orientation has been his primary concern with the implementation of the conciliar reform: the participation of the faithful, the posture of the priest celebrant, and a mystagogical form of preaching.

Orientation and Participation
Some may be surprised to hear that the single liturgical topic most extensively addressed by Pope Benedict XVI is the participation of the faithful in liturgical celebrations.  Yet this should come as no surprise, since the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council “rightly emphasized the active, full and fruitful participation of the entire People of God in the eucharistic celebration.”3 In his Apostolic Letter, Sacramentum Caritatis, the Holy Father begins by observing that in this regard “the renewal carried out in these past decades has made considerable progress towards fulfilling the wishes of the Council Fathers.”4

At the same time, the Pope joins his predecessor, the servant of God, Pope John Paul II, in lamenting the fact that “some misunderstanding has occasionally arisen concerning the precise meaning of this participation” in two regards: first, that such participation is often seen as merely external and secondly that the relationship of participation in the liturgy and the daily life of the faithful is not sufficiently appreciated.  

It is no surprise that our promotion of full, conscious and active participation in the implementation of the liturgical reform has been concerned primarily with externals.  Indeed, as with any great work, we have been centered on what can be seen, measured and monitored.  When all stand at the same time, all sing the same song and all appear to be outwardly engaged in the liturgical action, we liturgists rightfully congratulate ourselves on having succeeded in fostering active participation in the Sacred Liturgy. No longer “strangers or silent spectators,” the faithful are thus seen as full and active participants in the sacred action.

Yet, as Pope Benedict points out, a preoccupation with the exterior dimension of participation often deflects our attention from the interior dispositions which lie by definition at the heart of the human person.  If my heart is not centered on the sacred mysteries, the orientation of my body will never engage me in this holy and living sacrifice.

This is why the Council Fathers themselves insisted that the participation of the faithful should be full and active, but conscious as well…  for the engagement of my innermost being is the origin and goal of exterior liturgical participation.  Thus do the faithful, in the words of the Pope, “learn to make an offering of themselves, through Christ, the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into an ever more perfect union with God and with each other.”5

Such an interior orientation is sustained by and fosters a “spirit of constant conversion,”6 fostered by silence, fasting and repentance.  As the Holy Father states so presciently in Sacramentum Caritatis: “A heart reconciled to God makes genuine participation possible.”7

When it comes to participation of the faithful, therefore, it is always helpful to ask the question: “Is our orientation ad extra or ad intra?  Thus does the Holy Father call for a mystagogical education “in Eucharistic faith capable of enabling the faithful to live personally what they celebrate.”8 

Orientation and the Posture of the Priest at Mass
My second example of Pope Benedict’s concern with orientation at the Liturgy perhaps the most obvious, concerns the posture of the priest at Mass.  At the outset it is important to admit that any address of this issue is complicated by the fact that no single aspect of the liturgical reform is more highly charged or more ideologically invested than this question.

While the short time I am with you does not allow me to enter into the complexities of this question, it should be noted that (as with most things in life) this issue is infinitely more complex than it first appears.  Indeed I would suggest that those convinced that the question could be simply and definitively resolved by the universal observance of their favorite posture, would be most certainly confounded by a serious study of the whole horizon of the question.  

As Pope Benedict XVI has insisted, there is no simple answer to this demanding question.  Indeed, I would suggest that its resolution may well have to await a less polemical time and a wiser generation than ours.

Those convinced that versus populum is the sole defensible position are often surprised to hear the significant reservations of such pioneers as Bouyer and Jungman in the post-conciliar period.  Likewise, those wedded to ad orientem posture often fail to grapple with the pastoral and ritual/anthropological challenges at stage in a consideration of their position.

In appreciation of the complexities inherent in dealing with such a question in this time and place, the Holy Father has been as firm in his insistence on the seriousness of the question as he has been hesitant to impose a single solution.

Suggesting that the interior orientation of the priest celebrant is primary, Pope Benedict has notably not insisted on ad orientem worship except in those isolated cases dictated by older architectural forms.  His preference in pontifical liturgies for the placement of a crucifix at the center of the altar table, orienting the priest celebrant and the faithful to a sort of liturgical East is helpful, but neither novel nor universally normative in  liturgical law.  Indeed, whatever solutions he proposed regarding the question of the posture of the Priest at Mass, have sought to evolve organically from present realities and avoid the kind of ideological rupture which has so often prevented us from definitively addressing such questions in the past.

Orientation and Catechesis
The last example of liturgical orientation I would offer from the reforms of Pope Benedict XVI concerns the art of homiletics, the one aspect of liturgical praxis most criticized by the faithful.  Here, I would suggest, the Holy Father has provided us with a most valuable lesson, for the orientation of many of his homilies is not the scriptures in isolation or even the lived experience of the faithful.  Rather, a recurrent theme that drives the direction of his discourse is the liturgy and its rich and diverse signs and systems of iconographic expression.

So in assuming the papacy he preaches on the pallium around his shoulders:
… the lamb’s wool is meant to represent the lost, sick or weak sheep which the shepherd places on his shoulders and carries to the waters of life. For the Fathers of the Church, the parable of the lost sheep, which the shepherd seeks in the desert, was an image of the mystery of Christ and the Church. The human race – every one of us – is the sheep lost in the desert which no longer knows the way. The Son of God will not let this happen; he cannot abandon humanity in so wretched a condition. He leaps to his feet and abandons the glory of heaven, in order to go in search of the sheep and pursue it, all the way to the Cross.

At the Chrism Mass he preaches on the imposition of hands:
the very ancient rite of the imposition of hands, with which Christ took possession of me, saying to me:  "You belong to me…You are under the protection of my hands. You are under the protection of my heart. You are kept safely in the palm of my hands, and this is precisely how you find yourself in the immensity of my love. Stay in my hands, and give me yours". 

As on Epiphany he speaks of the light which comes from and leads the magi to the Christ:
Such a mystagogical homiletics is oriented at the place where the hearts of the faithful intersect with the immemorial sacred rites they are called to celebrate by virtue of their Baptism.  It is a mystagogy which celebrates a Royal Priesthood and a Sacred Liturgy and is aimed at that intersection which marks the source and summit of the entire Christian Life.


So what, in the end, can be said of the liturgical reforms of Pope Benedict XVI.  Perhaps, we can suggest the same things about the prospective reforms as we can about the man.  They will be:
  • deeply and personally rooted in the best of the liturgical reform;
  • seriously appreciative of the scholarship on all sides;
  • repulse by simplistic ideological solutions;
  • oriented solely on Christ and finding ways to join the whole Church to his perfect sacrifice of praise offered to the Father from the altar of the cross.
May we be worthy of the ministry of such a man, and with him may we ever keep our eyes oriented clearly on the Lamb once slain, who alone is worthy of all praise!


1 - Theological Highlights of Vatican II (New York: Paulist Press/Deus Books, 1966).
2 - Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia. 22 December 2005
3 – Sacrosanctum concilium [SC], no. 52.
4 - Sacramentum caritatis, no. 52.
5 - Sacramentum caritatis, no. 52.
6 - SC, no. 55.
7 – SC, no. 55.
8 – SC, no. 64