Cardinal Ratzinger vs. St. Bozo's Parish

January 2001By Stephen Hand

Stephen Hand is author of “Traditionalists,” Tradition, and Private Judgment (Wanderer Press).

The Spirit of the Liturgy.  By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Ignatius. 232 pages. $17.95.



A liturgist is an affliction sent by God so that Catholics living in a time when there is no overt persecution need not be denied the privilege of suffering for the faith.

— Christopher Derrick

Some 35 years after the close of the Second Vatican Council and approximately 30 years after Pope Paul VI introduced a new rite of Mass to the world, there is today widespread talk of “liturgical wars” in the Roman Catholic Church. The late German scholar and liturgist, Msgr. Klaus Gamber, described this state of affairs in stark terms in his Reform of the Roman Liturgy: “Altar stands against altar.” This is hardly an exaggeration, its difficult truth is attested to in journals ranging from the liberal to the ultra-traditionalist and many in between. The liberals often urge greater experimentation and innovation as the means to cure liturgical ennui, which seems to them to plague so many churches. The extreme traditionalists decry the liturgical abuses that go with this neo-Modernist spirit of change, but sometimes misdirect their polemics against the principled reforms called for by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council. Those reforms came in response to the Liturgical Movement that had gained significant worldwide momentum, particularly in the previous fifty years. This conciliar reform, which found authoritative expression in the document Sacrosanctum Concilium, largely took the form of a call to a return to pre-Gallican liturgical simplicity, back to the constituent elements of the liturgy of the early churches in the West. This early simplicity was the goal, not any desire to “Protestantize” the Mass.

There is no question, however, that neo-Protestant influences have been working for decades now to thwart the purposes of the Second Vatican Council and turn principled reform into revolution. It is in the liturgy that Catholics experience the faith most directly and intimately. The Mass is the source and summit of faith for Catholics, serving as the divine means of grace for the sanctification of the People of God and Mystical Body. Thus, it is critical that a proper understanding of liturgy be rescued from both the liberals and extreme traditionalists. Which is why Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s new book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, is such a gift to the whole Church.

Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is, even his enemies agree, nobody’s fool. Nor would many of those same enemies doubt his erudition or his love for the Church and her liturgy. And while the Cardinal has stated that it is not his objective to interfere with scholarly discussion and research, it is certainly his intention to clarify the parameters of the Church’s teaching regarding liturgy and to correct certain misunderstandings which, he says, threaten to destroy it altogether. Thus, this important book should be seen as an intervention in the liturgical wars, which will help guide bishops, priests, and laity in their understanding of what the Church intends when she celebrates Mass.

Needless to say, Cardinal Ratzinger does not reject the Novus Ordo rite of Mass, but he is keenly aware of the ways in which it has been trivialized, sometimes beyond belief, and made to appear as an ongoing and evolving experiment, rather than that which is not made by us but “handed down” by the Lord Himself, via sacred Tradition, which only the living Magisterium can interpret and mediate to us.

The Cardinal compares the original liturgy as it has come down to us to something like a fresco which through time “had been preserved from damage, but…had been almost completely overlaid with whitewash by later generations. In the Missal from which the priest celebrated, the form of the liturgy that had grown from its earliest beginnings was still present, but, as far as the faithful were concerned, it was largely concealed beneath instructions for and forms of private prayer. The fresco was laid bare by the Liturgical Movement and, in a definitive way, by the Second Vatican Council. For a moment its colors and figures fascinated us. But since then the fresco has been endangered by climatic conditions as well as by various restorations and reconstructions. In fact it is threatened with destruction, if the necessary steps are not taken to stop these damaging influences. Of course, there must be no question of its being covered with whitewash again, but what is imperative is a new reverence in the way to treat it, a new understanding of its message and reality….”

Thus, the liturgy, in all its phases and developments through time, “had been preserved” from substantial damage, according to the promise of the indefectibility of the Church. Yet even in “its earliest beginnings” the Mass was complete, whole, because its divine object is — in any phase of its development or rite — the Transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is this event which makes sacred the rites, whichever ones are sanctioned by the Church. No single period in liturgical history can freeze the liturgy beyond the possibility of nonsubstantial changes; however, only the living Magisterium has the authority to make such changes and declare a rite the liturgy of the Church.

For Cardinal Ratzinger, there can be no question that the Second Vatican Council had the authority to mandate changes in response to the desires of many all over the world who were asking for a simpler liturgy, with some parts in the vernacular. Moreover, it is indisputable that the liturgy has gone through many and often jagged changes in its rites through history. Nevertheless, it is one thing for the Council to mandate changes, it is another to implement them and observe how they have been implemented in churches throughout the world. This latter aspect is the focus of the Cardinal’s concern. He does not mince words and is determined not to allow “apostasy in sacral disguise” to substitute itself for the Church’s liturgy according to the disobedient agenda of those who do not think with the Church and make liturgy their “game.”

As opposed to those who would reduce liturgy to mere human expression, a groping after the divine, the Cardinal emphasizes that the Church’s liturgy is received, not invented: “Real liturgy implies that God responds and reveals how we can worship him. In any form, liturgy includes some kind of ‘institution.’ It cannot spring from imagination, our own creativity — then it would remain just a cry in the dark of mere self-affirmation. Liturgy implies a real relationship with Another, who reveals himself to us and gives our existence a new direction.”

Thus, the Cardinal’s purpose is to show that liturgy is part of the divine revelation that the Church has received, and he lays out the principles which will restore what has “been endangered by climatic conditions as well as by various restorations and reconstructions.” This means going back to the actual texts of the Council and correcting the errors that have threatened to destroy the Council’s liturgical mandate. The Cardinal cites numerous errors that need to be redressed if we are to realize the intentions of the Council. To that end, which will require a new thrust in liturgical education, the Cardinal says, “Much remains to be done….” It is beyond the scope of this review to cite all of the theological concerns Cardinal Ratzinger has analyzed in this very rich and rewarding exposition, but we should highlight a few of the major areas.

Liturgy as Sacrifice and Deed of God, Evoking Awe and Love

“The foundation of the liturgy, its source and support, is the historical Pasch of Jesus — his Cross and Resurrection. This once-for-all event has become the ever abiding form of the liturgy.” Thus, the Mass is not the community celebrating itself, even if the Mass is also the most sacred of banquets in which Our Lord becomes our eternal Bread and spiritual Drink. Rather, the liturgy is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of the Cross, grounded in the historical Pasch of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of Faith. This most sacred of Meals must then evoke the most awesome sense of the sacred, and issue in faith, hope, and love. The liturgy is not the multiplication of “theatrical” activities and the “entrance of different players,” which he says threatens to turn the Mass into a “parody,” but the divine “theo-drama” which is the “essential actio” of God for us and with us. This does not, of course, lead us into a spirit of gloom but of profound joy and meaning, rightly expressed in the lifting up of our hearts in “content-full silence.” The liturgy, being the action of God, shows us why we exist, that our suffering has meaning, and that our hopes are not in vain.

Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer

The Cardinal will have none of that superficial opposition which some liturgical “experts” put between the Eucharist in the liturgy and its adoration outside of liturgy, precisely because the one leads to the other. He shows that the growing appreciation in Church history of the adoration owed to the reserved sacred Species was “a new dimension of the reality of Christianity opening up through the experience of the saints, supported and illuminated by the reflection of the theologians. At the same time this new development is in complete continuity with what had always been believed hitherto…. In fact the tabernacle is the complete fulfillment of what the Ark of the Covenant represented. It is the place of the ‘Holy of Holies.’… ‘His presence (Shekinah) really does now dwell among us — in the humblest parish church no less than in the grandest cathedral.’… So let no one say, ‘The Eucharist is for eating, not looking at.’... Thus adoration is not opposed to Communion, nor is it merely added to it. No, Communion only reaches its true depths when it is supported and surrounded by adoration….”

As for the direction of liturgical prayer, Cardinal Ratzinger criticizes the notion of priest as “presider,” as though everything depends on a mere master of ceremonies. Moreover, he says, “The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself. The common turning toward the east was not a ‘celebration toward the wall’; it did not mean that the priest ‘had his back to the people’: the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together ‘toward the Lord.’”

Let me add that the Vatican has recently said that it is a legitimate option for both the priest and people to face “eastward,” or toward the Lord (see “On the Orientation of the Priest at Mass,” issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, Sept. 25, 2000).

Sacred Images, Sacred Music, and the Body

Cardinal Ratzinger rejects modern iconoclasm just as the Church rejected earlier forms. He says in words that should be inscribed on the foreheads of liberal “liturgical experts” everywhere: “The senses are not to be discarded, but they should be expanded to their widest capacity.” He who does not see that sacred images are rooted in the fact that the transcendent God — the I AM of Exodus 3:14 — has “become man,” in time and space, “misses the point of the Incarnation.” Iconoclasm, he says, “rests ultimately on a one-sided Apophatic theology, which recognizes only the Wholly Other-ness of God beyond all images and words, a theology that in the final analysis regards revelation as the inadequate human reflection of what is eternally imperceptible.”

Thus, sacred images are a consoling reminder that God has “become flesh” (Jn. 1:14) and is now forever a part of our history. Christ and the experience of Him by others can be painted, sculpted, etc. — recalled to and for our senses — precisely to aid in our perceiving. And when we venerate such images, we give glory to Him whom such images represent.

How cold the iconoclast’s church is! And how foolish he who would oppose the love we have for one another to the veneration our hearts would show to God through the warm veneration of such images. What was meant to serve as so many windows to God has become, for the neo-Modernist, an embarrassment, like the Gospel as well as the Incarnation itself. This is a failure to understand, indeed a failure to believe — a crisis of faith. Only a new conversion can fan the flame of faith for these persons again.

As for kneeling and other reverential bodily gestures — such as the Sign of the Cross — during Mass, the Cardinal teaches that such bodily gestures, which show our love and humility before the love which God showed us first, are intrinsic to a rightly understood liturgy, especially at the liturgy of the Eucharist, which must not be rushed, and especially at the elevation of the consecrated Species, which must make the whole heart pause and adore. To rush this deed of God, to discourage the content-filled silence of the adoring and prayerful heart, is a crime. Here is “active participation” far deeper than mere vocal response.

Likewise, music in the liturgy must rise above the banal, above “radical forms of subjectivism,” which, he notes, “has led to destructionism.” The answer is to find real beauty again, a beauty grounded in the Logos-Word, a beauty which issues in that excellence which overcomes “the unbounded inflation of subjectivity and to recognize once more that a relationship with the Logos, who was at the beginning, brings salvation to the subject, that is to the person.” Thus, all cheap notions of subjectivity must be redeemed, transformed by Christ through conversion, leading us beyond banality and kitsch to the Beautiful again.

A House Built on Sand

The Cardinal blames much of today’s liturgical corruption on the radicalization of the historical critical method. This new version of sola Scriptura — as it seems to have become — “cannot provide a foundation for the Church and the commonality of her faith. Scripture is Scripture only when it lives within the living subject that is the Church. This makes it all the more absurd that a not insignificant number of people today are trying to construct the liturgy afresh on the basis of sola scriptura. In these reconstructions they identify Scripture with the prevailing exegetical opinions, thus confusing faith with opinion. Liturgy ‘manufactured’ in this way is based on human words and opinions. It is a house built on sand and remains totally empty, however much human artistry may adorn it.” The Cardinal goes on to criticize the superficial concept of “creativity” in liturgical matters.

This is a book for the whole Church. And it couldn’t have come at a needier time.



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