He was certainly prepared to highlight the liturgy by his Benedictine sympathies which came to light with the choice of his name on the evening of April 19, 2005, and by his pilgrimage in 2009 to Monte Cassino, where he spent a long time collected from the tomb of the patriarch of the monks of the West. These sympathies were already felt in his commitments to the abbeys of Fontgombault and Barroux, where he had made stays and retreats. Despite everything, Joseph Ratzinger is above all a professional theologian who has written innumerable books and articles on the Bible, the Tradition of the Church, the most varied questions of faith and morals. In the end, the liturgy occupies only a small place in his immense work.
The purpose of the liturgy: to praise God
Reduced but essential: his two most striking interventions during the years of the pontificate of John Paul II, when we were painfully emerging from the crisis which had shaken the Church in Western countries, were his conference in Paris on catechesis and his book The Spirit of the Liturgy published in German in 2000 and translated into French two years later. The second certainly had the most consequences.
This book was not presented on the same level as the innumerable texts published in those years (and still today) to defend or attack the “new mass” resulting from the reform of the Roman missal initiated by the Vatican Council II. From the outset it was situated higher, precisely at the level of the “spirit” of the liturgy, and it highlighted the necessarily “theocentric” character (centered on God) of Christian worship which culminates in the Eucharistic sacrifice. The purpose of our celebrations is not to reflect our experience, to weld our cohesion, nor to manifest to the world what we believe, it is to praise God through his Son and in his Spirit.
The “active participation” of the faithful, desired by the Council, is therefore not the intervention of each and everyone in the play of the liturgy, but the adhesion of the heart and the intelligence to what is celebrated. As a sign of this deep orientation, the cardinal called for the possibility that the mass be celebrated again versus Dominum, towards the Lord. He recalled – and this challenged many received ideas – that such was the almost perpetual practice of the Church. He took sides, following Bishop Klaus Gamber, whose book had been badly received by critics, to affirm that the first Christian assemblies had not known the mass turned towards the faithful. He also recalled that the Conciliar Constitution on the liturgy had practically not spoken of this subject and that, in any case, there was no obligation to return the altars at all costs. One discovered, while reading it, that above the debates which had torn Catholics for thirty years or more, there was a wisdom of the Church, a rigor, an unsuspected balance which endured. This is what the Second Vatican Council, in its own way, had tried to rediscover, but which the implementation of the reform had often concealed.
In this regard, he denounced, as he did in several other publications, the confusion between the reform as understood by the Church and the reforms. For the Church, to reform is to rediscover its vitality in contact with its sources, it is to adhere more intensely to the first inspiration from which everything started; while the world makes reforms to try to adapt the laws and regulations to the situation of a changing world. Reforms imply progress, moving towards something more effective by renouncing wrong or outdated ways of doing things. The reform also aims at progress, but spiritual progress in the body of the Church, at the cost of greater fidelity and a better understanding of the deposit received. We can see to what misunderstanding this confusion has led. Hence the surprise of many to see that the Church had in no way rejected Latin, Gregorian chant, or even kneeling communion, even if other ways of doing things were possible.
Summorum pontificum, a gesture of appeasement and communion
The ground was ripe for the great act that Pope Benedict XVI took on July 7, 2007 with the motu proprio Summorum pontificum. The maintenance in the Church of a fairly considerable number of faithful attached to the ancient rite of the Mass (which is called “of Saint Pius V” or even “Tridentine” because of the Council of Trent, which had wished for this edition to be renewed and version of the Roman Missal) had posed problems as early as the reign of Paul VI. Among them, there weren’t just people nostalgic for the past, who one might think wouldn’t be renewed in the next generation. On the contrary, there were more and more young people eager to escape the poor and mumbled celebrations offered to them, in favor of something more dignified and more respectful. How to satisfy them without seeming to deny what had been done at the Council, without seeming to go backwards? It is precisely there that Benedict XVI performed the work of a profound theologian of the Tradition of the Church.
The Church does not deny herself, she integrates diverse realities within her, makes them coexist, until they mutually enrich each other. For the first time, we heard that the earlier ritual, last revised by Pope John XXIII, had never been abolished (as a reform of National Education would abolish the previous one), but that it was still there. as a possibility. And, by his sovereign authority, the pope established alongside the “ordinary” form (the ordo of 1969) an “extraordinary” form of the Roman rite, not another rite, not the only Roman rite (the other being a modern invention). All terms were weighed, the war was over.
We know the relief that this measure brought, but the benefit was not felt only in one camp. The fact of seeing the extraordinary form celebrated at least occasionally, of noting that it was not stigmatized, opened horizons to more than one (lay or cleric). We understood that the missal of Paul VI was perhaps not what we believed, that the ideal was not necessarily an unbridled creativity making each mass a happening, that we could respect the rubrics, that the faithful could kneel for consecration and communion, that the Mass of the Angels could be sung, etc. That it was even rather that which said missal indicated.
The task is not finished, even if our beloved pope emeritus has left us to go, we hope, to taste the riches, certainly far superior, of the celestial liturgy. His teaching will remain a support for us and it still contains many elements that we still have to welcome and assimilate.
1. Ad Solem Publishing, 2003.
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Benedict XVI, an acute sense of the liturgy
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