In recent weeks there have been various comparisons of this pontificate to the previous one. This recently came to head in some widely-reported comments made by Italian film-director Franco Zeffirelli who critiqued the Pope's attire as too sumptuous, suggesting the Pope needed a makeover. He did this with reference back to the John Paul II era as well as to other members of the hierarchy. Ultimately Zeffirelli's comments seem to be mainly a critique that what the Pope wears is too traditional and I do not think it merits a great deal of attention.
These comparisons however, and comparisons we have had in previous times, put me to thinking about how popes are characterized. The previous pontiff was styled very much a philosopher-Pope. Of his great gifts to the Church were encyclicals like Fides et Ratio which laid out the importance of understanding the co-relation of faith and reason. He also contributed much in the area of life-ethics with Evangelium Vitae and similar discourses.
In the same regard, we are only two and a half years into the pontificate of Benedict XVI, but it seems to me that we might already be able to refer to Pope Benedict as "the liturgical Pope".
When one considers how much work has gone on under this pontificate as regards the sacred liturgy it is really quite astounding. As Dr. Alcuin Reid pointed out in Columbus, Ohio at the annual Society for Catholic Liturgy conference, we are already beginning to be able to speak of the "liturgical reform of Pope Benedict XVI" -- a sentiment that was made even prior to recent Vatican liturgical developments.
One need only consider the numerous statements the Pope has made as regards sacred music and its relation to the sacred liturgy, or the statements at Heiligenkreuz Abbey on liturgical solemnity, beauty and theocentricity. Then of course there is Sacramentum Caritatis and Summorum Pontificum. More recently we have seen the re-appearance of more traditional vesture and vestments, papal thrones and the re-arrangement (or better: re-orientation) of the papal altars. Beyond that, the papal liturgies have themselves been noted for their changes as regards language and music and the Pope recently instructed those compiling his "Opera Omnia" to begin with his liturgical writing, which he personally gave a prominence as most characteristic of his thought.
What is particularly important, however, are that the liturgical initiatives of Benedict are not merely limited to the intellectual discussion of the liturgy. Such is important of course, but action and actionable items as regards the sacred liturgy are also needed to coincide with that teaching. This has not been absent. Summorum Pontificum has set off a chain of liturgical activity both in Rome and abroad, enough so that we can seriously and legitimately speak of a "post-Motu Proprio Church". Moreover, the recent changing of the papal liturgies, both as regards the vestments, but particularly as regards the papal altar, also sets an important precedent. The fact is, many look to Rome for direction and the direction of the Pope can establish the needed precedent and example that many priests and bishops look for as regard their own liturgies. Benedict then has clearly set forth that beautiful and traditional vestments have a place of citizenship in the modern liturgy of the Church, and further, he has made a clear statement about the orientation of the liturgy.
As regards this altar arrangement, I would propose that there is more to it than this however. The nature of that arrangement implicitly includes a powerful statement that a clear view of the priest at the altar is not a liturgical necessity -- something the Pope addressed as a Cardinal. Aside from the implications this has in validating the practice of ad orientem (in its usual expression of the priest and people facing in the same direction), it seems to me that this also speaks to a proper interpretation of active/actual participation -- one which is not tied to an overly-simplistic, externalist view of participation which requires everything that takes place at the altar to be visible.
Such a density of liturgical directives and action in such a short period of time is both encouraging and remarkable. As such, it brings to mind that in the future, we may not only be speaking of the liturgical reform of Benedict XVI, but also of Benedict XVI, the liturgical Pope.