By kind permission of The Catholic Herald, NLM is pleased to be able to present the following piece by Dom Alcuin Reid.
by Dom Alcuin Reid
for The Catholic Herald
Joseph Ratzinger was immersed in the liturgy from his childhood, as his memoirs attest: “I started down the road of the liturgy, and this became a continuous process of growth into a grand reality transcending all particular individuals and generations, a reality that became an occasion for me of ever-new amazement and discovery. The inexhaustible reality of the Catholic liturgy has accompanied me though all phases of life, and so I shall have to speak of it time and time again.”
Benedict XVI was thus formed by the classical liturgical movement. This, and his conviction that some things went very wrong with the movement after the Council – in 2004 he wrote: “Anyone like myself, who was moved by this perception in the time of the liturgical movement on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, can only stand, deeply sorrowing, before the ruins of the very things they were concerned for” – is key to understanding what has become known since his 2005 election as “the liturgical reform of Benedict XVI”.
Why the liturgy? Because Pope Benedict knows that “the Church stands [or] falls with the liturgy” and that “the true celebration of the Sacred Liturgy is the centre of any renewal of the Church whatever”. His profound concern is that the Church worships Almighty God correctly, and thereby be fully connected to the indispensible source which sustains and empowers Christian life, witness and mission. If the liturgy is impoverished or off-track our ability to live the Catholic faith and to evangelise suffers. This conviction motivated his writing on the liturgy as cardinal – a body of work which will form students for generations. It also explains the liturgical reforms of his pontificate.
These reforms have not been arbitrary impositions: he knows only too well the limitations of authority in respect of the Sacred Liturgy. Rather, they have been incisive, calm, even quiet corrections or exhortations – in words and by example. Pope Benedict’s insistence on the correct translation of pro multis, “for many”, was firm, but he outlined its reasoning clearly and courteously. By continuing his predecessor’s insistence on accurate vernacular translations he earned the opprobrium of some. But his judgment that this is necessary for the long-term good of the Church is by no means disproved.
There was much noise before and after his historic 2007 ruling that the older liturgical rites were henceforth to be available without restriction. Yet in the midst of the cacophony the Supreme Pontiff took the trouble to write at length to the world’s bishops and explain his act. “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful,” he taught – a truth that is having an ongoing impact.
A collection of the Holy Father’s liturgical writings, homilies and other discourses shall surely appear. From them we can learn so much about liturgical prayer, the integral role of art, music, architecture and much more. He has also spoken of the “the misunderstandings and errors in the practical implementation of the reform” following the Council, underling the need to give this further attention.
Among his writings the 2007 apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis ranks highly. His conviction expressed therein, that “everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty”, was reflected in papal liturgies. These became master classes on how to celebrate the modern liturgy in continuity with tradition, where the best of the old and of the new serve to raise our minds and hearts to God. Countless priests and seminarians have participated in this course in practical liturgy – bishops and cardinals also. Its fruits are increasingly experienced worldwide.
At the heart of his reform is Pope Benedict’s conviction that Catholic liturgy “is not about us, but about God”. This explains the crucifix at the centre of the altar. It is why he publically celebrated the modern Mass facing East in the Sistine and other papal chapels. There never was a need to put a table altar in front of the altar in the Sistine Chapel (or elsewhere), but it took a pope with liturgical vision quietly to remind us of this. Similarly, his manifest conviction that the normative, if not also most appropriate, manner of receiving Our Blessed Lord in Holy Communion is kneeling and on the tongue remains a challenging invitation to reform local practice.
With his abdication, it is natural to lament that more was not achieved. Yes, other reforms could have been enacted. Above all, the question of a “reform of the reform” remains.
Five years before his election Cardinal Ratzinger, perhaps looking forward to retirement at that time, published The Spirit of the Liturgy. He wrote: “If this book were to encourage in a new way, something like a “liturgical movement”, a movement toward the liturgy and toward the right way of celebrating the liturgy, inwardly and outwardly, then the intention that inspired its writing would be richly fulfilled.”
In 2005 God’s Providence gave him the chair from which to teach the liturgical spirit to the Universal Church. His words, acts and example since have indeed inspired a movement toward the right way of celebrating the liturgy, inwardly and outwardly. However much more we may have liked to see, he has quietly laid deep and solid foundations for a new liturgical movement upon which others can now build.
The conclusion of Pope Benedict’s final public Mass was yet another lesson about the liturgy. Not unnaturally, there was sustained applause. But even on that occasion Pope Benedict the liturgist could not allow personal adulation to take priority. “Thank you,” he said. Then, with five words which may well serve as his liturgical testament, he brought it firmly to an end: “Let us return to prayer.”
Thank you, Holy Father. Ad multos annos!
Dom Alcuin Reid is a monk of the Monastère Saint-Benoît in the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon and an organiser of Sacra Liturgia 2013, an international conference in Rome this June