Thursday, February 09, 2023

Pope Benedict and the Original and New Liturgical Movement: Some Personal Reflections

The following is written by the Rev. Richard Gennaro Cipolla, a convert from Anglicanism, who was ordained a priest in 1984.

I was in Rome a good number of years ago and had made a breakfast appointment with a priest friend of mine who was living there and completing advanced studies. I told him that we would meet at the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square at 7 a.m. I arrived a bit early and stood there watching for my friend. Suddenly I saw a priest in a plain black cassock walking from the Borgo side of the piazza towards me. As he approached, I recognized him with his shock of white hair. It was Cardinal Ratzinger. I tried to quickly figure out what I should do—play it cool and just offer a nod and a “Buon giorno, Eminenza,” or whether I should express my deep appreciation for his presence in my life through his writings in beautifully phrased Italian or even English, in which he was fluent. As he approached the obelisk I became choked up and could not speak. I knelt on the paving stones of the piazza, looked up to him, and asked for his blessing. He smiled and gave me the blessing, and then proceeded through the piazza on his way to his office in the Palazzo del Sant’ Uffizio.

Why was I choked up and unable to speak? Because it was Joseph Ratzinger’s writings—at whose heart, no matter what was the topic at hand, was the person of Jesus Christ—that were my comfort and solace for my first fifteen years as a Catholic priest, at a time when I tried to fit in with those who had deliberately turned their back on Catholic Tradition and had embraced the gross misunderstanding of human freedom that flourished in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a misunderstanding which is still with us in the Church today. I failed in that attempt to fit in and that failure was a great grace for me. And I finally understood God’s words to St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for thee.”

As Pope, Benedict XVI never celebrated the ancient rite, but his many writings, and his later Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum, underscored the need for liturgical practice in line with Catholic Tradition.
After Pope Benedict’s death a month ago, there were many who said that he was among the greatest theologians ever to sit in the Chair of Peter. And that may be true, but not merely because of his intellect. It was true because at the very heart of his theology was not a system or a comprehensive explanation of the development of dogma: at the heart of everything he wrote was the person of Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

There is a photo of Ratzinger and the theologian Karl Rahner at the first session of the Second Vatican Council. Both were in coat and tie, no cassock, no clerical collar. Those were the heady times of a promise of a new springtime for the Church, the jettisoning of the baggage of the past that seemed to prevent her from fulfilling her mission to a world that was undergoing, at least in the West, a radical transformation seen to be opening to a future of freedom and hope, unfettered by the past marked by two terrible World Wars that seemed to have destroyed the heart of what was known as Western civilization. It took only one more session of the Council for Ratzinger and other theologians to realize that the strong theme of openness to the world that gained momentum at the Council was in real danger of leading to a break with Catholic Tradition. We must be always reminded Catholic Tradition has nothing to do with traditions within the Church. Certain prayers, customs, foods associated with certain feasts, processions, local feasts and devotions, even the Rosary: all good and part of the richness of the practice of the Catholic faith, these traditions. But the Catholic Tradition is the foundation of the faith, in the witness of the Apostles first of all, then the witness of Scripture, then the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding the faith of the Church and its development through two millennia. In breaking away from Tradition, there was and still is the danger of forgetting that the center of the Christian faith is the person of Jesus Christ who is the same, yesterday, today and forever.

Many young priests and new generations of faithful found the beauty and awe-inspiring wonder of Tradition.

The rest, as they say, is history. Ratzinger became the defender of the Tradition of the Church for the rest of his life, as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Faith, and then, as Pope. For that he was despised by many of those in the Church hierarchy and in theological faculties who lusted after accommodation to the world, the world as understood by the Gospel of John. And through this he always understood that the worship of the Church lay at the very heart of Tradition and that to attack the liturgical Tradition of the Church is like cancer cells attacking the human body. He saw clearly in his writings on the liturgy that something bad had happened in the liturgical life of the Church after the imposition of the Mass of Paul VI. Worship was in danger of becoming a closed circle: the priest and people staring at each other amidst a barrage of words, making no room for the verticality of the Mass that links heaven and earth, and denying the necessary role of beauty in Catholic worship of God.

But writing is not enough. The greatest achievement of his papacy was and still is and always will be his Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, which broke the spell of the noxiously false idea that what was sacred yesterday is no longer sacred today. In freeing the Mass of Catholic Tradition from its bondage imposed by the very hierarchy of the Church, he not only opened the way to the discovery of the Traditional Mass by so many people who have found therein the beauty of Catholic worship in the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Son to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit and thereby deepened their faith in the Risen Lord. He also laid the foundation for a generation of young priests who have found the pearl of great price and will never forget what they have found, despite all attempts of those in power who have turned their back on the liturgical beauty and power of the Catholic Tradition and who have tried to use the ugly means of force to stamp out the Traditional Roman Mass.

Pope Benedict never celebrated the Traditional Mass himself. He believed he should not do so. It is not for us to judge him on this matter. It is for us to thank him for his courage and love in making possible the beginning of the true Liturgical Movement whose original purpose was not to invent a new rite. But rather, after many years of rote routine and rubrical mentality that scandalously gave us the 17-minute Low Mass as a norm of Sunday worship, to re-introduce to the people of the Church the power and beauty and meaning of the Mass of Catholic Tradition. It is now up to us work to fulfill that task with faith and love.

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