It is no easy task to render justice to the liturgical legacy of Benedict XVI, whose pontificate stands out in so many ways, and I accepted Adoremus Bulletin’s request with mixed sentiments of gratitude and trepidation. In the first place, I am truly grateful for Benedict’s momentous contributions to the liturgical life of the Church, as a scholar and theologian, as well as a pope and pastor of souls. At the same time, I cannot deny a sense of apprehension, as I set out to consider the lasting impact of a pope who had to fight so many painful battles within the Church and whose renunciation from the Petrine office in 2013 appears to have called into question so much of his achievement. Having had the grace and honor to know the late Joseph Ratzinger personally, I find it incomprehensible how a man of such gentleness, humility, and openness in listening to others was often met with anticipated hostility from outside, and with thinly veiled obstruction from inside the Catholic Church. And yet, I am convinced that his epochal labors to restore the sacred liturgy to the heart of the Church, with intellectual courage, spiritual depth, and at great personal cost, have only begun to bear fruit and will prove his lasting legacy to Christianity.
As Joseph Ratzinger noted in his autobiography, the Church’s worship had shaped his faith and his life from his childhood.1 Although his academic career focused on dogmatic and fundamental theology, Ratzinger considered the theology of the liturgy central to his work as a priest and scholar. In the preface to Theology of the Liturgy, the 11th volume of his collected writings (which was the first one to be published, at his express wish, in 2008), Benedict XVI drew attention to the fact that the Council’s first document was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. In his view, this was not just a pragmatic decision that seemed expedient in the given circumstances; rather it reflected the right ordering of the Church’s life and mission:
“Beginning with the liturgy tells us: ‘God first.’ When the focus on God is not decisive, everything else loses its orientation. The saying from the Rule of St. Benedict ‘Nothing is to be preferred to the liturgy’ (43,3) applies specifically to monasticism, but as a way of ordering priorities it is true also for the life of the Church and of every individual, for each in his own way.”2
Pope Benedict then recalled a theme he has widely explored in his writing and preaching—the fullness of meaning of “orthodoxy”: “It may be useful here to recall that in the word ‘orthodoxy,’ the second half, ‘-doxa,’ does not mean ‘idea,’ but, rather, ‘glory’ (Herrlichkeit): it is not a matter of the right ‘idea’ about God; rather, it is a matter of the right way of glorifying him, of responding to him. For that is the fundamental question of the man who begins to understand himself correctly: How must I encounter God? Thus learning the right way of worshipping—orthodoxy—is the gift par excellence that is given to us by the faith.”3
Here is an insightful elaboration on the old saying, dating from the fifth century: ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, “Let the law of prayer establish the law of belief.” In other words, the Church’s public worship is an expression of and witness to her infallible faith, and it should help us to understand in a profound way that is more than verbal that all our aspirations for goodness, for truth, for beauty and for love are grounded and find their fulfilment in the all-surpassing reality of God.
As a theologian, Joseph Ratzinger remained true to this fundamental intuition throughout his long and distinguished career. Although not a liturgist by training (a point often noted by his critics), he touched upon matters of divine worship in various publications. Ratzinger was deeply indebted to the principles of the 20th-century Liturgical Movement, shaped by figures such as Romano Guardini and Joseph Pascher. At the same time, it was his concern for authentic liturgical renewal that made him question aspects of the post-conciliar reform already in its early, enthusiastic years. Ratzinger’s perceptive analysis exposed the ambivalence of a liturgical purism that oscillated between a revival of a supposed “golden age” (whether pre-Carolingian, or pre-Nicene), and an uncontrolled urge for novelty.4 What fell by the wayside was the historical growth and development of the liturgy in the Middle Ages and the Baroque period, which brought depth and maturity that cannot easily be disposed of. It is the Catholic liturgy in its organic (and sometime meandering) history that nourished many generations of Christian people, including its greatest saints. In particular Ratzinger was one of the few but notable voices (along with Louis Bouyer, Josef Andreas Jungmann, and Klaus Gamber) that questioned the sweeping introduction of Mass “facing the people” and the ensuing re-ordering of churches throughout the world.
A milestone in Ratzinger’s theological work on the liturgy was the collection of essays The Feast of Faith, first published in German in 1981.5 Among the significant contributions of this book was Ratzinger’s argument that the Last Supper established the dogmatic content of the Eucharist, but not its liturgical form, which was yet to develop. In other words, the Mass is not simply a re-enactment of the Last Supper, but the Last Supper itself must be understood as the anticipation, under the veil of the sacramental signs, of the sacrifice of the Cross. This insight led Ratzinger to propose a robust re-affirmation of the sacrificial character of the Mass: the Eucharist as the “banquet of the reconciled” is integrated into the self-offering of Christ made present on the altar in the form of a liturgical rite indebted to Synagogue and Temple. Against this background, Ratzinger restated his preference for the celebration of Mass “facing East” as the more suitable, visible, and ritual expression of the Eucharistic sacrifice.
As Cardinal and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981–2005), Ratzinger continued to engage with the theology of the liturgy.6 The broad scope and heavy burden of his office entrusted to him by Pope John Paul II allowed him to write only one monograph: The Spirit of the Liturgy, published in 2000.7 This book was nothing short of a game-changer, and I am convinced that in due time it will be seen as a watershed in Catholic liturgical study and practice. The Spirit of the Liturgy inspired a new generation of scholars to look beyond the grand narrative of the post-conciliar reform and look again to the fullness of liturgical tradition. The book also encouraged clergy and faithful alike to articulate their unease about the present state of Catholic worship, where not everything is well. In many ways, The Spirit of the Liturgy was a synthesis of Joseph Ratzinger’s work and thought on the subject and did not break as much new ground as The Feast of Faith. The book’s major contribution may well be his effort to deepen and broaden our understanding of “active participation,” the principle that lay at the heart of the Second Vatican Council’s call for liturgical renewal. The need to go beyond the external and superficial interpretation of this principle in the post-conciliar reforms is widely recognised today. Ratzinger gave this conviction a sound theological footing, when he wrote in a subsequent publication: “The liturgy derives its greatness from what it is, not from what we do with it…. Liturgy is not an expression of the community’s consciousness, which in any case is diffuse and changing. It is revelation received in faith and prayer.”8
A New Liturgical Movement
Joseph Ratzinger lived and worked at a time when precisely the form and expression of this revelation received in faith and prayer had become a highly controversial topic in the Catholic Church. As a theologian and cardinal, he did not shrink from entering this contested arena with courage and clarity. With his election to the See of Peter on April 19, 2005, Benedict XVI found himself in a position to shape the future of the Catholic liturgy, a position he could only approach with some misgivings, because he strongly held that authentic liturgical renewal does not happen simply by decrees and instructions.
Hence Benedict XVI began cautiously by conveying in his homilies and discourses, and in a special way in his own liturgical celebrations, the Second Vatican Council’s order of priorities as his own first concern: namely, that the sacred liturgy must be a reflection of the glory of God—in which we are called to share above all through the self-offering of Christ at the altar, when we are immersed in the Paschal Mystery of his passion, death and resurrection. This sacramental communion is not just something we (the community assembled at a particular place and time) do but the gift of a greater reality Christ entrusted to the entire Church. Shortly before his election to the papacy, Ratzinger called for a renewed awareness of the liturgical rite as “the condensed form of living tradition.”9 This meant, in concrete terms, to reconsider the process of liturgical renewal according to the hermeneutic of reform in continuity in interpreting the Second Vatican Council, which Benedict XVI proposed in his momentous discourse to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005.10
Already in his Memoirs of 1997, then-Cardinal Ratzinger called for a “new liturgical movement” that would “call to life the real heritage of the Second Vatican Council,” a claim he later took up again in The Spirit of the Liturgy. He was convinced that infelicitous choices have been made in the actual implementation of the sound principles of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Not enough attention has been paid to article 23 of the document, insisting that “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.”
In a lecture held at the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium in 2003, Ratzinger argued that the time had come for a relecture—a rereading—of the conciliar constitution. With the aim of overcoming simplistic readings of “the council,” Ratzinger proposed a distinction between two different levels that run through every chapter of the document. In the first place, Sacrosanctum Concilium “develops principles that quite fundamentally and generally concern the nature of liturgy and its celebration” and command the highest authority. Secondly, and based on these principles, the constitution “gives normative instructions for the practical renewal of the Roman liturgy.” For Ratzinger these valid instructions “are also more products of their time than the statements of principle.” A third level is added with the concrete implementation of the liturgical reform by the Consilium, most importantly the renewed Roman Missal implemented in 1969–1970. While these “forms of liturgical renewal established by church authority” are binding, they are “not simply identical with the Council.” The framework set by the broad directives of Sacrosanctum Concilium allows for “different realizations.” Ratzinger cautioned: “Someone who does not think that everything in this reform turned out well and considers many things subject to reform or even in need of revision is not therefore an opponent of the ‘Council.’” At a distance of forty years, he said, the text of Sacrosanctum Concilium should be “newly ‘contextualized,’ that is, read in the light of its impact in recent history and of our present situation.”11
“Two Forms…Same Rite”
As pope, Benedict offered a key instance of such a relecture, guided by a hermeneutic of continuity in his 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum by lifting previous restrictions on the use of the pre-conciliar liturgical books, which he called the Extraordinary Form or usus antiquior of the one Roman Rite. This conception is not without its difficulties, because there is an obvious discontinuity between pre-conciliar and post-conciliar liturgical forms. Such differences are less pronounced when, for instance, the current Missal is celebrated in Latin and at an altar with the priest facing east (ad orientem) instead of facing the people, but the differences still remain: in the prayers and readings of the Mass, in many ritual elements, and in the structure of the liturgical year. In my reading, with his affirmation of “two forms of the same rite” Benedict described his goal of a slow and gradual process that was meant to begin with Summorum Pontificum and could eventually result in a “mutual enrichment” of the two forms. Pope Francis rejected this vision in his 2021 motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, and the status of the pre-conciliar liturgical books, while still being used with considerable restrictions, is far from clear. At this point, it is worth recalling the same Paschal Mystery is expressed in different, but by no means contrary or contradictory, ways in the Roman Rite, other Western rites, and in the many Eastern rites—and yet all of them have their place in the Catholic Church.
By calling for a mutual enrichment, Benedict XVI took a courageous step to overcome the tendency to “freeze” the present state of the post-conciliar reform in a way that would not do justice to the organic development of the liturgy, and to resume the liturgical renewal desired by the Council in a different key.12 At a time when many questions once were considered settled are re-opened for debate, it is difficult to understand why the strengths and weaknesses of the post-conciliar liturgical reform should not be discussed openly. Liturgical renewal is effected by practical and prudential decisions that do not engage the infallibility of the Church in matters of faith and morals.
The blueprint for Summorum Pontificum is available in Ratzinger’s concluding reflections at a liturgical conference held in the Benedictine Abbey of Fontgombault in 2001. At that occasion, the Cardinal spoke of a “reform of the reform,” for which he identified three areas. Firstly, he saw the need to overcome “false creativity, which is not a category of the liturgy,”13 by which he meant ambiguous elements in the postconciliar liturgical books that contributed to ritual instability—including, above all, the options for adapting rites to given circumstances, and the frequent ad libitum passages (“with these or similar words”). The fundamental problem Ratzinger identified in such arbitrary indications is not just liturgical in nature (interrupting, for instance, the flow on which “successful” ritual depends) but also problematic in an ecclesiological context: “with this false creativity, which transforms the liturgy into a catechetical exercise for this congregation, the liturgical unity and the ecclesiality of the Liturgy are being destroyed.”14 Secondly, Ratzinger addressed the question of the post-conciliar liturgical translations. This matter has been widely treated, especially in the Anglophone world, and a genuine process of renewal started in the pontificate of John Paul II. Thirdly, Ratzinger raised again the question of Mass “facing the people.” His modest proposal was at least to place a clearly visible cross on the altar so that both priest and people would have a common focus of direction.15
Benedict XVI was keenly aware that the manifest discontinuity in the ritual practice of the Church has created a situation in which a mere imposition of traditional liturgical forms would be widely perceived as yet another rupture. By opening new possibilities, he intended to create favorable conditions for an “organic” development of the Roman Rite that would avoid the discontinuity that did so much damage to Catholic ritual in the postconciliar period. The liturgical provision for the Personal Ordinariates for former Anglicans, created after the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus of 2009, follows this trajectory. The ritual books under the heading Divine Worship, especially the missal (2015), conform to the basic pattern of the Roman Rite, but at the same time enrich it with a “patrimony” that is partly derived from the broader medieval tradition (for instance, in the introductory rites and the offertory) and partly derived from a characteristically Anglican style of prayer, duly harmonized with Catholic doctrine.
It seems to have been the idea of Benedict XVI that organic development needs to happen as if by osmosis, that is, a steady and almost unconscious assimilation of the liturgical tradition. An important element in this process was to be the pontiff’s example in his own celebrations. Ritual elements such as the placing of a prominent crucifix in the center of the altar, the distribution of Holy Communion to the faithful kneeling and directly on the tongue, and the extended use of the Latin language were intended to set a standard to be imitated. Benedict was convinced that authentic liturgical renewal does not come about by instructions and regulations. His reticence as a lawgiver—for instance, there was no new editio typica of any liturgical book during his pontificate—could be interpreted as a lost opportunity. On the other hand, the fragility of legislative decisions was demonstrated when his immediate successor, Pope Francis, cancelled the provisions of Summorum Pontificum.
Against the odds, Pope Benedict did open perspectives for a renewal in continuity with the liturgical tradition, and these impulses have been taken up especially by younger generations in the Church throughout the world. This “new liturgical movement” Joseph Ratzinger desired has the potential to mend the torn threads of Catholic ritual. The best testimony to his liturgical legacy will be to continue his work with patience, perseverance, joy, and gratitude for his luminous theological mind and his long-suffering service to the people of God.
Father Uwe Michael Lang, a native of Nuremberg, Germany, is a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in London. He holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and teaches Church history at Mater Ecclesiae College, St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, and Allen Hall Seminary, London. He is an associate staff member at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, and on the Visiting Faculty of the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, IL. He is a Corresponding Member of the Neuer Schülerkreis Joseph Ratzinger / Papst Benedikt XVI, a Member of the Council of the Henry Bradshaw Society, a Board Member of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, and Editor of Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal.
Image Source: AB/L’Osservatore Romano
- Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones: Memoirs 1927–1977, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998), 18-20.
- Benedict XVI, “On the Inaugural Volume of My Collected Works,” in Joseph Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence, Joseph Ratzinger Collected Works 11, ed. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), xv-xviii, at xv.
- Benedict XVI, “On the Inaugural Volume of My Collected Works,” xv.
- Joseph Ratzinger, “Catholicism after the Council”, in The Furrow 18 (1967), 3–23, at 10.
- Joseph Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy, translated by Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).
- See especially Joseph Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today (New York: Crossroad, 1996).
- Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, translated by John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000).
- Joseph Ratzinger, “The Theology of the Liturgy,” in Theology of the Liturgy, 541–557, at 557 (originally published in 2001).
- Joseph Ratzinger, “The Organic Development of the Liturgy,” in Theology of the Liturgy, 589–594, at 591 (originally published in 2004).
- Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia Offering Them His Christmas Greetings (22 December 2005); see also Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission Sacramentum Caritatis (22 February 2007), no. 3.
- Joseph Ratzinger, “Fortieth Anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: A Look Back and a Look Forward,” in Theology of the Liturgy, 574–588, at 576 (originally published in 2003).
- See Benedict XVI, Video Message for the Closing of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin (17 June 2012).
- Joseph Ratzinger, “Assessment and Future Prospects,” in Theology of the Liturgy, 558–568, at 565 (originally published in 2003).
- Joseph Ratzinger, “Assessment and Future Prospects,” 565.
- See Joseph Ratzinger, “Assessment and Future Prospects,” 565–566.