The Spirit of the Liturgy

by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Ignatius Press, 2000

232 pages, $17.95

In 1918, the year after World War I ended, Romano Guardini published an insightful book titled The Spirit of the Liturgy. Eighty-three years later, the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has revisited the subject, looking back on decades of liturgical studies, reforms and experiments that marked the second half of the 20th century — and pointing ahead to the 21st.

Cardinal Ratzinger likens the Church's liturgy to a fresco that had been hidden over the centuries by layers of whitewash. “The fresco was laid bare … in a definitive way by the Second Vatican Council. For a moment its colors and figures fascinated us. But since then the fresco has been endangered by climatic conditions as well as by various restorations. … What is imperative is a new reverence in the way we treat it, a new understanding of its message and its reality, so that rediscovery does not become the first stage of irreparable loss.”

The Church's chief theologian makes it clear that he is wary of scholarship that emphasizes the history of the liturgy at the expense of its mystery. His goal is to help post-Vatican-II Catholics confused by such scholarship to understand their faith and its expression in the Church's worship. To accomplish this, he explains, in easily accessible terms, the theology behind the fundamental components of the liturgy.

The first section, “The Essence of the Liturgy,” lays out important presuppositions that are frequently ignored. For example, in the liturgy human beings worship God — yet liturgy itself is not a human construct, but a divine initiative. Because God became man, Christian worship does not exclude everyday reality or try to abstract from it; the liturgy is rooted in history and involves the entire cosmos.

One chapter is devoted to the transition “From Old Testament to New.” “[T]he synagogue was always ordered toward the Temple,” writes the cardinal. “The new Temple already exists, and so too does the new, the definitive sacrifice: the humanity of Christ opened up in his Cross and Resurrection.”

The second section explores “Time and Space in the Liturgy.” Those who follow the controversy about which way the priest should face while celebrating Mass may be surprised that the author does not take sides. Instead, he describes the ancient Christian practice of “orient-ing” a church toward the East and explains the deeper meaning of both the traditional and the current practice.

In the third part, “Art and Liturgy,” Cardinal Ratzinger examines the use of images and music in liturgy. The two chapters in this section summarize several scholarly articles and talks that were collected in the author's 1995 book A New Song for the Lord. It turns out that there are genuinely theological reasons for excluding rock music from the Mass.

Part Four, “Liturgical Form,” addresses the diversity in the Church's rites, the task of inculturation, the true meaning of “active participation” in the liturgy and the need for silence. A survey of the postures and gestures used in liturgical prayer often uncovers profound significance, especially in the Sign of the Cross.

In this book, one of the Church's towering intellects wears his erudition very lightly. If the average reader finds some of its concepts challenging, it is not because they are abstruse — but because they are so grand. With Cardinal Ratzinger as our guide, we learn how to experience every liturgy as an encounter with the risen Lord. Read The Spirit of the Liturgy and bask in Easter glory all year long.

Michael J. Miller writes from Glenside, Pennsylvania.