Benedict XVI Put Liturgy Front and Center

NEWS ANALYSIS: The pope emeritus’ words and deeds regarding the Mass led the faithful closer to God.

Pope Benedict XVI gives Communion to a woman religious Oct. 28 at the closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops for the New Evangelization.
Pope Benedict XVI gives Communion to a woman religious Oct. 28 at the closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops for the New Evangelization. (photo: CNA/Anne Hartney)

Pope Benedict XVI’s keen liturgical interest is well known to devout Catholics. Even before his papacy, books by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, such as The Feast of Faith and The Spirit of the Liturgywere formative for many of the faithful in search of true liturgical principles.

During Benedict’s papacy, documents such as the 2007 apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis continued Benedict’s catechesis on the source and summit of the Christian life. While these writings have been highly significant for the Church, priests and bishops near the now-retired Holy Father believe his example has been even more so.

Msgr. James Moroney had the privilege of working with Pope Benedict on the completion of the new English translation of the Roman Missal, which was implemented in Advent 2011.

The effort was begun by Pope John Paul II, who appointed Msgr. Moroney as a consultor to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He is also executive secretary to the Vox Clara Committee, founded for the purpose of assisting the congregation in issuing a new English translation of liturgical texts.

Msgr. Moroney, currently rector of St. John Seminary in Boston, believes that Pope Benedict XVI is, in many respects, the best articulator of the post-conciliar liturgical reform.

“This was true even before his papacy,” Msgr. Moroney said. “As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was a leader in correcting popular misconceptions about what the Council Fathers said on many topics, the liturgy included.”

“The revivification of true liturgical reform was inspired not so much by the Holy Father’s words, as important as they were,” he said. “It was primarily inspired by his actions. He had a devotion to the liturgy that was manifested in the joyful and solemn way he celebrated it. He knew it was the source and summit of the Christian life, so this understanding brought joy and wonder to his heart, which was noticeable on his face.”


Three-Part Contribution

At the center of Pope Benedict’s liturgical legacy, according to Msgr. Moroney, is the proper definition of “full and active (or actual) participation by all the people,” recommended in the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. Msgr. Moroney believes the Holy Father’s contribution to the understanding of what it means to participate in the liturgy can be summarized in three parts.

“The first,” he said, “is Benedict’s emphasis on interior participation in the liturgy. Our participation is not comprised mainly of exterior actions, but interior ones. Proper celebration of the liturgy is only possible when a grasp of the paschal mystery is present. That grasp is the heart of true liturgical participation.”

The second part is Benedict’s “exceptional support” of the re-translation of the Roman Missal into English. He continued his predecessor’s work, due to a desire for “an ever deeper, fuller participation of the faithful,” made possible with a more accurate translation.

“The third part,” Msgr. Moroney said, “of Benedict’s contribution to the proper definition of participation in the liturgy is his promotion of mystery and solemnity inherent in the Church’s official worship. He knew the liturgy was not something we invent, but something we receive, and that it was an encounter with the living God, the source of our well-being.”


Vatican II’s Authentic Interpretation

Norbertine Father Ambrose Criste currently serves as the novice master for St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, Calif. Priests from the abbey offer both the Novus Ordo and the traditional Latin Mass. In fact, many of the Sunday Masses offered in the extraordinary form in Southern California are done so by Norbertine priests who venture to parishes outside the abbey.

Father Criste, like Msgr. Moroney, believes Pope Benedict’s greatest contribution to the sacred liturgy is the authentic interpretation of the writings of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.

“So many false ideas about the liturgy were spread after the Council. It was refreshing to have Pope Benedict clarify things, which he actually started to do long before his papacy,” Father Criste said.

After Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he went one step further in making his previous liturgical teachings apparent, according to Father Criste. In 2007, he issued Summorum Pontificum, which allowed the faithful greater access to the traditional Latin Mass. In the letter accompanying the motu proprio, the Holy Father made it clear that the Mass offered according to the 1962 Missal was never abrogated.

“This was highly significant,” Father Criste said, “because authentic liturgy is never a matter of breaking with the past, but a continuation of it. There can be legitimate developments, to be sure, but to make something up without any connection to what preceded it is decidedly un-Catholic.”

Father Criste was honored to serve as the Holy Father’s deacon at two Masses. Of those occasions, he said, “The humility and reverence with which Benedict conducted himself were remarkable. There was nothing casual about what he did. Rather, you could see that he was deeply, prayerfully devoted to the sacred liturgy. He knew it was not a matter of creativity or novelty, but faithfulness and tradition.”

“Benedict has successfully shown that Vatican II was all about faithfulness and tradition, as well,” Father Criste added. “For a correct interpretation of the ‘spirit of the Council,’ he recommended a reading of the letter of the Council. This has been happening gradually over the years, and we’re getting closer to what the Council Fathers intended regarding the liturgy.”


Bishop Conley

Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb., sees Pope Benedict’s promotion of the beauty of the liturgy as his primary legacy.

“When I first came to Rome in 1989 as a priest-student, I was fortunate to witness many of Cardinal Ratzinger’s Masses,” the former Denver auxiliary said. “They were in the ordinary form, but in Latin. They were always done reverently, due to the cardinal’s perception of the transcendent nature of the liturgy. He knew that when you encounter the Almighty casualness was not acceptable.”

“He knew, even before his days as Cardinal Ratzinger, that without reverence — which is intimately linked with faithfulness to the rubrics — you are not allowing the liturgy to influence your soul,” Bishop Conley said. “Instead, you are the one creating your own liturgy in your own image.”

Bishop Conley believes the release of Summorum Pontificum was a huge turning point in the modern liturgical life of the Church because it made the extraordinary form of the Roman rite more accessible to the faithful and removed any shadows that might have been associated with it. This has influenced not only those attending the extraordinary form, but those attending the ordinary form as well.

“It has become more common to witness the use of the Latin language, the pipe organ and Gregorian chant in the ordinary form,” the Lincoln bishop pointed out. “Benedict wanted to demonstrate that the two forms are very much connected. This reality had been blurred in most places following the Council because the writings of the Council Fathers often went unheeded. Benedict wanted to make it clear that, at its core, the Church’s liturgy is one, although it does have various forms.”

“For any form of the liturgy to be effective, it must express the order, harmony and appeal of God. Beauty is not optional, but essential, for proper liturgy,” Bishop Conley explained. “This was taught by the Council Fathers in a very particular way to bishops in Article 124 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which reads: ‘Let bishops carefully remove from the house of God and from other sacred places those works of artists which are repugnant to faith, morals and Christian piety and which offend true religious sense, either by depraved forms or by lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretense.’”


The Majesty of God

Bishop Conley said that Benedict knew sacred art was not about self-expression, but pointing to the source of beauty — almighty God. Sacred art, whether visual or auditory, enables us to transcend our daily lives and encounter the living God in a way that is often far more effective than merely stating facts about God.

“Benedict thought the most powerful arguments for the faith were Christian art and the lives of the saints,” Bishop Conley stated. “These two entities are very closely related, because the saints received the graces necessary for their exemplary lives through the liturgy of the Church, which is the wellspring of Christian art.

“We are indebted to Pope Benedict for many things. Within the liturgy specifically, I think his most outstanding contribution was drawing our attention to the majesty of God. This was done through his writings and actions, which directed our aim outside our own circle and toward a more complete relationship with our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.”

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.