Joseph Ratzinger’s Liturgical Legacy

The liturgy, which the Second Vatican Council refers to as ‘an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church,’ was a significant focus of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy and prior work as a theologian.

Pope Benedict XVI presides over a Celebration of Mass in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, in Scotland on September 16, 2010.
Pope Benedict XVI presides over a Celebration of Mass in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, in Scotland on September 16, 2010. (photo: Andrew Yates / AFP/Getty)

During his life as a priest, bishop, cardinal and prefect, Joseph Ratzinger often spoke about the foundational theological significance of the liturgy and of sacred music and sacred art. 

And as Pope Benedict XVI, he used his position as chief teacher of the Catholic Church to promote the continuation of the Church’s tradition in those realms, including his work to allow more freedom to allow celebration of the Mass in Latin and to bring a more definitive English translation of the Roman Missal used in the Mass that would more accurately represent the Church’s liturgical patrimony. 

These papal actions were in unbroken continuity with his previous comments about the significance of appropriate rites of worship. “In the liturgy, the Logos himself speaks to us,” then-Cardinal Ratzinger said in a 2001 lecture while serving as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “And not only does he speak, he comes with his body, and his soul, his flesh and his blood, his divinity and his humanity, in order to unite us to himself, to make of us one single ‘body.’”

Much earlier, he voiced his concerns that in the post-conciliar Church too many people saw the Mass as simply a fellowship, rather than an adoration of God. In his renowned 1968 book Introduction to Christianity, he wrote that there is a tendency for Christians to only see the horizontal, such as the brotherly love within Christianity, but to deny the vertical, which is the immediate relationship with God. 

Father Ratzinger — then a theology professor at the University of Tübingen who had served as a peritus (expert adviser) at the recently concluded Second Vatican Council — cautioned against the “extreme egoism of self-assertion.” Man cannot perfect himself with human fellowship alone, he wrote, and the simple adoration of God alone forms his true and final liberation. 

As Christians around the world mourned the Dec. 31 death of Pope Emeritus Benedict and the Church prepared for his Jan. 5 funeral Mass and interment in St. Peter’s Basilica, the Register spoke to some authorities on the Mass to discuss the impact of Benedict’s writings and reforms. 

Roots and Renewal

Adam Bartlett, who founded Source & Summit to provide liturgical resources to Catholic parishes, told the Register that Benedict focused a lot on the liturgy because he knew that if our gaze was not fixated upon God and rooted in proper worship, then the rest of our efforts will ultimately be compromised. He said Benedict’s writings established an authentic liturgical renewal movement, which recognized that the liturgy and New Evangelization must go hand in hand “as a single inseparable reality.”

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco similarly praised Benedict’s contributions to the liturgy. In an interview with Catholic Answers, the archbishop said the pope emeritus helped Catholics have a much deeper theological understanding of the liturgy. He said Benedict taught the biblical roots of the liturgy and showed people that it is not just something mechanical. 

“He has a great legacy in terms of the liturgy and all of his writings on the liturgy and the way he modeled that with his own life in him understanding that that’s at the heart of who we are as Catholics,” Archbishop Cordileone said. “That informs everything we believe as Catholics and how we live; so he understood the centrality of that.”

During his papacy, Benedict defended various liturgical traditions, such as the use of Gregorian chant in the Mass. The Holy Father promoted the concept of a “hermeneutic of continuity,” which emphasizes the connection of the Church before and after the Second Vatican Council, as opposed to seeing the Council as a break from Tradition. 

Bartlett said the Pope’s renewal of liturgical music and emphasis on Gregorian chant were a model for the Church, helping to reconcile some of the internal conflict between adherents to the post-conciliar liturgy and the pre-conciliar liturgy. 

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the structure of the liturgy changed from the Missal of Pope John XXIII, also called the Tridentine Mass, to the Missal of Pope Paul VI, also called the Novus Ordo Mass. Among the changes was the increased prominence and use of the vernacular language of the region instead of Latin, the universal language of the Church. Also changed was the posture of the celebrant: Priests who always faced the altar, or liturgical east (ad orientem), were directed to face the people (versus populum).

Subsequent documents that followed the Council implemented additional reforms. Benedict’s emphasis on tradition, according to retired theology professor Larry Chapp, taught the Church that the liturgy was not something to constantly tinker with, but that a more organic development was desired. 

“I think he really wanted to reform the reform of the liturgy,” Chapp told the Register. 

Summorum Pontificum

In 2007, Benedict released a motu proprio on the use of the Roman liturgy prior to the reform of 1970. Titled Summorum Pontificum, it broadened the circumstances in which priests could celebrate the older form of the Mass. 

In an accompanying letter, Pope Benedict noted that the older Mass was still valid and no less sacred. 

“There is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal,” Benedict said. 

“In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. 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. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”

Benedict emphasized that a desire for unity was at the heart of his decision to facilitate broader celebration of the older form of the Mass, which he formally characterized as the legitimate “extraordinary form” of the Roman Rite that continues to exist alongside of the “ordinary form” celebrated in local vernacular languages.

“I now come to the positive reason which motivated my decision to issue this motu proprio updating that of 1988,” he wrote. “It is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church. Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity.”

Christopher Carstens, the director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and editor of Adoremus Bulletin, told the Register that Benedict’s move sought to overcome the incorrect belief that the post-conciliar liturgy had little to do with the pre-conciliar liturgy.

“It’s not an ex nihilo creation out of the [Second Vatican] Council,” Carstens said. “… There’s a tradition it came out of.”

In 2021, Pope Francis issued Traditionis Custodes, which placed restrictions on the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass — in effect reversing the course charted 14 years earlier by Benedict.

“It hit him very hard,” Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s longtime personal secretary, said in an interview with a German Catholic journalist following his death. “I think it broke Pope Benedict’s heart to read the new motu proprio, because his intention was to help those who had simply found a home in the old Mass find inner peace, liturgical peace. … And if we think for how many centuries the ancient Mass has been a source of spiritual life and nourishment for many people, including many saints, it is impossible to imagine that it no longer has anything to offer.”


Updated English Translation

Another significant reform that Benedict XVI oversaw was the updated English translation of the Mass, which provided the English-speaking world with more accurate and theologically expressive wording. For example, the response to “The Lord be with you” was changed from “And also with you” to “And with your spirit,” which is a more accurate translation of the Latin et cum spiritu tuo. The updated translation also changed “This is the Lamb of God” to “Behold the Lamb of God.”

Chapp said the new translation helped emphasize the spirit and the language that discusses the soul. He said the older translations were a lot flatter, but the translations under Benedict were more theologically and metaphysically meaningful. 

“[This is] one of the biggest parts of his papacy,” Chapp said. “He is to be greatly praised for having the English upgraded.”

Benedict’s liturgical content opened up a much bigger picture on the spirit of the liturgy and what the liturgy actually does to us, Carstens said. The late pope’s actions, he added, demonstrated how one can be a loving pastor who also loves the liturgy. 

Benedict, he said, “let Christ radiate through him.” 

Bartlett expressed that Benedict’s influence on the liturgy is still ongoing and, if anything, is only gaining momentum among a younger generation of priests. 

“[Benedict’s work is] still yet to be discovered by many,” Bartlett added. “And I think they will be classics of liturgical theology for hundreds of years to come.”