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da capo: reform of the reform

By Diogenes (articles ) | Sep 02, 2006

The September Adoremus Bulletin is out, in which Helen Hitchcock has a meaty and well-turned essay on Pope Benedict and the Liturgical Reform. It's perhaps more accurately titled "Joseph Ratzinger and the Liturgical Reform," since it deals with the cursus of his thought from the days of the Second Vatican Council to the present. What comes through loud and clear in Mrs. Hitchcock's conspectus is that the Mass, for Pope Benedict, is not just another neuralgic Church issue that his job obliges him to confront. Throughout his career he has continally returned to the central problems of the liturgy, and treats of them in language in which, even for such an undemonstrative man, his deepest feelings are evident.

Present at Vatican II as an assistant to Cardinal Frings, Ratzinger insists on its doctrinal continuity with previous councils, at once rejecting the judgments of the Fred McManus Crew, who think the True Church was born in 1963, and of the Sedevacantists, who think she died then. Mrs. Hitchcock quotes from a 1998 address responding to Ecclesia Dei:

"First, the Council did not itself reform the liturgical books; it ordered their revision, and, to that end, set forth certain fundamental rules," [then-Cardinal Ratzinger] said. "Above all, the Council gave a definition of what the liturgy is, and this definition gives a criterion which holds for every liturgical celebration"; thus, "it is therefore in accordance with these criteria that one must judge liturgical celebrations, whether they be according to the old books or according to the new. An orthodox liturgy which expresses the true faith, is never a compilation made according to the pragmatic criteria of various ceremonies which one may put together in an arbitrary way -- today like this and tomorrow like that."

A key word here is "arbitrary"; for Ratzinger, arbitrariness is flatly incompatible with true liturgy, which is always something received. It is not, however, fixed once-for-all, as the emergence of the Latin Rite from its Greek roots makes clear. Back to Hitchcock:

But he also remarked that the "old liturgy" was flawed. In particular, he notes that "the celebration of the old liturgy had slipped too much into the domain of the individual and the private, and that the communion between priests and faithful was insufficient" -- that people privately recited prayers from their prayer books during most of the Mass. He suggests that these factors probably accounted for the indifference of most Catholics when the old liturgical books disappeared: "People had never been in contact with the liturgy itself."

Regrettably, the model of "participation" used, post-Council, to put us in contact with the liturgy was derived, not from the liturgy itself, but from pop culture -- which is why your church has theatre lighting with dimmer switches and your diocesan liturgist shaves his legs. The percentage of the faithful aware of being present at the Sacrifice of Golgotha is probably less today than it was in 1962. But I digress. Hitchcock cites a truly striking passage from Pope Benedict's encyclical Deus Caritas Est, which illustrates how crucially interwoven are the realities of the Cenacle, Calvary, and the Mass:

[Jesus'] death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against Himself, in which He gives Himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form.… Jesus gave this act of oblation an enduring presence through His institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.… The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-donation.… The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable: it had meant standing in God's presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus' self-gift, sharing in His Body and Blood. The sacramental "mysticism", grounded in God's condescension towards us, operates at a radically different level and lifts us to far greater heights than anything that any human mystical elevation could ever accomplish.

The man who wrote these words is not humming "Only a Shadow" during the post-Communion meditation while slapping his knee with his missalette. A 2002 address to Communion & Liberation shows that Benedict's liturgical convictions are not derived from an arch and disdainful aestheticism. He wants the faithful to encounter Christ.

Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time…. Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ Himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom His own light becomes visible.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Italiana - Sep. 06, 2006 9:09 PM ET USA

    (Is that the priest from our diocese who wears tie-dyed yellow & white vestments?) The smoking thing on the "altar" looks like a vase we have from Costa Rica, only ours isn't broken and we don't set it on fire. That must be the Sword of Sacrifice suavely leaning against the "altar" just in case the priest uses the "pulpit" for a chopping block.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 05, 2006 12:20 PM ET USA

    HHH re BVI is more of the same : Deep theology ; regret re abuse, and "attachments" patronized ; "VCII didn't mean that!" (in case you didn't know) ; a put-down to prayer books (that actually united hearts with the litugy) ; nods to Latin and chant ; more translations needed . But nowhere a word about real consequence. Isn't there a cisconnect here as between reality and a pious theology class? Can't we just have back our 2000 yr old Holy Mass (cum proper instruction)?

  • Posted by: Pseudodionysius - Sep. 04, 2006 10:50 PM ET USA

    "your diocesan liturgist shaves his legs" I am proud to report that, in our diocese, NEET hair remover is the preferred depilatory of choice. Our liturgy is NEET.

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