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Cardinal Ratzinger Blames Church Crisis on Liturgical Collapse

by Paul Likoudis


A review of Cardinal Ratzinger's autobiography.

Larger Work

The Wanderer

Publisher & Date

The Wanderer Printing Company, May 8, 1997

The unprecedented manner in which Pope Paul VI imposed the Novus Ordo of the Mass created tragic consequences for the Roman Catholic Church, says Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in his new autobiography.

Not only did the banning of the old Mass represent a severe departure from tradition, but the revolutionary manner in which the new Mass was imposed has created the impression that liturgy is something each community creates on its own, not something which "is given."

Rather than being a force for unity in the Church, the new Mass has been the source of liturgical anarchy, dividing Catholics "into opposing party positions" and creating a situation in which the Church is "lacerating herself."

Formally imposed after a six-month period of "liturgical experimentation" in which anything —and everything—did go, the Roman Catholic Mass has never attained a universality, stability—or even an element of predictably—for most Catholics around the world; but instead has been a stimulus for never-ending innovations—from altar girls to dancing girls to women priests.

While the Missal of Paul VI "brought with it some authentic improvements and a real enrichment," the banning of the old Mass caused some "extremely serious damages for us," he wrote in La Mia Vita, released in mid-April in its Italian translation.

"I was dismayed by the banning of the old Missal," he wrote, "seeing that a similar thing had never happened in the entire history of the liturgy....

"The promulgation of the banning of the Missal that had been developed in the course of centuries. starting from the time of the sacramentaries of the ancient Church, has brought with it a break in the history of the liturgy whose consequences could be tragic.... The old structure was broken to pieces and another was constructed admittedly with material of which the old structure had been made and using also the preceding models....

"But the fact that [the liturgy] was presented as a new structure, set up against what had been formed in the course of history and was now prohibited, and that the liturgy was made to appear in some ways no longer as a living process but as a product of specialized knowledge and juridical competence, has brought with it some extremely serious damages for us.

"In this way, in fact, the impression has arisen that the liturgy is 'made,' that it is not something that exists before us, something 'given,' but that it depends on our decisions. It follows as a consequence that this decision-making capacity is not recognized only in specialists or in a central authority, but that, in the final analysis, each 'community' wants to give itself its own liturgy. But when the liturgy is something each one makes by himself, then it no longer gives us what is its true quality: encounter with the mystery which is not our product but our origin and the wellspring of our life....

"I am convinced that the ecclesial crisis in which we find ourselves today depends in great part upon the collapse of the liturgy, which at times is actually being conceived of etsi Deus non daretur: as though in the liturgy it did not matter any more whether God exists and whether He speaks to us and listens to us.

"But if in the liturgy the communion of faith no longer appears, nor the universal unity of the Church and of her history, nor the mystery of the living Christ, where is it that the Church still appears in her spiritual substance?," he asked.

Too often, Ratzinger lamented, "the community is only celebrating itself without its being worthwhile to do so."

The book's German title translates to: From My Life: Remembrances 1927-1977.

On at least two other occasions, Cardinal Ratzinger has criticized specific liturgical abuses, while on other highly publicized events, such as the Ordinations of seminarians into the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, he has praised the beauty of the old Mass.

But his newly released autobiography is the first prolonged lament over the wholesale replacement of one liturgy with another.

In 1969, Pope Paul VI issued his General Instruction of the Roman Missal, revising the Order of the Mass and related prayers. The old Mass rite was to be banned, with few exceptions, after a transition period of several months.

Although the Mass had undergone evolutionary changes through the history of the Church, there was always a sense of "continuity," Ratzinger wrote. Even Pope Pius V, who reworked the Roman Missal. in 1570 following the Council of Trent, allowed for the continued use of some liturgies with centuries-long traditions.

Cardinal Ratzinger said there "is need for a new liturgical. movement to call back to life the true heritage of Vatican Council II.

"For the life of the Church, it is dramatically urgent to have a renewal of liturgical. awareness, a liturgical reconciliation, which goes back to recognizing the unity in the history of the liturgy and understands Vatican II not as a break, but as a developing moment."

Pope Paul VI's new Mass has been a contentious issue in the Church since its introduction in 1969, not only fueling a bitter Church dispute involving the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II in 1988, but prompting millions of Catholics to question the legitimacy—not only of the Mass, but of the Pope who approved it.

Even after Pope John Paul in his 1988 apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei called on his bishops to be "generous" in giving Catholics access to the Tridentine rite, in a compassionate gesture aimed at healing some of the divisions and discontent over the Novus Ordo, many bishops, and even cardinals, notably Detroit's Adam Cardinal Maida, have refused to accommodate the desires of Catholics for the old Mass.

Some Reactions

For many Catholics, Cardinal Ratzinger's public acknowledgment that the Novus Ordo created a "crisis" for the Church was a long-overdue admission on the part of the Holy See.

"Publicly admitting that suppressing the 1962 Missal was a mistake, and then restoring it, would be a good first step toward liturgical renewal," said Chicago Catholic Rich Freeman, who posted the announcement on his Catholic Internet service as soon as it was reported in the Italian press.

"The modernists have always known that they couldn't win a fair fight with tradition . . . that's why they had to take the extraordinary step of suppressing, or attempting to suppress, the Mass that has an unbroken lineage of tradition back to 'that first Eucharist before He died'," he said.

A clerical reaction came from Fr. Joseph F. Wilson, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. He wrote a letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Tablet, after its editor commented negatively on the Ratzinger admission. Fr. Wilson stated:

". . . The effectiveness of the current liturgy is something many people are discussing—Cardinal Ratzinger is not a lone wolf howling in the wind on this one.

"Within the last two and a half years, two separate organizations were founded in the United States to address the question of the liturgy. Indeed, if memory serves —I wish I could be more exact in referring to this—there was a meeting within the last two years of liturgists in Chicago to observe the anniversary of Vatican II's liturgy constitution. The theme of the gathering was What Has Gone Wrong—why has the early promise of the liturgical renewal not come to fruition?

"It is unfair to cast this as a question of loyalty to Vatican II. Return to your copy of the documents and read the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. You simply will not find described there what we presently do at Mass. The postconciliar commission on the implementation of that constitution went well beyond the prescriptions of the council fathers, and every liturgist will admit that freely....

"In your article you say: a) American Catholics have embraced the revised liturgy; b) we understand it much better today; c) we understand that it is the central act of the Church; d) our better understanding is due to the changes in the liturgy.

"I wish that I could say that you do not specify which planet you refer to. You actually say you're talking about America. How do you reconcile these assertions with the results of two different well-known polls (which were reported in your paper) that only one-third of Mass-goers recognized the orthodox Catholic doctrine on the Real Presence as being an expression of their faith, the other two-thirds happily opting for Zwinglian and Lutheran formulations? And how on earth can you reconcile these assertions with the fact that Mass attendance has dropped by perhaps as much as 60% in 30 years?. . .

"I think the most serious thing which can be said about the way we worship in the Roman rite is that it is in tone, in spirit, utterly different from any of the other rites of the Catholic Church. The Roman rite was always different from all of the eastern rites, of course, but the sense of the transcendence of God, which once marked our liturgy strongly, seems rarely to find expression in our worship today. And we trashed, just trashed, a glorious tradition of liturgical music which the council fathers at Vatican II explicitly commanded be fostered. We replaced it with . . . On Eagles' Wings.

"You also ask: 'Does he really think that in the midst of the relevancy revolution of the 1960s, people would have continued to flock to a ceremony at which they couldn't understand a word?' (That's part of my point. Most of them didn't continue to flock!! We just stopped caring about them. They were the unrenewed. We just kept talking about how renewed we were, ignoring the declining numbers)."

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