Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will be remembered in Church history for his work to recover the beauty of traditional liturgy, according to Bishop James D. Conley.
The head of the Lincoln, Neb. diocese, who has been reading Benedict's writings on liturgy for decades, said these works “will remain a great contribution to liturgical theology for years to come.”
“His great legacy,” Bishop Conley told CNA Feb. 27, “will be the re-discovery of the beauty of the traditional liturgy.”
Benedict awakened a “new way” of looking at the ordinary form of the Mass – the liturgy which came after the 1960s Second Vatican Council – “with a greater attempt to be more attentive to the rubrics.”
In the former pontiff's view, Mass should be celebrated with beauty, dignity, and in continuity with the tradition of the Church, Bishop Conley noted.
Benedict's liturgical legacy also includes his “blessing” of those “who have a great attachment to the old Mass” and who are in union with the Holy See, the bishop said.
In 2007, Pope Benedict released a directive titled “Summorum pontificum,” which in a “watershed moment,” gave every priest permission to say Mass using the 1962, or pre-Vatican II Missal.
“He made it one of his priorities to...introduce the 'hermeneutic of continuity', trying to show that the pre-conciliar liturgy of the 1962 Missal is the same liturgy as the Roman Missal of Pope Paul VI,” the bishop explained.
Pope Benedict “allowed the traditions to harmonize...so the cross-pollination could take place; so the very best of the reforms of the post-conciliar liturgy could be enhanced and influenced, by an open, unbiased acceptance of the Mass that preceded it.”
Bishop Conley believes that Pope Benedict has allowed the pre-conciliar liturgy to flourish alongside of the post-conciliar liturgy “in a hope that some of the transcendence, the beauty, the tradition, the Latin” will permeate the new liturgy.
The Pope's own manner of celebrating Mass, including subtle “symbolic gestures” have “sent a message” and have had “a catechetical value” for both priests and faithful, said Bishop Conley.
These gestures include distributing Communion to the faithful kneeling; beautiful vestments and those which had fallen into disuse; ensuring a cross and candles are on the altar; and celebrating facing the same direction as the faithful, all elements of a “reform of the reform of the liturgy.”
“He even created a new way of looking at the two traditions,” reflected Bishop Conley, “the extraordinary form and the ordinary form.” Pope Benedict coined these terms in “Summorum pontificum,” to refer to pre and post Vatican liturgies respectively.
“They're two parts of the same form, and of the same Roman rite: that's what he really wanted to emphasize by that change in language.”
Transcendence and beauty
Pope Benedict has long been “trying to recover that sense of transcendence and beauty of the liturgy,” reflected the bishop.
Part of this effort was his involvement in the translation of the third edition of the Roman Missal. Bishop Conley noted the former Roman pontiff's concern that the Latin prayers be translated both accurately and “also with a sense of beauty in the language.”
The bishop also noted Pope Benedict's creation in November of a “Pontifical Academy for Latin.” He sees this as tied to the Pontiff's desire to increase the use of Latin in the Church's life, including in her liturgy.
Bishop Conley also noted how Pope Benedict's vision was shaped by the Liturgical Movement of the early 20th century, an effort that called for a reform of the Church's worship, led largely by Benedictines.
“He knew the great players of the Liturgical Movement back before the Council,” the bishop said.
One of his major writings on the liturgy was his 2000 work “The Spirit of the Liturgy.” That publication hearkened back to a book of the same name by Father Romano Guardini, known as one of those “great players.”
In “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” Benedict – as a theologian writing before his rise to the papacy – encouraged a “New Liturgical Movement” that would recall the best elements of the first Liturgical Movement.
Benedict's concern with beauty and liturgy is not one of mere aesthetics, Bishop Conley noted, but flows from a recognition that liturgical prayer is the “source and summit” of the Christian life, as the Second Vatican Council taught.
“A lot of people are talking about the impact that he's had on the Church, and you certainly have to say that the liturgy is going to be one; primarily because he took such a personal interest in it and he believed that...everything flows from prayer,” said Bishop Conley.
“That's what he said when he announced his resignation, that he made this decision after deep prayer. And now he's going to a life of deep meditation and contemplation, and all that centers on the Eucharist, and the liturgical worship of the Church, which he very much has a profound love for.”
A continuing influence
Doctor Horst Buchholz, director of music at the St. Louis archdiocese, told CNA Feb. 25 that Pope Benedict has offered such a wealth of teaching on the liturgy that his influence has yet to come to full fruition.
“There has been no Pope since Pius X, or even before, with such a fervent love for liturgy and Sacred Music like Benedict XVI…We still have to accept, digest, and adapt many of Benedict's thoughts and directives on liturgy and Sacred Music,” he said.
Buchholz commended Pope Benedict's example of including the use of the Gradual at his recent Masses in St. Peter's Basilica. The Gradual is an ancient form of singing the psalm between the readings that may replace the responsorial psalm.
“The Gradual is rarely, rarely ever sung, so that is a very good sign, that people are even aware that there is an option like that,” largely through the example of the Pope's Masses.
Illustration, not imposition
Jeffrey Tucker, publications director for the Church Music Association of America, agreed that Pope Benedict has led by example in liturgy.
“I knew he would show us the beauty of the Roman rite in a way people hadn't seen it before, and inspire people through example,” he said to CNA Feb. 20.
Tucker called Pope Benedict a liberal, “in the best sense of that term.” The Roman Pontiff provided “a kind of license” for the pre-conciliar liturgy, he said, and integrated “the reformed Mass into the tradition of the Roman rite more generally.”
“The reforms at St. Peter's Masses and (papal) liturgy generally have been astonishing, extraordinary, especially from a musical standpoint,” Tucker said.
He pointed particularly to the use of the Introit, the official text from the psalms meant to be sung at the beginning of Mass, at every large Mass said at St. Peter's recently.
“He's worked to make the Roman rite more true to itself, which is very encouraging for those of us at the grass roots level, because now we can point to papal liturgies as a useful example of what we're seeking to accomplish in our own parish lives.”
Tucker praised the fact that while Pope Benedict did make minor changes in liturgical laws, he recognized that “beauty itself, once it's liberated, compels belief in a sense.” He described the Pope as working not through imposition, but with “inspiration, illustration, example – putting beauty on display and creating a kind of global hunger for solemnity and seriousness, and ritual.
Charles Cole, director of the schola at the London Oratory, told Vatican Radio Feb. 24 that “under the pontificate of Benedict XVI there has been a particular focus on the relationship of the liturgy and music and this remarkable heritage and its grown to ever greater prominence.”
In 2007 Pope Benedict wrote an apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist, “Sacramentum Caritatis,” cementing some of his teachings on the liturgy into the Magisterium.
Writing for The Catholic Herald, Dom Alcuin Reid, a Benedictine monk, said that “his conviction expressed therein, that 'everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty,' was reflected in papal liturgies. These became master classes on how to celebrate the modern liturgy in continuity with tradition, where the best of the old and of the new serve to raise our minds and hearts to God.”
Bishop Conley concluded with CNA by remembering the Pope's constant example of reverence and beauty in celebrating the liturgy.
“When I first came to Rome in 1989 as a priest-student, on Thursday mornings he would celebrate Mass in a chapel of the proto-martyrs inside the Vatican.”
“It would be a Latin Novus Ordo mass, always Novus Ordo, but always celebrated very reverently and with a great sense of transcendence. So not only by his writings, but by the way he celebrated Mass, he was teaching.”