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The glory of the Liturgy: Pope Benedict's vision

The following was the keynote address at TIME DRAWN INTO ETERNITY: Sacred Time and the Liturgical Calendar, a conference held by the Te Deum Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I wish to express my gratitude to Bishop Slattery for inviting me to give the keynote address at this historic event in the Diocese of Tulsa, the conference inaugurating the Te Deum Institute of Sacred Liturgy. I suppose you get tired of visitors, at least from my generation, who go on about the delightful musical named after your State. But that is the reason I have always wanted to visit Oklahoma. Many years ago as a small child I sat enraptured when the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre Melbourne glowed with light and a tenor voice rang out with “Oh what at beautiful morning”. But I wondered how your corn could grow higher than our Australian wheat. Therefore my presentation on the glory of the liturgy, Pope Benedict’s vision, may appropriately begin in the innocent, but luminous, world of childhood.

* * *

In Milestones, Memoirs 1927-1977, the short autobiography that covers the first fifty years of his life, our Holy Father Pope Benedict explains how his love of the liturgy began when he was a boy. “Naturally the child I then was did not grasp every aspect of this, but I started down the road of the liturgy, and this became a continuous process of growth into a grand reality transcending all particular individuals and generations, a reality that became an occasion for me of ever-new amazement and discovery. The incredible reality of the Catholic liturgy has accompanied me through all phases of life, and so I shall have to speak of it time and again.”

The child sensed the glory and scope of the “grand reality”. Children approach the mysteries of Christian worship with a sense of awe and wonder. Thus the glorious Corpus Christi processions of Bavaria spoke to the young Josef Ratzinger. He could later observe: “Liturgy is not the private hobby of a particular group; it is about the bond which holds heaven and earth together, it is about the human race and the entire created world. In the Corpus Christi procession, faith’s link with the earth, with the whole of reality, is represented ‘in bodily form’ by the act of walking, of treading the ground, our ground.”

How We Understand Time

A procession moves forward, as does time itself. The theme chosen for this inaugural conference of the Te Deum Institute is sacred time, that is, how we celebrate salvation history in Christian worship. But as Cardinal Ratzinger put it: “Time is first of all a cosmic phenomenon. Man lives with the stars. The course of the sun and the moon leaves it mark on his life.” I will reflect briefly on time, because other speakers from a range of Christian traditions will deal with it in finer detail.

The cycles of creation reflect the glory of the Creator, including time measured at different levels of being among plants and animals. However, the dominant Christian understanding of time is teleological not cyclic. Teleology means that we are all moving towards an end, a telos, a goal, “the consummation of the ages”, the coming of the Kingdom or parousia. This is “eschatological” time, all creation moving to the eschaton, the end as a fulfillment.

On the other hand, a cyclic understanding of time means that we are constantly returning to the beginning and starting all over again. This is a characteristic of Hinduism and Buddhism, where even gods are part of the endless cycles. However in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as Cardinal Ratzinger affirmed, “All time is God’s time.” Even the measuring of time is a divine work, created by God (cf. Genesis 1:14-18). The sun and moon are not divine, rather the sun is God’s “marvelous instrument” and “He made the moon also to serve in its season to mark the times…” (Sirach 43:2,6). God the Creator is not subject to time. God transcends time.

Time is experienced both as the history of a people and the history of individuals. Salvation history is guided by the Lord of time. Reflecting on the human lifetime we pray that “Lord, my time is in your hands….”

In Christianity these contrasting understandings of time complement one another. While we see time, indeed life itself, as a pilgrimage to the Kingdom of Heaven, we celebrate this “history of salvation” through the cycle of seasons and feast days. We celebrate the past, the present and the future. In these three states of time we find that that each Year of Grace celebrates the work of our redemption. The liturgical year recapitulates the teleology, the meaning of all time and space, through a cycle. This pilgrimage of each of our lives is lived in faith in the Lord Jesus, at the same time it is the procession of the whole Pilgrim People treading the ground of our planet on the way to eternity. The Church is ever moving towards the Parousia, towards “the glory”. But Cardinal Ratzinger, reminds us that this present time of the Church is a kind of “between time”, what has also been called the “not yet” dimension of our lives.

Cosmos and Incarnation

Time opens a door into the cosmic dimension of liturgy. The Pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger, expounded a cosmological vision of worship. He insisted that the liturgy of the Church is not just the product of human cultures. Rather, liturgy intersects time and space, history and the cosmos, because creation is healed through the redeeming love of Christ. The Paschal Mystery of our Lord and Savior can never be separated from his Body, worshiping in this material universe through the liturgy yet worshiping in the glory of eternity, magnificently expressed at the Second Vatican Council in Sacrosanctum Concilium 8: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy….”

By taking our flesh, God subjected himself to time, at least for the duration of Our Lord’s earthly life. Just as we believe with St John that “the Word became flesh” so, in a sense, the Word became time. Therefore, because of the Incarnation liturgy can never be some “other worldly” activity. The Holy Father insists that Liturgy is always incarnational, grounded in our concrete material world where the Logos became flesh. He says: “The body has a place within the divine worship of the Word made flesh, and it is expressed liturgically in a certain discipline of the body, in gestures that have developed out of the liturgy’s inner demands and that make the essence of the liturgy, as it were bodily visible.”

The sacred cycle of liturgical time marks and celebrates the Incarnation through two solemnities: the Annunciation, March 25 and the Nativity of the Lord, December 25, which in turn rest on the Marian solemnity of December 8, the Immaculate Conception, and the Feast of the birth of Our Lady, September 8th. Every year, the earthly lives of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, and his Virgin Mother shape our lives. This is not merely sacred biography but sacred memory, that is, Eucharistic memory or anamnesis. In sacrifice and sacrament the Church remembers the saving acts of God in Christ, the work of our redemption. This focuses around the Paschal Mystery, hence the primacy of Easter, Queen of Feasts, and Sundays, the weekly Easter in the calendars of the East and West.

Within every liturgy the cosmic dimension is celebrated. The new translation of the Third Eucharistic Prayer takes up the words of the prophet “from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name” (cf. Malachi 1:11). The cosmic liturgy of Christ’s perfect sacrifice spans not merely space (“from east to west”, from New York to Los Angeles) but all time and all the movements of the universe.

“Turning Towards the Lord”

His cosmological vision of the Eucharist explains the Pope’s appreciation for celebrating the Eucharist ad orientem, that is, towards the East. Led by the priest, the pilgrim people turn towards the Light of the risen Lord, reigning in his cosmos and coming again in his parousia. As cardinal he was well aware of the cultural difficulty of appreciating this ancient universal Christian symbolism in the secularized Western World. But he did not even consider that ignorant expression we still hear, celebrating Mass “with his back to the people”. That misses the whole point of the priest who is leading a worship procession towards the Lord.

As a cardinal he was not popular for putting that view. He partly challenged the most obvious and prevalent post-conciliar change, the almost universal practice of moving altars and celebrating Mass facing the people. As I shall explain, at the same time he gives us a way to enrich Mass facing the people by focusing on the Lord.

Moreover while he integrates the sacrificial dimension and the meal dimension of the Mass, he rejects the meal as the paradigm for the Eucharistic liturgy. The term “meal” in German and English cannot convey the depth of the liturgical action and its Passover roots. Nor does he accept “sacrificial meal” – which still gives the meal priority. He favors a deeper understanding of the priority of Sacrifice through a Hebrew concept of sacrifice, personalized and internalized in the self-immolation of Christ crucified and risen.

Our Pope invites us to see the glory of Christ Priest and Victim in the liturgy. He leads us into this glory, above all by his own example of a priest humbly entering the divine mysteries of the altar. By word and demeanor he reminds us that liturgy is a gift to be received in humility, not something we construct for ourselves, not a fabrication. Here he strongly rejects a decadent style of liturgy that set in soon after Vatican II. That style was contrived to be a deliberate break with the past.

Organic development

Cardinal Ratzinger’s critique of liturgical discontinuity rested on the conviction that authentic liturgical development is always organic. This understanding was favored by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in Sacrosanctum Concilium. But changes that followed the Council were not always organic. As he bluntly put it, organic growth was replaced, “…as in a manufacturing process, with a fabrication, an on the spot banal product.”

Change in liturgy should not be concocted by committees or individuals or produced by experiments. That undermines the foundation of liturgical continuity - that liturgy is a gift, from God, through the Church. Yet he is frank about past problems, comparing the liturgy to an endangered fresco preserved by whitewash, which was stripped away, only to be “endangered by climatic conditions as well as by various restorations and reconstructions”.

While Catholic liturgy develops, it is a treasure handed on to us, entrusted to us by the Church. Therefore he applies to liturgy what he applies to the interpretation of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, a “hermeneutic of continuity”, understanding the Council in the context of all preceding Councils and papal teachings. By sharp contrast, the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” breaks with the past and interprets liturgy as our creation, what “we do”, or as we hear in some quarters, what we do when “we gather”, adorned with such inventions as “gathering hymns” and a “gathering rite”.

However, the Holy Father reminds us that it is God who gathers us, just as He gathered his chosen people by calling them out of Egypt into the wilderness. Moses told Pharaoh to let his people go to offer sacrifice to God in the desert (Cf. Exodus 7:16). There, God would teach them to worship Him in the way He prescribed and give them the covenant Law that made them his chosen People.

At the Last Supper Christ would prescribe the worship of those he called and gathered to be his new People. He commanded a new covenant sacrifice: “Do this in memory of me”. For this sublime action, the Father assembles us at every Mass. As the Third Eucharistic Prayer puts it: “you never cease to gather a people to yourself”, later describing the gathered people as “this family whom you have summoned before you”.

We note how our Holy Father reminds us that in worship we are meant to focus on God, to give God the glory, not to glorify ourselves. He criticized a self-centered over-emphasis on ourselves that has damaged the quality of worship. When the liturgical community turns in on itself, it ends up worshiping itself. Self-centric worship is supposed to “build up community”, but in practice it undermines community. “Only when the sacrament retains its unconditional character and its absolute priority over all communal purposes and all spiritually edifying intentions does it build community and edify humans.”

The Glory of the Altar

He directs us away from ourselves and back to God by focusing on the Christian altar, the great sign of Christ among us. In Feast of Faith and The Spirit of the Liturgy he argued that the altar is not a setting to display a man (a Pope, bishop or priest). One might add that the altar is not a lectern or pulpit. Rather, during the action of the liturgy, the altar itself should draw us around Jesus Christ crucified and risen. This breaks down that self-centric community tendency.

Therefore he shows us a way that helps us “turn to the Lord” whenever Mass is celebrated facing the people. At all papal Masses, the crucifix now stands at the center, no longer to one side. It is flanked by candles, of a significant size. This arrangement is being called the “Benedictine Altar”. It restores glory to our altars, especially when ornaments of fine quality are used and the altar is vested in a noble antependium.

Having made this change in the parish where I live, I learnt that once the crucifix is the center of the altar, it becomes visually “an altar”, the great sign of Christ. No longer is it a kind of dining table adorned with candles and flowers. Placing the crucifix at the center of the altar has also involved the recovery of the pontifical altar at his Masses in St Peter’s Basilica and elsewhere, that is, using the seven candles required by Roman tradition and the General Instruction whenever the Diocesan Bishop solemnly celebrates the Eucharist.

The Eucharist at the Center

His liturgical project is deeply Eucharistic because it rests on the work of the Venerable John Paul II. Again we find continuity. Our beloved John Paul II devoted the last years of his pontificate to the Eucharist – and in that context he defended good liturgy, as in the disciplinary instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004).

Pope Benedict presided over the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, 2005, a project inherited from his predecessor. I was an auditor at that Synod. In his Apostolic Exhortation in response to the Synod, Sacramentum Caritatis, the Holy Father introduces the paragraphs on the ars celebrandi (the art of celebrating) with an emphasis on the beauty of the liturgy. In divine worship we see the glory that the apostles beheld in Jesus Christ. “Beauty, then is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation.”

Glory and Beauty

He calls us by his word and example to set aside the banal. To use what is beautiful, be it old or new: the best vessels, fine vestments, good design and architecture, gracious ceremonial, excellent music. This is not mere aestheticism because is derived from the God who is beautiful, the Lord of the Eucharist. The Holy Eucharist, sacrifice and sacrament, shapes liturgy and evokes human creativity in art and music. Just consider the glory expressed in the best cathedrals and churches of the East and West. Last year, the Holy Father celebrated such creativity when he dedicated Gaudi’s magnificent basilica, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Therefore, as cardinal and later as Pope, he affirms that Catholic worship should reflect the cosmic order and harmony of the divine Logos, creation stamped with reflections of the Triune God. St Augustine’s understanding of God as beautiful is a major influence here, for he is deeply attached to the great Doctor of the West.

By contrast, as anyone can see, a feature of the hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture is a tendency towards ugliness, or at least promoting a modernist aesthetic, often dull, cold or minimalist - ugly churches, vestments, vessels etc, and all bereft of mystery. But the God we worship and praise is beautiful, to be worshiped in the beauty of holiness, worshiped “in spirit and in truth”. That is why Catholic liturgy in all its forms, simple or solemn, Eastern or Western, captures something of the glory of God.

However the Divine Liturgy is always the Great Prayer of Christ in his Church, human prayer in time taken up into Christ’s eternal prayer. Therefore the Holy Father’s offers us not just a richer theology of liturgy but a spirituality of liturgy. His spiritual vision of worship inspires and animates what is already being called “the new liturgical movement”.

The Two Forms of the Roman Rite

Cardinal Ratzinger accepted the post-conciliar liturgical reforms. At the same time, he never concealed his abiding love for the venerable pre-conciliar liturgy, the Missale Romanun of Blessed. John XXIII, 1962. This was not just nostalgia for majestic celebrations of the pre-conciliar liturgy in Bavaria, rather a view informed by the hermeneutic of continuity. As cardinal he did not hesitate to associate himself with those who, often by making many sacrifices, worked hard to maintain and promote the pre-conciliar rite.

Reverence for God and love of the mystery of liturgy, informed his Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum (2007) which established the pre-conciliar liturgy, the Missale Romanum of Blessed John XXIII, as the “extraordinary” form of the Roman Rite, parallel to the “ordinary” form, the Missale Romanum of Pope Paul VI. These are “two expressions of the Church’s Lex orandi” and “two usages of the one Roman Rite”. A distinction is made between the “ordinary” form, the Mass we use in the missal of 1970, and the “extraordinary” form, the pre-concilicar rite. This play on words, “ordinary” and “extraordinary” seems preferable to speaking divisively of the “Novus Ordo” and the “usus antiquior”. It presents two ways of celebrating the one Mass of the Roman Rite, two ways meant to be complementary, meant to inform and enrich one another. When both forms are celebrated reverently and prayerfully, the glory of God can be seen in our world.

Glorious Sound

I conclude, not with glory we see, but glory we hear when we offer praise to God with voice and instrument. Liturgical music is a theme dear to the heart of Benedict XVI. At home, music was and is part of his daily life. His brother Msgr. Georg Ratzinger became Director of the finest boys’ choir in Germany at Regensburg cathedral, the “Ratisbon Sparrows”. His emphasis on truly liturgical music and the place of fine art is best understood within this broader perspective of divine beauty.

Liturgical music should never be “utility music”, that is, music used to prop up worship or function as a teaching device. Just consider the sentimental songs still sung in so many churches, preachy songs that make God speak to us, giving us “messages”, or sacro-pop songs we sing about ourselves. True liturgical singing is addressed mainly to God. And we should always speak with reverence of our God, which is why the Pope has forbidden the use of the sacred Name in Hebrew which crept into singing and readings after the Council.

The music of the Church is the divine praise of the Logos in the cosmos, therefore this unique form of music must never to be left to subjectivist fashions or whims. Music also helps us see that the strong theme of beauty in his writing on liturgy was not mere aestheticism, rather beauty understood as a revelation of the divine Logos, “the harmony of the spheres” echoing the beautiful God of cosmic order and design. He insists that singing, human word and voice, always should take priority over instrumental music.

The praise of God in music is essential to good liturgy, which is why “Te Deum” is such a wise choice for the name of this new institute in Tulsa. “Te Deum laudamus…” so begins the great hymn of praise and thanksgiving that is sung in the Liturgy of the Hours at the Office of Readings on Sundays, solemnities and feasts. May “Te Deum laudamus” ever guide the teaching, study, research, prayer and praise that will rise from this institute. But permit me to finish on a personal note.

Last week I returned to my old school, Melbourne Grammar, to celebrate the Year of 1961, when I left school for university. At the dinner some of us put our grey heads together and recalled 1958, the centenary of this famous Australian school, when we filled the Anglican cathedral and the whole school sang Vaughan Williams’ Te Deum. It is one of those memories that lingers across the years. It often returns when I say my breviary. Te Deum laudamus, “We praise Thee O God, we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord….” In this great hymn Holy Church focuses on our God as the thunder of his praise resounds among us. We have a glimpse into eternity, a glimpse of the glory that is yet to come.

-o0o-

* The Titular Bishop of Manaccenser and Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne, Most Rev. Peter J. Elliott, MA Oxon, MA Melb, STD, is the author of Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year, Liturgical Question Box (Ignatius Press, San Francisco) and Prayers of the Faithful (Catholic Book Publishing NJ). From 2005 to 2010 he was a Consulter to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He is currently assisting with the liturgical project of the new personal ordinariates for former Anglicans.


Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones, Memoirs 1927-1977, Ignatius Press, 1999, p. 20,.
Joseph Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1980, pp. 134-135.
Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2000, p. 92.
Ibid, p. 93.
See, The Spirit of the Liturgy, op. cit. Part 1, chapter 2, “Liturgy – Cosmos – History”.
See, Ibid., Part. 4, chapter 2, “The Body and the Liturgy”.
Ibid., pp. 176, 177.
On the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, 2008 – 2011 he celebrated Solemn Mass in the Sistine Chapel “facing the altar”. In 2008 in some circles there were cries of surprise. People had forgotten that the first Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II at the time of his election in 1978 was celebrated facing that same altar.
In a significant section of Feast of Faith, pp. 139-145, he challenged even the expression celebrating Mass “facing the altar” or the claim that this was Mass “facing the tabernacle” or Holy of Holies.
But nothing can be found in the Documents of the Council concerning this change. Surprisingly this practice has been adopted illicitly by some Eastern Catholics. For a corrective, by way of a beautiful and accurate explanation from the Congregation for Oriental Churches, see Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, 1996, no 107.
Cf., Joseph Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1980. p. 51.
Cf. Ibid. pp. 51-60.
See, Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 23.
In a lecture in praise of Klaus Gamber; quotation translated by Tracey Rowland in her book, Ratzinger’s Faith, The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, Oxford University Press, 2008 , p. 142, and see p.195, note 83.
The Spirit of the Liturgy, op.cit., Preface, pp. 7-8.
See, Ibid,, Part 1. chapter 1, “Liturgy and Life”, pp. 15-19.
Joseph Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord, Crossroad, New York, 1996, p. 75.
Cf. Feast of Faith, op.cit., p. 145.
Cf.. The Spirit of the Liturgy, op. cit, pp. 83-84
Those who imagine that the cross obscures the celebrant should go and sit where the people worship, noting that, in most churches, they look at the altar at an angle.
Cf. Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, 35.
Ibid. loc. cit.
Evident in his association with the Abbeys of Fontgombault and Le Barroux, the Fraternity of St Peter and CIEL, Centre International d’Etudes Liturgiques.
Apostolic Letter, Summorum Pontificum, of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI, given motu proprio, July 7 2007, Article 1.
See the directive of June 29 2008, that the Hebrew Sacred Name of God (Tetragrammaton, YHWH) is no longer to appear in any hymns, songs or prayers.
See, The Spirit of the Liturgy, op. cit, Part 3, chapter 2, “Music and Liturgy”.
Ibid., cf. p. 149.


Printed with permission from the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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