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Book ReviewsSursum Corda!

The Spirit of the Liturgy
by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
trans. by John Saward (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2000)
250 pp., $19.95

Since his elevation to the See of Peter, newshounds and pundits of all stripes have speculated about what our new pope, Benedict XVI, thinks and what he is likely to do. But no one need speculate. As a priest, theologian, archbishop and finally as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the man who is now the Pope has made himself and his views known in interviews with the press and in print. Of his many books, 22 are available in English from Ignatius Press. These include The Ratzinger Report; his autobiography, Milestones; and The Spirit of the Liturgy.

Our word “liturgy” comes from a Greek word which means “public duty” or “public work.” Used in reference to Holy Church, it means the forms of prayer, acts and ceremonies used in her public and official worship. The liturgy includes the praying of the Divine Office, the administration of the Sacraments and, most particularly, the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Mass. 

In The Spirit of the Liturgy, the future Benedict XVI uses “liturgy” in this last sense; he makes clear his concern for the way in the Mass has been celebrated. In the book’s preface, he employs the striking metaphor of a whitewashed fresco to describe the situation of the liturgy during the Twentieth Century: 

[The fresco] had been preserved from damage, but it had been almost completely overlaid with whitewash …. In the Missal from which the priest celebrated, the form of the liturgy that had grown from its earliest beginnings was still present, but, as far as the faithful were concerned, it was largely concealed beneath instructions for and forms of private prayer. The fresco was laid bare by the Liturgical Movement and, in a definitive way, by the Second Vatican Council. For a moment its colors and figures fascinated us. But since then the fresco has been endangered by climatic conditions as well as by various restorations and reconstructions. In fact, it is threatened with destruction, if the necessary steps are not taken to stop these damaging influences. Of course, there must be no question of its being covered with whitewash again, but what is imperative is a new reverence in the way we treat it, a new understanding of its message and its reality, so that rediscovery does not become the first stage of irreparable loss. [pp. 7-8]

In the latter sections of the book, he offers us patient, detailed instruction on such contentious issues as “The Altar and Direction of Liturgical Prayer,” “The Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament,” “The Question of Images,” “Music and Liturgy,” “Active Participation,” “Kneeling” and “Standing and Sitting.” He discusses the origins and meaning of authentic Catholic practice in these areas, often revealing the surprising – and sometimes well-meaning – motives behind some unfortunately widespread deviations.

But as important as such particulars are, Benedict XVI knows that any repairs to the structure of our worship will be no more than makeshift patches unless our foundations are well-laid, unless we have a correct understanding of what Holy Church’s liturgy is and what it is not.  It is not the product of our own efforts; it is God’s response and revelation of Himself to us. “Man himself cannot simply ‘make’ worship,” the pope-to-be writes, cutting to the heart of our difficulties. “If God does not reveal himself, man is clutching empty space.” [p. 21] 

[R]eal liturgy implies that God responds [to us] and reveals how we can worship him. In any form, liturgy includes some kind of “institution”. It cannot spring from imagination, our own creativity – then it would remain just a cry in the dark or mere self-affirmation. Liturgy implies a real relationship with Another, who reveals himself to us and gives our existence a new direction. [p. 22] 

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Then the Holy Father vividly illustrates the tragedy of liturgical practices arising out of our own “creativity” through his interpretation of Exodus’ account of the Hebrews’ worship of the golden calf, an interpretation worth quoting at length. 

The cult conducted by the high priest Aaron is not meant to serve any of the false gods of the heathen. The apostasy is more subtle. *** Outwardly, the people remain completely attached to the same God. They want to glorify the God who led Israel out of Egypt and believe that they may very properly represent his mysterious power in the image of a bull calf. *** And yet it is a falling away from the worship of God to idolatry. This apostasy, which outwardly is scarcely perceptible, has two causes. First, there is a violation of the prohibition of images. The people cannot cope with the invisible, remote, and mysterious God. They want to bring him down into their own world, into what they can see and understand. Worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world. He must be there when he is needed, and he rnust be the kind of God that is needed. Man is using God, and in reality, even if it is not outwardly discernible, he is placing himself above God. This gives us a clue to the second point. The worship of the golden calf is a self- generated cult. When Moses stays away for too long, and God himself becomes inaccessible, the people just fetch him back. Worship becomes a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation. Instead of being worship of God, it becomes a circle closed in on itself: eating, drinking, and making merry. The dance around the golden calf is an image of this self-seeking worship. It is a kind of banal self-gratification. The narrative of the golden calf is a warning about any kind of self-initiated and self-seeking worship. Ultimately, it is no longer concerned with God but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources. Then liturgy really does become pointless, just fooling around. Or still worse it becomes an apostasy from the living God, an apostasy in sacral disguise. *** [pp. 22-23]

The Spirit of the Liturgy is not an easy book. Its scope is wide and its roots deep. Some of its initial discussions of the litugy and history, the transition from the Old Testament to the New, and the relationship of the liturgy to time and space, will seem obscure on first reading. But it repays the effort it requires generously with repeated, illuminating flashes of insight. On its topic, likely the most important that confronts Holy Chuch, it lays bare the mind of Benedict XVI.

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