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No. 92 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program March 2001

THE SPIRIT OF THE LITURGY, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Reviewed by Brian W. Harrison

THE SPIRIT OF THE LITURGY, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
(translated by John Saward); San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.

The majority of important works on the Catholic Church's sacred liturgy have tended to take a rather specialized approach, focusing on only one or just a few of its various areas: theological, historical, pastoral, cultural, artistic, musical, or the minutiae of rubrical questions. This little volume (232 small-sized pages) by Cardinal Ratzinger - who, in addition to his work as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has long shown a deep interest in, and knowledge of, liturgical matters - sets out to provide a brief overview of all these different facets of the Church's central acts of worship. In doing so, he avowedly takes his inspiration from a book of the same name published back in 1918 by the renowned German-Italian theologian Romano Guardini: his idea is to seek and elucidate the unifying 'spirit' which should always underlie the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice, in the present post-Vatican-II context of unprecedented and often ill-advised liturgical change.

Ratzinger divides his reflections into four sections, beginning with the most general questions ("The Essence of the Liturgy") and ending with the most specific ("Liturgical Form"), in which he considers certain key ritual gestures and practices which have been the subject of much debate in recent decades. In between these first and last sections, the author adds a second on the theme "Time and Space in the Liturgy", wherein he deals with such issues as the calendar, liturgical seasons, the significance of church architecture, the positioning of the priest and the location of the tabernacle. A third section ("Art and Liturgy") deals with the place of sacred images and sacred music in our worship.

In the first section - the most dense and abstract part of the book - we are treated to a sweeping panorama in which liturgy is set against the background of nothing less than the entire creation. With fresh insights into the implications of key Old Testament themes, Ratzinger shows how the fitting worship of God can be seen as the goal of the created universe itself - a goal symbolized first in the "Sabbath rest" of the Creator, destined for reflection in the day set apart each week for worship. He then shows how worship is deeply woven into the very fabric of the foundational events of Israel's history as a people: the Exodus, the Promised Land, and the divine election of Israel itself, are basically a means to a 'liturgical' end: the end that in a world corrupted by sin, idolatry and error, God shall once again be recognized for who He is, so as to be given fitting glory and honor by his earthly creatures.

Cardinal Ratzinger takes up the theme of sacrifice, reaching as far back as the drama of Abraham and Isaac, and elucidates the transition from the liturgy of the Old Covenant to that of the New, emphasizing the 'incarnational' aspects of the ancient Temple worship with its sacrifices of irrational animals and birds, looking forward unconsciously to that true 'Temple' which is the Lord's own Body, offered willingly and knowingly in that perfect sacrifice in which it is 'destroyed' and 'raised up in three days'. In recent decades we have seen a notable 'protestantizing' tendency promoted by those Catholic liturgists who unilaterally stress the 'Word' aspect of our worship (Scripture and preaching) at the expense of the central sacrificial character of the Mass. Ratzinger links this to the fact that, in much recent theology, "the exclusive model for the liturgy of the New Covenant has been thought to be the synagogue - in strict opposition to the Temple, which is regarded as an expression of the [old] law and therefore as an utterly obsolete 'stage' in religion." In synagogue worship, of course, there were (and are) no sacrifices - only prayers, psalms and preaching. Ratzinger severely rebukes this notion (p. 49):

The effects of this theory have been disastrous. Priesthood and sacrifice are no longer intelligible. The comprehensive "fulfillment" of pre-Christian salvation history and the inner unity of the two Testaments disappear from view. Deeper understanding of the matter is bound to recognize that the Temple, as well as the synagogue, entered into Christian liturgy.

Ratzinger stresses that, even for the Jews themselves, the synagogue service was "ordered to the Temple and remained so, even after its destruction ... in expectation of its restoration" (p. 48). For the synagogue recognized its own 'Word-centered' worship as partial, local and incomplete (in contrast to a 'non-sacrificial' religion such as Islam, for instance, where the 'liturgy of the Word' along with pilgrimage and fasting, "constitutes the whole of divine worship as decreed by the Koran"). As the one, central Temple and its sacrifices were for the Jews the expression of Israel's complete and universal worship, so the sacrifice of the one true Temple which is Christ's own Body - immolated on the Cross and made present throughout the world 'from the rising of the sun to its setting' in the Eucharistic sacrifice - constitutes the final and necessary replacement and perfection of those ancient rites.

This also has implications for that recently fashionable tendency to 'fragment' the liturgy in a 'populist' or 'democratic' way, reinventing it 'creatively' according to the supposed 'needs' of each local community. As Ratzinger stresses, the continuity between the ancient Temple sacrifices and the Mass means that "universality is an essential feature of Christian worship":

It is never just an event in the life of a community that finds itself in a particular place. No, to celebrate the Eucharist means to enter into the openness of a glorification of God that embraces both heaven and earth, and openness effected by the Cross and Resurrection. Christian liturgy is never just an event organized by a particular group or set of people or even by a particular local Church.

Having set the liturgy in its broadest historical - and indeed, cosmic - context in his first section, Ratzinger goes on to develop the idea of time in the liturgy, stressing the intermediate or 'in-between' status of the whole Christian dispensation. As pre-Christian time was the period of worshipping God in 'shadows' (the sacrifices of the Old Law), and as the full reality of worship in the beatific vision will not be attained until the glorified life of the Resurrection, so Christian liturgy is situated halfway, as it were, between these two poles. Being more than a mere shadow, yet less than the full eschatological reality which is yet to come, the Church's worship can be described as an 'image' of the eternal heavenly Liturgy. Ratzinger sees this 'between-time' status of the New Covenant as manifested in "the three levels on which Christian worship operates" (p. 54): it looks back to the foundational events of salvation history, culminating in the Cross and Resurrection of the Saviour; it celebrates these events liturgically, above all in the re-enactment of Jesus' words and actions at the Last Supper, through which His unique sacrifice is made present and effective; and it looks forward to our perfect union with Him in glory - a union which begins even now as we are 'taken up' into Christ and incorporated more fully into Him by our reception of His Body and Blood.

As time has its sacred symbolism, so does space - the place of worship and its appropriate ordering and disposition. Ratzinger again draws attention to the way in which Catholic churches manifest the succession between Old and New Covenants: the central altar as the place of sacrifice, inherits and replaces the role of the Temple, while the lectern, pulpit or ambo for the proclamation of God's Word to the assembled people follows naturally from the disposition of the synagogue, with its 'Shrine of the Torah' honouring the inspired Scriptures. In this context the author gives us a fascinating excursion into the origin of worshipping ad orientem - towards the East. While synagogue worship was oriented toward Jerusalem, the place of the Temple, Christians now look toward Christ, whose future coming in glory is aptly symbolized by the brilliance of the rising sun. As is well known, Cardinal Ratzinger has been among those favoring a return to the traditional position of the priest at Mass, in which both he and the people are turned together towards Christ. Here (p. 68) he tells us that:

In the early Church, prayer towards the east was regarded as an apostolic tradition. We cannot date exactly when this turn to the east, the diverting of the gaze from the Temple, took place, but it is certain that it goes back to the earliest times and was always regarded as an essential characteristic of Christian liturgy (and indeed of private prayer).

These are strong words. Can something believed to be an "apostolic tradition", and indeed, an "essential characteristic" of Christian liturgy, be so readily discarded as it has been since the 1960s? The position versus populum, now almost universal in celebrations according to the post-conciliar Roman Missal, was in fact unheard-of for fifteen centuries after Christ, and had its origin in the heretical Eucharistic theology of the Protestant Reformers. Ratzinger dedicates an entire chapter ("The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer") to this question, pointing out that Vatican Council II never even suggested this novel change of position, and exposing the principal arguments in favor of it as being historically unfounded. "The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself" (p. 80)

This 'self-centredness' of the community is in turn linked to the new emphasis on the Mass as a 'meal'. The liturgical innovators have assured us that the altar "had to be positioned in such a way that priest and people looked at each other and formed together the circle of the celebrating community. This alone - so it was said - was compatible with the meaning of the Christian liturgy, with the requirement of active participation" (p. 77). But even this concept of how a 'meal' would have been celebrated in biblical and patristic times - 'gathered round the table of the Lord', as a popular post-conciliar ditty puts it - is woefully anachronistic! Ratzinger quotes (p. 78) the noted French scholar Fr. Louis Bouyer, whose research has shown that:

In no meal of the early Christian era, did the president of the banqueting assembly ever face the other participants. They were all sitting, or reclining, on the convex side of a C-shaped table, or of a table having approximately the shape of a horseshoe. The other side was always left empty for the service. Nowhere in Christian antiquity, could have arisen the idea of having to 'face the people' to preside at a meal. The communal character of a meal was emphasised just by the opposite disposition: the fact that all the participants were on the same side of the table.

Ratzinger concludes with even stronger words, insisting that "a common turning to the east during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord" (p. 81) To this reviewer, this chapter alone is well worth the price of Cardinal Ratzinger's book.

The section on the arts and liturgy is largely historical in emphasis. It includes a chapter on the use of images which stresses their essential connection with the Incarnation. This fundamental Christian truth was implicitly placed in jeopardy by the 8th-century iconoclast movement which sprang up in the east, partly as a result of the radically anti-Incarnational influence of Islam. Ratzinger's treatment of liturgical music in the following chapter is also historically based, beginning with the observation that the Hebrew and Greek words for 'sing' and 'song' are among the most common in the Bible (309 occurrences in the Old Testament and 36 in the New). The Psalms constituted the central point on continuity in the transition from the worship of the synagogue to that of the infant Church, and were quickly supplemented by new Christian canticles, notably the Bendedictus and Magnificat.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this discourse comes with the author's observations on the link between sacred music and the logos - the Word revealed in Christ. He points out that from the beginning the saving actions of God narrated in Scripture formed the main theme of liturgical music - a fact which has given singing clear priority over merely instrumental music in the liturgy. Nevertheless, since music transcends the rational level of mere speech, it also gives an opening to the action of the Spirit who intercedes for us "with sighs too deep for words" (Rom. 8: 26): the Word thus supersedes mere human words, in what Ratzinger calls a "sober inebriation" (p.150). Finally, since it was the Word which created the cosmos, Ratzinger discerns a link between the beauty of music, whose melodies and harmonies are based (as the ancient Pythagoreans realized) on mathematical laws and proportions which are also reflected throughout the universe, and the glory of Creation. If the words of liturgical song proclaim mainly the work of the Logos for our Redemption (salvation history), the music itself proclaims His might, wisdom and power in the entire cosmos. Cardinal Ratzinger excoriates (p. 148), as a symptom of contemporary Western cultural decline, the current popularity of "rock" music among the young, linking it directly to their alienation from true worship:

"Rock" . . . is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe.

What is this other than a new form of idolatry? The folly of trying to attract young people to the Church by integrating 'rock' and similarly debased forms of music into her liturgical expressions should be obvious.

The final section of the book ("Liturgical Form") deals with certain more specific areas of the liturgy and contains some of the distinguished author's most interesting observations. The chapter entitled "Rite" seems especially opportune in the context of today's anguished, soul-searching discussions - so common now among those who love Catholic tradition - as to whether the massive changes to the historic Roman Rite introduced after Vatican Council II have in effect been so great as to abolish that rite, replacing it by a new and completely different one. Unfortunately, Ratzinger does not tackle that question directly - a particularly delicate one for him, no doubt, given his position of great responsibility in the hierarchy. Nevertheless, he does give us insights which are pertinent to the question. He maintains, for instance, against the contemporary passion for liturgical 'creativity', that there can be no such thing as the legitimate 'creation' of a totally new liturgical rite, because the historic Eastern and Western rites all have their roots in one of the three ancient primatial sees of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, and so form part of - or are at least inseparably linked to - Apostolic Tradition. And this, by definition, is a patrimony which must forever be preserved in the Church. The last-mentioned of these three sees, the capital of ancient Syria and the first center of gentile Christianity, is prominent already in the Book of Acts. It is to Antioch, the original 'See of Peter' before he went to Rome, that most of the Eastern rites trace their origin: Byzantine, West Syrian (Malankara and Maronite), and East Syrian (Chaldean and Malabar). Alexandria, linked to the Evangelist St. Mark and the liturgy that bears his name, was the origin of the Coptic and Ethiopian rites. (The origin of all Western rites in that of Rome is of course well known.) The Armenian rite is in a category all of its own, but even here, as Ratzinger points out, "Tradition traces [it] back to the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus" (p. 162). Thus, "individual rites have a relation to the places where Christianity originated and the apostles preached: they are anchored in the time and place of the event of divine revelation" (p. 163).

This insight has relevance in regard to the modern enthusiasm for 'inculturation', with its concomitant danger of introducing such radical local novelties into the established liturgy as to obscure or even uproot its apostolic origins. Some liturgists have argued that all liturgical rites ever since the beginning have been nothing other than diverse fruits of inculturation, drawing the conclusion that as the ancients were liturgically 'creative' and 'innovative' in accordance with the 'needs' of their particular cultures, so we can and should be equally inventive in the light our own supposed cultural 'needs' (feminization, democratization, etc.). Ratzinger (pp. 163-164) does not agree:

The Christian faith can never be separated from the soil of sacred events, from the choice made by God, who wanted to speak to us, to become man, to die and rise again, in a particular place and at a particular time. . . . The Church does not pray in some kind of mythical omnitemporality. She cannot forsake her roots. She recognizes the true utterance of God precisely in the concreteness of its history, in time and place: to these God ties us, and by these we are all tied together. The diachronic aspect, praying with the Fathers and the apostles, is part of what we mean by rite, but it also includes a local aspect, extending from Jerusalem to Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Rites are not, therefore, just the products of inculturation, however much they may have incorporated elements from different cultures. They are forms of the apostolic Tradition and of its unfolding in the great places of the Tradition.

Indeed, far from emphasising 'creativity' and 'spontaneity' in liturgy, we should be suspicious of such tendencies. In regard to the great historic rites, Ratzinger adds bluntly (p. 165):

Unspontaneity is of their essence. In these rites I discover that something is approaching me here that I did not produce myself, that I am entering into something greater than myself, which ultimately derives from divine revelation. This is why the Christian East calls the liturgy the "Divine Liturgy", expressing thereby the liturgy's independence from human control.

In the West, especially in recent centuries, the gradual centralizing tendency affecting all of Church life means that the Pope took an increasingly direct and personal role in liturgical legislation. Nevertheless, Ratzinger has no hesitation in declaring (pp. 165-166) that even the Supreme Pontiff's authority is limited in this area:

After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council. Eventually, the idea of the givenness of the liturgy, the fact that one cannot do with it what one will, faded from the public consciousness of the West. In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope's authority is bound to the Tradition of faith, and that also applies to the liturgy. It is not "manufactured" by the authorities. Even the pope can only be a humble servant of its lawful development and abiding integrity and identity. . . . The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition. . . . The greatness of the liturgy depends - we shall have to repeat this frequently - on its unspontaneity (Unbeliebigkeit).

The final chapter, entitled "The Body and the Liturgy" is also full of interest, in the light of certain current liturgical controversies. Ratzinger approaches the well-worn conciliar shibboleth of "active participation" - participatio actuosa - from a fresh angle. It has become rather commonplace among tradition-conscious Catholics to observe, correctly, that "active" participation in the Mass is essentially spiritual in nature and so does not necessarily have to mean constant visible or external action. Ratzinger also makes this point, but then poses a new question. Noting that "the word 'part-icipation' refers to a principal action in which everyone has a 'part'" (p. 171), he then asks: What, exactly, is the central actio in which the people are supposed to "participate"? His answer, based on his reading of the liturgical and patristic sources, is that this actio is quite simply the Canon - the Eucharistic Prayer. In a sense this is obvious, for every Catholic knows that this great prayer, in which Christ becomes present par excellence in His Body and Blood in the renewal of the Sacrifice of Calvary, is the centrepiece of the entire celebration. But in the context of the present question this answer is not quite so obvious; for the Eucharistic Prayer is, of course, that part which is most especially reserved to the priest, by virtue of his sacramental ordination, and during which the laity, it might seem, are necessarily less "active" than they are at almost any other moment of the Mass!

Ratzinger explains his answer by emphasising, first (p. 173), that this central actio of the Mass is fundamentally neither that of the priest as such nor of the laity as such, but of Christ the High Priest:

This action of God, which takes place through human speech, is the real "action" for which all creation is in expectation. The elements of the earth are transubstantiated, pulled, so to speak, from their creaturely anchorage, grasped at the deepest ground of their being, and changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord. The New Heaven and the New Earth are anticipated. The real "action" in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate is the action of God himself. This is what is new and distinctive about the Christian liturgy: God himself acts and does what is essential.

How, then, can we mortals 'participate' at all in a divine action? Precisely, answers Ratzinger, by virtue of the Incarnation and its redemptive consequence: our incorporation as members of the very Body of Christ. While the ordained priest's role is essentially distinct here from that of the laity, priest and laity alike must join in the one 'action' of Christ by prayerfully uniting ourselves with His own self-offering to the Father, begging to be taken up ever more fully into Him, becoming ever more integrally members of His Body, "one spirit with him" (I Cor 6: 17). All other "activity" in the Mass is therefore secondary to this and has value insofar as it contributes to our deeper union with Christ. Our reception of Holy Communion itself will be fruitful precisely to the extent that we are inwardly prepared by prayer to receive the Lord's Body.

Cardinal Ratzinger concludes with some valuable reflections on specific liturgical gestures and postures: that most ancient, primordial Christian gesture, the Sign of the Cross; the indispensable role of kneeling, presented with its abundant biblical foundations; the appropriateness of standing and sitting at different moments, and the inappropriateness of "liturgical dance" in any shape or form! Here too (p. 198), Ratzinger is again very blunt, warning against any tendency to turn the liturgy into a form of entertainment wherein attention is self-consciously drawn to merely human attractiveness or achievement:

Dancing is not a form of expression for the Christian liturgy. In about the third century, there was an attempt in certain Gnostic-Docetic circles to introduce it into the liturgy. For these people, the Crucifixion was only an appearance. . . . Dancing could take the place of the liturgy of the Cross, because, after all, the Cross was only an appearance. The cultic dances of the different religions have different purposes - incantation, imitative magic, mystical ecstasy - none of which is compatible with the essential purpose of the liturgy as the "reasonable sacrifice". It is totally absurd to try to make the liturgy "attractive" by introducing dancing pantomimes (wherever possible performed by professional dance troupes), which frequently (and rightly, from the professionals' point of view) end with applause. Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment. Such attraction fades quickly - it cannot compete in the market of leisure pursuits, incorporating as it increasingly does various forms of religious titillation.

Interestingly, however, Ratzinger sees no incompatibility between this unequivocal judgement against 'liturgical dance' and approval for those forms of 'inculturation' which the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship has allowed (since its Instruction of 1995) for certain African liturgies. He says (p. 199):

None of the Christian rites include dancing. What people call dancing in the Ethiopian rite or the Zairean [Congolese] form of the Roman liturgy is in fact a rhythmically ordered procession, very much in keeping with the dignity of the occasion. It provides an inner discipline and order for the various stages of the liturgy, bestowing on them beauty and, above all, making them worthy of God.

While this may well be true in the case of the Congolese liturgy in question (which this writer has never witnessed), one suspects that in the inevitable extension of such gestures, the line of division between 'dance' on the one hand, and 'rhythmically ordered' movements on the other, might in practice turn out to be rather fine and difficult to draw.

Although one would have liked to see some treatment of certain current liturgical questions which Cardinal Ratzinger does not discuss in this volume - the future of the 'Tridentine' Mass and the possibility of 'intermediate' forms combining elements of the 1962 and 1969 Missals, the use of Latin in general, Communion in the hand, the question of liturgical feminization (female altar service, 'inclusive' language, etc.) - The Spirit of the Liturgy contains much depth and wisdom, and will certainly assist any reader to appreciate more fully the riches and the beauty of the historic Catholic liturgical tradition. Finis.

The Spirit of the Liturgy, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (translated by John Saward); San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.
(Click on the title to buy it from Amazon Books)

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