'The Spirit of the Liturgy' by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

'The Spirit of the Liturgy' by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Christopher Quinn

The Spirit of the Liturgy by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
(Ignatius Press, 2000, 236pp, hardback, $41.50 plus postage. Available from Ignatius Press.

In 1946 the young Joseph Ratzinger read Romano Guardini's classic work The Spirit of the Liturgy. Some 54 years later the (now) Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has published this work under the same title. Why?

Part of the answer is found in Guardini's book. According to Cardinal Ratzinger it "helped us to rediscover the liturgy in all its beauty, hidden wealth, and time-transcending grandeur, to see it as the animating centre of the Church, the very centre of Christian life," at a time when the liturgy was, for the laity, "largely concealed beneath instructions for and forms of private prayer."

A further part of the answer is to be found in the liturgical state of the Catholic Church as we enter the third Christian millennium. Ratzinger again: "[the liturgy] 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."

So, Cardinal Ratzinger, believing that today the liturgy of the Roman rite is in a state of crisis, has written this book to call for "a new reverence in the way we treat" the liturgy and "a new understanding of its message and its reality" lest the Catholic Church suffer "irreparable loss." To that end he hopes that this book will contribute to the emergence a new liturgical movement in the Church in much the same way as Guardini's book was seminal to the classical liturgical movement of the twentieth century.

The first part of the book deals with the essence of the liturgy, what liturgy is in reality, in relation to the cosmos and to history, and with its Biblical origins. These are fundamental theological questions that have all too often been ignored in recent years.

Cardinal Ratzinger's account of the essence of the liturgy informs his practical conclusions. Because Christian liturgy "is never performed solely in the self-made world of man" but "is always a cosmic liturgy - wherever possible, we should definitely take up again the apostolic tradition of facing the east, both in the building of churches and in the celebration of the liturgy."

The Cardinal underlines this point at some length, going so far as to say that Mass with the priest facing the people during the liturgy of the Eucharist has led to the situation where "less and less is God in the picture." He adds: "looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue but of common worship, of setting off toward the One who is to come."

With regard to the Blessed Sacrament, he reminds us that "if the presence of the Lord is to touch us in a concrete way, the tabernacle must also find its proper place in the architecture of our church buildings." The importance of sacred time, the liturgical calendar with its seasons and feasts, is discussed.

The chapter on images and religious art contains a frank admission that "a new iconoclasm which has frequently been regarded as virtually mandated by the Second Vatican Council," has "left behind a void, the wretchedness of which we are now experiencing in a truly acute way."

A timely correction of the widely misunderstood concept of "active participation" in the liturgy is given: "Doing must really stop when we come to the heart of the matter: the oratio. It must be plainly evident that the oratio is the heart of the matter, but that it is important precisely because it provides a space for the actio of God. The almost theatrical entrance of different players into the liturgy, which is so common today, quite simply misses the point. If the liturgy degenerates into general activity, then we have radically misunderstood the 'theo-drama' of the liturgy and lapsed almost into parody."

In the discussion of liturgical posture, the importance of retaining kneeling is underlined: "It may well be that kneeling is alien to modern culture - insofar as it is a culture, for this culture has turned away from the faith and no longer knows the One before whom kneeling is the right, indeed the intrinsically necessary gesture. The man who learns to believe learns to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling is sick at the core. Where lost, kneeling must be rediscovered."

As well as these practical conclusions, The Spirit of the Liturgy contains a contribution to the current debate over reform of the Roman rite as a whole. While not taking either of the more prevalent uncritical stances ("we should go back, wholesale, to what we had before" or "Paul VI's reform was faultless"), Ratzinger suggests that all was not well at the top following the Second Vatican Council: "[T]he 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. 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."

And, as Cardinal Ratzinger has said in other publications, these principles were not always respected in the reforms following the Council. But, whilst the examination of such historical realities is of the utmost importance in deciding upon any future "reform of the reform," that is not the main thrust of this book.

The Spirit of the Liturgy reminds those entrusted with the preparation for and the celebration of the sacred liturgy - in its humblest or in its most splendid contexts - of their duty to allow the liturgy once again to become that sacred encounter of God who was made flesh and blood for our salvation. This, after all, was Guardini's aim, and it was the aim of the classical liturgical movement which Cardinal Ratzinger seeks to revive.

Christopher Quinn is a European-based Catholic journalist.

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