Ratzinger on the Importance of Words in the Liturgy

Pope Benedict XVI is often assumed – on very little evidence – to be in favor of a wholesale return to liturgy as it was before Vatican II. But to the contrary, his words below are the strongest argument I have ever read for vernacular liturgy.

To be sure, some like to drive a wedge between “early” Ratzinger (this is from 1966) and a supposedly more conservative later Ratzinger – but he has always denied this distinction, saying none of his views have fundamentally changed. As Pope, his abundant promotion of Biblical spirituality is built on the insight expressed below.

It should be added that, in the same article, he argues that Latin has some role in connecting us to the earlier tradition – just as the Hebrew Amen, Alleluia, Sabbaoth, and Hosanna, and the Greek Kyrie Elieson remind us of our even earlier history. And already in this article he is arguing for the value of ad orientem liturgy. But he rejects arguments against the central importance of vernacular in the liturgy. A truly Ratzingerian liturgy, I think, would be ad orientem, but in English.

cardenal4“Against the movement towards the vernacular it is urged [by people Ratzinger disagrees with] that it is only right that the element of mystery in religion should be veiled in a language all its own and that this has been the practice of all religions known to mankind. . . .

[But] We can easily prove that the argument about the element of mystery in religion is not a valid one, any more than is the argument about retreat into the silence of individual piety, not to be disturbed by the community at worship; in fact, both these arguments stem from a basic failure to understand the essence of Christian worship. . . .

The essence of Christian worship is that it is the announcement of the Glad Tidings of God to the congregation bodily present, the answering acceptance by the congregation of this announcement, and the whole Church talking together to God, though this latter is closely interwoven with the announcement of God’s message.

For instance, the announcement of that which Christ did for us at the Last Supper is, at the same time, praise of God Who willed so to work in us through Christ. It is a remembrance of the salvific deeds of God in our regard and at the same time a cry to God to fulfill and complete the work then begun, at once a profession of faith and a profession of hope, at once thanksgiving and petition, at once announcement of the Good Tidings and prayer.

Thus the liturgy, viewed solely from the linguistic structure, is built on an intermingling of the “I” and the “you”, which are then continually being united in the “we” of the whole Church speaking to God through Christ. In a liturgy of this kind, language is not for the purpose of concealment but for the purpose of revealing, it is not meant to allow each one to retreat into the stillness of his own little island of prayer but rather to lead all together into the single “we” of the children of God, who say all together: Our Father. It was therefore a decisive step that the liturgical reform took when it released the word from the fetters of ritual and gave it back its original significance as a word. . . .

It is not the purpose of liturgy to fill us with awe and terror in the presence of sacred things but to confront us with the two-edged sword of the Word of God. Neither is it the purpose of liturgy to provide a festive and richly-adorned setting for silent meditation and communion of the soul with itself, but rather to incorporate us into the “we” of the children of God, that God who by His Incarnation has emptied Himself and come down to our level and become one with us, the lowliest of his creatures.”

-Joseph Ratzinger, “Catholicism after the Council,” 1966


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