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

Pius XII on Active Participation in the Liturgy

Pope Pius XII (1939-58) was a great pope in many ways, but he holds an especially important place in the rediscovery of the liturgy. The Fathers of Vatican II, in fact, proclaimed their document on the liturgy to be “the last will and testament of Pius XII.”

Here, in his monumental 1947 encyclical on the liturgy, Mediator Dei, he explains what “active participation in the liturgy” really means, and how essential it is to our relationship with Christ.

Pius3x-largeThe cooperation of the faithful is required so that sinners may be individually purified in the blood of the Lamb. For though, speaking generally, Christ reconciled by His painful death the whole human race with the Father, He wished that all should approach and be drawn to His cross, especially by means of the sacraments and the eucharistic sacrifice, to obtain the salutary fruits produced by Him upon it. Through this active and individual participation, the members of the Mystical Body not only become daily more like to their divine Head, but the life flowing from the Head is imparted to the members, so that we can each repeat the words of St. Paul, “With Christ I am nailed to the cross: I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

We have already explained sufficiently and of set purpose on another occasion, that Jesus Christ “when dying on the cross, bestowed upon His Church, as a completely gratuitous gift, the immense treasure of the redemption. But when it is a question of distributing this treasure, He not only commits the work of sanctification to His Immaculate Spouse, but also wishes that, to a certain extent, sanctity should derive from her activity.”

The august sacrifice of the altar is, as it were, the supreme instrument whereby the merits won by the divine Redeemer upon the cross are distributed to the faithful: “as often as this commemorative sacrifice is offered, there is wrought the work of our Redemption.” This, however, so far from lessening the dignity of the actual sacrifice on Calvary, rather proclaims and renders more manifest its greatness and its necessity, as the Council of Trent declares.

Its daily immolation reminds us that there is no salvation except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ and that God Himself wishes that there should be a continuation of this sacrifice “from the rising of the sun till the going down thereof,” so that there may be no cessation of the hymn of praise and thanksgiving which man owes to God, seeing that he required His help continually and has need of the blood of the Redeemer to remit sin which challenges God’s justice.

It is, therefore, desirable, Venerable Brethren, that all the faithful should be aware that to participate in the eucharistic sacrifice is their chief duty and supreme dignity, and that not in an inert and negligent fashion, giving way to distractions and day-dreaming, but with such earnestness and concentration that they may be united as closely as possible with the High Priest, according to the Apostle, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” And together with Him and through Him let them make their oblation, and in union with Him let them offer up themselves.

-Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei

(Not so) Silent Night

caravaggio nativityIt is perhaps time for my annual self-help Christmas pep talk.

For those of us with children – especially large broods of small children – one of the great ironies of the Church’s liturgical year is the singing of Silent Night at Christmas Eve Mass. The liturgy is beautiful. The world in silent stillness waits – to hear angels sing.

A favorite (if somewhat silly) memory of mine is one Advent before Christmas. I went to an evening of recollection at a very big, beautiful church. Afterwards, somehow, I had the dark sanctuary for myself. I pulled out a hymnal and hummed “It came upon a midnight clear.” The silent stillness. The beauty. The waiting. The expectation. The angels!

I seriously discerned religious life. I always imagine how beautiful the Christmas season could be celebrated in a monastery.

The last week of Advent has the beautiful and mysterious O Antiphons at Vespers: awesome food for meditation.

Christmas itself has four Masses: the Vigil, technically before Vespers, with Matthew’s reading about St. Joseph; then after Vespers the rubrics say, “On the Nativity of the Lord all Priests may celebrate or concelebrate three Masses, provided the Masses are celebrated at their proper times”: at midnight, the Gospel of the angels; at dawn, the shepherds come to the manger; during the day, John’s Prologue. Any of these is worth a full day of recollection.

Holy Family on the First Sunday; Mary on the octave; Epiphany on the twelfth day. The fabulous juxtaposion of St. Stephen, the first martyr, the day after Christmas; then St. John, the beloved disciple, the Apostle of love, whose amazing and profound First Letter gives the readings for the Christmas season; then the Holy Innocents. Oh, what liturgy!

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ACHR1052-dancing-around-tree_800pBut of course the irony is that this is not how we with families live the Christmas season. I’m sure I could do better. But one of the great realizations of family life is that we aren’t as good as we thought. Daily Mass and a pretty abundant daily prayer schedule, including lots of liturgy, was a no-brainer before I had kids – when it was easy. When it became difficult . . . a lot of it slipped. We are not as strong as we think we are.

But even apart from my weaknesses, how could I do it all? During Advent we try to light candles and do readings at dinner. In theory we pray Evening Prayer, with special Advent devotions to St. Joseph, as we prepare for the coming of Christ. In practice . . . gosh, the little boys are tired, bedtime takes a long time, everyone moves slowly. As for Morning Prayer and daily Mass . . . long gone, at least in our family life. I can pull off some of it, but for my wife, always covered in kids, it’s even harder.

Christmas Eve is wonderul: but when we sing Silent Night, usually one of my kids is crying, or throwing up. We always ponder doing Mass both Christmas Eve and Morning – but gave up after, with just one child (easy!) we had a diaper blowout on the way to morning Mass.

This year we have non-Church-going family in town. What should we do, ditch them, so we can have more liturgy?

And the twelve days, beautiful as they are, get largely covered in visiting family.

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Two quick points:

First, we can live the liturgy at a distance. We can poke our heads in here and there, and do our best to remember it. Later in the year maybe we will have some time to pray over the things we didn’t have time to pray over while taking care of the kids. No, my Christmas Eve is not a Silent Night. But both that night, and throughout the year, at quieter moments, I can meditate on the world in silent stillness waiting. We can live the liturgy at a distance. In fact, we’re supposed to: what we meditate in these days is supposed to come with us anyway. So let’s bring it with us. Yes, let’s imagine how cool monastic liturgy would be!

Second, family is part of the liturgy, too. The monks and nuns who get to experience the liturgy in its fullness cannot experience it in its fullness unless, just as we follow their liturgy at a distance, so too they follow our families at a distance.

Because Christmas is all about Jesus coming as a child, Jesus coming into the love of family, Jesus embracing the fullness of human life and relationships. We live our own part of the Christmas liturgy, in our not-so-silent nights.

That’s why we read First John in the Christmas season anyway.

He that loves not his brother abides in death (1 John 3:14).

If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from him, That he who loves God love his brother also (1 John 4:20-21).

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How do you reconcile liturgy and family during the Christmas season?

Pope Benedict on Personal and Liturgical Prayer

Another fine passage from Spe Salvi:

For prayer to develop this power of purification, it must on the one hand be something very personal, an encounter between my intimate self and God, the living God. On the other hand it must be constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints, by liturgical prayer, in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray properly. Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, in his book of spiritual exercises, tells us that during his life there were long periods when he was unable to pray and that he would hold fast to the texts of the Church’s prayer: the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the prayers of the liturgy. Praying must always involve this intermingling of public and personal prayer. This is how we can speak to God and how God speaks to us. In this way we undergo those purifications by which we become open to God and are prepared for the service of our fellow human beings.

We become capable of the great hope, and thus we become ministers of hope for others. Hope in a Christian sense is always hope for others as well. It is an active hope, in which we struggle to prevent things moving towards the “perverse end”. It is an active hope also in the sense that we keep the world open to God. Only in this way does it continue to be a truly human hope.

Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi