As a young boy, “It was a riveting adventure to move by degrees into the mysterious world of the liturgy which was being enacted before us and for us there on the altar. It was becoming more and more clear to me that here I was encountering a reality that no one had simply thought up, a reality that no official authority or great individual had created. This mysterious fabric of texts and actions had grown from the faith of the Church over the centuries. It bore the whole weight of history within itself and yet, at the same time, it was much more than the product of human history.”
So wrote the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI in his remarkable account, published in English by Ignatius Press in 1998, Milestones: Memoirs, 1927-1977, which takes the reader from his childhood in Bavaria to his appointment as Archbishop of Munich. (I had hoped that the years in Rome as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and then as successor of Saint Peter would be the subject of another memoir.) For Joseph Ratzinger, the Church is exemplified above all in her liturgy. As a seminarian and young priest he was a great proponent of the Liturgical Movement and was later gratified to see its principles enshrined in the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the liturgy.
What happened after Vatican II, his memoir suggests, is that the liturgy suddenly became something other than the Church’s lived experience through the centuries. The new Mass of Paul VI contained elements of the historic Roman liturgy but was largely the product of liturgical experts imposed by official authority. The old Missal, which had its roots in “the sacramentaries of the ancient Church and had known continuous growth over the centuries,” was almost totally prohibited. The liturgy appeared “no longer as a living development but as the product of erudite work and juridical authority;” it became something “fabricated,” something within our own power of decision rather than something received as a gift. All too often liturgical celebrations had the effect of putting the priest and congregation at the center, pushing God out of the way. “I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today largely derives from the disintegration of the liturgy.”
Really? It is understandable that some, perhaps many, Catholics would think that the German theologian was either delusional or exaggerating in stating that the implementation of liturgical reforms after Vatican II is to blame for much of the Church’s decline in the Western world, even if they acknowledge that the Council fathers never intended to initiate a liturgical revolution. There are, after all, other factors to be considered: the secularizing, consumer, and materialist influences of our culture (if it can still be called that), the catechetical meltdown following the Council, the sexual and cultural revolutions, et al. But I wonder whether these things would have happened with such pervasive consequences if so many Catholics had not been subjected to a long period of feverish liturgical experimentation and creativity. There is a close connection between lex credendi and lex orandi—between what we believe and how we worship.
What the then-Cardinal Ratzinger was really getting at is that many in the Church, clergy and laity alike, seem to have forgotten the true spirit and central purpose of the liturgy. Vatican II describes the liturgy, and in particular the Eucharist, as the “source and summit” of the Church’s life and mission. The liturgy is what nourishes the faith and the true Christian spirit, keeping the Church alive and well. Therefore, if we want a revitalization of the Church, we must begin at the source, and the source is the liturgy. Ratzinger knew this well enough, and therefore made it one of his priorities as pope to remedy what is politely called liturgical destabilization without causing further destabilization.
I will not reiterate what I and others have said elsewhere about the liturgical initiatives of Benedict XVI (e.g., Bux and Reid and Aillet). Instead, I want to try to help readers understand that it is not possible to “make too much” of the liturgy, but it is certainly possible to make too little of it. To understand why this is so, we need to look deep into Christianity and see what it really means to be a Christian.
Christianity began when God became flesh. Without ceasing to be God, the second Person of the divine Trinity was born of the Virgin Mary and personally entered the life of man to bring him home to the Father. Most of us are content if we are able, after many years of trial and error, to make ourselves at home in our own little world. Imagine, then, the unique position of Jesus Christ: He was and is fully at home in two worlds—the limitless world of God and the troubled world of man. In Him, divine and human life were fused together forever. Through Him, God’s life flows to man and man’s life rises to God. That two-way traffic between God and man is an everyday occurrence. Christ Himself forever remains the traffic circle through which all activity between heaven and earth must pass. Only now, the access lanes to that circle have been multiplied over and over so that many persons can come through Christ to God at the same time. He has multiplied His points of contact with the human race by enlarging the “body” through which He operates. In other words, He formed the Church. In the Church, Christ extends Himself by calling people of all places and times to enter the life of His Sonship as God’s adopted children, partakers of the divine life (2 Peter 1:4).
But what exactly is this traffic between God and man? What is it that is so important that Christ devoted His life and death to see that it kept moving?
“I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly,” He said (John 10:10). This life is not just a new edition of human life, a kind of “good life” for all. It is nothing less than God’s trinitarian life, the eternal communion of love among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is what the divine Son came to communicate to human beings, and this is the principal item in the traffic from God to man. Christ since His Resurrection and Ascension acts through the Church, His mystical body, communicating the truth and life of God to man. This is what takes place in the downbound lane of traffic, the lane from heaven to earth. In the upbound lane, there is a different traffic stream, where we “offer up a sacrifice of praise always to God” (Hebrews 13:15)—again, through Christ.
Where does the liturgy fit into all this?
Consider what we do in the liturgy. Immediately, the Mass comes to mind: that sacrifice of praise offered by Christ and His Church to God, in which the Lord’s Sacrifice on Calvary is made present daily on our altars, placing at our disposal everything that He merited by His Passion. When together we eat the sacrificial meal, His Body and Blood under the appearances of bread and wine, we are drawn deeper into Christ and one another. But the liturgy is bigger than the Mass; it includes also the other sacraments, the official daily prayer of the Church (the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours), the rites of Christian burial, and the various blessings, exorcisms, and sacramentals. The Eucharist brings us Christ in person. The other sacraments are channels of grace, which is our entry and growth in the life of Christ. And the sacramentals, when used with faith, enable us to recognize Christ’s saving presence in the familiar surroundings of everyday life.
The liturgy draws us into the life of Christ and His love for God the Father. As Christ’s devotion to His Father was the mainspring of His life on earth, so is this same adoring love the life purpose of Christ in His Church. The Church and her liturgy exist principally to glorify God. And as the love of God in Christ is the source of our salvation, so His love of God in the Church is the never-ending spring of our redemption. The Church saves because she worships. We have become worshipers of God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) because we have put on the love of Christ and, because we possess the love of Christ, we are being saved.
The Christian life is a life of worship and practical activity. Everything we do can be turned into the love of God and neighbor. Our daily family life and work and all our efforts to Christianize the world are materials for worship when joined to the life of Christ. They truly become the actions, not only of Christ, but of all His members.
And it all begins in the liturgy. In the liturgy Christ’s saving life of worship is opened to us, and we bring our contributions to it. We step into His life, experience the love of God for His children, and love our Father with the love of His Son. For this reason, the liturgy will always be the center of Christian living, the beginning and end of all practical charity and pastoral activity.
If Ratzinger/Benedict has taught us nothing else, he has reminded us that the liturgy is God’s gift before it is human response. It is not something to be freely constructed according to our own ideas and preferences. It does not exist to entertain us or to manipulate and cajole us into a subjective experience of union with God, for in liturgical worship we adore and praise God regardless of our psychological state. In the liturgy God turns to us, and we receive what He is pleased to give: our salvation in Christ—unmerited love, wounds healed, sins forgiven, bonds tightened, and death vanquished.
Originally Published on August 1, 2014.