The Liturgy in the Thought of Benedict XVI

Appraisal and Appreciation

by Giles R. Dimock, appearing in Volume 23

Benedict XVI loves the liturgy, seeing it as our being caught up in the divine mystery of salvation and all during his pontificate he promoted it by his writing, preaching and teaching. His spirituality seems to have not only an Augustinian cast, but also seems to show the influence of the early German liturgical movement, which was much promoted by the Benedictines for whom he has a great love. In this article, we will examine his liturgical evolution from his youth in Germany to his work as the occupant of the Chair of Peter, for which we all are grateful.

Augustiner Klosterkirche in Tittmoning, Germany, where Joseph Ratzinger lived as a boy. Photo: Appel

Early Life

Much of the liturgical thought of Benedict XVI can be seen in his autobiography Milestones which chronicles his life until he was called to Rome. In Milestones he describes the Liturgy’s effect on him in his youth as the church year was celebrated by his parish church,1 especially the darkening of the church for the somber season of Lent. His parents’ gift to him of a child’s missal like their own hand missals drew him more deeply into the holy mysteries as a boy.2

When he entered the seminary he encountered the new personalism of Martin Buber alongside the teaching of Saint Thomas whose “crystal clear logic” was “too closed in on itself, at least in the rigid neo-scholasticism” that was presented.3 At the University, he was influenced by Michael Schmaus who left neo-scholasticism for the new liturgical movement which presented the faith more in the spirit of returning to the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church.4 A personal note could be added here: I find myself in sympathy with him, for I recoiled from an extremely rigid Thomistic formation to study Liturgy and later rediscovered the great wisdom of our elder brother, Saint Thomas. The “new theology” was in the air. One of his professors was influenced by the “mystery theology” of Dom Odo Casel, OSB,5 another saw the Mass as the center of each day, while the study of Sacred Scripture was seen as the soul of theology ... many themes that would be taken up by Vatican II.

However early on, young Joseph Ratzinger had reservations: a certain “one sided rationalism and historicism” of the liturgical movement in which some saw “only one form of the Liturgy as valid,” i.e. that of the early Church. This was not true of De Lubac whose teaching on the unity of Church as sustained by the Eucharist was deeply influential in his thought.6

Vatican II

Ratzinger’s account of the consideration of the Liturgy at Vatican II at which he was peritus is interesting. He states that the liturgical schema at the Council was not expected to be controversial since no one expected major changes. However from France and Germany pressure was brought to bear to reform the Mass according to the purest form of the Roman Rite in accord with those reforms of Pius X and Pius XII. A model Mass along such lines was rejected by a synod of counciliar fathers in 1967, but it still became the working model for the new Mass.7 Sacrosanctum Concilium said Latin was to be preserved and that the faithful were to be able to sing the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin and clerics were to pray the Office in the same way. This soon became a moot point.8

Missal of Paul VI

Ratzinger’s reaction to the introduction of the Missal of Paul VI was somewhat negative, but not completely so. He was dismayed by the prohibition of the Missal of Pius V (really simply a reworking of that used by the Roman Rite since Gregory the Great). He felt that this was a breach in practice, and, in this, can we not see a hint of the Papal Motu Proprio to come? He felt that much that should have been guarded has been neglected and that many treasures have been squandered away in the new Liturgy made by a committee that often is celebrated in a lackluster way that is boring and bereft of artistic standards.9 So not all who criticize the current liturgy as banal, in the community celebrating itself are necessarily integralists. His criticism is ”that the liturgy is not celebrated in such wise that the givenness of the great mystery of God among us through the action of the church shines forth.”10 The Church gives us the ritual, but cannot generate the power, the energy at work in these rites, rather it is the wholly Other acting. We can participate actually and really and personally often in deep silence. We participate in the Mystery which is still incomprehensible.

In Feast of Faith, Joseph Ratzinger states that he is grateful for the new Missal of Paul VI for the newly added prayers and prefaces, many of which came from other Western rites: the Gallican, Mozarabic, and Ambrosian. He feels the offertory prayers of the old Mass were misleading in that they tended to identify the offering of Christ’s Sacrifice with this part of the Mass rather than with the consecration itself. Much of Ratzinger’s criticism is of the interpretation of the new Liturgy in a nontraditional way, with a hermeneutic of discontinuity rather than continuity. This is why he was happy with the indult of Pope John Paul II and perhaps why he followed it with his own Motu Proprio.


One of Ratzinger’s great theological concerns is to show that the “Eucharist is more than a brotherly meal.”11 It is primarily the common sacrifice of the Church in which the Lord prays with us and gives himself to us. In Feast of Faith, the future pope makes it clear that while the Eucharist has the “context of a meal”, it is the “Eucharistia, the prayer of anamnesis or the verbal sacrifice in which Christ’s sacrifice is made present.”12 Therefore it is not worthless to attend even if one cannot receive, i.e. divorced and remarried Catholics. This sacrifice is a feast in which we transcend ourselves into something greater…we enter into the cosmic joy of the Resurrection, the Mysterium Paschale.13 In God is Near Us he sees the Eucharist as the wellspring of life from the side of Christ opened in sacrifice, fully present to us all scattered over the earth and to the saints in heaven.14


Adoration of Mystic Lamb, Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, 1420-32. Photo:

Since Christ is really present to us in the Eucharist in his risen body, we respond not only by receiving, but also by adoring him in gestures and postures, with kneeling and silence. A rediscovery of the common meal aspect does not wipe out the need for adoration.15 People, he says, have forgotten that adoration is an intensification of communion, so the Corpus Christi procession is an intensification of the communion procession, a walking with the Lord.16 In Feast of Faith, he gives the history of this procession, the Lord, as head of state visits the streets of each village,17 a triumphal procession of Christ the Victor in his campaign against death.18 It is a good practice even if a medieval development and not of patristic origin, because the Church is living and the medieval Church and that of the Baroque era developed a liturgical depth which must be examined before it is abandoned.19 In the Spirit of the Liturgy our author points out that the medieval transubstantiation debate is the origin of tabernacles of various sorts, exposition, monstrances, processions: “all medieval errors” according to some, but Ratzinger profoundly disagrees. He traces Eucharistic reservation to the early Church which kept it for the ill, and attributes the Franciscan and Dominican evangelization and emphasis on the Eucharist for the Eucharistic doves, ambries, and sacrament towers which were developed to reserve the Eucharist. He states that this medieval devotion was a “wonderful spiritual awakening” and further that “a church without the Eucharistic presence is dead”, a statement with which I heartily agree.20 Let us conclude this section with his observation that since the Eucharist is the center of life of the Church, it presupposes the other sacraments and points to them. It also presupposes personal prayer, family prayer, extra liturgical prayer such as Stations of the Cross, the Rosary and especially devotion to Our Lady.21


Our author has a definite perspective on church architecture. In his Spirit of the Liturgy, he quotes Bouyer to the effect that just as the synagogue faced the presence of God in Jerusalem, so early churches faced East where the sun rose, seeing in this Christ, the Sun of righteousness, coming “forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber” (Ps. 19). We process towards the New Heavens and the New Earth and Christ the Light of the World. The image of Christ seen in this way quickly merges with that of the Cross on the eastern apse of the church according to Ratzinger. The altar under the cross in the apse is the “place where heaven is opened up” and there we are led to eternal glory. Following Bouyer, he states how in the early Syrian churches, the faithful first gathered around the bema for the Liturgy of the Word, and then approached the altar and the East for the Eucharist, facing in the same direction as the celebrant. They were all directed to “conversi ad Dominum”, to look East with him.22 In Rome, Saint Peter’s, because of the topography of the Vatican Hill, faced West in its apse rather than East, and its altar in the middle of the nave of the church faced the East through the main doors. When Saint Gregory the Great had the altar brought forward over the tomb of Saint Peter, he set the stage for the later development of Mass versus populum.23 Since other churches in Rome copied Saint Peter’s this custom of facing the people (though not found outside Rome) became the ideal of liturgical renewal even though it was not explicitly mentioned in Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican II. Ratzinger is strongly of the conviction that more important than priest and people facing one another is the mandate that they all face ad Dominum. Since re-orienting so many churches would be a daunting and expensive proposition, he suggests having the cross hang above the altar or on the altar, so all can be oriented ad Dominum rather than towards one another. Those who have participated in Papal Masses at Saint Peter’s or followed those celebrated by the Pope in his visit to our country note that the cross (crucifix) was always on the altar facing the Pope, as often were the candles.


Ratzinger is much drawn to beauty as the radiance of the truth and states in Feast of Faith that Christians must make the church building a place where beauty is at home and further states dramatically that without beauty, the world becomes the last circle of Hell. Theologians who do not “love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous (because) blindness and deafness towards the beautiful are not incidental, they are necessarily reflected in his theology.”24 Holy images are necessary and all historical forms of art from early Christian to Baroque lay down the principles for sacred art for the future.25 One should not jettison all art which developed after Saint Gregory the Great. Solemnity and beauty are the wealth of all (including the poor) who long for it and even do without necessities to show honor to God.26


Benedict XVI, a musician himself, has a great interest in encouraging good church music, even devoting a book to the subject, A New Song for the Lord. His own brother was priest choirmaster of the great cathedral of Regensburg, whose name is synonymous with the great tradition of beautiful chant and exquisite polyphony. Benedict thinks that for the sake of popular participation, we’ve used “utility music” for the people to sing, i.e., that which is cheap and trite, the lowest common denominator. Simple liturgy need not be banal, because true simplicity can come from a spiritual, cultural and historical wealth. The Church must rouse the voice of the cosmos, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself making it too, glorious, beautiful, habitable and beloved. He quotes Saint Thomas Aquinas in the II-IIae of the Summa q 91, a I, resp.1 to the effect that delight in the Lord, joy in a shared presence of Him, is the result of our praise through which we ascend to God and are brought to a sense of reverence since “vocal worship is necessary not for God’s sake, but for the sake of the worshipper.”27 Man wants to sing, for, according to Saint Augustine, “to love is to sing,”28 but listening is also a form of participation: “Listening to great music can be interior participation so hearing the choir singing great works of choral music can rejoice the heart and raise up the soul,” and complement simple but good music the congregation can manage.

Sacramentum Caritatis

In his Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis (issued after the Oct. 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist) Benedict XVI in his first papal teaching on the Liturgy articulates in his own original manner, the classic Catholic beliefs on the Eucharist as a mystery and sacrifice. The relation of the Holy Trinity to this mystery and indeed especially the Holy Spirit in particular, the relationship of the Church to the Eucharist as well, the Eucharist and the other sacraments are all treated. Finally the Eucharist is related to eschatology and Our Lady in the Pope’s treatment.

It is his understanding of the ars celebrandi of the Eucharist that seems most to pertain to the subject matter of this paper. His emphasis on celebrating the rite itself is welcome and even his insistence that this is the best way to ensure actuosa participatio.29 Further he draws our attention to respect for the liturgical books, proper liturgical vesture and colors, the liturgical furnishing and sacred space for art, words, gestures, and silence which in the liturgy operate “on different levels of communication which enable [engagement with] the whole person.”30 He highlights the architecture of the church and its proper disposition for the celebrating of the sacred mysteries and singles out the location of the tabernacle. It must be marked by a lamp and readily visible to all in the church. Old high altars may be used or a central location in the sanctuary provided the celebrants chair is not in front of it. Chapels of reservation may also be used according to the judgment of the ordinary.31 Liturgical music must be good and respect the great heritage of the Church, a theme we have seen before. The structure of the Mass is discussed as well as the Liturgy of the Word with its homily. He speaks of the need of good preaching using the Lectionary texts, and not being afraid to use the four pillars of the Catechism: Creed, Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and Prayer.32 In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, he calls for restraint in the expression of the sign of peace.33 Themes we have seen before appear in this document: the interiority of active participation is underscored34 and Eucharistic Adoration.35 He raises the question of very large concelebrations which might lose their focus, the unity of the priesthood and underlines too the need for the study of Latin for those studying for the priesthood to be able to celebrate in Latin and to sing in Latin as well.36

The Motu Proprio

So as Pope, Benedict XVI gave us a beautiful theology of the Eucharist in Sacramentum Caritatis and has also set a new direction in the liturgical life of the Church through his Motu Proprio making the old Latin Mass of Pius V more available.

Benedict XVI in this document emphasizes the role of the popes ensuring worthy ritual be offered to the supreme majesty and that particular churches concur with the universal Church not only in doctrine, but also in sacramental signs and also in usages universally accepted by apostolic tradition. These must be observed not only to avoid errors, but also to transmit the integrity of the Faith, because lex orandi statuit lex credendi (Saint Prosper of Aquitaine). He then praises Saint Gregory the Great who helped to codify the Roman Rite and had the great Order of Saint Benedict disseminate it all over Europe. He praises the Dominican saint, Pope Pius V, for his renewal of that same rite at the time of Trent.

The far-reaching reform of the Roman Missal by Pope Paul VI and the translation of it into the vernacular he cites as well as the third typical edition of Pope John Paul II. However he notes that “no small numbers” had affection for the old rite and that same Pope allowed the old rite under certain conditions in 1984 (Quattuor Adhinc Annis) and further encouraged the bishops to be generous in providing for those attached to the old rite in 1988 (Ecclesia Dei). Because he saw that there is still a need and after consulting with the consistory of Cardinals in 2000, Pope Benedict XVI issued his own Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificium of July 7, 2007, in which he allowed priests to celebrate the Mass of the Missal of Bl. John XXIII. The provisions are as follows:

In an accompanying letter the Pope expressed the fear that some have that this permission would be turning back Vatican II. He states that the ordinary form for most Catholics will be the present rite. Some feel that this move will bring disunity in the Church. He thinks that the use of the old rite requires liturgical formation, the knowledge of the Missal and Latin, and that will not be true of most. Therefore the usage will be smaller. He does note that the two uses of the Roman Rite will be mutually enriching, with new saints and prefaces for the old Missal and greater reverence for the Mass in the new Missal. He hopes that this will bring greater unity in the Church, especially it would seem with the dissidents on the right, and this has already happened.

The Pope’s emphasis is on the continuity of the tradition of the Church which he underscored in his Christmas address to the Curia in 2005. Not surprisingly he stresses continuity in his approach to Liturgy. In papal ceremonies, the new Master of the same, Guido Marini mined the tradition for forgotten riches that might be re-appropriated for today. Magnificent fiddle-back vestments take their place at papal masses, while at other times the more flowing Gothic still remain. Older thrones and other papal appointments are brought out not as a return to triumphalism, but as objects manifesting beauty in the service of the Liturgy. The restructuring of the Congregation of Divine Worship now gives us an office to encourage liturgical art, architecture, and music. The director of this new department is Abbot Michael Zelinski, OSB, an expert on Gregorian Chant. I think we can expect good things in the future.

So we have seen the liturgical thought of Joseph Ratzinger in its evolving from boyhood and seminary experiences to those at Vatican II, as university professor, Archbishop of Münich, as head of the C.D.F., and finally as Pope, and yet we see an underlying consistency of principle. How his theology and pastoral direction will affect the Liturgy of the Church as well as his emphasis on continuity we will watch with interest, but I think it bodes well and surely will be his legacy to the Church of the future. Surely we owe a great debt of gratitude for the clarity of thought, the fostering of beauty and the promotion of the liturgy to Pope Benedict XVI, now praying for us.