Posts Tagged ‘Pope Benedict XVI’

Benedict XVI: Last Testament

February 14, 2017

benedict-xvi-last-testamentLast Testament
In His Own Words
Benedict XVI, with Peter Seewald
(Bloomsbury, 2016)
xx + 257 p.

This is the latest, and reportedly is to be the last, in a series of book-length interviews which Peter Seewald has conducted with Joseph Ratzinger. The first was The Ratzinger Report, issued when he was Prefect of the CDF, and now, of course, he is our Pope Emeritus. This week marks the fourth anniversary of his resignation from the papal office, and seems a good opportunity to reflect on his life and contributions to the Church.

Given the drama of his resignation from the papacy and the turmoil that has roiled through the Church during Francis’ pontificate, this is a remarkably even-keeled and unsensational entry in the series. They do discuss his decision to resign, putting to rest worries that he was somehow pressured to do so, but for the most part the focus is on Benedict’s biography: his childhood, his decision to become a priest, his theological training, his participation in Vatican II, and his eventual move to Rome. In this sense it retreads, to a certain extent, the ground covered by his memoir, Milestones, but it was good to be reminded of certain details that I had forgotten, or had never known in the first place.

Among these was the surprising discovery that he had had a fairly close relationship with Hans Küng in the early days; they had taught courses together in Tübingen. At that time, they were both considered “progressives”, but obviously their paths parted as the years went on. I was also surprised to learn that when teaching in Münster Ratzinger had been friends with Josef Pieper, meeting at his home, with others, every Sunday afternoon for conversation. I suppose it makes sense that these two great Catholic intellectuals, being contemporaries and both Germans, would know one another, but I hadn’t known it to be actually the case.

One of Benedict’s acts as Pope — one of the more striking and unexpected — was to canonize and elevate to a Doctor of the Church the medieval mystic and composer Hildegard of Bingen. In this interview we learn that he has had a fascination with her since childhood: “The figure of Hildegard always followed me; it was always engaging, always precious to me.”

About his papacy, which Seewald’s introduction aptly describes as “the great retreat the Church needed, to buttress the interior castle and to strengthen her soul”, his modesty is remarkable — or would be remarkable, did we not already know the man. He reiterates his statement that his election in 2005 was like “a guillotine”, which he accepted strictly from obedience to the Holy Spirit and not from anything remotely like personal ambition. It’s well-known that he repeatedly asked John Paul II if he could retire from the CDF and return to academic life, but his request was always denied. When Seewald asks him what he’d really liked to have done in his life, he answers:

“I would have liked to have worked intellectually more… But I’m nevertheless content with the other turn of events, with what has happened… What I could do, as I said, is something other than what I wanted — I wanted my whole life long to be a real professor — but afterwards I see it was good how it went.”

Understand that by “what has happened” he is referring to his being Pope. This indifference to power is one of the aspects of his personality that endears him to me, and to many others. Another is his self-effacement. When asked to compare himself to St John Paul II, he said, with some wit, “I had a different sort of charisma, or rather a non-charisma”, and when asked, a bit cheekily I felt, how the papacy of Francis “corrects” his own, he answered good-naturedly, averring to his preference for solitude: “Perhaps I was not truly among the people enough”. I wish Seewald had asked the same question the other way around, but he didn’t.

About his resignation, Benedict is straightforward: he was tired, and felt he could not adequately manage the many responsibilities. He recalls, with tears in his eyes, his last day as Pope, being airlifted out of the Vatican while all the church bells of Rome rang out below him.

All in all, the present volume is probably a rather minor entry in this important series of interviews, but it is one of the most personal, and for those of us who feel a filial affection for the man, it is a wonderful opportunity to spend time in his company.

The papal telephone game

October 3, 2013

From JasonBachCartoons (Via The Chant Cafe)

Although I’m not sure this sort of thing can entirely account for the odd things Pope Francis is lately said to have said…

A fond farewell

February 27, 2013

I have not written anything about Pope Benedict XVI’s recent announcement that he will step down from the papal chair. I was surprised — more surprised than I should have been had I been paying closer attention — and I am still trying to decide what I think about it. It was a prudential decision, and I have no doubt that he believes this decision to be best for the Church at this time. But I am sorry to see him go; I have a great deal of affection for this Holy Father, and I am saddened at the thought that he has found his service to us to be too much for him in his old age.

I am in no position to offer a general appraisal or summation of this pontificate, but a few highlights stand out in my mind: his beatification of Blessed John Henry Newman in England in 2010; his canonization of St. Hildegard of Bingen in 2012; his dedication to a renewal of the Church’s liturgical life, especially by granting permission for the wide(r)spread celebration of the pre-Vatican II liturgical rites and his creation of the Anglican Ordinariate (which, besides being a bridge to greater Christian unity, also has the potential to make the so-called “Anglican Use” rite more widely available, which for English-speaking Catholics can only be a good thing); and his clear and courageous speeches on numerous occasions, especially those delivered in Regensburg in 2006 and in London in 2010. On a personal note, I had the joy of seeing Pope Benedict in person on two occasions, both times in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

Almost immediately after his announcement, pundits began speculating aloud about who might succeed him. Even people whom, I would have thought, were indifferent to or hostile to Catholicism were suddenly ready with advice. How very kind. As for myself, I have made a two-fold resolution: I am not going to read any (more) such speculations, which are too often simply self-serving wish lists, and, like Janet, I am going to begin praying now for the new pontiff, whoever he may be.

Much has been written about Benedict’s papacy in the last couple of weeks, and though I have not had time to read very much of it, here are a few of the better articles that I have come across:

  • John Milbank, the brilliant Anglican theologian, has written a substantial essay drawing mostly on Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate in which he explores the “erotic politics” of Benedict’s thought — that is, the way in which the Holy Father’s understanding of love, and especially of eros (widely understood), informs his thinking about politics and the public good.
  • Tracey Rowland, who has written a book on Pope Benedict’s theological thought, writes at Crisis about his intellectual milieu: his teachers and his students. This is a reminder of just how central Joseph Ratzinger has been to Catholic theology in the past fifty years. These shoes are going to be difficult to fill.
  • At the New York Times Ross Douthat raises a number of concerns about the Holy Father’s decision to step down, and I admit that they resonate with me. There is a real sense, he writes, in which this decision is at odds with the idea of the papacy:

    There is great symbolic significance in the fact that popes die rather than resign: It’s a reminder that the pontiff is supposed to be a spiritual father more than a chief executive (presidents leave office, but your parents are your parents till they die), a sign of absolute papal surrender to the divine will (after all, if God wants a new pope, He’ll get one), and a illustration of the theological point that the church is still supposed to be the church even when its human leadership isn’t at fighting trim, whether physically or intellectually or (for that matter) morally.

  • David Warren writes that Benedict may have taken this unusual step in order to devote himself to the spiritual, rather than to the merely administrative, responsibilities with which he has been entrusted:

    And in retiring to a life of prayer, this man elected Pope may be taking upon himself a Gethsemane that only he fully understands, in light of his direct experience of Church government. The weight of the malice directed towards Rome, from the world outside but also from within many Church quarters, is something that must be dealt with not only pastorally, & politically, but in a mystical way, & thus necessarily out of public view. Benedict discerns that all his waning physical powers must be concentrated on that task, leaving the governing, pastoral, & other functions (iconic, liturgical, &c) to a successor. He took the name “Benedict,” which belonged to the founder of European monasticism. It is entirely possible that he knows what he is doing.

I hope, and trust, that it is so.

Pope Benedict held his last general audience earlier today; here is video of the final sung Pater Noster and his last papal blessing. Look at that smile. How I would have loved to be there:

Feast of the Ascension, 2012

May 17, 2012

Jesus led his followers into the vicinity of Bethany, we are told. “Lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from then, and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51.) Jesus departs in the act of blessing. He goes while blessing, and he remains in that gesture of blessing. His hands remain stretched out over this world. The blessing hands of Christ are like a roof that protects us. But at the same time, they are a gesture of opening up, tearing the world open so that heaven may enter in, may become “present” within it.

The gesture of hands outstretched in blessing expresses Jesus’ continuing relationship to his disciples, to the world. In departing, he comes to us, in order to raise us up above ourselves and to open up the world to God. That is why the disciples could return home from Bethany rejoicing. In faith we know that Jesus holds his hands stretched out in blessing over us. That is the lasting motive of Christian joy.

— Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth.

Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven?
This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven,
shall so come as you have seen him going into heaven.

God is gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Alleluia.
The Lord hath prepared his throne in heaven.
Alleluia.

Ratzinger: God and the World

August 8, 2011

God and the World
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, with Peter Seewald
(Ignatius, 2000)
460 p.

These notes originally written 10 November 2005.

I ordered this book in the days following the election of  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  Like many others, I was keen to learn something of the man now known to the world as Benedict XVI.  God and the World is not one of the Cardinal’s books in a strictly authorial sense, but rather a book-length interview conducted by German journalist Peter Seewald.  The interview took place at the great Benedictine abbey at Montecassino over a period of three days in the early months of 2000.  It was the third such interview Cardinal Ratzinger had granted Seewald, the previous two having also appeared in book form (published as The Ratzinger Report (1985) and Salt of the Earth (1996) ).  True to its ambitious title, the interview ranges widely over many subjects: basic Catholic teachings, the Church and society, the person of Christ, problems of belief, ecumenism, the liturgy, the future of the Church, and on and on.  It is, however, reasonably well organized, falling into three main sections (God, Jesus Christ, the Church), each of which is divided into numerous subsections.

In the immediate wake of the papal election, I was taken aback by the manner in which the media lined up – one tried charitably to resist calling it unprofessional – to take pot-shots at the new Pope: ‘Panzerkardinal‘, ‘God’s Rottweiler’, ‘Cardinal No’, and so forth.  The image that came across was that of an authoritarian tyrant, hell-bent (one might say) on suppressing dissent, and eager to beat his shepherd’s staff into a cattle-prod.  Yet I heard from others – others who knew the Cardinal personally – that there was little truth and less justice in this portrait.

The nature of the complaints against him were often obscured behind the thicket of name-calling, but when a grievance was aired it was usually one of three: he had been a member of the Hitler Youth as a young man, he had suppressed the liberation theologians in Latin America, and he was a hard-line dogmatist who, if one could infer from the hysterical tone, roamed back and forth on the earth excommunicating embattled free-thinkers every day, and twice on Sundays.  In their lead story on the election, the CBC actually managed to get all three elements into the first 20 seconds of coverage — a journalistic tour de force!

Yet I knew that though he was recruited by the Hitler Youth as a teenager (as was mandatory at the time), he deserted the German army immediately upon seeing action, and spent the remainder of the war as an American POW.  And I knew that he had suppressed liberation theology in Latin America because its advocates were encouraging armed guerrilla warfare against the government in the name of Christ. (That this was frowned on by the secular western media was peculiar; after all, the Cardinal was placing restrictions on the involvement of priests and theologians in politics, something one would suspect the secular media would view favourably given their devotion to the separation of church and state.)  Finally, I read that in Cardinal Ratzinger’s twenty-six years as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic Church’s primary guardian of the integrity of Catholic teaching, he had disciplined, sometimes by excommunication, but usually by suspending their license to teach theology, just twenty-six people.  Now, you might argue over the merits of this or that case, but one disciplinary case per year hardly rises to the scale of a new Inquisition.  I wondered to myself whether the journalists had any idea what they were talking about.

But, given the conflicting reports, what better means to resolve the question than by sitting down with the man himself for a long conversation?

After patiently reading through the pages of this book one will find it difficult to give the media caricature any credence.  On the contrary, the person who emerges from these pages is a rather quiet, studious, thoughtful man who, quite against the natural inclination of his personality, finds himself duty-bound to occasionally discipline wayward Catholic theologians. Based on my reading of this book, I would say that we can expect the present Pope to be a generous but careful man. He has a special concern for the liturgy and a reverence for the enduring traditions of the Church; he has a love of European culture and a scholar’s understanding of her intellectual history; his first concern is for the well-being of the universal Church, and he cares not a whit what they think of him at the New York Times. I read with particular interest the portion of the interview in which he discussed the papacy. The then-Cardinal’s remarks on the almost unendurable demands placed on the Pope now have, of course, a special poignancy.  I will not be surprised if he manages to provoke the anger of many in the years ahead, but if so it will almost certainly be only because he is a faithful Catholic, and not because he is ‘Cardinal No’.

[On Christianity]
Christianity is great because love is great.  It burns, yet this is not a destructive fire but one that makes things bright and pure and free and grand.  Being a Christian, then, is daring to entrust oneself to this burning fire.

[On conflict between the Church and culture]
If she [the Church] simply aims to avoid conflict, merely to ensure that no disturbances arise anywhere, then her real message can no longer make any impact.  For this message is in fact there precisely to conflict with our behaviour, to tear man out of his life of lies and to bring clarity and truth.

[On dealing with opponents]
We must recognize in our enemy the man who is God’s creature.  That does not mean that we should allow evil to befall us without attempting to oppose it.  But it does mean that in dealing with him, we should preserve at a deeper level this respect for him.  That we should aim at what is good even for the enemy, aim to bring him to what is good, finally to turn toward Christ.  In that sense, praying for him is one of the basic factors in our attempt to do him good.  In making a positive intervention on his behalf before God, and in trying to ensure that he does not remain our enemy but should abandon his enmity, we have already changed our attitude toward him.

[On the Papacy]
It is an ‘impossible job’, which is almost unlivable.  On the other hand, it is also one that has to be done – and which can, then, with the help of the Lord, nonetheless be lived after all.

[On sin]
It is true that wherever the idea of God disappears from people’s view of life, the concept of sin loses its meaning as a matter of course.  For if God has nothing to do with me…then there cannot be a distortion of my relationship with him – because I haven’t got one.  At first sight, sin seems then to have been cleared out of the way.  And at first one might think that life then becomes merry and easy again; it takes on, so to speak, the dimensions of an operetta.
But it has rapidly become apparent that the operetta phase of existence is of very brief duration.  Even if man wants to know nothing more about sin and has apparently got rid of whatever torments his consciousness, he soon notices that he still feels guilty… By denying the existence of God, and of the will of God, you can get rid of the concept of sin, but not of the particular problem of human existence that was thereby represented and expressed.

Sunday night Beatus

September 19, 2010

I awoke bright and early this morning — no fault of my own, I assure you — and through a miracle of modern technology was able to join the Pope in praying the Angelus, live, on the interweb. He was closing the beatification Mass for John Henry Cardinal Newman at Birmingham. His trip to the UK this week, which, going in, put many people in mind of Daniel going into the lions’ den, seems to have turned out to be a good success. The Queen, whose manners never lapse, received him graciously, and he made a mind-blowing appearance at Westminster a couple of days ago, choosing as the subject of his address no less a man than St. Thomas More. (Damian Thompson reeled too.)

Whatever else may have happened, the principal reason for the journey was to honour Newman. I am no great expert on the man, though I would cite his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine as being among those handful of books that had a significant impact on shaping my thinking about things churchy and historical. I admire him, partly for his intellect, but mostly for his courage and devotion to truth. God knows that it did not earn him an easy life.

Newman had a very high view of the communion of saints. He wrote, in that luscious Victorian prose for which he was famous,

They are present still! We are not solitary though we seem so. Few now alive understand and sanction us; but those multitudes in primitive time, who believed, and taught, and worshiped as we do, still live unto God, and, in their past deeds and their present voices, cry from the Altar. They animate us by their example; they cheer us by their company; they are on our right hand and our left. Martyrs, Confessors, and the like, high and low, who used the same Creeds, and celebrated the same Mysteries, and preached the same Gospel as we do. And to them were joined, as ages went on, even in fallen times, nay, even now in times of division, fresh and fresh witnesses from the Church below. In the world of spirits there is no difference of parties.

I’ll finish up with an excerpt from Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, a setting of Blessed John Henry Newman’s poem about death and the afterlife. I have posted this clip before, but repetition, being the hearty fare on which the spice of life is sprinkled, is not to be disparaged.

Angel
And now the threshold, as we traverse it,
Utters aloud its glad responsive chant.

Choir of Angelicals
Praise to the Holiest in the height,
And in the depth be praise:
In all His words most wonderful;
Most sure in all His ways!

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.
O Wisest love! that flesh and blood
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
Should strive and should prevail.
And that a higher gift than grace
Should flesh and blood refine,
God’s Presence and His very Self,
And Essence all divine.
O generous love! that He who smote
In man for man the foe,
The double agony in man
For man should undergo;
And in the garden secretly,
And on the cross on high,
Should teach His brethren and inspire
To suffer and to die.

Praise to the Holiest in the height,
And in the depth be praise:
In all His words most wonderful,
Most sure in all His ways!

Gratias ago tibi, magister

September 16, 2010

Wherever you are, Dr. Toporoski, I know that you are smiling today:

(I realize that not everyone knows who Dr. Toporoski is.  This post is for those who do.)

Nichols: Looking at the Liturgy

July 15, 2010

Looking at the Liturgy
A Critical View of its Contemporary Form

Aidan Nichols, O.P. (Ignatius, 1995)
129 p. First reading.

Aidan Nichols is the prolific Dominican scholar of Blackfriars, Oxford.  This little book is a good introduction to the roots of the liturgical reform movement that influenced the theory and practice of the liturgical reforms that followed Vatican II.  It is also a critique — temperate, but firm — of those changes.  He argues that although some good has come from the reforms, it has been at the cost of a general cheapening and uglification of Catholic music, architecture, and ritual, and that these outcomes were the predictable results of the dominant principles of reform.

Although liturgical reform began to have significant tangible effects at the parish level only after Vatican II, Nichols reminds us that the liturgical reform movements — for there was more than one school of thought — had histories that pre-dated the Council.  One school, for instance, rooted in the inter-war period, set forth a set of basic ideas to guide reform, which Nichols summarizes as follows: the mystery of the mystical body of Christ, theocentrism, ‘glad awareness’ of redemption, the objectivity of the liturgy, and the need for ritual actions to be symbolically appropriate.  A second school, rooted in Romanticism, laid stress on the importance of piety rather than dogma, on self-expression, on aesthetics and the experience of the sublime, and on the overwhelming majesty of God.

A third school argued that reform ought to strive for simplicity and intelligibility of the language and the rites.  They argued that local pastors should have the right to alter the liturgy to suit local preferences, downplayed the special role of the priest, discouraged the use of language about ‘sacrifice’ when describing the meaning of the Mass, and emphasized the role of the community of believers. They advocated use of the vernacular languages rather than Latin. At times they were associated with opposition to certain devotional practices, such as pilgrimages, relics, veneration of saints, and so forth.

Now, anyone who knows much about the reforms that were actually carried out after Vatican II will conclude that it was this third school that carried the day, but this is not actually true.  In fact, the program for reform I have sketched in the previous paragraph dates from the eighteenth-century, from a school strongly influenced by the Enlightenment.  At the time their ideas did not gain traction, and were mostly forgotten.

It was after the Second World War that a fourth school of liturgical reform grew up. Apparently without being aware of it, this group laid out a program for reform that echoed, with surprising fidelity, the Enlightenment ideas from two centuries earlier.  It is possible, I suppose, to view this as a coincidence, but a more likely explanation is simply this: that by the twentieth-century the influence of the Enlightenment was felt throughout Western culture, especially secular culture, and when the Church ‘opened her windows’ to the world, it was the wind of Enlightenment that blew in.  When Vatican II gave them authority to do so, this group of liturgists emerged to public prominence, and their influence can be felt today in nearly every parish one visits.

A consequence of this historical development, and especially of the rather sudden elevation of these reforming ideas, was that they were never really tested against the critical insights of other disciplines, nor against the sense of the Catholic faithful.  The reforms were, as we know, jarring for many ordinary Catholics — I personally know several people who have never recovered from the sense of dislocation they experienced at the time — and in the subsequent decades voices have been raised in criticism of the results. Voices have been raised in praise of the results too, of course. The debate has been at times heated and uncharitable, earning it the unhappy epithet ‘liturgy wars’.

Nichols, thankfully, is not interested in needlessly stoking those martial flames, and he generates more light than heat. Yet he does have critical comments to make. Following the slightly ironic historical introduction sketched above, he mounts a critique of most of the leading ideas that dominated the Vatican II reforms, principally ‘simplicity’, ‘intelligibility’, ‘community’, and ‘participation’.

Let’s take the first two together, since they are two aspects of a single objective: to make the liturgy more straight-forward, more comfortable, more comprehensible, more contemporary.  Or, from another angle, it has meant making it less mysterious, less laden with historical baggage, less ritualistic.  Nichols challenges this plan head-on:

It is by no means self-evident that brief, clear rites have greater transformative potential than complex, abundant, lavish, rich, long rites, furnished with elaborate ceremonial.

The danger is that too great an emphasis on simplicity and comprehensibility in liturgical rites has the effect of trivializing them, making it difficult for deeper meanings to be read into them.  But liturgy is supposed to be, at least in part, a window — an icon — through which we encounter and perceive deeper realities.  Liturgy which stresses the ceremonious, formal, allegorical, and even (within limits) ambiguous nature of its symbols and actions provides a greater latitude and depth for such perception.

There is such a thing as ‘noble simplicity’ — one finds it in monastic houses — which cultivates a bracing austerity and economy, a heightening of experience by concentration upon essentials, but in the wrong hands simplicity can easily degenerate into mere ordinariness.  The effort, for example, to simplify the language of the liturgy, which was one of the principal objectives of the Vatican II reforms, was born from this pursuit of simplicity, and the results were often perfectly dreadful, as though the prayers were written in a modern newsroom.  Ritual, however, should rightly make use of elevated language (which in English may often mean archaic language) as a means of honouring the sacred action, and of conveying beauty. Nichols remarks that studies of early Christian rites indicate that already, at the beginning, the language used in Church prayers and liturgies was distinguished by its use of elevated or archaic syntax and diction.  This makes perfect sense, for in liturgy we should want to be raised up, so as to be less unworthy of the object of our worship, not to drag that object of worship down to the quotidian.

The ideal of ‘intelligibility’ is also open to criticism.  Needless to say, a critique along this line is necessarily moderate, for a wholly unintelligible liturgy is definitely undesirable.  Yet there is good reason to believe that too great a stress on comprehensibility, on making plain the meaning of the liturgical actions, harms the work that liturgy is to accomplish.

There are different ways to approach the question.  One is to recall John Henry Cardinal Newman’s remark — I forget where — about Scripture: that the literal interpretation of Scripture is insufficient because God’s speech is so fertile and abundant that it rarely means only one thing.  This richness is also a quality of Catholic theology: the doctrines are woven together in such an intricate manner that it is difficult to speak of one part without bringing in others, and each part can be construed under various aspects.  To take an example: the Blessed Virgin is called the Mother of God because she was the mother of Jesus, in whom the nature of God and the nature of man were united; she is also, of course, the mother of the body of Christ; and since the body of Christ is the Church, she is Mother of the Church, and she represents, in a particularly concentrated way, the Church herself, which is the bride of Christ; so she is both bride and mother to Christ, though not in the same sense; she is also the handmaiden of the Lord, the woman of humility whose greatness in the order of grace is unsurpassed by any creature; she is called the Ark of the Covenant, in whom the Word of God resided as in a safe refuge, and she gave birth to the Word by whom all things were made.  I don’t know if I should go on.  The point is that Mary means many things, and it is a real possibility that by trying to make her meaning clear and simple we fail to do her justice.  The same is true of many other aspects of Catholic theology and liturgy.

There is also an aesthetic reason to be wary of ‘intelligibility’.  Liturgy — and not, pace Wagner, music-drama — is the great and original Gesamtkunstwerk: the total, all-encompassing art-form.  At its best, it addresses itself not only, or even principally, to the intellect, but to all of the senses and to the whole person.  Nichols approvingly quotes a statement, from 1967, by one Irenee-Henri Dalmais, who said: ‘Liturgy belongs in the order of doing (ergon) not of knowing (logos).  Logical thought cannot get far with it; liturgical actions yield their intelligibility in their performance. . .’  In this respect liturgy is similar to other forms of art, such as poetry or music: it is a simple mistake to suppose that one can distill from a great poem its univocal meaning, as though the poet’s work consisted in cloaking a theme or moral in fancy garb, only so that the reader can again uncloak it.  The idea that one can ‘peel back’ the complexity and texture and symbolism to reveal the underlying thing is sometimes tempting, but illusory, for by doing so one destroys the thing.  We should not wish to render symbols, such as those encountered and enacted in liturgy, transparent and univocal, for so doing drains them of their potency.

In this respect I think it is helpful to recall one of C.S. Lewis’ essays, called ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’.  In his toolshed Lewis is contemplating a shaft of light that cuts through the darkness from an open chink in the roof.  There is a fundamental difference, says Lewis, between looking at the beam of light, in which one sees dancing motes of dust, and looking along the beam, by which one sees the dancing leaves of the trees and the blue sky.  The same reasoning applies more generally: there is a difference between seeing a thing, as if from outside it, and seeing by means of it, as if from inside it. In liturgy we want to see along the beam.  But one can be provoked from seeing along the beam to seeing the beam, and didacticism provokes in just this way.  It knocks one out of the beam because it awakens self-consciousness in relation to the beam.  In liturgy, when ‘the point’ is presented too obviously, or with too great an emphasis, it draws attention to itself, and thereby divides itself from the worshipper.  Liturgy benefits from a tactful reticence.  The bride is veiled for a reason.

Let me put this another way: there is in liturgy, as in literature, an element called ‘atmosphere’.  It is impossible to say exactly where it comes from — it arises from tone and style as well as content — but an emphasis on plain intelligibility tends to destroy it, which is why it is not found in newspapers.   Atmosphere is communicated indirectly and subconsciously, by suggestion and association, and, crucially, it is atmosphere that possesses the imagination and the heart.  It is by such possession that we are able to see along the beam.  As Lewis said in another essay (‘The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version’), ‘that which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep’.  That is the most succinct argument against the ideal of ‘intelligibility’ that one is likely to find.

The third ideal that Nichols criticizes is ‘community’.  Liturgical reformers have often advanced, under the banner of ‘community’, things that are at odds with the proper spirit of Christian worship.  At the worst, worship is itself apparently forgotten, replaced by a ‘community meal’ around a ‘table’.  Thus we have churches built ‘in the round’, altars pulled out from the back wall so that priests may celebrate the Mass versus populum, and the tabernacle removed from its place of honour at the focal point of the church structure and relegated to some unassuming niche off to the side.  So too, when ‘community’ is the focus, the particular personalities of the members of the community receive greater attention, and this is especially true of the priest.  It has been often remarked that the personality of the priest — his face, his manner, the particular way he ‘personalizes’ (that is, tampers with) the liturgical texts — is often a distraction to the congregation, but Nichols makes an additional, insightful point: when the priest’s personality eclipses his role as a ritual actor he is himself prevented from entering into the forgetfulness of self that is one of the principal gifts of ritual.  Finally, the stress on the importance of ‘community’ puts destructive pressure on ritual forms per se, for liturgy comes to be seen as a means for the community’s self-expression, an object suitable for manipulation, an instrument, perhaps, in the hands of warring liturgical factions, and this, as Benedict XVI has often said, is an assault upon the very nature of liturgy.

Lastly, Nichols turns to the ideal of ‘participation’.  Perhaps nothing has so inflamed the liturgy wars as this word has. The documents of Vatican II called for greater participatio actuoso on the part of the congregation, which has been translated into English as ‘active participation’.  This has often been interpreted to mean that the congregation must be ‘doing something’ during the liturgy: they must sing, they must be engaged, they must not be left alone in silence.  But there is a distinction to be made between interior and exterior participation.  Interior participation is the more important; exterior action is rightly judged by the quality of the interior involvement that it reflects and cultivates.  Too much exterior action can be an impediment to interior engagement.  There’s the rub.  The old rite — now the Extraordinary Form of the rite — does leave the congregation in silence for extended periods, and to that extent violates the simple-minded imperative to promote ‘active participation’, but in my experience it more effectively encourages interior involvement.  Not everyone, I know, feels the same way, but, speaking for myself, I find that in ‘high’ liturgy, dominated by a formal rite, the focus is taken off the surface detail and an inner space opens up beneath, which one can explore to the extent that one is able. Paradoxically, perhaps, the more ceremonious and impersonal the rite, the more personal and meaningful is my experience of it.

All of these points of criticism of the liturgical reforms of the past forty years are, by their nature, measured.  No-one wants a liturgy that is overly complex, largely unintelligible, or cold and alienating.  There is therefore something good to be said for ‘simplicity’, ‘intelligibility’, ‘community’, and ‘participation’ as genuine goods.  But there can be too much of a good thing, and the challenge is always to keep the various goods in balance, so that a subset does not overwhelm the rest, and that is the spirit in which Nichols’ critique is offered.  Most of the problems that have afflicted the liturgy since Vatican II have been due, I believe, not so much to the decisions and directives of the Council but to their implementation.  In part the fault lies with the poor (to choose a word that is probably too mild) judgement of those who undertook the practical business of reform, and in part with the bishops, who failed to guide and discipline the process.  As a result, much of what issued from the liturgical publishing houses was clearly at odds, and continues to be at odds, with the wishes of the Council Fathers.

We live in a culture that is reflexively anti-ritualistic. As such, Catholics should be especially conscious of our responsibility to protect and stabilize the ritual heart of our faith, for without special protection it will fall prey to the powerful forces around it.  All too often, we have been derelict in this duty.  The remedy, Nichols writes, is, first, to strive mightily to prevent any further erosion of our liturgical patrimony, and, second, the ‘prayerful, dignified, correct, and, where appropriate, solemn celebration of the Novus Ordo‘ (and, we may now add, the Usus Antiquior).  Slowly, with the encouragement and example of the Holy Father, we can try to recover what has been lost.

Feast of St. Benedict

July 11, 2010

I’ve no time to write today, but I love St. Benedict and can’t let his day go by unremarked.  Here is an older post about him, drawing on commentary by another Benedict.

First five years

April 19, 2010

Today is the fifth anniversary of Benedict XVI’s election as Pope.  I remember very well the day he was elected; I was surprised and delighted, but not sure what to expect from him.  I remember, too, the first words he spoke from the balcony at St. Peter’s: “The cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard”.  His self-effacing manner, and his awkward gestures, were endearing then, and in the intervening years this Pope has grown more endearing still.

The good that he has done over the past five years has not received the notice that it deserves, mostly, I expect, because it principally concerns the interior life of the Church.  Whereas John Paul II was an outgoing, dramatic Pope who wanted to bring the Gospel to every corner of the world and to every heart willing to listen, Benedict has turned his attention inward, and backward, to remind the Church of her roots, her sources, and her identity.  We see this pre-eminently in what I consider to have been the most important act of his pontificate thus far: his liberalization of the liturgical rites in Summorum pontificum.  This is a gift to the Church which I believe will bear much good fruit in the long run — perhaps not in my lifetime, but eventually.  We see it also in the long series of addresses he has given to pilgrims in Piazza San Pietro on the Fathers of the Church and the great medieval saints and theologians.  And we see it too in his efforts to heal the wounds of division that have marred the nature and witness of the Church, especially in his gestures of welcome toward the Society of St. Pius X and to Anglicans.  These initiatives of his have not always unfolded smoothly, but the problems are insignificant when set beside the promise they betide for the life of the Church in the decades ahead.

There has been criticism, too, some of it just.  We all know that the media thrives on bad news, so naturally the bad news is better known, even the false bad news.  But I do not wish to be argumentative today.

Catholic World Report has put together a set of appreciative short essays exploring various aspects of Pope Benedict’s first five years.  They are well worth reading.

Happy anniversary, Holy Father.  God grant you many years.