Liturgical Education

Before he was ordained bishop in 1977, Joseph Ratzinger was for a quarter century a professor of theology. On more than one occasion he has lamented that his episcopal duties – first in Germany, then in Rome as prefect and now pope – have kept him from his first love: writing and teaching. But the papacy has given him many more students than he ever could have expected as a young professor. And it has also provided him an opportunity to teach in a unique and authoritative way what could be called his favorite theological subject: liturgy.

Ratzinger spoke of the need for “liturgical education” as early as 1981 in The Feast of Faith, and again in his magnum opus, The Spirit of the Liturgy, in 1999. In the latter work he defined “true liturgical education” as the direction “toward the essential actio that makes the liturgy what it is, toward the transforming power of God, who wants, through what happens in the liturgy, to transform us and the world.” He then bluntly adds, “In this respect, liturgical education today, both of priests and laity, is deficient to a deplorable extent. Much remains to be done here.”

A year later he returned to this theme in his book-length interview with Peter Seewald, God and the World. Although he could not have known it at the time, Ratzinger’s answers have become a sort of blueprint for how he has educated the clergy and faithful in the liturgy during the first five years of his pontificate. Much remains to be done here, but Pope Benedict has worked diligently to reconnect the world with the true heart of the liturgy.

Responding to Seewald’s question whether a “reform of the reform” is necessary “in order to make [the liturgy] holier again,” Ratzinger proposed three steps to restore the Mass’s sacred character. First, we need “a new liturgical consciousness” in order “to be rid of this spirit of arbitrary fabrication” that has morphed the Mass into a form of religious entertainment void of reverence and solemnity. In all of his writings on the liturgy, Ratzinger has cited deliberate distortions of liturgical norms as the greatest enemy of the Mass properly understood: “The most important thing today is that we should regain respect for the liturgy and for the fact that it is not to be manipulated. That we learn to know it again as the living entity that has grown up and has been given to us, in which we take part in the heavenly liturgy. That we do not seek self-fulfillment in it but rather the gift that comes to us.”

His 2007 apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis urges bishops and priests to tend to “the ars celebrandi, the art of proper celebration” of the Mass as the “primary way to foster the participation of the People of God in the sacred rite.” In fact, he adds that “the best catechesis on the Eucharist is the Eucharist itself, celebrated well.” Benedict has intentionally celebrated his papal liturgies as opportunities to teach the world the proper ars celebrandi, a lesson infinitely more communicable with the aid of modern technology.

Second, Ratzinger proposed a reexamination of the new liturgical books “to see in what area, so to speak, too much was pruned away, so that the connection with the whole history may become clearer and more alive again.” This would be the beginning of a “reform of the reform” of the Novus Ordo that some Catholics have eagerly anticipated. The first five years of Benedict’s pontificate, however, have been given solely to forming “liturgical consciousness,” that is, to reforming the liturgy’s spirit before its letter. This follows from what he told Seewald: any reform of the reform “ought in the first place to be above all an educative process” (emphasis added); otherwise, without a proper understanding of the “why” of liturgical change, we risk returning to the liturgical chaos of the 1970s. Benedict, seasoned teacher that he is, knows well that the education process is a marathon, not a sprint; the reform of the reform, therefore, remains a goal for the future.

Third, Benedict proposed that the proscription against the old Latin Mass be lifted to help foster “a true consciousness in liturgical matters.” He did precisely that in 2007 with Summorum Pontificum; he explained that “the two Forms of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching,” with the older form aiding the newer to demonstrate more powerfully its sacred character.

Teaching is an art always subject to growth and criticism. Not a few think Benedict should dispense with his educational plan and just wield the papal rod to enforce liturgical discipline on wayward priests and congregations. Others – perhaps the vast majority of Catholics – are either unaware that Benedict has convened class, or, in the case of the current liturgical establishment, refuse to hear his lessons. Is Benedict’s appoach ineffective?

No. The pace may be slow and the numbers few, but each day more and more Catholics are discovering “the essential actio” of the Mass through Benedict’s program of liturgical education, and their faith is deepening as a result. It may require decades, but developing liturgical consciousness will authentically renew the Mass, not through the papal rod, but from within.

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.