Great Expectations

Published May 25, 2005

A few days after the election of Pope Benedict XVI, a dozen men friendly to the new pontiff met for dinner in Rome. Judging from the expectations among some of those present, the “reform of the reform” of the liturgy was not simply going to accelerate; to borrow from Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, it was going to hit Warp Factor 9. A wiser head, temporarily absent its red hat, suggested that everyone calm down: the new pope wasn’t going to rush into anything, as some were suggesting.

I think His Eminence was right. Joseph Ratzinger’s Catholic spirit and Catholic imagination were formed by the classic liturgy – and by the mid-century liturgical movement in Germany. Ratzinger didn’t object to the reform of the liturgy as mandated by the Council. What he objected to was the artificial, bureaucratic way this was done, with different rites for the Mass being given dry runs in the papal apartment: the pope watching; Annibale Bugnini, impresario of the new liturgy, holding a stop-watch to the proceedings; other observers taking notes and later offering “critiques.” (If you think Ratzinger was imagining things, or that I’m doing the same, please consult Bugnini’s memoir, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975.) Authentic liturgical development, Ratzinger often argued, had to be organic, not contrived – and certainly not contrived by intellectuals. You don’t change the liturgy by turning on a dime.

And you don’t reform the reform by turning on a dime, either.

So what might be realistically expected from Pope Benedict XVI, in terms of “reforming the reform”?

I might suggest starting with something simple, like the liturgical calendar. As I write, we’re about to be subjected, once again, to Ascension Thursday Sunday – a biblical absurdity and a drastic concession to the rhythms of contemporary society and culture. The liturgy is supposed to instill in us a sense that the “real world” is the world of the angels and saints, the heavenly liturgy in which each Mass on earth participates. Lifting us out of the quotidian rhythms of what we mistakenly think is the “real world” – the workaday world – on Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter is no bad thing. In fact, it’s a very good thing. So is celebrating Epiphany on January 6, where it belongs. Pope Benedict would do well to give us back Epiphany and Ascension.

Then there is the contentious matter of translations. I think we can reasonably expect an accelerated process for getting improved English translations into parish life – translations that reflect the sacral vocabulary of the liturgy and that eschew that horrible “see Spot; see Spot run” diction that has, for almost forty years, been fingernails-down-the-blackboard for anyone attuned to the majesty of which English is capable. Reformed translations should also return us to the proper Collect form in the Opening Prayer of the Mass: forty years of telling God what God already knows, followed by a petition for some form of niceness or other, are enough.

As for Mass ad orientem – Mass celebrated with both priest and people facing the same direction, toward the Holy City and the East, from which the Lord will return – a general permission for reintroducing this ancient style of Eucharistic liturgy is overdue. But that permission should be accompanied by a caution: experiments in re-introducing ad orientem worship must be combined with serious liturgical catechesis, so that the conventional description of what’s going on – “the priest is turning his back on the people” – is understood as the caricature and canard it is. In fact, if Benedict XVI energizes the kind of liturgical catechesis that never took place in many parishes in 1965-69, and insists on a proper liturgical formation of seminarians before their ordination, then a lot of the reform of the reform will take care of itself.

Finally, the new pope could, and likely will, encourage a renewal of liturgical music, with the Church reclaiming both the tradition of Gregorian chant and the tradition of polyphony. A trend in this direction is already underway. Benedict could accelerate it, gently, by insisting on serious music at the papal liturgies he celebrates, particularly outside Rome.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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