Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Preface to Alcuin Reid’s The Organic Development of the Liturgy

In the last few decades, the matter of the right way to celebrate the Liturgy has increasingly become one of the points around which much of the controversy has centred concerning the Second Vatican Council, about how it should be evaluated, and about its reception in the life of the Church.

There are the relentless supporters of reform, for whom the fact that, under certain conditions, the celebration of the Eucharist in accordance with the most recent edition of the missal before the Council–that of 1962–has once more been permitted represents an intolerable fall from grace. At the same time, of course, the Liturgy is regarded as “semper reformanda”, so that in the end it is whatever “congregation” is involved that makes “its” Liturgy, in which it expresses itself. A Protestant “Liturgical Compendium” (edited by C. Grethlein [Ruddat, 2003]) recently presented worship as a “project for reform” (pp. 13-41) and thereby also expressed the way many Catholic liturgists think about it. And then, on the other hand, there are the embittered critics of liturgical reform–critical not only of its application in practice, but equally of its basis in the Council. They can see salvation only in total rejection of the reform.

Between these two groups, the radical reformers and their radical opponents, the voices of those people who regard the Liturgy as something living, and thus as growing and renewing itself both in its reception and in its finished form, are often lost. These latter, however, on the basis of the same argument, insist that growth is not possible unless the Liturgy’s identity is preserved, and they further emphasise that proper development is possible only if careful attention is paid to the inner structural logic of this “organism”: Just as a gardener cares for a living plant as it develops, with due attention to the power of growth and life within the plant and the rules it obeys, so the Church ought to give reverent care to the Liturgy through the ages, distinguishing actions that are helpful and healing from those that are violent and destructive.

If that is how things are, then we must try to ascertain the inner structure of a rite, and the rules by which its life is governed, in order thus to find the right way to preserve its vital force in changing times, to strengthen and renew it. Dom Alcuin Reid’s book takes its place in this current of thought. Running through the history of the Roman rite (Mass and breviary), from its beginnings up to the eve of the Second Vatican Council, it seeks to establish the principles of liturgical development and thus to draw from history–from its ups and downs–the standards on which every reform must be based. The book is divided into three parts. The first, very brief part investigates the history of the reform of the Roman rite from its beginnings up to the end of the nineteenth century. The second part is devoted to the Liturgical Movement up to 1948. By far the longest part–the third–deals with liturgical reform under Plus XII up to the eve of the Second Vatican Council. This part is most useful, because to a great extent people no longer remember that particular phase of liturgical reform, yet in that period–as, of course, also in the history of the Liturgical Movement–we see reflected all the questions concerning the right way to go about reform, so that we can also draw out from all this criteria on which to base our judgments. The author has made a wise decision in stopping on the threshold of the Second Vatican Council. He thus avoids entering into the controversy associated with the interpretation and the reception of the Council. Yet he can nonetheless show its place in history and show us the interplay of various tendencies on which questions as to the standards for reform must be based.

At the end of his book, the author enumerates some principles for proper reform: it should keep openness to development and continuity with the Tradition in a proper balance; it should include awareness of an objective liturgical tradition and therefore take care to ensure a substantial continuity. The author then agrees with the Catechism of the Catholic Church in emphasising that “even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy” (CCC 1125). As subsidiary criteria we then encounter the legitimacy of local traditions and the concern for pastoral effectiveness.

From my own personal point of view I should like to give further particular emphasis to some of the criteria for liturgical renewal thus briefly indicated. I will begin with those last two main criteria. It seems to me most important that the Catechism, in mentioning the limitation of the powers of the supreme authority in the Church with regard to reform, recalls to mind what is the essence of the primacy as outlined by the First and Second Vatican Councils: The pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law; rather, he is the guardian of the authentic Tradition and, thereby, the premier guarantor of obedience. He cannot do as he likes, and he is thereby able to oppose those people who, for their part, want to do whatever comes into their head. His rule is not that of arbitrary power, but that of obedience in faith. That is why, with respect to the Liturgy, he has the task of a gardener, not that of a technician who builds new machines and throws the old ones on the junk-pile. The “rite”, that form of celebration and prayer which has ripened in the faith and the life of the Church, is a condensed form of living Tradition in which the sphere using that rite expresses the whole of its faith and its prayer, and thus at the same time the fellowship of generations one with another becomes something we can experience, fellowship with the people who pray before us and after us. Thus the rite is something of benefit that is given to the Church, a living form of paradosis, the handing-on of Tradition.

It is important, in this connection, to interpret the “substantial continuity” correctly. The author expressly warns us against the wrong path up which we might be led by a Neoscholastic sacramental theology that is disconnected from the living form of the Liturgy. On that basis, people might reduce the “substance” to the matter and form of the sacrament and say: Bread and wine are the matter of the sacrament; the words of institution are its form. Only these two things are really necessary; everything else is changeable. At this point modernists and traditionalists are in agreement: As long as the material gifts are there, and the words of institution are spoken, then everything else is freely disposable. Many priests today, unfortunately, act in accordance with this motto; and the theories of many liturgists are unfortunately moving in the same direction. They want to overcome the limits of the rite, as being something fixed and immovable, and construct the products of their fantasy, which are supposedly “pastoral”, around this remnant, this core that has been spared and that is thus either relegated to the realm of magic or loses any meaning whatever. The Liturgical Movement had in fact been attempting to overcome this reductionism, the product of an abstract sacramental theology, and to teach us to understand the Liturgy as a living network of Tradition that had taken concrete form, that cannot be torn apart into little pieces but that has to be seen and experienced as a living whole. Anyone who, like me, was moved by this perception at the time of the Liturgical Movement on the eve of the Second Vatican Council can only stand, deeply sorrowing, before the ruins of the very things they were concerned for.

I should like just briefly to comment on two more perceptions that appear in Dom Alcuin Reid’s book. Archaeological enthusiasm and pastoral pragmatism–which is in any case often a pastoral form of rationalism–are both equally wrong. These two might be described as unholy twins. The first generation of liturgists were for the most part historians. Thus they were inclined to archaeological enthusiasm: they were trying to unearth the oldest form in its original purity; they regarded the liturgical books in current use, with the rites they offered, as the expression of the rampant proliferation through history of secondary growths that were the product of misunderstandings and of ignorance of the past. People were trying to reconstruct the oldest Roman Liturgy and to cleanse it of all later additions. A great deal of this was right, and yet liturgical reform is something different from archaeological excavation, and not all the developments of a living thing have to be logical in accordance with a rationalistic or historical standard. This is also the reason why–as the author quite rightly remarks–the experts ought not to be allowed to have the last word in liturgical reform. Experts and pastors each have their own part to play (just as, in politics, specialists and decision-makers represent two different planes). The knowledge of scholars is important, yet it cannot be directly transmuted into the decisions of pastors, for pastors still have their own responsibilities in listening to the faithful, in accompanying with understanding those who perform the things that help us to celebrate the sacrament with faith today and the things that do not. It was one of the weaknesses of the first phase of reform after the Council that to a great extent specialists were listened to almost exclusively. A greater independence on the part of pastors would have been desirable.

Because it is often all too obvious that historical knowledge cannot be elevated straight into the status of a new liturgical norm, this archaeological enthusiasm was very easily combined with pastoral pragmatism: people first of all decided to eliminate everything that was not recognised as original and was thus not part of the “substance”, and then they supplemented the “archaeological remains”, if these still seemed insufficient, in accordance with “pastoral insights”. But what is “pastoral”? The judgments made about these questions by intellectual professors were often influenced by their rationalist presuppositions and not infrequently missed the point of what really supports the life of the faithful. Thus it is that nowadays, after the Liturgy was extensively rationalised during the early phase of reform, people are eagerly seeking forms of solemnity, looking for “mystical” atmosphere and for something of the sacred. Yet because–necessarily and more and more clearly–people’s judgments as to what is pastorally effective are widely divergent, the “pastoral” aspect has become the point at which “creativity” breaks in, destroying the unity of the Liturgy and very often confronting us with something deplorably banal. That is not to deny that the eucharistic Liturgy, and likewise the Liturgy of the Word, is often celebrated reverently and “beautifully”, in the best sense, on the basis of people’s faith. Yet since we are looking for the criteria of reform, we do also have to mention the dangers, which unfortunately in the last few decades have by no means remained just the imaginings of those traditionalists opposed to reform.

I should like to come back to the way that worship was presented, in a liturgical compendium, as a “project for reform” and, thus, as a workshop in which people are always busy at something. Different again, and yet related to this, is the suggestion by some Catholic liturgists that we should finally adapt the liturgical reform to the “anthropological turn” of modern times and construct it in an anthropocentric style. If the Liturgy appears first of all as the workshop for our activity, then what is essential is being forgotten: God. For the Liturgy is not about us, but about God. Forgetting about God is the most imminent danger of our age. As against this, the Liturgy should be setting up a sign of God’s presence. Yet what happens if the habit of forgetting about God makes itself at home in the Liturgy itself and if in the Liturgy we are thinking only of ourselves? In any and every liturgical reform, and every liturgical celebration, the primacy of God should be kept in view first and foremost.

With this I have gone beyond Dom Alcuin’s book. But I think it has become clear that this book, which offers a wealth of material, teaches us some criteria and invites us to further reflection. That is why I can recommend this book.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
26 July 2004