By Anthony E. Clark

Pope Benedict XVI’s first Mass as pope in the Sistine Chapel provided an insight into our new Holy Father’s liturgical vision, one which may bring young Catholics closer to the perennial traditions of the Church and heal the rifts between those attached to the Tridentine Mass and those accustomed to the Mass of Paul VI.

Benedict XVI has consistently asserted that there should be a continuity between the venerable Mass of Trent, normally referred to as the Tridentine Mass, and the Mass envisioned by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. In a lecture given at a recent liturgical conference at Fontgombault, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger stated that in the “genuine progress which the Liturgical Movement brought — which led us toward Vatican II, toward Sacrosanctum Concilium — there lay also a danger: that of despising the Middle Ages as such, and scholastic theology as such.” He noted that participants in the Liturgical Movement before Vatican II became divided, some wishing to ignore the Mass of the Middle Ages and re-create a purely “patristic” theological understanding of Eucharist.

Benedict XVI recalls that many who desired a purely pre-Middle Age liturgy vocalized slogans such as, “The consecrated bread is not there to be looked at, but to be eaten,” thus arguing against Eucharistic adoration, seeing it as a medieval aberration. Such views, our current pope suggests, are a “serious danger for the Church.” In general, he argues for more liturgical continuity between the Mass as celebrated before Vatican II and the Mass of Paul VI, something he clearly believes has not happened.

Benedict XVI’s insistence on liturgical continuity is merely a faithful response to what the Second Vatican Council’s documents actually prescribe, that is, that any revisions to the Mass be made “carefully in light of sound tradition” (Sacrosanctum Concilium). One of the chief complaints made by Catholics attached to the Tridentine Mass is that the Mass commonly celebrated in Catholic churches today represents a break from the perennial tradition of the Church. How often have we heard priests or fellow parishioners disparage the “Latin Mass” as a vestige of the past and a mark of “radical traditionalists” who are “no longer Catholic”? Are we to suppose that our grandparents and many honored saints who knew of no other Mass were not “really Catholic” either?

Benedict XVI’s funeral Mass for John Paul II, his pre-conclave Mass, and his first Mass as pope were all in Latin, and those Catholics who grew up in the 1940s and 50s, would recognize that the tones he sang during the entire Canon Missae (Eucharistic Prayer, etc.), and the Pater Noster (Our Father) are all commonly used during the Tridentine Mass.

At the Fontgombault conference, Cardinal Ratzinger stated: “Personally, I was from the beginning in favor of the freedom to continue using the old Missal (Tridentine Mass).” He explained that some early proponents of the Liturgical Movement were “beginning to talk about making a break with the pre-conciliar Church, and of developing . . . a new and conciliar type of Church.” This, our Holy Father suggests, is why today we have the Lefebvrists on the one hand, who seek to live a liturgical and devotional life as it was lived just prior to Vatican II, and the much larger group of Catholics who live a quite different liturgical and devotional life–some even insisting that the Church today is indeed a “new Church” somehow divorced from its past. This, the Holy Father warns, is unacceptable, for the Council did not create a new Church, but ratified the “Church of all ages: even the Church of the Middle Ages.” He also argues that it is essential “to recognize that both Missals (Tridentine and Paul VI) are Missals of the Church, and belong to the Church which remains the same as ever.”

What are some examples of how our Holy Father views the Holy Mass? While he is certainly in favor of the Mass of Paul VI and the liturgical vision of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, he is not without criticisms of how the Mass has sometimes come to be celebrated. He is in favor of turning the direction of the priest back to liturgical East, that is, toward the Altar, and thus, to God, as do Eastern Catholic priests to this day. He recently wrote the forward to U. M. Lang’s Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (Ignatius, 2004), which makes a vigorous and compelling argument for priests to face east in saying Mass. And in his work, Feast of Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger noted:

The original meaning of what nowadays is called ‘the priest turning his back to the people’ is, in fact . . . the priest and people together facing the same way in a common act of Trinitarian worship. . . . Priest and people were united in facing eastward. . . . Because of the rising sun, the East — oriens — was naturally both a symbol of the Resurrection . . . and a presentation of the hope of the parousia (Second Coming).He adds that the venerable and ancient practice of having a crucifix on the altar is a “tradition of praying to Lord who is to come under the sign of the cross.”

Benedict XVI is also in favor of the celebration of Pope Paul VI’s Mass in Latin–a position in keeping with the actual directives of the Second Vatican Council. Sacrosanctum Concilium states, “The use of Latin, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” The use of vernacular was suggested only for “readings, directives and in some prayers and chants.”

Sadly, this wise exhortation of Vatican II has been largely ignored, and a growing number of Catholics–both older and younger–have called for the return of the “official language” of the Roman Church. The Holy Father is in favor of restoring the traditional aesthetic of sacred architecture, i.e., building Catholic churches in the tradition of those of the past, with many images of saints and angels, and of reemphasizing the tabernacle. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, he wrote, “A church without the Eucharistic Presence is somehow dead. . . . If the presence of the Lord is to touch us in a concrete way, the tabernacle must also find its proper place in the architecture of our church buildings.” Finally, he is in favor of maintaining the use of the Tridentine Mass, rather than–as he stated at the Fontgomault conference–having it “frozen, as if in a deep-freeze, just for a certain type of people.”

What, then, might transpire during the pontificate of Benedict XVI regarding the Mass? There is, of course, no way of knowing exactly how the Holy Spirit will guide him, but his views on the subject are clearly and consistently expressed in his past writings and talks. He insists that the rich liturgical heritage of the Church should appear as continuity rather than rupture. And this is not just talk: in 1991, Benedict XVI celebrated the Tridentine Latin Mass in Weimar, Germany, in a crowded church, which included many priests and seminarians. In 2001, while at the Fontgombault conference, Cardinal Ratzinger sang the Tridentine Latin Mass.

In his preface to Franz Bried’s Die heilige Liturgie, Benedict XVI wrote that, “The Church stands and falls with the Liturgy.” The way Holy Mass is celebrated is clearly of paramount importance to our Holy Father. In his homily given during the Tridentine Mass he celebrated in the Abbey at Fontgombault, he stated: “Let us pray to the Lord to help us — to help the Church — to celebrate the Liturgy well, to be truly at the feet of the Lord, to receive the gift of true life, the essential and necessary reality, for the salvation of all, the salvation of the world. Amen.” It is a prayer for all Catholics, regardless of the particular rite and Mass they participate in.