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The Liturgical Reconquista Of Pope Benedict XVI

January 19, 2023 Frontpage No Comments


The passing of Pope Benedict XVI on the very last day of 2022 has cast a long shadow over the beginning of the new year as the Church reflects upon the loss of one of her most heroic and eloquent champions in the battle against postmodern secularism.
Yet from this occasion for sorrow there arises the opportunity to revisit his legacy and reawaken in ourselves what he taught us. Among his greatest gifts to the Church was his liturgical Reconquista (Re-conquest), a taking back of the sacred liturgy and the House of God from those who for over four decades had been working to purge sacrality from the Church’s worship. Considering that the papacy of Pope Benedict lasted less than eight years, he achieved a lot in this regard in a short time, perhaps in large part because he had already been deeply engaged in this Reconquista long before becoming a Successor of St. Peter.
The battle over how the Catholic liturgy ought to be celebrated comes down to whether or not what is done at the altar transcends the secular realm — whether or not it ought to be otherworldly, supernatural, sacred. The 1960s saw a major theological push to eviscerate the distinction between the sacred and the secular, to pull down the walls of the House of God, as it were, by declaring that everything outside those walls was just as “sacred” as what transpired within.
Of course, the reality is that when everything is declared to be sacred, one ends up with a world in which nothing is sacred. In the single-minded pursuit of this re-engineering of the liturgy and the liturgical environment of our churches, its adherents carried out a systematic campaign to eliminate as many of the external signs of the sacred as they could, succeeding in a stunningly short time. This radical makeover was also purposefully intended to deliver the message that if Catholic worship could change so drastically, so could Catholic doctrine.
During the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II, the future Pope Benedict XVI was already working to reverse this desacralization particularly through his talks and writings. His subsequent accession to the papacy gave him the opportunity to promulgate a return to sacrality with the full weight of the supreme pastoral office in the Church, to affirm in so many substantive ways the simple truth that “the Liturgy is not about us, but about God” (Pope Benedict XVI, July 2004 preface to Dom Alcuin Reid, OSB, The Organic Development of the Liturgy, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2005, p. 13).
For Pope Benedict, one of the most important expressions of man’s response to the sacred is the act of kneeling. In his landmark book The Spirit of the Liturgy, he exhaustively demonstrates the deep biblical roots of kneeling, and addressing contemporary attempts to eradicate it, declares that “a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick to the core” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2000, p. 194).
The gesture of kneeling is most especially directed to the Holy Eucharist, and thus is essential to our supreme encounter with the omnipotence of God in the celebration of Mass, the consecration, a moment that Pope Benedict describes with the utmost awe:
“The moment when the Lord comes down and transforms bread and wine to become his Body and Blood cannot fail to stun, to the very core of their being, those who participate in the Eucharist by faith and prayer. When this happens, we cannot do other than fall to our knees and greet him….For a moment the world is silent, and in that silence we touch the eternal — for one beat of the heart we step out of time into God’s being-with-us” (ibid., p. 212).
Kneeling is likewise the most fitting posture for our supreme personal encounter with our Lord at Mass, the moment of Holy Communion, a point that Pope Benedict sought to drive home during his pontificate by mandating that those at papal Masses who receive Holy Communion from the Supreme Pontiff himself were to do so on their knees. Paired with this was his catechesis on the significance of kneeling, explaining in a 2008 Corpus Christi homily:
“Kneeling before the Eucharist is a profession of freedom: those who bow to Jesus cannot and must not prostrate themselves before any earthly authority, however powerful. We Christians kneel only before God or before the Most Blessed Sacrament because we know and believe that the one true God is present in it, the God who created the world and so loved it that he gave his Only Begotten Son (cf. John 3:16). We prostrate ourselves before a God who first bent over man like the Good Samaritan to assist him and restore his life, and who knelt before us to wash our dirty feet.
“Adoring the Body of Christ, means believing that there, in that piece of Bread, Christ is really there, and gives true sense to life, to the immense universe as to the smallest creature, to the whole of human history as to the most brief existence” (Pope Benedict XVI, homily for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, May 22, 2008 — Copyright 2008 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana).
Pope Benedict spoke regularly of the two most solemn occasions for Eucharistic adoration in the course of the liturgical year, Corpus Christi, as seen above, and Holy Thursday, wherein the act of kneeling in the chapel of reposition on Holy Thursday night imitates the posture of Christ Himself in Gethsemane:
“Christians, in kneeling, enter into Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives. When menaced by the power of evil, as they kneel, they are upright before the world, while as sons and daughters, they kneel before the Father. Before God’s glory we Christians kneel and acknowledge his divinity; by this posture we also express our confidence that he will prevail” (Pope Benedict XVI, homily at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Holy Thursday, April 5, 2012 — Copyright 2012 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana).
For Pope Benedict, another essential expression of the sacred was the music chosen for the sacred liturgy, the musical settings of the Mass texts themselves and the hymns, motets, and instrumental music selected to accompany the sacred rites. The virtual abolition of Gregorian chant that had rapidly transpired following Vatican II in blatant contradiction to the directive expressed in this regard in Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (n. 116) was a disaster that had to be reversed.
The adulteration of Church music became one of the most destructive means employed by those who sought to desacralize the liturgy, imposing the dictum that only “profane music” would henceforth be allowed a place in Catholic worship, so as to fit their ideological narrative that “Christianity recognizes no other sacredness and no other sacred space than that of everyday life” (Pope Benedict XVI, “Theological Problems of Church Music,” Sacred Music, volume 135, 2008, n. 1, p. 9).
For Pope Benedict, it was unthinkable that such banal music had taken the place of the “greatness of Western music from Gregorian chant to polyphony to the Baroque age, to Bruckner and beyond” which he described as “the most immediate and the most evident verification that history has to offer of the Christian image of mankind and of the Christian dogma of redemption” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, writing in 1986, quoted in Tracey Rowland, Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed, London, T & T Clark, 2010, p. 30).
Pope Benedict repeatedly made the case for a return to the immemorial practice of celebrating the Mass ad orientem, facing toward the East, a corrective so manifestly justified by liturgical symbolism, eschatology, and liturgical history that it is a sheer wonder that this has remained a contested issue. Among the Pontiff’s many insightful comments on the inherent value of both the priest and the people being turned toward the Lord as the Mass unfolds is his observation that within the context of the Church’s continual expectation of the second coming of Christ “every Mass is an approach to the return of Christ,” and hence most fittingly celebrated facing the direction associated with the Parousia, the East (The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1986, pp. 140-141).

Vindicating The Traditional Liturgy

A key affirmation of Pope Benedict XVI’s liturgical thought, expressed in his Spirit of the Liturgy and elsewhere, is the need to repudiate the a priori assumption of all too much of the liturgical decision-making of the past sixty years — namely that the liturgy must be “cleansed” of the supposed “decadence” of medieval and Baroque Era practices and influences (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 82).
This brings us to what is arguably the boldest of all the liturgical initiatives of Pope Benedict, his 2007 decision to normalize the return to the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass and the other pre-1962 forms of the liturgical rites of the sacraments and the Divine Office, to raise the celebration of the preconciliar Mass from a status of merely being tolerated to a place of honor side by side with the “Novus Ordo” form of the sacred liturgy.
His decision effectively overthrew the premise that the preconciliar liturgy was fatally flawed because of its medieval and Baroque Era accretions and that its underlying theology was hopelessly outdated and irreconcilable with Catholicism in the present age. The Pontiff expresses this vindication of the Traditional liturgy in no uncertain terms in his letter to the bishops of the world accompanying his apostolic letter on the preconciliar liturgical books, Summorum Pontificum:
“What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful” (Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops accompanying the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, July 7, 2007 — Copyright 2007 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana).
We are all painfully aware that there is an ever-widening effort to cancel much of the liturgical legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, with not only the freedom to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass being rolled back and stifled but in some places even the freedom to do anything in the celebration of the Novus Ordo liturgy that might look “too traditional,” the very sort of things that Pope Benedict believed would enrich the liturgy.
Yet there is nothing that can erase from our hearts and minds the memory of what Pope Benedict has taught us. And there is a whole generation of young priests who have been interiorly formed in the genuine spirit of the liturgy that Pope Benedict taught. The liturgical Reconquista of Pope Benedict is not over — in God’s good time it will flourish anew. Requiescat in pace.

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