Liturgy: The Vision of Benedict XVI

by Chris Canniff


It has been nearly a year since Pope Benedict XVI resigned the papacy making way for the arrival of an Argentine pontiff whose warm and accessible persona has helped begin a gradual amelioration of the public perception of the Catholic Church in broader society. The perceptual differences between Francis and Benedict, as noted by the media and the general public, I would argue, are not entirely actual. Perhaps in outer form some things have changed, but in their essence they have largely remained the same. Therefore, this seems to be an opportune moment to reassess the entire liturgical vision of Benedict XVI in relation to the liturgical practice of our current Holy Father.


Fr. Dwight Longenecker, who blogs for Patheos, commented last summer about the differences between Francis and Benedict. In his estimation, the difference in perception stems from Francis’ extroversion as opposed to Benedict’s introversion. These are surely two different personality types, but the difference is not a legitimate reason in and of itself for liking one more than the other. While Francis is seen as an affable and approachable friend, Benedict seemed to many to be a “prideful prelate concerned with silk and lace and not with people.” As Longenecker noted, this is “a deeply unfair judgment” of Benedict.


While the news media might have you believe otherwise, as someone who follows these things, I assure you Pope Benedict kissed just as many babies and embraced just as many infirm people as has Pope Francis. There are many reasons for why this misrepresentation has occurred, whether they be related to personality, perceived doctrinal orthodoxy, or manner of speech. Another one is how each man conducts himself in liturgical functions.


As the above quote from Longenecker indicates, many considered Benedict to be preoccupied with “silk and lace.” A full appreciation of Benedict’s entire liturgical vision is necessary for comprehending why it was that the apparent ostentation decried by many of his detractors was not an expression of vanity or self-aggrandizement on his part, but rather a proper expression of man’s humility before the mystery and power of our Eucharistic Lord.



In 2000, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote his principal liturgical work entitled The Spirit of the Liturgy. Far from being a scholarly exploration of liturgical theory and praxis, it was meant to convey to the common Catholic what the liturgy is in its essence and how, therefore, man ought to approach it. While relatively short, the work is rich in profound theological reflections about our liturgy. There are far too many things in it for me to adequately convey Ratzinger’s complete vision, so I will focus on a few key insights that are central to his thought.


Liturgical vestments are something that Ratzinger only dedicated four pages to; however, this is one very noticeable and often discussed area of difference between him and Pope Francis. Many criticized Pope Benedict for being showy and gaudy due to his choice of vestments – his supposed preoccupation with “silk and lace.” However, when he speaks of them briefly in The Spirit of the Liturgy, he is quick to underscore that the vestments have nothing to do with the personality or will of the priest. “What is merely, private, merely individual, about him should disappear and make way for Christ…It is not he himself who is important, but Christ. It is not he himself whom he is communicating to men, but Christ,” says Ratzinger. He acts in persona Christi, as the tradition tells us. All of the Pauline language of “putting on Christ” is appropriated by Ratzinger as further support for the use of particular liturgical vestments; this is a “dynamic image, bearing on the transformation of man and the world, the new humanity.”


Another charge frequently leveled against Benedict was that his preference for worship ad orientem – facing toward the liturgical east, looking toward the heavenly Jerusalem and the direction of Christ’s Second Coming – was a sign of clericalism, the priest turning his back on the people. However, he goes into great detail about the importance of this orientation in liturgy.


Today, “less and less is God in the picture. More and more important is what is done by the human beings who meet here and do not like to subject themselves to a ‘pre-determined pattern.’ The turning of the priest toward the community has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself,” says Ratzinger. Instead, ad orientem is “...much more a question of priest and people facing the same direction, knowing that together they were in procession toward the Lord. They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us.”


Ultimately, Ratzinger thinks that the essence of the liturgy consists in encountering Mystery. He says, “In the liturgy the curtain between heaven and earth is torn open, and we are taken up into a liturgy that spans the whole cosmos.” All of these external signs for which he was critiqued as pope, were actually at the service of this vision, at the service of immersing the People of God in the cosmic liturgy of praise for Christ.


Pope Francis’ liturgical style is markedly different from Pope Benedict’s. This much is quite plain to see. Nevertheless, I am certain that Pope Francis believes, like his predecessor, that encounter with Mystery through participation in the cosmic liturgy is the essence of our liturgical worship. The solemn manner in which he conducts himself while celebrating Mass is evidence of this.


His vestments are simpler, and many attribute this to his personality which is more oriented toward solidarity with the poor. But the use of more ornate vestments and the precise following of liturgical rubrics and laws are not superfluous, as shown by Ratzinger, nor are they in opposition to solidarity with the poor, who need beauty just as much as they need food and clothing. While it may be in accord with Francis’ personality to simplify his celebration of the Mass, these things are not about him; rather, they are about putting on Christ who is acting through him. These things are at the service of the liturgy, not the individual.


Pope Benedict did not make the choices he made in order to make the Mass about himself. Similarly, I do not think that Pope Francis is choosing the simpler things to make the Mass about himself. It is simply the style he is used to; it was part of his formation and entire life as a priest to do things this way. While I think that Pope Benedict’s choices are more beneficial in conveying the transcendence of the Mystery, those who critique Pope Francis for his simpler choices, need to see that the essence of the liturgy between both pontificates is the same – encounter with our Risen Eucharistic Lord.


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