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  • The Bavarian's Surprise:Ratzinger's Spirit of the Liturgy as the Spirit of the Council
  • Matthew S. C. Olver

"I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy. … When the community of faith, the world-wide unity of the Church and her history, and the mystery of the living Christ are no longer visible in the liturgy, where else, then, is the Church to become visible in her spiritual essence? Then the community is celebrating only itself, an activity that is utterly fruitless. … This is why we need a new Liturgical Movement, which will call to life the real heritage of the Second Vatican Council."1

—Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger2


No one familiar will the history of liturgy after the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) and the raging debates about the implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (herafter, SC),3 will find this quote surprising. While it is [End Page 185] largely assumed that the theological work of the Pope Emeritus will harmonize with Vatican II, his critique of SC and the implementation of its call for reforms in the liturgy is seen as the one glaring exception. Cardinal Ratzinger has long been a symbolic figure for those who seek a "reform of the reform," a tension that is often caricatured with the battle line drawn between the council itself and the "spirit of the council."4 This "spirit" is pejoratively depicted as an attempt to jettison central aspects of the Church's life but do so from underneath the invisibility cloak of the authority of an ecumenical council. Ratzinger is convinced of a danger for the Church in what Eamon Duffy characterizes as "a rootless aggiornamento, reform understood as the adoption merely of modern intellectual and cultural fads and fashions."5 When it comes to the liturgy (by which he means most centrally the Mass), Ratzinger's principal concern is summed up well in John Baldovin's striking metaphor: he "perceives the liberal or progressive attitude toward liturgy as an unwarranted accommodation to the spirit of the age—going in their door and failing to come out our own."6 In short, the story of Ratzinger and the liturgy is often portrayed as something of a tragedy: the young progressive betrays his original commitments; he then retrenches and slowly foments a growing distrust for the new liturgy because of his a-historical nostalgia for the piety of his German childhood.7

But does this tell us the actual story? I wish to suggest that a focus on the ecclesiological aspects of Ratzinger's liturgical writing, particularly the presentation of "the people of God gathered as the liturgical assembly" in The Spirit of the Liturgy, reveals a ressourcement that [End Page 186] is in deep accord with the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.8 In fact, despite the critiques of those like the eminent liturgical scholar Pierre-Marie Gy,9 Ratzinger's liturgical theology in general and his discussion of the liturgical assembly in The Spirit of the Liturgy in particular exhibit a real and substantive coherence with SC. Further, I suggest that Ratzinger's concerns regarding the liturgy are best characterized as ecclesiological. As such, this essay will be structured so as to give particular attention to the place of the gathered Church as the assembly in the Eucharistic liturgy.

The argument will proceed by proposing a series of theses on controversial matters that move from macro concerns, such as liturgy's relationship to the human person, down to particulars, such as what constitutes active participation of the assembly. Each thesis begins with a quotation from Ratzinger and concludes with one from SC in order to disclose further the harmony between them. Yves Congar will be a critical conversation partner throughout by way of his influential essay "The Ecclesia or Christian Community as a Whole Celebrates the Liturgy," which he published in 1967 "to provide expert commentary on the text of Sacrosanctum concilium."10 But in order to best set the stage for my theses, I will begin with a brief overview of some of...


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