Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will be remembered in Church history for his work to recover the beauty of traditional liturgy, according to Bishop James D. Conley.
The head of the Lincoln, Neb. Diocese, who has been reading Benedict’s writings on liturgy for decades, said these works “will remain a great contribution to liturgical theology for years to come.”
“His great legacy,” Bishop Conley told EWTN News Feb. 27, “will be the re-discovery of the beauty of the traditional liturgy.”
Benedict awakened a “new way” of looking at the ordinary form of the Mass – the liturgy which came after the 1960s Second Vatican Council – “with a greater attempt to be more attentive to the rubrics.”
In the former pontiff’s view, Mass should be celebrated with beauty, dignity, and in continuity with the tradition of the Church, Bishop Conley noted.
Benedict’s liturgical legacy also includes his “blessing” of those “who have a great attachment to the old Mass” and who are in union with the Holy See, the bishop said.
In 2007, Pope Benedict released a directive titled “Summorum pontificum,” which in a “watershed moment,” gave every priest permission to say Mass using the 1962, or pre-Vatican II Missal.
“He made it one of his priorities to…introduce the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’, trying to show that the pre-conciliar liturgy of the 1962 Missal is the same liturgy as the Roman Missal of Pope Paul VI,” the bishop explained.
Pope Benedict “allowed the traditions to harmonize…so the cross-pollination could take place; so the very best of the reforms of the post-conciliar liturgy could be enhanced and influenced, by an open, unbiased acceptance of the Mass that preceded it.”
Bishop Conley believes that Pope Benedict has allowed the pre-conciliar liturgy to flourish alongside of the post-conciliar liturgy “in a hope that some of the transcendence, the beauty, the tradition, the Latin” will permeate the new liturgy.
The Pope’s own manner of celebrating Mass, including subtle “symbolic gestures” have “sent a message” and have had “a catechetical value” for both priests and faithful, said Bishop Conley.
These gestures include distributing Communion to the faithful kneeling; beautiful vestments and those which had fallen into disuse; ensuring a cross and candles are on the altar; and celebrating facing the same direction as the faithful, all elements of a “reform of the reform of the liturgy.”
“He even created a new way of looking at the two traditions,” reflected Bishop Conley, “the extraordinary form and the ordinary form.” Pope Benedict coined these terms in “Summorum pontificum,” to refer to pre and post Vatican liturgies respectively.
“They’re two parts of the same form, and of the same Roman rite: that’s what he really wanted to emphasize by that change in language.”
Transcendence and beauty
Pope Benedict has long been “trying to recover that sense of transcendence and beauty of the liturgy,” reflected the bishop.
Part of this effort was his involvement in the translation of the third edition of the Roman Missal. Bishop Conley noted the former Roman pontiff’s concern that the Latin prayers be translated both accurately and “also with a sense of beauty in the language.”
The bishop also noted Pope Benedict’s creation in November of a “Pontifical Academy for Latin.” He sees this as tied to the Pontiff’s desire to increase the use of Latin in the Church’s life, including in her liturgy.
Bishop Conley also noted how Pope Benedict’s vision was shaped by the Liturgical Movement of the early 20th century, an effort that called for a reform of the Church’s worship, led largely by Benedictines.
“He knew the great players of the Liturgical Movement back before the Council,” the bishop said.
One of his major writings on the liturgy was his 2000 work “The Spirit of the Liturgy.” That publication hearkened back to a book of the same name by Father Romano Guardini, known as one of those “great players.”
In “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” Benedict – as a theologian writing before his rise to the papacy – encouraged a “New Liturgical Movement” that would recall the best elements of the first Liturgical Movement.
Benedict’s concern with beauty and liturgy is not one of mere aesthetics, Bishop Conley noted, but flows from a recognition that liturgical prayer is the “source and summit” of the Christian life, as the Second Vatican Council taught.
“A lot of people are talking about the impact that he’s had on the Church, and you certainly have to say that the liturgy is going to be one; primarily because he took such a personal interest in it and he believed that…everything flows from prayer,” said Bishop Conley.
“That’s what he said when he announced his resignation, that he made this decision after deep prayer. And now he’s going to a life of deep meditation and contemplation, and all that centers on the Eucharist, and the liturgical worship of the Church, which he very much has a profound love for.”
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