Can Mankind Understand the Spirit of the Liturgy Anymore?

A View from Professor (and Now Bishop) Gerhard Ludwig Müller

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 10, 2002 ( Here is the address of that professor Gerhard Ludwig Müller of the University of Munich delivered during a videoconference organized Sept. 28 by the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy. On Oct. 1 John Paul II appointed him bishop of Regensburg.

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After almost 40 years of a renewed liturgy, in many countries the euphoria of the liturgical movement has been replaced by disillusionment. This disappointment and frustration is becoming even deeper. Some take refuge in exasperated activism. The constant creation of new prayers should awaken the attention of the participants.

The members of the clergy often try to attract the interest of a bored generation with entertaining initiatives, for example, inviting the children to come to Mass wearing their carnival clothes or attracting people who have little to do with faith and with the Church through rock and pop concerts, for which the liturgy is only the exterior setting.

A profound discrepancy can be found between the official liturgy and the lack of reception of its deeper meaning. In [Middle] European countries participation in the Sunday eucharistic celebrations is drastically reduced. Many appear unaware that this is an encounter with Jesus Christ, who has offered us the gift of the Eucharist so that we may reach God in communion with the crucified and resurrected Lord, who is the reason for our lives and makes sense of them.

Many forms of devotion have also been lost to the extent that the liturgy is no longer based on a profound life of faith and hence cannot provide results. The “table of the Word of God” (“Sacrosanctum Concilium,” No. 51; “Dei Verbum,” No. 21) has never been so richly laid out for the faithful as it is today. But knowledge of the Bible, not to speak of a lively knowledge of the Scriptures, has reached a terrifyingly low level even in Protestant circles.

It is with reason that there are complaints concerning increased uncontrolled liturgy. The judgment of so-called spontaneous liturgy, altered and with a reduced meaning, even denies a number of truths of the faith, this due to a lack of understanding of the essence of the ecclesial liturgy.

Omissions and mistakes in the doctrine of God, in Christology and in ecclesiology cause both a crisis and the defeat of the liturgy, from the moment that interior law is no longer decisive, but the criteria of entertainment are instead applied.

The liturgy in the Christian sense should not provoke romantic feelings, setting off social and political actions nor should it involve people in a pseudo-religious sense, but rather strengthen the faithful. The point of the liturgy is not to make us feel good, causing us to feel happy and allowing us to forget daily matters for a moment.

The liturgy derives from faith in the living God and in his Son Jesus Christ, instrument of redemption, who gives us eternal life (see John 17:3). The liturgy is the sacramental synthesis of the Church, instrument of the intimate union with God and of the unity of all mankind (“Lumen Gentium,” No. 1).

Although in many places serious efforts are made to provide the liturgy with a meaningful form, one certainly cannot neglect the need for responsible people to take care of the transmission of the theological and spiritual contents of the sacraments and in particular of the eucharistic celebration.

So as to understand the difference between the initial dynamics of the liturgical movement, especially after the First World War with its successes and until the Vatican Council, and the liturgy’s crisis at the end of the 20th Century, there are two books with almost identical titles, by Romano Guardini and by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which might be useful.

While Guardini’s book “Of the Spirit of the Liturgy,” which on the occasion of Easter 1918 inaugurated the famous “Ecclesia orans” series by the Abbot Ildefons Herwegen, describes a wonderful initial atmosphere, J. Ratzinger, who often refers to Guardini in his work “Introduction to the Spirit of the Liturgy,” attempts to make the essence of the liturgy understood in its profound spirituality and essential and real expressive forms including the kneeling, the joining of the hands, and also the forms of silent adoration and the spiritual dimension of verbal and mental communion.

Both these authors have confronted the problem from different points of view, a problem that has become increasingly serious in the course of the 20th century, including “modern man’s liturgical capacity,” of which Guardini spoke so much at the Mains Liturgical Conference in 1946. In an important conference held in 1965, during the university week in Salzburg, Joseph Ratzinger, in the happy atmosphere of the post-council liturgical reforms, confronted the problem of liturgical incapacity, speaking of the “crisis of the sacramental idea in the modern conscience.”

Modern man, formed by secularism and an immanentist and technical environment, no longer understands the individual rites and gestures of the liturgy. The crisis cannot be solved with aesthetic changes and pedagogical pastimes. Liturgical scholars during the first half of the 20th century worked in an excellent manner for the renewal of the liturgy, because they were theologians. These new narrow-minded characters instead, who consider the liturgy a playground for their fixations, simply consolidate the liturgical crisis, because they create a liturgy which is aimed at exterior effects and not at transmitting the contents of the faith.

A “Sanatio in radice” is needed. The problem is profound and concerns the understanding that modern man has of himself and of the world and of his twisted relationship with God. It is difficult for the fundamental ideas of the liturgy to penetrate the average secularist and immanentist mentality.

The real idea of the liturgy derives from the embodied reality of the relationship between God and mankind and this means that the symbolism that belongs to the completeness of this world should be the mediation in the immediateness with God. In the sacraments God’s unity with mankind is accomplished in a way that corresponds to human nature. This idea is not only a nice thought, but reality in Jesus Christ, the human presence of God among men.

For those who do not know Jesus Christ, God’s existence and actions remain an unsolvable enigma, faced with which they capitulate. God is punished with indifference to the extent that he suspects that he is dealing with what is only a projection or a mark of the inexplicability of human existence.

The modern religiosity of the New Age movement, the syncretism of religious pluralism and the penetration of the monistic conceptions of the world that are typical of Asian religious traditions follow the idea of a personal reality and the personal understanding that man has of himself, reaching the supremacy of the “all” over the individual.

There is no searching for a sacramental topical presentation of redemption in a dialogical and communicative manner, but a religious experience in which the subject can dissolve. The biblical religion of the self-revelation of God One and Triune is based on the fact that the Word of God is addressed to mankind who meets him in his act of grace in the Spirit. Mankind is called by name and in any situation must turn to God, who confirms him as a person in the act of fulfillment.

The purpose of the encounter with God is love, which does not dissolve or generalize, but affirms and personalizes, in which God says
“you” to each of us. People who are personal creatures do not dissolve in the divine numinous or in a personal manner. They obviously become “sons in the Son.” In Christ they can, through the Holy Spirit, say to God: Abba, Father. The liturgy and therefore also the Mass have an essential and structural Trinitarian form (see Galatians 4:4-6; Romans 8).

Immanuel Kant, in his work “Religion within the Boundaries of Reason Alone” (1793), has already emptied confessions of faith of their real content and consequently also the Christian sacraments of their means for achieving grace, and he considered them to be only the symbols of the moral needs of the conscience. … In a number of orientations of modern psychology and sociology, the sacraments, regardless of their theological contents, were reduced to a stabilizing function for the psychic and social equilibrium.

They are considered the symbolic expression of the numinous nostalgia, linked to the mythological dimension of the conscience, rather than real means for communicating between God and mankind, established by the personal God himself through Jesus Christ and entrusted to the Church for celebration. Therefore there is not only the question of the anthropological basis of mankind’s symbolic capacity, but also the even more important issue of his transcendental capacity which is expressed and achieved in the symbolism of the words and the gestures.

The only ones who can understand the liturgical language are those who understand the principal concepts of the words and the gestures in their nature of the Word of God who acts in those who believe.

One of the main reasons for which the theological in-depth study of the Eucharist and its liturgical reform have been so unfruitful, is the general situation of the faith and the difficulty in identifying the relationship between the world and God in the intervention of the history of redemption, which achieves its eschatological summit in Christ. It is in fact from him that the ecclesial and sacramental enacting of communion of life with God begins, molded by the Incarnation.

All catechistic activities related to baptism, confirmation and first Communion are devoid of meaning and disappointing to parents, priests, [ecclesiastics] and scholars alike, because they do not manage to transmit a relationship with a living God deeply rooted within the person and in the person’s ethicality, rationality and spirituality. Tensions and incurable contrasts between the ecclesial magisterium and their image of the world, presumably molded by science, are thereby generated in many adults.

Only that which appears possible to a rationality reduced to natural fortuitousness seems credible to them. The current death of a man who died 2,000 years ago appears, however, as the symbolic topical presentation of the moral image of Jesus. The Real Presence can only mean the firm intention to follow his example when eating a piece of bread as an oblation and an experience of communion that is merely of a sentimental nature.

The Eucharist appears as the realization of Christ Crucified. Committing a well-known interpretive mistake, contemporary man, educated in the Freudian school, assesses Jesus’ death using the category of sacrifice or even that of the victim who represents us and expiates our sins.

In contrast with the New Testament and also with the great conceptions of the doctrine of liberation, the interpretation of the death of Jesus as a sacrificed wanted by an angry and terrible God, which destroys him, is an alteration that is changed in a superficial and cynical manner, and the resulting caricature is refused in disdain.

The interpretation of Christ’s sacrifice linked to an image of God, which the general Christian tradition refuses as contrary to the Revelation, is nothing but the proof of misleading interpretative methods, adopted by people who transform the Christian faith into its opposite so as to mock its hostility to reason.

The cross is in reality a bloody sacrifice not in the ritual sense of a pagan human or animal offering, but because the sacrificial act consists in the gift of Self for the redemption of mankind, which includes Jesus’ gift of his own human life (see Hebrews 5:8 and following). In accordance with this, eating and drinking “of his flesh and His blood” is not a initiatory banquet or a “feeding oneself on the body of a God” in the real or metaphorical sense of some mystery religions, but the real human communion with the “word of God Incarnate” (John 1:14), in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, who makes a gift of his flesh, hence of his life, for the life of the world.

Those who are part of this bread, meaning that they are familiar with the historical and paschal Jesus, remain in Christ and Christ remains in them: “As the living Father has sent me and I live by the Father, so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me” (John 6:57). Jesus reveals himself this way: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:48). The sacramental acceptance of the gifts of bread and wine transmit an authentic “koninis” with the Word Incarnate and gives to those who believe in his name, “the power to be made the sons of God” (John 1:12).

In the preface of the aforementioned book by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” the author confronts the issue of the possibilities and the risks of a renewed liturgy and promotes in-depth understanding and a dynamic realization of the liturgical forms by the Spirit of Christ, establishing the foundations of faith in the Church and in this manner animating its liturgical body and filling it with life:

“One could therefore state that at the time, in 1918, the liturgy, from a certain point of view, appeared as a perfectly preserved fresco, although covered by a thick layer of plaster. It was present in the Missal, with which the priest celebrated the liturgical form, which had evolved from its origins, but for the faithful it was hidden by private forms and trends of prayer. Thanks to the liturgical movement and then in a definite manner with the Second Vatican Council, this fresco was returned to the light and for a moment we were all fascinated by the beauty of its colors and its figures. In the meantime, however, due to climatic conditions and various mistaken attempts to restore and rebuild it, that fresco became endangered and there was a threat that it might go to ruin unless the necessary measures were quickly taken to put an end to these damaging influences. Obviously there is no question that it should be covered with new plaster, but a renewed respect and a new understanding of its message and its reality is indispensable, so that having brought it back to light does not represent the first step for its definite downfall” (see pages 7-8).

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