Benedict XVI Consecrating. Photo: Alfa y Omega

Ratzinger and Liturgy. Fundamental Principles

Liturgy was not a marginal theme in his thought he considered that a person’s concept of the Church and of mankind’s relationship with God largely depend on the underlying concept of liturgy.

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Edward McNamara, LC

(ZENIT News / Rome, 01.01.2023).- Throughout his long life, Benedict XVI – Joseph Ratzinger took a keen interest in the Church’s liturgy. Indeed, the first translated volume of his collected works was volume XI that collected his thoughts on this subject.   The liturgy has been one of the principal subjects of his theological writing and reflection and one of the linchpins of his thought.

In his autobiography he describes how the gift of the Schott missal helped him to discover the liturgy as a gift. Ratzinger indicated his interest in liturgical themes stems from his reading of Romano Guardini’s, The Spirit of the Liturgy. For him, this seminal work: “Was the discovery of a new world, of liturgy proper… of the liturgy as a symbolic world filled with reality, full of meaning.” His youth coincided with the major contributions of the German liturgical movement which culminated in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council which he mostly approved and embraced.

Liturgy was not a marginal theme in his thought he considered that a person’s concept of the Church and of mankind’s relationship with God largely depend on the underlying concept of liturgy. In the introduction to volume XI of his collected works he affirms that his interest in fundamental theology or the question “Why do we believe?” led naturally to the question of the right response to God. This fundamental grounding of liturgy is the principal key to Ratzinger’s thought and underlay his practical conclusions.  Ratzinger developed his theology in an original manner with a combination of a sound biblical theological foundation, and  an openness to true organic development united to a love of tradition, and what we could term a mysticism of Christian existence.

With this in mind we can explore the underlying principles of his Liturgical Theology.

1. The “Givenness” of Liturgy

The first aspect that we can observe is that Ratzinger insists on the fact that liturgy is essentially something given and not created by humans even though human contribution is necessary.

Firstly, liturgy is the fruit of divine initiative. Ratzinger examines the text of Exodus 7:16 “Let my people go that they may serve me.” He points out three fruits:

-The people receive not only Instruction about worship but an all-embracing rule of life.

-Through this rule it is formed as a people so to speak it receives its interior land.

-The three aspects of worship, law and ethics are interwoven in the Covenant and this principle remains valid albeit with some differences in Christianity.

Ratzinger notes that whenever Israel falls from true worship, she loses her freedom spiritually as well as materially. Therefore: he can say that: “Worship ultimately embraces the ordering of the of the whole of human life in Irenaeus’ sense. Man becomes glory for God, puts God, so to speak, into the light (and that is what worship is), when he lives looking toward God. On the other hand, it is also true that law and ethics do not hold together when they are not anchored in the liturgical center and inspired by it.”

Hence, a first answer to the reality found in the liturgy is that only when man’s relationship with God is right can his other relationships be in good order. This also means that liturgy cannot be a merely human creation, a doing as you please: “We do not know how with what we must serve the Lord (Ex 10:26).”

It also means that the Christian community does not invent itself but receives its being as a gift from God and returns this gift to its origin. Since the liturgy is given, the author explored the question as to what, or rather who is given in the liturgy. His answer is that Christian cult came to be through Christ.

2. Liturgy as making the mystery of Christ present

Christ’s central role is essential to understanding Ratzinger’s Liturgical Theology. This is grounded in two principal points of view the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery.

Ratzinger, commenting on John 1:14: “The Word was made flesh and lived [pitched his tent] among us and we have seen his glory” concludes that “The Word to which Christian worship refers is first of all not a text, but a living reality: a God who is self-communicating meaning and who communicates himself by becoming a man. This incarnation is the sacred tent, the focal point of all worship that looks at the glory of God and gives him honor”

However, the Incarnation is only the first movement and can only be understood in the light of the Cross and resurrection. This is the line of movement that orders liturgy. In the Christian concept of sacrifice, a concept which occupied his reflection for more than 50 years, Ratzinger draws together many strands of reflection on the Last Supper saying that, at this central moment of history: “The New Covenant also is accomplished and concluded by a truly new sacrifice: it becomes evident that Jesus, the man who lays down his life, is the real worship and the true glorification of God.” He thus asserts that during the Last Supper and on the Cross Christ is the Paschal Lamb and the new Adam who goes down into the darkness of death’s sleep and thus begins a new humanity. It was this sacrifice which Christ commands to be repeated in memory of him thus making it present throughout history.

Along with the theology of Sacrifice Ratzinger always developed the central importance of the Resurrection for the grounding and understanding of the sacraments and the liturgical life. As he wrote: [H]is self-giving would be meaningless were death to have the last word. Thus, only through the Resurrection does the covenant come fully into being. Now man is forever united with God. Now the two are really bound together indissolubly. Thus, the day of Resurrection is the new Sabbath. It is the day on which the Lord comes among his own and invites them into his “liturgy” into his glorification of God and communicates himself to them.

From the two central themes Ratzinger derives other key concepts which we can outline briefly.

3. Cosmological and Temporal Dimensions

The first of these realities is the cosmos and the time in which liturgy takes place. For Joseph Ratzinger Christian Liturgy is a cosmic liturgy embracing the whole of creation.

This cosmological principle reveals the intuition that Man exists for God. The creation narrative in Genesis 1 reveals that creation exists to establish the covenant and thus moves towards the Sabbath which is a sign of the covenant between God and man. This then leads inevitably to worship which essentially: “Consists… in the union of man and creation with God. Belonging to God has nothing to do with destruction or non-being it is rather a way of being. It means emerging from the state of separation, of apparent autonomy, of existing only for oneself and in oneself. It means losing oneself as the only possible way of finding oneself (cf. Mk 8:35; Mt 10: 39). That is why St. Augustine could say that the true “sacrifice” is the civitas Dei, that is, love-transformed mankind, the divinization of creation and the surrender of all things to God: God all in all (cf. 1Cor 15:28). That is the purpose of the world. That is the essence of worship.

4. Ecclesiological Dimension

Ratzinger was a pioneer in the field of ecclesiology, especially in introducing the concept of communio. However, his concept of Church is also intimately related to liturgy and cannot be separated from liturgy.  He insists, for example on the bond established by the Eucharist which gathers us into one family through a sharing in Christ’s Body and Blood. This is true of all. Ratzinger affirms that: “all eucharistic assemblies taken together are still just one assembly, because the body of Christ is just one, and hence the People of God can only be one.”

In a later discourse he developed this notion and its implications for charity and the construction of solidarity in the light of 1Cor: 10 and 1Jn: 3-7. The Church is not one through a central government rather: “[O]ne common center for all is possible because she is always derived from the one Lord, who in the one bread makes her to be one body. That is why her unity goes deeper than any human union could ever go. It is when the Eucharist is understood in the full intimacy of the union of each individual with the Lord that it automatically becomes also a social sacrament to the highest degree.”

5. Eschatological Dimension

Ratzinger sees Christian liturgy basically as the liturgy of a promise fulfilled but also as a liturgy of hope in which the new temple is still under construction. It is a liturgy of pilgrimage that will only be fulfilled at the end of time. The following text illustrates very well Ratzinger’s views on this: “Finally, the essence of the liturgy is summarized in the exclamatory prayer that St. Paul (1Cor 16:22) and the Didache (10:6) have handed down to us Maran atha–Our Lord is here–Our Lord, come! Even now the Parousia is accomplished in the Eucharist, but in this way, it causes us to reach out toward the Lord who is to come; thus, it teaches us to cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.” And it allows us again and again to hear the answer and experience it as true: “Surely, I am coming soon.” (Rev 22: 17, 20).”

6. Liturgy as Logiké latreia

The final principle leads us to the answer to the question as to what people hope to achive through worship. Ratzinger developed the important concept of Christian Liturgy as true worship as logiké latreiarationabile obsequium.

Christian worship must be in conformity with the Logos and from this derive certain consequences: “The relationship to a text, the rationality, the intelligibility and the sobriety of Christian liturgy.”

The Liturgy has the character of “word.” This does not mean a reduction to words alone as an expression of reason: “The sacrifice is the “word” the word of prayer, which goes up from man to God, embodying the whole of man’s existence and enabling him to become word (logos) in himself. It is man, conforming himself to logos and becoming logos through faith who is the true sacrifice, the true glory of God.” In this way the Greek philosophy of the word is brought into the concept and elevates it to a mystical union with the Logos.

The Concept of logiké latreia is also seen as a sacrifice in which the word is not a mere discourse but the transformation of our being into logos “Thus the Canon, the “true sacrifice” is the word of the Word; in it speaks the one who, a Word, is life”. The Canon is also the true sacrifice not the presentation of the gifts.

There are numerous practical and rubrical conclusions that derive from these principles but Pope Benedict XVI – Joseph Ratzinger often lamented that comments on his liturgical theology often got lost in the minutiae of practical rubrical considerations. It is our hope that this brief recalling of the fundamental principles of his profound theological legacy will be a small tribute to this great pontiff who has left a permanent seal on the history of theology and of the Church.


Fr. Edward McNamara, LC, is professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome. He also has a liturgy byline in ZENIT.

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