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Can Mankind Understand
the Spirit of the Liturgy Anymore?

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

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.

After almost 40 years of a renewed liturgy, in many countries the euphoria of the liturgical movement has been replaced by disillusionment.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. . . .

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. The liturgy is the sacramental synthesis of the Church, instrument of the intimate union with God and of the unity of all mankind. . . .

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, . . . Joseph Ratzinger. . . 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. . . . .

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. . . . .

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 . . . . liturgical reforms 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 . . . . It is in fact from him that the ecclesial and sacramental enacting of communion of life with God begins, molded by the Incarnation. . . .

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."