Because of the Liturgy

Posted by Webster 
I do not think we Catholics can meditate too much on the words of our Pope, Benedict XVI. He is our greatest spokesman. If we could only learn to talk—meaning live—like him, the world would be flooded with converts, I bet.

I thought of this last night on my way to sleep, as I read the early chapters of his Milestones: Memoirs 1927–1977 (Ignatius 1998). I came across the following passage about the liturgy, and I was the one flooded. It is typical of much of Benedict’s personal writing, beginning in the concrete and almost childlike, and ending in the universal and wondrous:

Toward the end of the nineteenth century the Benedictine monk Anselm Schott [left], of Beuron Abbey, translated the missal of the Church into German. Certain editions were in German only; others had a portion of the texts printed in Latin and German; and there were still others in which the complete Latin text appeared with the German text in parallel. A progressive pastor had given my parents their Schott as a gift on their wedding day in 1920, and so this was my family’s prayerbook from the beginning. Our parents helped us from early on to understand the liturgy. 

This section puts me in mind of the new translation of the missal that is causing such a hubbub. Father Barnes calmed my fears over it, and reading about the Schott had the same effect. There have been so many translations of the liturgy in two thousand years, and neither the best nor the very worst wordsmiths on the planet have been able to kill it.

There was a children’s prayerbook adapted from the missal in which the unfolding of the sacred action was portrayed in pictures, so we could follow closely what was happening. Next to each picture there was a simple prayer that summarized the essentials of each part of the liturgy and adapted it to a child’s mode of prayer. I was then given a Schott for children, in which the liturgy’s basic texts themselves were printed. Then I got a Schott for Sundays, which contained the complete liturgy for Sundays and feast days. Finally, I received the complete missal for every day of the year. 

Imagine Catholic parents who so love the liturgy that their children are treated to these many editions as they grow up! But here is where my Pope’s memoir touched me most deeply, because it began to reflect my own experience as a convert—

Every new step into the liturgy was a great event for me. Each new book I was given was something precious to me, and I could not dream of anything more beautiful. 

As a 57-year-old man, I was far too excited to receive my four-volume Liturgy of the Hours from Amazon a year ago! But my Pope means the liturgy of the Mass

It was a riveting adventure to move by degrees into the mysterious world of the liturgy, which was being enacted before us and for us there on the altar. It was becoming more and more clear to me that here I was encountering a reality that no one had simply thought up, a reality that no official authority or great individual had created. 

Have you ever wondered how the liturgy was created?

This mysterious fabric of texts and actions had grown from the faith of the Church over the centuries. It bore the whole weight of history within itself, and yet, at the same time, it was much more than the product of human history. Every century had left its mark upon it. The introductory notes informed us about what came from the early Church, what from the Middle Ages, and what from modern times. Not everything was logical. Things sometimes got complicated, and it was not always easy to find one’s way. But precisely this is what made the whole edifice wonderful, like one’s own home. 

From the universal back to the specific and childlike: the liturgy was like the home Joseph Ratzinger grew up in!

Naturally, the child I then was did not grasp every aspect of this, but I started down the road of the liturgy, and this became a continuous process of growth into a grand reality transcending all particular individuals and generations, a reality that became an occasion for me of ever-new amazement and discovery. The inexhaustible reality of the Catholic liturgy has accompanied me through all phases of life, and so I shall have to speak of it time and again.

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  • Maria

    I so love that picture of Pope Benedict with his backpack. This was a lovely post. Did you read the book on childhood spirituality by Robert Coles? I have always thought that childhood spirituality is a fascinating, if often overlooked ,subject.

  • A Thespian in the Desert

    Hi Webster and Frank… I love your blog. I am also a recent newcomer (2006) to the Catholic Church (although I went to a private Catholic School as a child). I just wanted to address the "New Roman Missal issue": I feel that the article you link your post to (the article in Catholic Insight)is problematic… Michael Gilchrist feels that translating our Liturgy from the Latin brings a sacred sensibility back into the Liturgy, but let's not forget that the New Testament was written in Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek…I'm not a scholar, but I really believe that translating from the Latin is misguided. Mr. Gilchrist also belittles Vatican II… and bemoans that the new Missal still contains some remnants of inclusive language… Personally, I squirm if a reading on Sunday starts out, "Brothers…" would Jesus really exclude our "Sisters…"? The NRSV Standard Old and New Testaments use language such as "Brothers and Sisters…", and has referred back to the Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek texts. I truly believe that our sacred Liturgy should be beautiful, poetic (poeticizing is not synonymous with dumbing-down, as Mr. Gilchrist suggests) and inclusive. The new version sounds embarrassingly clumsy! For a great discussion about the new Missal, listen to the America Magazine Podcast (December 14, "Waiting on the New Missal") from iTunes… and visit God Bless both of you, and keep blogging! Shawn. P.S. In July 2008, a Catholic Sister gave me a one-volume Liturgy of the Hours, and I too felt excessively excited (I still pray with it on a daily basis), and am looking forward to the day that I can splurge on a 4-volume set!!! I often pray the Divine Office with the marvellous people at

  • Webster Bull

    P82, Thanks as ever. No, I haven't read Coles's "The Spiritual Life of Children," but I'm going to get a copy. Your comment makes me realize that I have been blind where my 4th-grade CCD class is concerned: Maybe some of these kids have a profound spiritual life! And here I am thinking I'm the one with a spiritual life trying to drum something into them . . . !

  • Webster Bull

    Shawn, thank you too. First, a confession: I linked to the Gilchrist article only because it popped up on Google and it was long, seemed "meaty." I don't necessarily subscribe to its message. I have read the author of the WhatIfWeJustSaidWait movement, name escapes me–He had a piece in America recently and I subscribe, much to the horror of my more conservative Catholic friends. His point of view seemed well reasoned.Like you, I am sensitive to language in the liturgy. As I have written elsewhere, I still miss all the -eths of the King James 23rd Psalm. I even miss the Revised Standard Version of my early childhood (which was Congregationalist, before my Episcopalian period). And yet . . . I think my position is sound: For 2000 years priests and scholars both have been changing the liturgy and they have not been able to kill it. I will go to mass this morning at 7 am, and however it's phrased, there will be one thing said with word and deed: Jesus Christ was and is a real presence in the world. Maybe the word choices will turn some people off; any word choices will do that. (Why the heck do we say "There is nothing I shall want" when the 4 syllables of the KJV phrasing "I shall not want" are both more direct and more elegant?) But the liturgy is ultimately not about word choices. It is a real living thing that continues to evolve. Right now, it is evolving under the direction of "my" pope, and I am confident, as my pastor seems confident, that all will be well. I guess what I'm saying is, I accept the Church's authority on this, as I do on other matters.

  • EPG

    I have to confess — the liturgy in the Roman Catholic parishes I have visited (admittedly a very few, and in a geographically circumscribed area on Florida's Gulf Coast) is a major reason YIM not [yet] Catholic. But then, my most recent Episcopal parish has adopted some aspects of post Vatican II practice, which is part of the reason I'm looking very hard at Catholicism. The abandonment of traditional Anglican liturgical forms has caused me to consider whether my fondness for those forms was (at least to some extent) idolatrous. It gave me the impetus to consider issues of theology (including ecclesiology) more carefully, which is why I am in the (sometimes uncomforatable) position I am now.That said, for those who haven't read it, I recommend Benedict XVI's "The Spirit of the Liturgy" (written while he was still Cardinal Ratzinger). For purely selfish reasons, I hope that the local bishop and the local parish priests would read that book, and apply it.

  • Webster Bull

    EPG, I need to take a closer look at this whole question. For someone who cares about words and writing not to know more about why the Church uses the words it uses is nonsensical, if not shameful. I'm going to begin with Ratzinger's "Spirit of the Liturgy." Thanks for the suggestion.Meanwhile, if you get back to this post and read this, can you specify what it is about the liturgy in RC churches near you that "is a major reason . . . "?

  • EPG

    Webster — I will try to be more specific, but I want to think this through carefully. As it is, with so many good posts this morning, I have spent too much time on the site already (big grin here), and it is time to get back to work.