Ratzinger 1966 – An Unexpected Prophet, Part 2 Act I (!): Liturgical Reform

Following on from an earlier post dealing with the introductory remarks in then-Professor Joseph Ratzinger’s prescient 1966 article,  “Catholicism after the Council”, it is time to move to the next part of that article, Liturgical Reform. Here again we see that even before the watershed year of 1968 Ratzinger was questioning the implementation of the decrees of the Council in which he played such a major rôle.

(NB By way of experiment Ratzinger’s own words not already blockquoted will be in a different colour to give them their due prominence.)

At the outset of this section of the article, Fr Ratzinger acknowledges a real problem regarding the post-conciliar liturgical reform:

But this very reform, so eagerly longed for and so joyfully welcomed, has become for many people “a sign of contradiction”.

He asserts straight way that “something really great and important” has been achieved in the reform, and introduces the two most common objections being then raised against it. The first is “ the movement towards the vernacular“, which was being lamented by many as denying to “the element of mystery in religion… a language all its own“, and also removing from the unity of the Church’s members across the globe its “linguistic extension… in the language of their worship” and their unity across time in those “who have praised and will praise God in the same way and in the very same language“.

The second feature being lamented was “the movement towards the community and communal worship” which eliminates “a sacred silence which is more suited to the mystery in religious worship than loud speech, a silence in which God can speak more audibly and in which the individual can really encounter his Lord…“, an encounter that suffers in the

uninterrupted succession of praying aloud, singing, standing, sitting, kneeling and so on. Liturgy then degenerates into movement and activity for its own sake, and this takes the place of the one thing that is vital in worship, namely the encounter between the individual soul and God.

Ratzinger has given a remarkably even-handed description of these objections given that he prefaced them by asserting that there would be “no difficulty in dismissing as superficial and unjustified the[se] two objections“. To them he briefly adds a third, “an iconoclastic strain in present-day communal worship” which replaces “artistic treasures of music and song” with

mob declamations which, in their want of taste and dignity, are neither suited to the greatness of the mystery being celebrated nor calculated to attract people to worship – if anything, they have rather the effect of repelling them.

It is worth pausing here to re-read what Ratzinger has just written. He is directly quoting no-one, but presenting in his own words the primary objections to the post-conciliar liturgical reforms as they were already manifesting themselves in Europe in 1966. Even though he feels they can be dismissed, his refusal to caricature or ridicule them suggests already to the alert reader a certain, if incipient, degree of sympathy. Perhaps he is beginning to feel torn.



Professor Ratzinger now sets out to deal with the matters raised by these objections by employing two categories: theory and practice. On the level of theory he seeks to show how untenable he believes these objections are, and how valid are the conciliar principles of liturgical reform. For this post we shall look at his comments regarding the theory; the next post will address his commentary on the practice.


Ratzinger has little time for the general tenor of the appeal to mystery:

We can easily prove that the argument about the element of mystery in religion is not a valid one, anymore than is the argument about retreat into the silence of individual piety, not to be disturbed by the community at worship; in fact, both these arguments stem from a basic failure to understand the essence of Christian worship.

He then proposes a more adequate understanding:

The essence of Christian worship is that it is the announcement of the Glad Tidings of God to the congregation bodily present, the answering acceptance by the congregation of this acceptance, and the whole Church talking together to God… Thus the liturgy, viewed solely from its linguistic structure, is built on an intermingling of the “I” and the “ye”, which are then being continually being united in the “we” of the whole Church speaking to God through Christ.

It is important to keep in mind he is speaking of the liturgy through the logic of its verbal structure, how it reveals itself in the language it employs. In a sense, it is to see how the liturgy understands itself through what it reveals of itself in its own language. So in liturgy,

language is not for the purpose of concealment but for the purpose of revealing, it is not meant to allow each one to retreat into the stillness of his own little island of prayer but rather to lead all together into the single “we” of the children of God, who say all together : Our Father.

On this understanding, the subject in the liturgy is not the individual but the Church, in particular the Church as embodied in the congregation gathered for worship. This authentic view is fostered by the conciliar releasing “of the word from the fetters of ritual… [to give] it back its original significance as a word”. He gives a particularly sharply-edged illustration:

We are gradually becoming aware today of how meaningless it was, in fact, of how unworthy and dishonest it was, when the priest prayed before the Gospel that God might purify his heart and lips… so that he might worthily and in a becoming manner proclaim the Word of God, when he knew very well that he was about to murmur this Word of God softly to himself just as he had done with the prayer, without any thought of proclaiming it… The word has lost its meaning and had become an empty ritual, and what the liturgical reform has done here was simply to restore meaning and validity to the word and to the Church’s worship which was enshrined in it.

Ratzinger here touches on a subject that I am yet to see satisfactorily dealt with by more exclusivist proponents of the Extraordinary Form. Silence does indeed have a place in the liturgy, but its true value comes from its contrast to the ritual language and action. Silence allows the word to echo, or resound, in our minds and hearts, to implant itself more deeply within us. This process is short-circuited when there is nothing but word and action. Yet it can never begin unless there are words actually proclaimed in the first place that can then echo in our hearts.

gospel proclamation

Naturally, the words in question are generally those addressed to the people, though it can be argued the the collects and prayers offered on behalf of the people by the priest should be heard by those very same people: it is their prayer too. The silent canon, however, is more easily justified since the words are changeless, needing no fresh proclamation in the ears of the people. It is a most intimate moment of Christ addressing his Father, an intimacy heightened by the inaudibility of its words.

This example from Ratzinger is, I presume, the sort of thing that the Council Fathers had in mind for the liturgical reform: that the ritual words and the ritual action should be more clearly in harmony, and make sense of each other. The attendant danger, of course, is to over-rationalize liturgy, to subject it to the efficiencies of time-and-motion experts, which would be to make it more and more exclusively a work of man. Nor does this mean that the whole of the liturgy was in need of such refinement. It is still totally beyond me why the Eucharistic Canon had to be changed, and even others added. I can find so conciliar justification, however oblique, for this unnecessary tampering.

Ratzinger now moves, reversing the order of the objections, from the matter of the communal nature of the liturgy to the matter of its language, which is to say, its tongue. The argument that the Latin liturgy must be retained so “that the Catholic should be able to find it wherever he goes, even on Mars or the moon…” (NB Ratzinger is not being sarcastic; he is referring explicitly to Friedrich Heer’s critique.) This, says Ratzinger, “would amount to making the liturgy a museum piece, an artistic and aesthetic treasure from the past”. He makes a more positive argument in favour of the vernacular by referring to St Paul’s assertion that he would rather speak 5 intelligible words than 10,000 in a tongue (I Cor 14:19). Though St Paul had in his sights the practice of ecstatic speaking in tongues or glossolalia, nevertheless it is on the basis of this Pauline teaching that “the Greek liturgy, which by this time had become unintelligible, was translated into Latin in Rome in the fourth century, in other words, it was made available again in the vernacular of the time”. Ratzinger cites liturgical historian Theodore Klauser in agreement that the Roman liturgists in the fourth century were confusing the unintelligibility of glossolalia with the incomprehensibility of a foreign language. Nevertheless,

St Paul would have had no objection whatever to this interpretation of his pronouncements; even if he was referring to glossolalic utterances rather than foreign languages, the one was just as much at variance with his idea of liturgy as the other.

Ratzinger dismisses the idea of a language of mystery for the liturgy, as if the veiling of the liturgy in words not understood by the majority somehow safeguards, or even enhances, the mystery embodied in the Sacred Mysteries. The text of the Mass details an engagement, and even a dialogue, at the appropriate times, between priest and people which does not sit harmoniously with the employment of a mystery language. For “it is not the purpose of liturgy to fill us with awe and terror in the presence of sacred things… [nor] to provide a festive and richly-adorned setting for silent meditation and communion of the soul with itself, but rather to incorporate us into the ‘we’ of the children of God”.

That said, there are still compelling arguments for the retention of Latin as the universal language of the liturgy. Its use would eliminate the divisive debates about vernacular translations especially in such political languages as English. Moreover, in a word growing smaller yet more divided the use of Latin would circumvent ethnic and national tensions and provide a point of unity. How tragically absurd it was, for example, that in the wake of the Council the great Catholic University of Leuven/Louvain in Belgium was split in two between Flemish and Walloons, as indeed were some Belgian monasteries.

It is very much a 1960s theologian speaking here. That said, Ratzinger raises issues that still demand the attention of those whose preference is for the pre-conciliar Mass, especially those who would prefer to restore it as the sole liturgical form for the western Church. These issues do seem to be faced in the liturgies of 1964-67, even if by 1967 the observant could see where it would all end in 1970. Ratzinger appears to be one of them, to judge by his critique of the post-conciliar liturgical practice as it was rapidly developing. That critique is for the next post, act II of Part 2!

19 thoughts on “Ratzinger 1966 – An Unexpected Prophet, Part 2 Act I (!): Liturgical Reform

  1. Father, thank you for continuing this interesting theme. Many of those who were young or young-ish in 1966 (including me) had similarly optimistic visions of the new, future still unwritten liturgy to Fr Ratzinger. Remember, there were no mics, churches were large, one often had to sit so far back that it was barely possible to see the priest at the altar, let alone hear him. Not everyone could afford or be able to carry with them a daily Missal. So we all welcomed the idea of having the Epistle and Gospel read from the pulpit in the vernacular (which by the way often happened at Sunday Mass in many parishes after the end of the latin Gospel, and before the sermon – years before the start of the Vatican Council!)
    In his critique of inaudibility Fr Ratzinger is of course speaking of Low Masses. At High Mass the Gospel (and the Epistle) were and are truly announced – sung loudly and with great emphasis in a solemn reading tone. All the massgoer needs (and needed – but in 1966 photocopying was still virtually unknown, and printing was expensive) was a slip of paper with the texts in English – barely one side of A4. As is now provided for the Sunday OF! – partly because despite microphone and loudspeaker (sometimes even because of them!) and despite being read in the vernacular, the Readings (very often) and (I regret to say even) the Gospel are still barely intelligible except with a trained reading voice. (Encouraging those with poor or heavily-accented English to read publicly does not help.) Even when intelligible, the emphasis and balance of the text are rarely communicated directly and expressively to the heart of the listener. This is easily remedied by a sermon on the Gospel text. An everyday event in a monastery – but not in many parish churches where an exploration of the readings is usually replaced by an anecdotal ramble (often involving a nephew called Jim).
    So there we are – the ‘problem’ of the TLM could be solved with a bit of discreet microphone placement in large churches, a smartphone app or sheet of paper, a few congregational responses such as we already had before 1965 – and some catechization. Done and dusted.
    I also shared Fr R’s idea that if pressed into out-loud choral speaking (ie the responses) those attending Mass would suddenly turn into The Church – the living, joyful expression of Christ’s Body united as one – but it quickly proved over-optimistic, and frankly, unrealistic. I would say there was rather more friendly conversation and fellowship among parishioners after a parish Sunday Mass in 1965 than there is today.
    You mention the postconciliar alteration of the Canon – but this isn’t a mystery: it was pushed through by the ecumenists (of whom the Belgian Cardinal Suenens was one of the more prominent, btw!) who wanted to make the Mass look more like a protestant service. (Similarly, the Anglicans had a corresponding Alternative Rite B foisted upon them.)
    And yes, that is a shocking and disgraceful episode, and probably in itself explains the birth of the SSPX as a reaction. We say ‘Father Ratzinger’ because we know, don’t we, that Cardinal Ratzinger, let alone the Holy Father Emeritus, has long since inwardly distanced himself, as have most many former VII enthusiasts, from the horrendous postconciliar ‘legacy’ of Vatican II.


    1. Ahoy!

      Thanks for your reflections on late 60s liturgy in the trenches, as it were. They chime with much of what I have heard, and it is good to have my few tidbits of practical knowledge confirmed.

      Yes, Fr R was speaking of the Low Mass in the main, but we should not exclude the High Mass. I suspect that 1960s Ratzinger would not necessarily have accepted that even a battalion of servers and choristers would adequately represent the People of God if there was a congregation also present. But you remind me that I have for some time believed that perhaps a workable, indeed fruitful, liturgical modus vivendi in the future might be to have the EF has the norm for High Masses and Pontifical Masses, and a reformed and re-sacralized OF (I look to 1964/5 for this) as the norm for other Masses. That would honour both the Council and tradition. Likewise I do not think it schizoid, since the difference between the old rite High and Low Masses was considerable.

      Indeed, much of what skewed the implementation of the Council’s decrees, and indeed the Council itself (Gaudium et Spes now leaves me cold), was an unrealistically and irrationally optimistic view of human nature and modern society. “Let us build the city of God”, as the St Louis Jesuits sang. We cannot build half-decent lives as individuals, so how could we ever have built the city of God?! But of course, it is God who always does the building. We are increasingly re-discovering that.

      Oh, I know the immediate causes of the new canons, and the vital role of at least one Benedictine in the process. But that the argument ever got off the ground, and that touching the Canon was ever even countenanced in light of the arguments against doing so being made so forcefully and so soon before, is what gets me every time.

      I suspect that Benedict XVI would consider himself very much a Vatican II enthusiast, but for the authentic Council and not the council of the media nor that of the independently-minded magisterium of theologians. I call him Father Ratzinger because in 1966 that is what he was, and that title indicates the weight his words from then should carry. That the continuity in these earlier words with those later of the cardinal and the pope can be seen reveals to me at least that Joseph Ratzinger has been a remarkably consistent thinker who has adjusted his priorities and emphases, and maybe a conclusion or two, to suit the declining fortunes of Mother Church in the wake of the Council. His integrity is astounding.

      Pax et bonum semper.

      PS I giggled at your exposé of the final recourse of the lazy preacher: himself!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cardinal Ratzinger himself said that some parts of ‘Gaudium et Spes’ used ‘downright pelagian terminology’. It was this strange idea of the world that I referred to in my comment a few days ago.


  2. This is Ratzinger speaking before the Revolutions which swept Europe in 1968 and, most importantly, before the introduction of that great Rupture with liturgical tradition – the Novus Ordo Missae – in 1969.

    I suspect he would have had an even more nuanced approach to Conciliar Liturgical reforms after that time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed he is speaking before the NO, and that is why this article is so interesting. There is still something of the idealistic reformer in him that would be so sharply checked in 1968; yet at the same time we see the stirrings of discontent with regard to the implementation of the conciliar reforms. My point is that 1968 does not mark a sudden volte-face by Ratzinger. Rather it brought to a head doubts already felt and expressed. The larger point is that Joseph Ratzinger is more consistent and less reactive than people might credit him.

      Of course, there is part 2 of the liturgical section yet to come, and it needs to be read to balance this first part.



  3. I agree with almost everything you write in your previous reply Father. But there is one strand in Fr R’s critique that I can’t just let go uncommented: “We can easily prove that the argument about the element of mystery in religion is not a valid one…” I’d be amazed if the Holy Father Emeritus still thought so. On the contrary, the fact that the Church’s ancient Oratia (constantly speaking of ‘mysteria’) and the words of the Canon are a constant reminder that the Sacrifice it offers to God is indeed – like the Incarnation itself – a ‘Magnum Mysterium’. Our very focus of all belief is a Mystery. As for his muscular young man’s vision of a new liturgy ‘The essence of Christian worship is that it is the announcement of the Glad Tidings of God to the congregation bodily present, the answering acceptance by the congregation of this acceptance, and the whole Church talking together to God…’ This makes me smile, as it is a perfect vision of the postwar German ideal of social order – shared values, frank, healthy, positive public discussion, energetic and united action. But these are the rules of a well-run public meeting! 🙂 – and only tangentially related to the essence of the Mass.

    Again: “the Greek liturgy, which by this time had become unintelligible, was translated into Latin in Rome in the fourth century, in other words, it was made available again in the vernacular of the time”. This is a commonplace argument of vernacularists – but it is incorrect.
    The Greek liturgy was strongly influenced by the exotic and deliberately stylized language of the Septuagint. It was not at all the common Greek of the day, and persisted into the later liturgies of Chysostom and Basil. Nor was early Christian Latin the ‘vernacular’ spoken and written in Rome. As Mohrmann says, it has ‘all the signs of being the differentiating language of a closed group…[that] gradually takes the place of the old Greek of the Christian communities.’ Early Bible translations are respectfully word-for-word, having no regard for classical Latin literary style or colloquial speech, and employing ‘old words’ no longer in use. ‘The advocates of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy who maintain that even in Christian Antiquity the current speech of everyday life, “The Latin of the common man” was employed, are far off the mark….Many elements – for instance the Orations [Oratia/Collects] – were not easily understood even by the average Christian of the fifth century or later. This language was far removed from everyday life, a fact which was certainly appreciated, since at the time people still retained the “sens du sacré”. She summarises Church Latin as ‘an official, ecclesiastical prayer language.’
    The 1960s enthusiasm for ‘the language of the common man’ has done untold liturgical harm. It’s rather like suggesting that we should rewrite Spenser, ignoring the fact that even in his own time his language was obscure: stylized, layered, and archaic: he had good, deliberate reason for that, and it becomes clear in the reading process.
    (As always, apologies for length!)


  4. Sorry – I forgot the closing quotation mark for Mohrmann’s words – ‘…since at the time people still retained the “sens du sacré”.’


    1. No apologies for length required; your is still shorter than mine!

      As mentioned above, we need to remember I am quoting but the first part of his section on liturgical reform, and it needs and benefits from being balanced with the second half, which I shall do soon.

      Moreover, I suspect that his rhetoric is formed by the context, and that he is stating things in order to make clear his argument against the objections being raised. In this light we would be safe in assuming that the definition of liturgy you quote is not what he would write if writing in a more general, catechetical way. Thus, it seems likely to me his comments on mystery are targeted at those who would like to make of the Mass a mystery ritual, arcane and largely, if romantically, incomprehensible. He need not be denying the essential principle of mystery as constitutive of the Mass, and I am sure he is not.

      Elsewhere on the blog I have argued that vernacular does not, and never did, exactly equate to vulgar (in the more technical sense of the term). So I quite agree that liturgical Latin was never street Latin, just as the first English liturgical vernacular, supplied by the Anglicans, was not the English of the street.

      We shall return to this in a future instalment of this series, but suffice it to say here that I am convinced that Ratzinger is not advocating vulgar or overly idiomatic, even slangy, vernaculars. He says later that the liturgy’s language should be intelligible. Shakespearean English would often confuse the typical man or woman on the street today at least to some degree. But s/he would still find it intelligible, would hear familiar and helpful words that granted some access to the subject matter.

      Perhaps what Ratzinger is really saying here is that the Sacred Mysteries need no veil of mysterious human language to enhance.God’s work in the liturgy. Likewise, we should all agree that the banalized English of the previous NO missal was not adequate to the elevated matters for which it was employed.

      But stay tuned to act II of part 2!



  5. Thank you (as always) Dom Hugh. I’m very intrigued and a bit puzzled by the quotation about the proclaimation of the Gospel you quote above. I can only assume that Fr Ratzinger refers to the practice of the celebrant reading the Gospel silently during the singing of the Gradual or tract during High Mass, prior to the text bring chanted by the Deacon. The curious part is that this practice had already been addressed by the mid 1960s. ( I know there are still some place that still do this, but the most cursory study of Fortescue O’Connell & Reid will show that that is clearly out of step with the 1962 Missal.) Obviously at a Low Mass or Sung Mass there should be no problem since the celebrant is expected to either read or sing those texts. This example therefore strikes me as a bit of a straw man. Perhaps I am missing something here?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Salve Dom Bede!

      Obviously I have no experience of the old rite to speak of, but I do seem to recall (as Mancunius has pointed out ahead of me) that the readings were uttered facing the altar not the people, and in a low voice from what I can tell. Whatever it is, Fr Ratzinger seems to fell it is not proclamation. Of course, JR may not be citing a burning issue, but merely one from recent memory that people would relate to and which illustrated his point to his liking.

      One suspicion I have is that the EF is celebrated today in general with far more dignity and propriety that perhaps it was in the average parish in days of yore. Certainly, older fathers here remember as boys serving private Masses for the monks each morning, and most of it being a blur. One was in and out in under 15 minutes. OK, no congregation to proclaim anything to, naturally, but maybe that approach marked the liturgical life in a more than one parish! Who talked about ars celebrandi back then! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Dom Bede: it can’t be denied that at a Low Mass the Epistle and Gospel – when read at expertly cursive speed in Latin, in the normal unemphatic voice of the EF, and towards the altar, can certainly be an acoustic challenge to follow in every detail without a missal – even from the front pews of a church – unless one has conned the Propers in advance, and knows what to listen out for. That varies, naturally, according to the vocal clarity and Latin expertise of the celebrant.
    The Last Gospel is (and traditionally was) often read at quite a breakneck pace (I recall also some references to this in 19c/early 20c French fiction). But St John Chap I was a well-known text, and if in aural doubt, one simply watches the priest for the cue for genuflection. I still feel this unholy rush (that often affects the Leonine post-Mass prayers) is one those traditions that this traditionalist could personally do without.


    1. Indeed, I too have been brought up on a similar litany of disgrace. (Which seems to grow in the telling. The lady doth protest too much?) but the one thing about the TLM that is blessedly clear are the rubrics. That being the case, it doesn’t exactly seem fair to blame the rite for the sins and failures of the celebrant. Surely in the whole of the Catholic Church prior to the great aggornimento, there must have been a few priests who loved the Mass and were pious, reverent, and devout? Then again, if there weren’t, that might explain a few things about how we got here.


  7. There was the same abundance of devout priests that there still is! (Though perhaps some were sterner and sharper-tongued than would now be thought ‘pastoral’ 🙂 )

    The fault was rather one of catechization of the laity: the (numerically overwhelming) younger Catholics became rather detached from the traditional Latin Mass because they were not taught – even the brighter pupils in Catholic schools – the vital importance of employing our God-given sense of Reason to grasp the words: their meaning, their biblical and doctrinal origin.

    The Catechism was (laudibly enough) dinned into even the youngest pupils, also the meaning of the Sacraments. But the Rite itself was silently taken for granted, treated as if it were in a far off and obscure tabernacle, almost as if understanding it too intimately would be both unnecessary and unadvisable. Holy Mass was taught only in broad structural outlines, not the literal meaning and the relationship of the Propers to their contexts in scripture and to the feast of the day/liturgical season of the Church year, how, why, what. How inspiring that would have been, and would be, for any normally intelligent and inquiring young mind. How fruitful for all other (secular) studies. But Guéranger and his successors were unread, forgotten. Scripture was only taught in outline. Latin was no longer an obligatory school subject: the early history of Christianity, patristics, the Benedictine Rule, the history of feasts – all untreated. The western Catholic cultural link with the Roman past was allowed to rust. This left the postwar young an easy prey to a simplistic, conciliarist utopianism that confused renewal with making everything look up-to-date and a bit wacky.


  8. Dear Fr. Hugh,

    Have you published part II act 2? It seems I can’t find the next part. And also I would like to know whether you can send me the full text of Ratzinger’s talk for my personal study.


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