The gentlemanly Sandro Magister has provided us with an English translation of the Holy Father’s Preface to his Opera Omnia which is underway.
The first volume was, unsurprisingly, his liturgical writings. As I have been saying, liturgy is at the heart of what Pope Benedict is doing theologically.
Let’s have a look at the Holy Father’s Preface with my emphases and comments.
Preface to the initial volume of my writings
by Joseph Ratzinger
Vatican Council II began its work with a discussion of the draft document on the sacred liturgy, which was later solemnly approved on December 4, 1963, as the first result of the great Church assembly, with the rank of constitution. At first glance, it might seem to be a coincidence that the topic of the liturgy was put first in the work of the council, and that the constitution on the liturgy was its first result. Pope John had convened the assembly of bishops in a decision that everyone shared in joyfully, in order to reinforce the presence of Christianity in an age of profound change, but without presenting a definite program. An extensive series of projects had been put in place by the preparatory commission. But there was no compass to find the way amid this abundance of proposals. [Which was not really an advantage, in the long run.] Among all of the projects, the text on the sacred liturgy seemed to be the least controversial. [Hah!] So it immediately seemed to be the right choice: like a sort of exercise, so to speak, with which the fathers could learn the methods of conciliar work.
What seems to be a coincidence at first glance turns out to be, after looking at the hierarchy of themes and tasks of the Church, intrinsically the most just thing as well. By beginning with the theme of "liturgy," the primacy of God, the priority of the "God" theme, was unequivocally brought to light. [Get that? Liturgy aims at the priority of God. This makes sense, since it is our direct open worship as individuals and as a Church. Liturgy shapes what we believe, not just expresses what we believe.] The first word of the first chapter in the constitution is "God." When the focus is not on God, everything else loses its orientation. The words of the Benedictine rule "Ergo nihil Operi Dei praeponatur" (43,3; "So let nothing be put before the Work of God") apply specifically to monasticism, but as a statement of priority they are also true for the life of the Church, and of each of its members, each in his own way. It is perhaps useful to recall that in the term "orthodoxy," the second half of the word, "doxa,"does not mean "opinion," but "splendor," "glorification": this is not a matter of a correct "opinion" about God, but of a proper way of glorifying him, of responding to him. Because this is the fundamental question of the man who begins to understand himself in the correct way: how should I encounter God? So learning the right way of adoration – of orthodoxy – is what is given to us above all by the faith. [This is profound. The Holy Father has in the past criticized Gaudium et spes, for example, because it wasn't adequately centered in Christ, though he concedes that the central section, such as GS 22 helps to save the document by adding the proper hermeneutic: Christ reveals man more fully to himself. In the liturgy, which both expresses and shapes our faith, we are in contact with the true Actor in the liturgy, Christ the High Priest. We learn also who we are when we are being liturgical.]
When I decided, after some hesitation, to accept the project of an edition of all of my works, it was immediately clear to me that the order of priorities at the Council also needed to be applied to it, and that therefore the first volume to be published had to be the one containing my writings on the liturgy. Ever since my childhood, the Church’s liturgy has been the central activity of my life, and it also became, under the theological instruction of masters like Schmaus, Söhngen, Pascher, and Guardini, the center of my theological work. [There it is! The point I have been hammering for years.] I chose fundamental theology as my specific topic, because I wanted above all to go to the heart of the question: why do we believe? But right from the beginning, this question included the other one about the proper response to to God, and therefore also the question about the divine service. It is on this basis that my work on the liturgy must be understood. I was not interested in the specific problems of liturgical study, but in the anchoring of the liturgy in the fundamental act of our faith, and therefore also its place in our entire human existence. [YES! Details are important only insofar as they bring us to the real point of liturgical action. Otherwise they are a distraction.]
This volume now collects all of my short and medium-length work in which over the years, on various occasions and from different perspectives, [therefore showing evolution] I have expressed positions on liturgical questions. After all of the contributions that came into being in this way, I was finally prompted to present a vision of the whole, which appeared in the jubilee year 2000 under the title "The Spirit of the Liturgy." This constitutes the central text of the book. [This is the reference work. This is what he said he hoped would spark a new liturgical movement.]
Unfortunately, almost all of the reviews [I think he is refering to review in scholarly journals] of this have been directed at a single chapter: "The altar and the direction of liturgical prayer." Readers of these reviews must have received the impression that the entire work dealt only with the orientation of the celebration, and that its contents could be reduced to the desire to reintroduce the celebration of the Mass "with [the priest's] back turned to the people." [The key word there is "reduced". The book is about far more than that.] In consideration of this misrepresentation, I thought for a moment about eliminating the chapter (just nine pages out of two hundred) in order to bring the discussion back to the real issue that interested me, and continues to interest me, in the book. It would have been much easier to do this because in the meantime, two excellent works had been published in which the question of the orientation of prayer in the Church during the first millennium is clarified in a persuasive manner. I think first of all of the important, brief book by Uwe Michael Lang "Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer" (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004), and in a special way of the tremendous contribution by Stefan Heid, "Atteggiamento ed orientamento della preghiera nella prima epoca cristiana [Attitude and orientation of prayer in the early Christian era]" (in "Rivista d’Archeologia Cristiana" 72, 2006), in which the sources and bibliography on this question have been extensively illustrated and updated. [Kudos to my friend Fr. Lang for the mention by the Pope!]
The result is entirely clear: the idea that the priest and people should look at each other in prayer emerged only in modern Christianity, and is completely foreign to ancient Christianity. [Did you get that? "completely foreign". So... the Holy Father is worried about the way his own treatment of this issue was handled by others. But here he is talking about how important liturgical orientation is.] Priest and people certainly do not pray to each other, but to the same Lord. So in prayer, ["in prayer" is the key here... if they are praying they look to the Lord whichever way they are oriented.] they look in the same direction: either toward the East as the cosmic symbol of the Lord who is to come, or, where this is not possible, toward an image of Christ in the apse, toward a cross, or simply toward the sky, as the Lord did in his priestly prayer the evening before his Passion (John 17:1). Fortunately, the proposal that I made at the end of the chapter in question in my book is making headway: [That is... the "Benedictine arrangment" of the altar with the Cross at the center. The Pope is pleased with how priests are adopting this.] not to proceed with new transformations, but simply to place the cross at the center of the altar, so that both priest and faithful can look at it, in order to allow themselves to be drawn toward the Lord to whom all are praying together.
But [But] with this I may have said too much on this point, [But apparently not... since this man doesn't write without purpose.] which represents just one particular of my book, and I could have left it out. [But he didn't.] The fundamental intention of the work is that of placing the liturgy above the often frivolous questions [excellent... "frivolous"] about this or that form, in its important relationship, which I have sought to describe in three areas that are present in all of the individual themes. [THREE THEMES] In the first place,  there is the intimate relationship between the Old and New Testament; without the relationship with the Old Testament heritage, the Christian liturgy is absolutely incomprehensible. The second  area is the relationship with the world religions. And finally, there is a third area:  the cosmic nature of the liturgy, which represents something beyond a simple meeting of a larger or smaller circle of human beings; the liturgy is celebrated within the vastness of the cosmos, it embraces creation and history at the same time. This is what was intended in the orientation of prayer: that the Redeemer to whom we pray is also the Creator, and so there always remains in the liturgy love for creation and responsibility toward it. [Sounds also like a starting point for a theology of ecology or environment.] I would be happy if this new edition of my liturgical writings could contribute to displaying the great perspectives of our liturgy, and putting certain frivolous controversies about external forms in the right place. [Excellent. Move beyond the frivolous. People need to spend more time in Ratzinger's books actually thinking about what they are reading.]
Finally, and above all, I feel the need to express thanks. My thanks is due in the first place to Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller, who has taken charge of the "Opera Omnia" and has created both the personal and institutional conditions for its realization. In a very special way, I would like to thank Prof. Dr. Rudolf Voderholzer, who has invested extraordinary time and energy in gathering and organizing my writings. I also thank Dr. Christian Schaler, who is providing valuable assistance. Finally, my sincere thanks goes to the Herder publishing house, which has taken on the burden of this difficult and laborious work with great love and attentiveness. May all of this contribute to a deeper understanding of the liturgy, and its worthy celebration. "The joy of the Lord is our strength" (Nehemiah 8:10).
Rome, feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29, 2008
In the final analysis, the Holy Father is both underscoring the importance of ad orientem worship while simultaneously trying to reconnect it to a larger idea. This is why he both tries to deemphasis the issue and then spend so much ink on it in his preface.
He is trying to reorient our discussion of orientation… get it back on track. This is why he says he thought about removing the pages: It would be better to shelve that discussion than to get it wrong and blabber about it.
This is not to say that he does not think that the orientation question is not important.
Quite the contrary!
It is so important that we must get it right.
It is, perhaps, like one of those journeys which could go very well planned properly, or very badly if it is botched from the beginning and then persued blithly along the wrong path. It is like a cure for a disease which, if undertaken in just the right way, will produce a marvelous healing or, on the other hand, more harm than good if proper care is not taken at the very beginning.
The explanation in the Preface is another contribution to Papa Ratzinger’s already profound reflections. He is helping us with yet another interpretive principle.
Speaking of interpretation, notice his underlying concept of continuity. There must be continuity with ancient and contemporary forms of worship ("looking at each other" is foreign to Christian worship until recently). There must be continuity between Old and New Testament if we are going to understand Christian worship. There must be continuity between the sphere of man’s work in the world and the cosmos, all of creation. At the heart of what Papa Ratzinger is pointing to is the interconnectedness of all our spheres of work and there is a divine component at the heart of every one of those connections.
His use of Nehemiah at the end struck me in this regard.
We seek strong bonds, stronger connections, greater continuity, not lesser. In that verse, the Pope directs our attention to the source of the strength: God. When God is the center, there is strength and joy. Notice that verse says "the joy of the Lord". It is hard to tell if this is objective or subjective, that is, the joy that comes from the Lord as joy’s own source or the joy we have from our perspective when we are coming to know God and His mysteries. Obviously these converge in continuity, become seemless and simultaneous. We make only logical distinctions about them.
Enfolded in the Nehemiah verse itself is an interpretive principle.