Benedict XVI: “Pitiful Diatribes on Exterior Forms”

At Catholic Culture there is an interesting piece by Jeff Mirus.

My emphases and comments:

“Pitiful Diatribes on Exterior Forms” Posted Oct. 27, 2008 1:28 PM by Dr. Jeff Mirus

If you argue endlessly about this or that form of the liturgy and can be satisfied with nothing less than what you regard as ideal, Pope Benedict wants to yank your chain. The comments in question were made in his preface to the first volume of a German language edition of his complete works, a volume collecting Joseph Ratzinger’s writings on the liturgy from his university days until his election as Pope[NB: This is all second hand, and we must take as editorializing the "argue endlessly" and "yank your chain".  But there is something useful here: arguing for X while being locked into a specific closed position.  Most people who do that are not so well grounded in the larger picture.]

In the preface, Benedict wrote: “It would please me very much if the new publication of my writings on the liturgy could contribute to making visible the great perspectives of our liturgy, putting again in their place the small and pitiful diatribes on exterior forms.”  [This restates what I mention above.  There are reasons why Pope Benedict does what he does.  The so-called "Benedictine arragment" of the altar for papal Masses is not merely a reflection of his personal preferences.  Or rather, he has aligned his personal preferences to what he come to embrace theologically after reflecting for many years on the function of the Cross and our orientation at the altar.  The real problems are raised by people who take stubborn stands on the basis of personal preference without sufficient reasons.]


Apparently Benedict had seriously considered removing nine pages from his book The Spirit of the Liturgy: An Introduction (2000), ["Apparently"?] which is the chief item in the first volume of the collected works. These nine pages covered his ideas on the orientation of the priest when celebrating Mass, and Benedict was concerned at the amount of petty and partisan controversy those pages generated. He did not want to see that happen again.  [We must remember the sort of ridiculous blather that erupted from especially the progressivist side when Pope Benedict began to shift the orientation of the Mass, and when he celebrated ad orientem in the Sistine Chapel.  The more traditional are also guilty of this to a degree when they claim victory on the basis not of really good arguments and reasons, but on the basis of their preferences.]

He hopes people will take a broader and more balanced view of the same issues when they are revisited in the collected works. His goal is to get beyond “often pedantic questions about one form or another[It is hard to know what that means, out of context as it is.  What is "form" here?  Orientation of the altar?  Extraordinary/Ordinary?]  to a greater understanding of the cosmic significance of the liturgy, which “embraces together creation and history” with Christ at the center as Savior, on Whom we are all to be focused in liturgical prayer. For Benedict, this same cosmic significance ultimately lies behind every liturgical form.  [Of course it does.  And that is why he wrote what he wrote about ad orientem worship in Spirit of the Liturgy.]


I look forward to getting this text and checking out what the Holy Father wrote in the preface.

Our outward liturgical signs point to deeper realities.  At all times during the Church’s liturgies, whether Holy Mass or others, we are, like Moses in Exodus 33, peering through a cleft in the rock at something mysterious beyond our ken.  When the elements of liturgy do not foster the glimpse through the cleft, then something is wrong.  

Also, the adage that that which is received is received in the manner of the one receiving is also to be applied.  When your own approach and attitude (which you can choose to adjust) is to look at the liturgical action as a matter of curiosity, then something is lacking.  Even a fascination by why the book is moved from one side to the other, or why a incense is used, can be a distraction, a turning away from the cleft, if that is all the farther you go.  Interest must at a certain point move to awe.  Until it does, great care should be taken before making monolithic statements about how liturgy should be done.  

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  1. Torquemada says:

    Help me out here, Father, I must be missing something. If the liturgy is, as you say, an outward sign that points to a deeper reality, and if faulty liturgy fails to point to that deeper reality, then why is the discussion of “exterior forms” irrelevant or a diatribe? If the exterior liturgical form fails to point heavenward, then shouldn’t there be a frank discussion of its faults? Or does the Pope mean something else by exterior forms?

  2. Jason says:

    I believe in this matter, Screwtape may have a few words for us:

    1) “Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.”

    2) “What He wants of the layman in the church is an attitude which may indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise — does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going.”

    3) “The real fun is working up hatred between those who say “mass” and those who say “holy communion” when neither party could possibly state the difference between, say, Hooker’s doctrine and Thomas Aquinas’, in any form which would hold water for five minutes.”

    –Jason (all taken from ch 16 of ‘The Screwtape Letters’… I strongly suggest giving it a read)

  3. Michael J says:

    I’m a bit confused. Is Dr. Mirus referring to Opera Omnia referenced earlier? If so, I cannot seem to find the quotes or inferences.

  4. “Interest must at a certain point move to awe.”

    I agree, Father. But the “awe” will return only when the liturgy is once again perceived as sacred and independent of human preferences. Sacredness is hard to perceive in a liturgy that men are constantly tinkering with, a liturgy without obvious roots in antiquity, a liturgy that has become totally politicized, etc. …

  5. Msgr. S. Guy Blathering says:

    Speaking of pitiful diatribes, Father Selvester over at has hung up his blogging hat.

    “In addition, I no longer wish to be associated, as I have been, with the self-appointed pundits who sit day after day….. parked in front of their computer typing away at what they have now decided is their “apostolate” or “ministry” ”

    I think he might have been referring to you Father Z. [Too bad. We are diminished by it. But I understand how he feels at the moment and can hardly blame him.]

  6. Fr. Guy says:

    To “Msgr.” S. Guy Blathering (which is, of course a fake name because he doesn’t have the guts or the integrity to use his own)

    WRONG as usual.

  7. Melody says:

    Jason: Good point. It’s so easy to get annoyed by the ugly vestments and the horrible music and forget the essential mystery–that Jesus is miraculously present.

    Furthermore, the more we focus on this central mystery, hopefully the more we will see the need for reverence in our exterior forms. I am a enthusiastic proponent of the teaching that our actions inform our prayer, but we can’t forget that it works both ways.

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