It won’t be easy to find a champion of faith and reason as simple and as profound as Pope Benedict XVI. In his many speeches and homilies, in his numerous books, he distilled rich currents of intellectual thought into beautifully crafted words that spoke to the heart as well as to the mind.
He did so without rhetorical flourish, with the sincerity that comes from a love of the truth. But this talent to speak to the world simply about the central truths of our lives will not, I suspect, be his most significant or most lasting legacy.
Pope Benedict’s enduring legacy will be his love for beauty.
Woven like a golden thread throughout his writing, his love for the sacral nature of beauty adorning our churches and our worship is his priceless gift to the Catholic Church, though it may take decades of perspective for us to see this.
Benedict’s shepherding of a new translation of the Mass has lifted the tone of our worship throughout the English-speaking world. His Papal liturgies, with ancient Gregorian chants once again lifting their beauty to heaven, are models for every diocese throughout the world. Above all, his directive of 2007 giving any priest in the world the right to offer the form of the Mass before the rushed implementation of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council returned a lost heritage to us after almost four decades.
For Pope Benedict, Catholic teaching must be seen in a framework of continuity, not rupture, with the past. Worship and doctrine are integrally united, and in a certain sense stand or diminish together.
For Benedict, humanity is far more than mere rationality, and in this he sees the key to rescuing our world from its own skepticism that builds on one hand magnificent technologies, and then with the other knocks down every reason for living, for joy, for hope beyond the grave.
A large part of the answer to this crisis, according to Benedict, is the sacral beauty of our worship of God.
Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn speak in a similar way: when the good and the true are beaten down by philosophies that blind instead of enlighten, the towering, majestic authority of beauty, delicate as a flower, stronger than any lie, may offer us a way back to sanity.
And, perhaps, to the palpable sense of mystery that is one of the central concerns of authentic fiction, and indeed, all art.
Paul Elie pondered in the New York Times if Christian fiction has become extinct. Today Catholic novelists, in particular, it seems, “are thin on the ground.” There are no worthy successors to Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy, to name only a few. In all of Elie’s interesting musings on the nature of fiction and belief, however, he doesn’t once mention that except for Percy, all of these writers lived, prayed, and wrote in the atmosphere of the old liturgy.
Waugh himself resented the changes to the liturgy, though he died in 1966, three years before the full implementation of the Reform would begin. Writing to a friend shortly before he died, he remarked: “I have not yet soaked myself in petrol and gone up in flames, but I now cling to the Faith doggedly without joy. Church-going is pure duty parade.”
Looking over Pope Benedict’s several decades of writing, it is easy to see his long-time concern for the sacral nature of beauty.
In 1985, in his widely noted Ratzinger Report, he reminded us: “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history.” Beauty, by reflecting the splendor of the Creator, and holiness, by transforming us according to the heart of Christ: for Benedict XVI, these are the perennial signposts that will lead our loony world back to God.
In a speech in 2002, Cardinal Ratzinger made clear he is not interested in mere aesthetics, nor in forgoing the hard work of serious theology, but in the transcendent nature of God: “Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction.”
As recently as a month ago, addressing the priests of the diocese of Rome, Benedict XVI spoke of the joy and difficulties of implementing the reforms of Vatican II. He noted that the Liturgical Movement of the early 20th century realized that the treasures of the liturgy had to be “opened up” for the faithful to have more participation in the worship of God.
Nevertheless, in the same speech, Benedict XVI lamented the “Council of the media” which eclipsed at times the “Council of the Fathers.” The efforts of the Council to bring the average Catholic deeper into the mystery of the Church were derailed by “trivializations” of the needed reforms. Vernacular liturgy brought balloon Masses and sentimental music, “active participation” begot a profanation of the act of Faith that is liturgy, and became a mere celebration of community. How sad to see Pope Benedict XVI, only days before stepping down from the Chair of Peter, listing the many tragedies of the misapplied Council he took such a devoted role in bringing about as a young theologian-advisor.
But our Bishop Emeritus of Rome would never let sorrow have the last word! He underscores to his priests, and to us: “Only ongoing formation of hearts and minds can truly create intelligibility and participation that is something more than external activity, but rather the entry of the person, of my being, into the communion of the Church and thus into communion with Christ.”
I share Benedict XVI’s love for the mystery of the old Mass. With him, I do so not out of nostalgia—in my case, the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, in the vernacular, is the only Mass I remember as a child—but out of love for the mystery of beauty.
A few weeks ago, I attended a low Mass at a local parish. There were only about thirty faithful present. For the first few minutes, as the prayers at the foot of the altar were recited quietly by the priest and his two servers, I felt a moment of liturgical vertigo, saying to myself: “Wait! Shouldn’t I be doing something? I mean, really…all this quiet is a little unnerving.” But as I followed the rubrics in my missal, a profound sense of reverence came over me, a deeper quiet than quiet itself: the heart stilled in wonder before the majesty of the Mass, of God, of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church.
To my friends who have trouble appreciating this Mass, I understand. But I also would encourage them to discover its contemplative riches, as well. If they like J.R R. Tolkien’s tales, with all their marvelously lit mystery and drama, they would do well to remember Tolkien’s love of the old liturgy as the source of his devotion to God, but also as the seedbed, so to speak, from which his heart and mind and imagination took such fertile growth.
Our encounter with Christ in the liturgy must reflect, ever so stutteringly, the infinite beauty of the Risen One, who is Truth itself. We need not all start learning Latin, but acquaintance with this liturgy can deepen our sense of the sacred. Guitar Masses, and all those silly, banal remnants of the 1970s, simply must go. They will never add up to anything close to a Tolkien or an Evelyn Waugh.
Of course, the highest purpose of the Church is the salvation of souls, but banality and trivialization of worship are unworthy of God and even the world he came to redeem. In the words of Pope Benedict, they disfigure the face of the Church. That is why he has advocated “a reform of the reform,” so that the misinterpretations of Vatican II may no longer afflict the Church, and the beauty of God’s truth may win our hearts, giving them the tender toughness of real love.
When we enter into the Church’s liturgy, the Pope reminds us we are really entering into a liturgy that is already taking place, “a greater and grander liturgy” in heaven before the face of God. Pope Benedict XVI has offered the Church a chance to renew that season of beauty which does not fade, and which the Traditional liturgy helps us experience in a more solemn, sacral manner. Side by side with the properly reformed liturgy, Catholics can at last experience what Vatican II promised: a revitalized Church that is at once in harmony with her Tradition, and ever young because ever beautiful in the truth that is Christ.
Such is this Pope’s vision. It leaps over the garbled cross-talk of ideologies. His efforts to regain the sacral beauty of Catholic worship, if his successor continues his restoration, may be the most missionary, radical thing the Church has done in almost half a century. Perhaps his abdication, a highly non-traditional act, not seen in almost six hundred years, was partly intended itself as a radical reminder of the stakes before us.