What in the Liturgy Is Going On?

Vatican watchers have noticed that Pope Benedict XVI is wearing fancier vestments than his predecessor. When he came out to bless the crowds after Christmas, he was wearing an ornate cope embroidered with gold and silver thread. On his head was an old-fashioned miter encrusted with gold and jewels. For Christmas vespers, and again on Ash Wednesday, he was arrayed in splendid apparel, with deacons attending in similarly magnificent vestments.
Why is Benedict suddenly wearing such ornate outfits? Is he spending lots of money on them? Is he trying to turn back the clock? Is there simply a flamboyant Baroque Catholic beneath that scholarly German exterior just waiting to burst out?
I think we can lay to one side the charge that the pope is a fop, a dandy, or one of those effete clergymen who collects china teacups and pretty vestments. The aisle of St. Peter’s is not a catwalk, and the pope is not an ecclesiastical supermodel.
Neither has the pope gone on a clerical shopping spree; he is using vestments from the Vatican store rooms. His people are getting out the gear used by earlier popes that was later put into storage when Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II attempted to simplify the trappings of the papacy.
Surely that must mean, then, that the pope is trying to turn back the clock to some golden age before the Second Vatican Council. But Benedict is too wise to attempt such a thing, even if it were possible.
Instead, the pope’s more traditional and splendid vestments have to do with a favorite phrase of his: "the hermeneutic of continuity." Hermeneutic refers to a perspective, a way of looking at things, a method of interpretation; a "hermeneutic of continuity," then, means that the past informs the present and guides us into the future. Benedict wishes our understanding of the Catholic faith to be guided by that continuity.
This philosophy is evident not only in Benedict’s vestments, but also in his catechesis. Over the course of his Wednesday public audiences, he began by expounding on the Gospel, and then went through the lives and personalities of the apostles; now he is continuing through the ages to pick out and explicate the teachings of the great saints and doctors of the Church.
By his teaching, the pope is asserting that the faith we have today is the faith we have had through the ages, one that can make no sense unless it’s viewed through the lens of the past. Furthermore, we cannot march into the future unless we are informed and enlightened and inspired by the past. Continuity is therefore a dynamic concept; it is another way to talk about the role of Tradition in the Catholic Church. Tradition is not a dead letter, but a living Word.
This hermeneutic also informs Benedict’s approach to the liturgy. In his seminal work The Spirit of the Liturgy, then-Cardinal Ratzinger argued that the purpose of liturgy is not primarily to develop human relationships, be creative in worship, or promote humanitarian agendas. Rather, the liturgy is the worship of God. The forms and styles are given to us by the Church of the ages; similarly, bishops and clergy are not innovators but stewards of the inheritance they have been given.
This explains Benedict’s ruling last July granting more freedom for the celebration of Mass according to the pre-Vatican II Latin Rite. The move was not an attempt to impose the preconciliar rite on the whole church; rather, new freedoms were given so that the Latin Mass might be celebrated more openly and widely, priests would be trained in its norms, and the Novus Ordo might be informed by the manner in which the old rite was celebrated.
Similar reasoning explains Benedict’s wish for Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony to be used more widely. No one expects that every parish will suddenly switch to Gregorian chant and polyphony, but rather that a wider use of traditional music will influence the positive development of Catholic sacred music.
The reasoning for these developments is one thing, but why have more formal music, a more traditional celebration of the Mass, more elaborate vestments, and a more ornate liturgy to begin with? What’s the point?
Here we’re brought back to a central question that has confused Catholics for 40 years: What is liturgy? The answer is related to the questions, "What is the Church?" and "What are the sacraments?" If the sacraments are mere symbols — things at the service of religious people gathered together to promote good deeds — then the church building, vestments, music, and liturgy should be practical. Thus, utilitarian concerns should reign: the vestments, architecture, and furniture should be bare, useful, and inexpensive. The liturgy should be folksy, down to earth, and plain.
If, however, the Church is the mystical Body of Christ, while the sacraments are the supernatural presence of His saving grace in our midst, and the liturgy points to the marriage feast of the Lamb, then when we attend Mass we are entering the very throne room of the King. Like Jacob when he dreamed of the ladder into heaven, we are at the doorstep of glory itself.
If this is so, then the whole perspective shifts; we must bring the finest gifts to the King of kings. The liturgy, as befitting a throne room, must be ceremonial, splendid, and regal. The music must be fit for the King; the vestments, too, must reflect the glory of the One we worship.
On my blog, a reader once commented that he didn’t think the humble fisherman Peter would be comfortable wearing a two-foot-high, jewel-encrusted miter with an ornate gold-and-silver embroidered cope. My reply was that the pope is not trying to image Peter as he was on earth, but as he is now in heaven. A humble fisherman he may have been, but I doubt very much that Peter is standing now at the pearly gates wearing a fisherman’s smock and smelling of yesterday’s catch. Rather, he is wearing the white robes of Christ’s righteousness and his own martyrdom. He is wearing robes so splendid that they make the pope’s rich vestments look like beggars’ rags.
This is why Pope Benedict is dressing up. Through fine liturgy, glorious music, and splendid vestments, he wants to remind us of our high and heavenly calling. We are a royal priesthood, adopted children of the King of kings and heirs of His promise. Through his new yet ancient style, Benedict wants to lift our hearts from this drab world of drudgery to the glory of our heavenly home.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker is chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves on the staff of St. Mary’s, Greenville. He is the author of Adventures in Orthodoxy (2002) and Christianity Pure and Simple (2005) from Sophia Institute Press.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker


Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

  • Deal Hudson

    Father, you have illumined this issue in a simple way. The idea of heaven as applied to the liturgy, and the idea of bringing “our best gifts,” makes it rather difficult to wear shorts and t-shirts to Mass, doesn’t it?

  • NorthoftheBorder

    Hi Father Longenecker – as a Byzantine Rite Catholic, I couldn’t agree more! What I LOVE about the Byzantine Rite, which sometimes I think the Latin Rite misses out on (but is recovering, thanks to Popo Benedicto), is the beauty of the vestments, icons, incense, etc. and the real experience, in a small but profound way, of the worship going on in heaven!

  • FJ

    That was one the best explanations I have read in a while of all that Benedict has been doing – as a fellow priest you gave much food for thought as to why we celebrate the Liturgy the way we do!

  • Tim

    Hi Father,

    Thank you so much for this excellent article.
    I was once very uncomfortable with the
    “showy trappings” of the Mass. But indeed
    there are reasons for such things. Thinking
    about what is actually happening at the Mass
    is very important and should inform why we do
    what we do, why we wear what we wear, etc.
    Are we there to be entertained or
    made to feel good about ourselves? Or are
    we there to worship Christ, the Lord?

    I have to admit being a little disturbed about
    how I saw the body of the Lord being received at
    Holy Communion. A lack of reverence possibly? Maybe I’m just an old fogey? Thank you again.

    – Tim

  • Ken

    Now we just need to see (hopefully) the pontifical Mass for which those vestments and music were intended…

  • Teri Bohlinger

    Dear Father,

    A lovely explanation for something I love so very much. Thank you.

  • Jaye Procure

    I will forward this to our Liturgy Committee. I am thrilled with the liturgical developments. I only wish my grandmother were still here to share them with me!

  • Ed

    I agree that the Mass is the foretaste of the heavenly banquet that is to come and that Sainted Peter would approve. I would also add that even while Peter was still ‘earth-bound’ he was a changed person after the Resurrection than he was before. He had come to encounter the fullness of Christ’s redemptive act – the Christ whose Spirit now dwelt within him. So, too, we as having been baptized into Christ Jesus and having risen with him, participate in the Mass as a prelude to the Heavenly Jerusalem – worthily expressed in the best this world can offer.

  • NorthoftheBorder

    Ed – I might just add, at least to the best of my knowledge in the Byzantine Rite – we actually DO mystically participate with Heaven during the Divine Liturgy (Mass) – so it is a foretaste and it is a prelude, but it is also ACTUALLY mystically also a part of Heavenly worship now! Can anyone else better articulate what I just said?

  • Carlos Caso-Rosendi

    Father Longenecker has explained a difficult subject beautifully. In the 1960’s we were told to be “spontaneous” and “comfortable”, “practical” and “simple” and things got ugly. What we did not know then was that we were subtly being deprived of our dignity through the dictates of fashion. Eventually that attitude affected even the Church. While simplicity and modesty are certainly wonderful virtues, it is also true that even virtues can turn into vices when taken to an extreme. Just imagine if the President of the United States or the British Monarch would preside an official ceremony in jeans an t-shirt. The image–certainly unlikely–is useful to see the effect that misunderstood simplicity can have on someone’s dignity. His Holiness is the Vicar of Christ, Christ being the King of the Universe. Our King has given us the extraordinary dignity of being His sons and daughters. What a privilege is to be in His Presence at Holy Mass. Who would dare to show up “under dressed” at a Rose Garden or a Buckingham reception? Who would expect a President, a Queen or a King to be dressed in less than dignified clothing for the occasion? H.H. Benedict XVI is reminding us (fading baby boomers) of that world we saw when we were only children. A world were everyone dressed in his finery when the occasion required it. The beautiful and unique vestments remind us also of the beauty, truth and dignity of our faith. Exodus 28:17-21 lists the jewels that had to adorn the vestments of the priests of Israel. Pretty expensive apparel indeed. Revelation 21:1-27 compares the Apostles to the foundations of the New Jerusalem and gives each one of them a precious stone symbolizing their dignity as fathers of the Church. Let us all welcome dignity and beauty back into Sacred Liturgy and let us pray that the abuses of the “spontaneous” and the “simple” soon be replaced by the dignity, beauty and truth that befits the princely sons of Christ the King. Thank you Fr. Dwight!

  • Bosco Peters

    This is very helpful reflection on the tensions within our liturgical traditions
    and how we move to stress one aspect or another from time to time.

    Lenten blessings


  • Mitch Bond

    While I think that your article is astute and edifying, but I believe that you made one glaring factual mistake early on. I do not mean to be condescending, but you are wrong as to what vestments are being used. These are not necessarily being drawn out of the store rooms. Money is being spent, in fact, the company Tridentinum [http://www.tridentinum.com/] will be creating a 30 piece set of vestments, that will be first used on Palm Sunday.

    Rev. Fr. John Zuhlsdorf comments:

    Fr. Z wrote: I think the Holy Father is saying something by commissioning new vestments of old styles and ancient fabrics. The very fabric and vestments he wears seem to reflect the principle of a hermeneutic of continuity: old treasures, made present as a guide into the future. So, there is an organic development taking place in his choice of important vestments for important occasions.

    While I love the idea of simply drawing forth the splendours that have been so long locked up, rather than spending what must a not small amount of money, I also am pleased to see the Holy See becoming again a patron of fine works at this level of skill. I know that in the past many vestments were commissioned, but very many of them were not really very successful. Those which were acceptable were forgettable while those which memorable were appalling.

    Daily Telegraph Catholic correspondent, Damien Thomas, writes rather polemically:

    [quote=Damien Thomas]Benedict XVI has junked the trendy tat worn by recent Popes, and on Palm Sunday will wear brand new red and gold silk baroque vestments bearing the heraldic motifs of Leo X, the last Medici Pope.

    The 30-piece set, which includes chasubles, cope, and dalmatics, copies the fabric and designs worn by Leo in 1513. That