The True Beauty of Liturgy

It was expected that Pope Benedict XVI would be a pope of liturgical reform, and he has not disappointed. Catholic conservatives eagerly awaited these reforms, anticipating a return to the “glory days” of pre-Vatican II Catholicism. At the same time, some progressive-leaning Catholics saw liturgical reform as a distraction from the many social and cultural problems the Church faces today.  But the message that the Holy Father continues to promote is that his pontificate is not about isolating anyone or returning to the past. It has nothing to do with politics, about “taking the Mass back to the Latin of the more rigid and remote Tridentine tradition,” as Tim Padgett wrote in Time, and has everything to do with the truth of worship and the human person.

The Third Edition of the Roman Missal, set to be implemented November 27, will seek to renew the meaning of the liturgy and to remind the Church of who she is and what her role will be in the third millennium.

Throughout scripture, a change of name signified a new identity. A significant role or responsibility was being assigned. Abram became Abraham when the Lord promised to make him the “father of a host of nations.” After contending with a divine being, Jacob was given the new name Israel. And, of course, Jesus designated Simon as Cephas (Peter) upon their first encounter, later entrusting him with the keys to the kingdom of heaven. In each instance, a subtle change of just one word signifies a deeper change in identity, while also calling for a change of heart.

How fitting that, 2,000 years later, the successor of that very same Peter seeks to transform in a similar way the manner in which the Roman Catholic Church worships.

With seemingly small changes in diction, Benedict reminds the Church not only of its role in the modern world but also of the role liturgy plays in the Church’s own ministerial outreach.


Many critics of the new missal claim it imprudent of the Holy Father to focus time and energy on something as menial as a few word changes. As Padgett wrote, “It’s sad when Rome’s cassocked scholars subordinate their intellectual gifts to church expediency.” But what Benedict attempts to underscore with the new missal — and, in a larger sense, with his entire pontificate — is that the Church cannot step into the world as missionary until it understands its essence as being the presence of Christ in the world, and understands liturgy as the foundation of its identity and its first and most potent source of Christ.

According to Benedict’s Light of the World, the Eucharist is “the most intimate heart of the Church…. It is not just another social ritual where people meet in an amicable way; rather, it is the expression of being in the center of the Church.” And if the Eucharist truly is the heart of the Church and its “entire expression of being,” then this means that the source of life for the Church is none other than Christ Himself. No missionary apostolate can be undertaken unless the Church recognizes this and roots itself in the Eucharist.

If the liturgy is “the place where the Church is actually experienced most of all,” then the emphasis the Holy Father places on it is both prudent and necessary, since it is meant to be not only the inspiration and life source of all missionary activity but also the primary and most pure ministry. If we truly understand lex orandi, lex credendi, then lex vivendi must follow. The way we worship should reflect what we believe about the human person and his creator. Liturgy, then, invites us into an intimate moment with He who gave us everything, and consequently sends us forth to carry Him into the world as His disciples.

That is why Benedict’s reforms of the Roman Catholic liturgy could have an impact that reaches far beyond the Catholic Church. The Church is described in Light of the World as “giving expression to God’s message, which raises man to his highest dignity, goodness, and beauty.” This is and always has been the mission of the Church — to transform and to elevate man by creating a culture that fosters human flourishing. With his attention to liturgy, Benedict reminds us of the truth of our existence: that we are pilgrims on this earth, and we were created to live for more than the temporal.

The true beauty of liturgy is that it raises our eyes and our hearts toward Heaven, reminding us of the eschaton, the day when we pass from the temporal into the eternal. The Church exists to transform the world, to prepare it for the coming of Christ’s kingdom. Because liturgy is the primary place where this transformation occurs, Benedict is right to put it at the top of his agenda. If what we pray is what we believe, then the way we pray will determine the way we will live.


Tony Oleck is a Roman Catholic seminarian for the Congregation of Holy Cross. He studies history at the University of Notre Dame and is currently working as a summer intern for the Acton Institute.

  • tom

    I do know it may seem trivial, but please do not refer to him as simply “Benedict”.

  • Famijoly


    Tony’s article seems very much to reflect the work of someone who is thinking with the Church. Tony seems to me to be very respectful of Pope Benedict XVI and the petrine office.

    He uses “Pope Benedict XVI” on first reference and then alternates between “the Holy Father” and “Benedict.” This is journalistic style, and is very respectful while conserving characters. It is clear in the context of the article that “Benedict” is the “Holy Father” and the “the Pope.” In the context of this writing, Tony brought disrepect on neither the papacy nor the man who currently holds the office.

    God bless you and keep you.

  • Ken

    Now the challenge is for Pope Benedict XVI’s writings and examples to be emulated somewhere outside of the typical traditional and conservative ghetto churches.

    Nothing this pope has done and witten, liturgically, been implemented in the typical parish church. The use of Latin, ad orientem offering, male altar servers only, communion only received on the tongue, communion only received kneeling with a paten held by an acolyte, Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony as the majority of music, etc…

    Words are nice, but the pope needs to require some or all of what he is doing and saying in order for Saint X in Town Y to actually incorporate it during the average Sunday Mass. Otherwise the average Catholic will never see it.

    • Gerri

      Ken, I totally agree with what you have said. I have the unfortunate impression that we are going to wait a long, long time before there are any real reforms in the American Church. Your typical American parishioner (as well as pastor) does not want to budge as far as implementing changes that would result in a more reverent liturgy (i.e., the ones you referenced in your remarks). Indeed, there has already been much negative ado about the (what I think of as) minimal changes in the liturgy. Yesterday during the Communion, the man ahead of me (someone way old enough to know better) was receiving Holy Communion in the hand (naturally). Well, he dropped the Host, and after finally being able to retrieve it, gave it back to the priest and asked for another one (the priest complied). I’m afraid this sort of thing is the norm. People seem to think very little, if anything, of this sort of thing happening. Even the older folks have become so inured to the casual attitude and abuses that it seems like things will never change. People have to want them to change, but it doesn’t look too good from where I sit.

      • Alex

        I agree with Ken and Gerri. I think that the changes can only come about when people are open to them. Ken states that the Holy Father should make some requirements and not just keep it at words. I agree. But, unfortunately, the number of people that agree with us in the wider church is very limited. The Pope has to be prudent in these matters. If a great number of Catholics no longer believe in the real presence, what good is it to chant the Agnus Dei in Latin? Or better yet, what does it matter to a people who have forgotten about sin (and hence never go to confession) whether they receive standing or kneeling? Our problem is catechesis. Unless the faithful are taught the Truths of our Faith, no document from the Vatican is going to make a difference. Look at that parish in Boston, they went right ahead with their ridiculous “rainbow mass”. What’s gonna happen to them? Nothing. A slap on the wrist and that’s it.

        • Ken

          Alex, I have to disagree with your cautious approach to restoration. At that pace, it will never happen. April 2005 to July 2011 — what has the progress been thus far in the average parish (i.e. a random large suburban church)? Maybe a crucifix on the altar? This pope is not going to live forever.

          I challenge anyone to point to a conservative or traditional liturgy where the real presence is not believed by most. Get the Mass back to something close to what the saints would recognize, and the rest will follow. But it cannot be optional — just look at Friday abstinence or a Monday/Saturday holy day to see how the optional thing works out.

          As Pope Benedict XVI has said, “The Church stands, and falls, with the liturgy.”

    • Sam Schmitt

      I suppose it would be satisfying if Pope Benedict “laid down the law” about the liturgy. But with so many parishes barely doing the minimum of what’s already required in the missal, you have to wonder what good it would do – in fact it might even create more resentment.

      Also, how would the Vatican enforce such requirements? It can’t even stay on top of the abuses that are happening now. The pope can’t micromanage what’s done in parishes – he has to rely on the bishops, and the bishops on individual pastors. Nothing will really change until bishops and priests change their whole mindset about the liturgy. This is not done primarily through laws, but by teaching and example, which the Holy Father is doing vigorously.

  • Ryan A


    Thank you for this article. I really liked what you said:

    the Church cannot step into the world as missionary until it understands its essence as being the presence of Christ in the world, and understands liturgy as the foundation of its identity and its first and most potent source of Christ.

    It reminds me of what Servant of God Dorothy Day once said, “We cannot build up the idea of the apostolate of the laity without the foundation of the liturgy.” We cannot recognize or even cultivate the true meaning of humanity, unless we recognize or try to recognize Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

    As far as what Ken said- I live in the ghetto and I am a member of a typical moderate parish (whatever the means) and our parish council and church staff are taking extraordinary measures to properly instruct the “average ghetto Catholic” on the new Roman Missal. The good thing about the new Missal is that it will challenge the average ghetto Catholic to really listen and think about the words we say in Mass.

    In addition, most dioceses will be providing the lay faithful with a variety of resources to help prepare people, including the ghetto Catholics for the liturgical changes while teaching the beauty and power within the Sacred Liturgy. Besides, I don’t think it’s the Pope’s job to establish a curriculum of instruction for the dioceses; that’s the local ordinaries responsibility. PS. My parish has recently moved the choir to the back of the church. I know its a small step but its a step in the right direction.

    Thanks be to God I am under the guidance of Bishop Thomas Olmsted, who has done an amazing job thus far.


  • Jack B

    Within living memory of some, all Masses were said in Latin except for the sermon and Gospel parts. I participated in the same Mass in a dozen foreign countries. In none did I ever meet anyone able to communicate meaningfully in Latin. At Mass, a few words were familiar – “Dominus vobiscum”, “Ite, missa est”. Beyond that, one was free to read a prayer book in Latin (left page) or English (right page), say a rosary, say personal prayers, read a little holy booklet, or meditate. The solemn obligation, faithfully observed by the large majority of Catholics, was to be present on Sundays and holy days.

    The recent innovation allows everyone to speak and listen at Mass with a literal understanding of the prescribed prayers in the language they know well from their actual lives. It has barely arrived on the time scale by which traditions are measured. To some extent, the failure of the Vatican to produce rudimentary vernacular intelligibility in language worthy of the occasion may be excused as difficulty in suddenly adapting to a world of global literacy and communication.

    At the same time, it is worth noting that the English-speaking world is honoring the 400th anniversary of the release of the King James Bible. Two reasons are routinely given for its fame and endurance – it “has had a lasting impact, not only on the Christian faith, but on the way English is spoken and written today.”

    Four centuries after those benighted times, the inability of the Vatican and bishops to provide an impressive, articulate translation designed to inspire and guide many millions in their Catholic faith and worship is an institutional disgrace. The meaning of the liturgy in Latin remains at least as obscure as before. The implications of “lex orandi, lex credendi” deserve more careful examination if liturgy is to fulfill the role it is said to have on Benedict XVI’s agenda.

  • Wi

    Hmm. “Lex Orandi, lex credendi.” Which means, “How we pray is how we believe.” And so, we will pray from now on that Christ died “for many.” But will we continue to believe Christ died for us all? In my state, the schismatic St. Pius X Society insists that Christ did not die for us all. Their proof? The Latin phrase in the Mass: Christ shed his blood “ad multum.” For many.

    Rome says this can be straightened out with a sermon. I can just here it now: “The Mass says Christ died for many, but you had better believe he died for us all.” Why does Rome want to set up this problem int he first place? Oh, because that’s what the Latin says. For the sake of a slavish interpretation of Latin, we endanger one of our most basic beliefs.

    • NorthoftheBorder

      Wi – I think your objection is erroneous. I belong to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (in full communion with Rome) and we say “for many” and there is no confusion over doctrine. Besides, Scripture says:

      1 Timothy 2:3 – This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

      Matthew 18:14 – Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.

      If it results in Catholic knowing their Bible better, all the better.

    • Michael PS

      It is not simply a question of the Latin Missal; both St Matthew’s and St Mark’s gospels have “for many” [τὸ περὶ πολλῶν (Mt 26:28) and ὑπὲρ πολλῶν (Mk 14:24)] Besides which, the Institution Narrative in the Roman Canon may well come from an independent, traditional, possibly Apostolic source – “lifted up His eyes to heaven,” for example, is not found in the NT, but no one would have dared to insert it on no authority whatsoever.

      Now, one of the five propositions of Jansenism, condemned in Pope Innocent X’s Bull “Cum Occasione,” was: “To say that Christ died or shed His blood for all men, is Semipelagianism.” This was condemned as “false, rash and scandalous and, if understood in the sense that Christ died only for the salvation of the predestined, then impious, blasphemous, contumelious, derogating from the divine love [divinae pietati derogantem] and heretical.”

      This condemnation is made without explanation or commentary. This is because the pope did not want to rule on questions about efficacious and merely sufficient grace and the whole question of predestination that were in dispute between the Jesuits and the Neo-Thomists. Accordingly, a Catholic is free to hold the universal sufficiency, but limited efficacy, of the Sacrifice and to distinguish between God’s antecedent and consequent will for the salvation of all, as Augustinian and Neo-Thomist theologians do.

  • Graham Combs

    In 2009, in RCIA class, I mentioned an article published in the local paper on the new liturgy. No one in the class, instructor included, seemed to know that a new liturgy was coming. This is no reflection on the excellent quality of this particular RCIA program. But it seemed strange that your typical hyper-secular newspaper expressed more curiousity (on the front page no less) than those in the Church or about to be. In the article, of course, the reporter seemed to track down mostly Catholics who were critical of the changes. Including a 75 year old woman who claimed the new missal would be “too Anglican” and a priest who implied that the Church was going “backward.”

    I attended a Latin mass during RCIA (one of 5 rites sponsored by the parish and which deeply enriched the catechetical experience). The photocopy of an 1950s era English translation — with illustrations of the priest and acolyte at each stage of the mass — impressed me as strikingly similar to the Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service I attended and served as an altar boy in the Episcopal Church in the 1960s. Stephen Daedalus in Joyce’s ULYSSES famously describes God as “a shout in the street.” I don’t think so. Although worship services throughout Christianity can give that impression. Attend a Chaldean or Syro-Malabar or Maronite mass and you are impressed with the solemnity; particulary during the Eucharist.

    I am too new to the Church to have any particular opinion regarding the above debate. Both our archbishop and our pastor have made significant efforts to prepare for the new liturgy, including Sunday bulletin essays and sermons. Bishop Conley of the Archdiocese of Denver is singular in this regard. I recommend his essays in the diocesan paper. The USCCB has, to its credit, put an end to the squabbling that would have gone on for another six years. (Perhaps similar to Pres. Washington during the Whiskey Rebellion which promised revolution without end.)

    As for the 1611 Bible. Well I admit to using it still in daily readings and especially for its Psaltry. The translation used by the Catholic News Agency is pretty good too. A closeness to God sometimes requires a distance from daily life that a rich, even poetic liturgy can give us. It isn’t about thees and thous, yeas and nays and ending verbs in “eth.” The same is true of the Book of Common Prayer — some of it now incorporated in the Anglican Use rite of the new ordinariates.

    I’m looking forward to the changes in the fall. At least at our parish — and I think in the archdiocese as a whole — they will be respected.