Benedict’s Enduring Legacy: His Love for Beauty

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.

Michael J. Ortiz


Michael J. Ortiz is the author of Swan Town: the Secret Journal of Susanna Shakespeare (HarperCollins 2006), and, most recently, Like the First Morning: The Morning offering as Daily Renewal (Ave Maria Press, 2015). He teaches English and Religion at The Heights School, in Potomac, Maryland.

  • poetcomic1

    I am genuinely curious as to why Pope Benedict did not even once offer the Mass of the Ages in St. Peters or elsewhere that I’ve ever heard.

    • Glenn M. RIcketts

      I wish that he had done so as well, since he did several times prior to becoming Pope. No doubt it had something to do with the delicate balancing act of re-integrating the Society of St. Pius X back into the church with need to the other end of the spectrum on board as well.

      Nevertheless, I am deeply grateful for the gift of Summorum Pontificum and the abundant fruit that it has borne. Just last November, for example, Bishop David O’Connell of the neighboring Trenton Diocese – I’m in the diocese of Metuchen, NJ – offered Mass in the old rite where half of those attending seemed to be of high school or college age, including the musicians who are apparently eager to perform choral selections from the Church’s glorious artistic patrimony. That could not have happened without Benedict XVI, and the toothpaste is permanently out of the tube as a result.

      I wish he had been able to remain in office longer, but I’m more than satisfied with his enduring legacy.

      • poetcomic1

        Not once though? Once?

        • Glenn M. Ricketts

          I certainly sympathize, but I can’t venture an answer beyond what I posted earlier. It certainly would strengthened the hand of those who desire the old. Perhaps some future historian will unearth a diary entry someday. But let’s do hang on to what we’ve gained, eh?

    • WSquared

      I think it’s because he meant Summorum Pontificum and the EF to set the standard for the OF, but not to pit the two against each other: he modeled what it means to celebrate the OF with EF-trained sensibilities.

      He also meant to model what he’s called the hermeneutic of continuity, instead of surrendering the Mass and the Church to what both progressives and extreme traditionalists agree on: that Vatican II is a rupture.

  • Cheryl Schroeder Basile

    As a catechist, it strikes me that this — beauty — is what is left out of most modern catechism workbooks and textbooks. Older textbooks used to have lovely classical paintings that invited children to ponder them (once taught how to ponder). The newer text books are so disjointed — many blaring colors that act like noise to confuse and confound the young.

  • Dan Deeny

    Excellent article. You might want to read Benedict XVI’s dedication of the Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona. He says: “…beauty is one of mankind’s greatest needs; it is the root from which the branches of our peace and the fruits of our hope come forth. Beauty also reveals God because, like Him, a work of beauty is pure gratuity; it calls us to freedom and draws us away from selfishness.” Perhaps he developed this from his knowledge of St. Bonaventure and St. Francis?

    For those of you who understand French, there is a fascinating youtube called La Liturgie des heures at the French Catholic emission La foi prise au mot. Fr. Thomas Diradurian, Aurore Collet, and Regis Burnet discuss, among other subjects, beauty as it encourages faith.

  • LizEst

    In line with the title of this article, could a better picture of Benedict XVI have been included? The one that accompanies this makes his eyes look quite sinister…rather than something of beauty.

    • Augustus

      This is complete speculation on my part, of course, but I think when Benedict talked about beauty, he was not referencing his own physical appearance. This image depicts Benedict surrounded by incense, which corresponds to liturgical beauty mentioned in the article. That’s my take, anyway.

      • LizEst

        Well yes, this is true, but maybe there is a better one of him in the same situation.

  • Clinton

    A truly beautiful article about beauty, and about a truly beautiful and exquisite man, Benedict XVI. How terribly sad that so many iconoclasts just never got him!

    • WSquared

      That iconoclasts didn’t “get” Benedict is an understatement. They didn’t “get” him because what he’s about challenges them (and therefore takes them out of their comfort zone). Iconoclasm ends up denying the Incarnation, which has become, even in Catholic circles, like the elephant in the room. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that iconoclasm opens the door to idolatry: if spirituality and belief is completely spiritual, then what’s to stop it being relegated to just emotions and feelings that come and go, that offer sentimental consolation, but makes no demands of us (especially in “hot button” areas where we’d rather it not)?

      The Christocentric theology of Benedict XVI that centers itself in the Incarnation (it is no accident that Benedict XVI was so concerned with the liturgy and also wrote the Jesus of Nazareth books) is a direct shot across the bow regarding the kind of “beige Catholicism” that iconoclasm has produced. It is a gentle one, to be sure, but it’s also one that knows how to pick its targets with precision.

      But, to paraphrase Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives: we moderns like to think that God is “allowed” only in spiritual matters– like thoughts or ideas, and that He’s not “allowed” in the material realm. But either God has power over matter, also, or He’s not really God.

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