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Liturgical Theology Part I

Written by Dr. Tim Brophy



In October of 1962, Father Joseph Ratzinger, a 35 year-old priest and professor from Bonn, Germany, was brought to Rome to serve as a peritus (i.e. scholarly expert) for the recently convened Second Vatican Council.[1]  As their first order of business, the Council tackled the issue of liturgical reform and produced its first document, Sacrosanctum Concilium (i.e. “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”), on December 4, 1963.[2]  Ratzinger, as part of the Council’s progressive wing, whole-heartedly embraced the liturgical reforms called for by the Constitution.[3]  Looking back some 35 years later, he was still able to conclude that “the Constitution on the Liturgy, which incorporated all the essential principles of the liturgical movement, was a marvelous point of departure for this assembly of the whole church.”[4]

What was marvelous, in theory, however, turned out to be horribly wrong in practice.  “I was not able to foresee…,” Ratzinger reflected, “…that the negative sides of the liturgical movement would afterward reemerge with redoubled strength, almost to the point of pushing the liturgy towards its own self-destruction.”[5]  In 1966, Monsignor Martin Hellriegel commented that “the Constitution on the Liturgy is a great thing for the Church.  But I am afraid that an amount of what is already being done in its name is taking us in a wrong direction.”[6]  The liturgy was finally revised by Pope Paul VI in 1970 but a disconnect still remained between theory and practice, and a “liturgical crisis” ensued that brought about deep divisions in the Church.[7]  In so much as the practice of the new liturgy fell short of his liturgical vision, Joseph Ratzinger, shortly after his election as Pope Benedict XVI, issued the Summorum Pontificum which reinstated the pre-Vatican II liturgy as “an extraordinary expression of the…rule of prayer of the Catholic Church.”[8]  This marked the beginning of a “reform of the reform”[9] and is considered, by many, to be his most important contribution as Roman pontiff.[10]

Because “the Church believes as she prays” (i.e. lex orandi, lex credendi),[11] it is of utmost importance that the underlying theology of her prayers truly reflects her beliefs.  Pope Benedict XVI has, therefore, written extensively to ensure that the Church’s prayers are built on a strong theological foundation.  His liturgical theology is both God-focused and deeply Christocentric, and employs five primary motifs in support of these guiding themes: 1) the liturgy as corporate prayer and worship; 2) the liturgy as the work/action of God; 3) the liturgy as biblical history; 4) the liturgy as cosmic and eschatological reality; and 5) the liturgy as Paschal Mystery.  This paper will begin with a description of liturgy, in general, and will then detail some of the motifs of Benedict XVI’s liturgical theology.  Pope Benedict XVI is also a firm believer that right doctrine should result in right practice (i.e. orthodoxy should lead to orthopraxis).[12]  This paper will, therefore, conclude with several examples of the practices that flow from the various elements of his liturgical theology.



According to James K. A. Smith, human beings are ultimately liturgical animals (Homo liturgicus) or desiring creatures.[13]  “We are what we love,” he says, “and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends.”[14]  Such practices come in the form of both secular and Christian liturgies, and each point our hearts at different versions of the “good life.”[15]  Liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgia and literally means “the work of the people.”[16]  It originally had the meaning of “public works” for the common good (e.g. road maintenance) but eventually took on its current ecclesial meaning as “the proper work of the Christian community: the work we do together, according to our various orders and estates, to praise and honor God in obedience to his commandments.”[17]  Liturgy, especially for the purposes of this paper, also refers to the embodied worship of a Christian community expressed through a certain visible order or structure (i.e. order of service).[18]  The Church has recognized, throughout its history, that the basic ordo or shape of the liturgy consists of both Word and Sacrament.[19]  The Roman Missals, published by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and Pope Paul VI in 1970, are the two primary liturgies under consideration in this paper.  Pope Benedict XVI called these the “two usages of the one Roman rite.”[20]

Liturgical theology, then, can have one or more of the following meanings: 1) the branch of systematic theology concerning liturgy; 2) theology that uses liturgy as a witness to what the Church has believed and believes; and 3) an investigation of the faith-content of a liturgy that is expressed in word, action, and symbol.[21]  Throughout his career, Pope Benedict XVI has been deeply concerned about the faith-content of the Church’s liturgy as evidenced by the words, actions, and symbols of each of its “two usages of the one Roman rite.”[22]  In that sense, then, this paper will focus primarily on the third definition above.



As mentioned above, liturgy is “the proper work of the Christian community…to praise and honor God.”[23]  This is a perfect starting point for Pope Benedict XVI’s liturgical theology because he also views the liturgy as corporate prayer and worship.  In Benedict’s thinking, the liturgy is an act of prayer[24] to the God who has created and entered into relationship with man.[25]  This kind of prayer involves dialogue between Creator and creature and is fundamental to the Christian conception of God.[26]  Further, prayer, according to Benedict, is best done in fellowship with the Church, for it is only as the Body of Christ that his prayer, “Abba,” becomes their own.[27]  Most of us first learned to pray by listening to our mothers.  In the same way, through the Church’s liturgy[28], “the language of our Mother [i.e. the Church] becomes ours; we learn to speak it along with her, so that, gradually, her words on our lips become our words.  We are given an anticipatory share in the perennial dialogue of love with him who desired to be one flesh with her, and this gift is transformed into the gift of speech.”[29]

Perhaps even more than prayer, however, liturgy is corporate worship whose ultimate purpose is to glorify and praise God.[30]  It is through the liturgy, according to Benedict, that the “Church…fulfills its innermost mission, the adoration of the triune God.”[31]  In contrast to the way some practice the liturgy as an act of self-glorification,[32] Benedict says that the “liturgy is not about us but about God…In every liturgical celebration the primacy of God should be first and foremost.”[33]  Finally, it is important to reiterate the importance of the corporate elements of prayer and worship in Benedict’s thought.  This first motif deals primarily with the vertical dimension of the liturgy but there is also, in Benedict’s thinking, a secondary horizontal element.  This is because there is a “bond of unity produced by the liturgy…[a] bond produced by the presence of the living Lord, who summons from every part, gathers, [and] reunifies about his table.”[34]

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Pope Benedict XVI views the liturgy as the work or action of God.  The liturgy, in Benedict’s thought, is ultimately the Opus Dei or “composition of God.”[35]  It comes before the thoughts of man and from beyond his sphere of existence.[36]  Even more than that, however, the liturgy is a revelation from God to His faithful Church.  According to Benedict, the liturgy “is revelation received in faith and prayer and its measure is, consequently, the faith of the Church, in which the revelation is received.”[37]  It has a “given-not-made” character precisely because it is a revelatory gift from God.[38]  Similarly, God is always the initiator of the liturgy and the Church is its gracious receiver.  Benedict says, “the beginning of the liturgical happening never lies in us.  It is the response to an initiative from above, to a call and an act of love.”[39]  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the liturgy is the work of the Holy Trinity:

In the liturgy of the Church, God the Father is blessed and adored as the source of all the blessings of creation and salvation with which he has blessed us in his son…Christ’s work in the liturgy is sacramental: because his mystery of salvation is made present there by the power of his Holy Spirit…[and] the mission of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy of the Church is to prepare the assembly to encounter Christ.[40]

As one of the chief overseers (i.e. giver of the Imprimi Potest) of the Catechism under Pope John Paul II, it is not surprising that Benedict’s teaching is in line with official Catholic doctrine on this point.  The Second Vatican Council synthesized the first two motifs of this paper extremely well when it defined liturgy as “the worship rendered by the Mystical Body of Christ in the entirety of its Head and members.”[41]  The liturgy truly is the shared work of God and His people.

Third, Pope Benedict XVI views the liturgy as being grounded in biblico-historical reality.  The Church’s liturgy is centered on Christ and is, therefore, inevitably historical.  Christ’s Incarnation was a historical event that took place at a particular moment in time and lasted for a particular length of time.[42]  The Church’s liturgy is also grounded in the biblical history of Israel, especially the Exodus and Passover Feast.[43]  One of God’s primary purposes in the Exodus was that His people might worship Him in the wilderness (Exodus 7:16).  While they remained in Egypt, they were unsure of the kind of worship and sacrifice He desired from them (Exodus 10:25-26).  In fact, it was not until they reached the wilderness that God made a covenant with them, “concretized in a minutely regulated form of worship,” and detailed the kind of sacrifice He desired.[44]  Over time and through Christ, however, the new reality of Christian worship was separated from its ancient context and found its proper form in the Church’s ancient liturgy of Word and sacrament.

According to Benedict XVI, the form (i.e. ordo) of this new liturgy was predetermined by the fact that “the Eucharist refers back to the Cross and thus to the transformation of Temple sacrifice into worship of God that is in harmony with logos.  Thus it came to pass that the synagogue liturgy of the Word, renewed and deepened in a Christian way, [was] merged with the remembrance of Christ’s death and Resurrection to become the ‘Eucharist.’”[45]  The idea that liturgy must be either historical or cosmic, while not entirely without foundation, “is false when it leads to an exclusive opposition.”[46]  According to Pope Benedict XVI, the Church’s ancient liturgy “had to be defined through the interconnection of Temple and synagogue, Word and sacrament, cosmos and history.”[47]

Fourth, Pope Benedict XVI, therefore, also views the liturgy as having both cosmic and eschatological dimensions.  The Church’s liturgy, through its celebration of the Eucharist, engages in the worship of the New Israel and participates in heavenly worship here on earth.[48]  According to the Second Vatican Council, “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle (Cf. Apoc. 21:2; Col. 3:1; Heb. 8:2).”[49]  Commenting on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius and mirroring the preface of the Eucharistic prayer itself, Pope Benedict XVI says that “liturgy is…singing with the choir of creatures and entering into cosmic reality itself.  And in this very way the liturgy…becomes expansive and great; it becomes our union with the language of all creatures.”[50]

The eschatological elements of the liturgy are closely related to and, many times, intermingled with the cosmic ones.  Through the liturgy, the Church anticipates the consummation of Christ’s work of redemption and the renewal of the entire cosmos at the end of time.[51]  The Second Vatican Council tells us that “In the earthly liturgy…we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory (Cf. Phil. 3:20; Col. 3:4).”  In this way, the liturgy situates the Eucharistic celebration in its true cosmic context as an anticipation of Christ’s return on the Last Day.[52]

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for his liturgical theology,[53] Pope Benedict XVI views the liturgy as Paschal mystery.  This is the most Christocentric of Benedict’s motifs but because of the related motif of “the liturgy as sacrifice,” it is also the most controversial (at least to Protestants).  The Paschal mystery refers to the work of Christ for the redemption of mankind including his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension.  Through his death our death was destroyed, and through his resurrection our life was restored.[54]  According to the Catholic Catechism, “it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth ‘the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church.’  For this reason, the Church celebrates in the liturgy above all the Paschal mystery by which Christ accomplished the work of our salvation.”[55]  Benedict certainly believes that the liturgy, through its celebration of the Eucharist, is a sacrifice that makes present Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.[56]  He says:

“The Eucharist is far more than a meal; it has cost a death to provide it, and the majesty of death is present in it.  Whenever we hold it we should be filled with reverence in the face of the mystery, with awe in the face of the mysterious death that becomes a present reality in our midst.”[57]

However, since the liturgy includes all the elements of the Paschal mystery, Benedict also leaves room for a celebration of the Resurrection.  Continuing from the last passage, he says, “Certainly the overcoming of his death in the Resurrection is present at the same time, and we can therefore celebrate his death as the feast of life, as the transformation of the world.”[58]  In fact, elsewhere, he refers to the essence of the liturgy as “the Feast of the Resurrection, Mysterium Paschae.”[59]  So, whereas, many Protestants would disagree with Pope Benedict’s particular view of the liturgy as sacrifice, there is still much to be gleaned from the overall motif of the liturgy as Paschal mystery.


The Rev’d Dr. Timothy R. Brophy is the Senior Pastor/Vicar at Church of the Good Shepherd. He is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and holds a Ph.D. from George Mason University. Pastor Tim also holds a Master’s degree from the Rawlins Divinity School at Liberty University and has taken additional courses at the Anglican School of Ministry as well as Gordon-Conwell & Reformed Theological Seminaries. He has spiritual gifts of pastoring and teaching, and is committed to the authority of Scripture and its applicability to everyday life. Tim has been married to Michele for nearly 25 years and has been blessed with six children: Timmy, Emily, James, John, Peter, and Chloe! Pastor Tim is also a professor at Liberty University, teaching courses in environmental biology. When he’s not teaching or pastoring, Tim enjoys hanging out with Michele & the kids: skateboarding & rolling on the floor with the boys, shopping and going on dates with the girls, watching movies, and looking for salamanders in the woods!


[1] Thomas P. Rausch, introduction to Theological Highlights of Vatican II, by Joseph Ratzinger (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1966), 1.

[2] Aidan Kavanagh, “Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium),” in Contemporary Catholic Theology: A Reader, ed. Michael A. Hayes and Liam Gearon (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1999), 445.

[3] Rausch, 3-5.

[4] Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 57.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Basil Meeking, “Celebrating the Liturgy with Pope Benedict XVI,”  Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 11 (2008): 129.

[7] Vittorio Messori, preface to Benedict XVI’s Reform: The Liturgy between Innovation and Reform, by Nicola Bux (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 9.

[8] Pope Benedict XVI, Motu proprio Summorum Pontificum (July 7, 2007), Article 1. 20070707_summorum-pontificum_en.html (accessed June 30, 2014).

[9] Alcuin Reid, ed., Looking Again at the Question of the Liturgy With Cardinal Ratzinger (South Bend: IN, St. Augustine’s Press, 2004), 151, 153.

[10] Roland Millare. “The Sacred is Still Beautiful: The Liturgical and Theological Aesthetics of Pope Benedict XVI.”  Logos 16 (Winter 2013): 102-105.

[11] Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church: With Modifications from the Editio Typica (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 1124.

[12] Thomas G. Dalzell.  “Eucharist, Communion, and Orthopraxis in the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger.”  Irish Theological Quarterly 78 (2013): 104.

[13] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 40.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 51.

[16] Louis R. Tarsitano, An Outline of an Anglican Life: Lessons in the Faith and Practice of the Anglican Church, 3rd ed. (Houston: Classical Anglican Press, 1994), 70.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshipping Community (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 62.

[19] Ibid., 63.

[20] Pope Benedict XVI, Summorum Pontificum, Article 1.

[21] J. D. Crichton, “A Theology of Worship,” in The Study of Liturgy, Revised ed., ed. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold SJ, and Paul Bradshaw (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 5-6.

[22] Pope Benedict XVI, Summorum Pontificum, Article 1.

[23] Tarsitano, 70.

[24] Aidan Nichols, The Thought of Pope Benedict XVI: An Introduction to the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger, 2nd ed.  (London: Burns & Oates, 2007), 148.

[25] Joseph Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 17.

[26] Ibid., 16.

[27] Ibid., 28-30.

[28] Nichols, 151.

[29] Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, 30.

[30] Millare, 106.

[31] Joseph Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1966), 31.

[32] Mariusz Biliniewicz, The Liturgical Vision of Pope Benedict XVI: A Theological Inquiry (Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2013), 291.

[33] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, preface to The Organic Development of the Liturgy, by Alcuin Reid (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004), 13.

[34] Nicola Bux, Benedict XVI’s Reform: The Liturgy Between Innovation and Tradition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 50.

[35] Biliniewicz, 21.

[36] Bux, 35.

[37] Reid, Looking Again, 30.

[38] Biliniewicz, 21.

[39] Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger in Communio: Volume 1 – The Unity of the Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eeerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 34.

[40] Catholic Church, Catechism, 314-315, 1110-1112.

[41] Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (December 4, 1963), no. 7. (accessed June 30, 2014).

[42] Biliniewicz, 13.

[43] Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, 44-45.

[44] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 15-17.

[45] Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, 78-79.

[46] Ibid., 6.

[47] Ibid., 79.

[48] Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, 124.

[49] Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 8.

[50] Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers and Teachers from Saint Leo the Great to Peter Lombard (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 28.

[51] Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 123-124.

[52] Ibid., 136-137.

[53] Biliniewicz, 46.

[54] Catholic Church, Catechism, 301.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, 65; Meeking, 142.

[57] Joseph Ratzinger, God is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 45.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, 65.

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