A New Song for the Lord

(by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger)

A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and the Liturgy Today by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, 1996) 178 pp., $24.95

At first I shied away from a book on liturgy. For me the word has come to mean keeping track of a lot of details--like making sure the lectionary, sacramentary, prayers of the faithful, homily notes, announcements, microphones, chalice, host, wine, water, tabernacle key, etc., etc. are in the right place. I do have a competent sacristan, but if there is a variation, it can lead to a glitch, sometimes an embarrassing one. In addition to the sacristan, the priest must communicate with a small platoon of helpers: lectors, servers, extraordinary Eucharistic ministers, music people, ushers, and so on. My tendency is just to let it happen and hope everything and everyone finds their place. Some gentle correction, plus training of new people usually works out the wrinkles and what was nerve-racking becomes more peaceful even prayerful.

That of course is the point of liturgy: not a great performance, but communicating--and communion--with God. for that reason I tend more toward C.S. Lewis' somewhat grumpy principle: "Just keep it the same." Like him I can pray better when I know what to expect. I therefore try to follow the universal norms (i.e. the rubics printed in red in the sacramentary) and also the particular diocesan ones. Whenever I have the opportunity, I suggest, almost plead, with my brother priests to do the same.

I am convinced that constant change, especially if it comes across as arbitrary, drives people from the Church. Ironically young people are most apt to react negatively. They may not complain, but they will vote with their feet. Let me give an example of arbitrary change. One of our parish churches was built with a Blessed Sacrament Chapel. At that time it was considered the norm for good architecture and worship space. A new pastor arrived last year who preferred the tabernacle in the sanctuary. So he moved it. Some applauded, but others reacted negatively, including a number of priests who said, "He is not following the norms!" My question back was: "Is it not the norm of the U.S. Church that the faithful kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer?" (Answer: "Yes.") "If we don't enforce that norm, how can we complain when a different one is violated?"

The same could be said for "inclusive language." At diocesan Masses I notice a number of folks anticipating a change by substituting "God" or "the" for the dread masculine pronoun. As in: "For the glory of God's name, for our good and the good of all the Church." I assume the guys (and gals) who do this are acting from sincere motives. (In fact I suspect they consider this the only decent thing to do and that those of us who continue to mumble "Him" and "His" are thick-headed, but will soon see the light.) Still, it has the feel of guerrilla warfare. Such warfare is of course romantic and, in certain political situations, justified. However within the Church (a completely voluntary organization) it can only be called self-indulgent.

This is a long introduction to make a simple point: If you are trying to understand liturgy in the Church today, A New Song for the Lord is a great place to start. Not that it is an easy book to read. Cardinal Ratzinger writes as a professional theologian and addresses his remarks to other scholars. Still he is a theologian in contact with the deepest concerns of the ordinary believer. I would contrast him with those described in Flawed Expectations who water down the Church's teaching so much it becomes irrelevant. They are so concerned, for example, to show God at work in nature and other people, that the Mass has value only as an expression of a particular assembled group. (And then they want to do a study on why young people stop coming to Mass!)

To this question, "What is the meaning of the Mass?" Cardinal Ratzinger does not give a quick, pat answer--the kind we have come to expect in our "sound byte" culture. Rather he leads the reader through a series of reflections which at first seem dense, but become increasing more and more illuminating. In the process he makes a number of challenging observations.

As the title suggests he is concerned with music: Why have it at all? What is appropriate? In the face of our mass culture, how do we promote music which reaches people's deepest being? I have to admit that I often ask those questions. Like many priests and almost every choir director, I have cajoled people to sing at Mass. But after thirty years of brow-beating, practically any celebrant can look out and at best see 50% opening their mouths. And they are not young people turned on by our Church music. Cardinal Ratzinger addresses the problem of liturgical music in a radical way, but a way that is realistic and at the same time hopeful.

Another key theme is the meaning of Sunday. He explains the theology of the Lord's Day--and gives a short historical background. He asks: Given our "weekend culture," how do we realize the essential meaning of Sunday? People in our society looks at the weekend as a block of time to get away, to unwind. For them Mass attendance becomes sporadic or lost in the shuffle. Even those who stay at home are influenced by the "weekend" mentality. Ratzinger does more than lament; he offers some challenging observations on how to respond to this new culture.

And what about priestless Sunday services? He argues "the sacrament must take precedence over psychology...the Church over group." (p. 74) Otherwise, he states, the community winds up celebrating itself. "But soon they notice that there is only the entity of their own making--that they no longer receive but merely present themselves." (p. 75) The justification for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest (SCAP) seem strangely anachronistic in a fluid society like ours. One avant-garde parish in Seattle boasts membership from 22 zip codes! It members might be traveling past 4 or 5 churches with Sunday Mass to get to this one. Having arrived, they might discuss with fellow parishioners the coming need for SCAP.

Cardinal Ratzinger does recognize that priestless Sunday service has validity when there is a real emergency. I saw that when I was pastor of a far-flung parish in Peru. It was often the only option people had. But here, unfortunately, it is being used for a far different purpose.

Besides the topics touching Sunday Mass, A New Song addresses the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He not only disputes conventional wisdom; he challenges the common view of the history of the sacrament. It is often stated that we owe the present form of the sacrament to the Irish monks of the early Middle Age. Not so. They received the practice of individual auricular confession from much earlier traditions. While Cardinal Ratzinger again acknowledges emergency situations, this time for general absolution, he argues persuasively for maintaining the individual, personal nature of confession and absolution.

Considering the priest shortage, is individual confession unreasonable? I did a calculation for my parish. About 2,000 people attend our five weekend Masses. Maybe 1500 are eligible for the sacrament. I am the only full time priest, but I do have regular weekend help of a priest who is also willing to hear confessions. If everyone went to confession once a year, that would mean about thirty confessions a week--or 15 confessions for each one of us. Surely not an excessive burden. Of course, some want a bit of spiritual counseling, but most would be more than satisfied with saying their sins, receiving a penance, then absolution. If more devoted souls wanted to confess monthly, even weekly, I would not begrudge them. To be honest most of us priests do not experience turn-away crowds for confession. If more people came, it would not be a burden, but help us see the true meaning of our priesthood.

Because Holy Family is about one half Hispanic, I do have a lot of confessions. I have scheduled three regular times each week. I find it a lot more spiritually renewing than committee meetings. I think most priests would feel the same.

Anyway, do read A New Song for the Lord. It will renew your desire to study solid theology. But much more important, it will help renew your faith in Christ--and his power to act through the Mass and other sacraments.


Footnote: Last month Archbishop Murphy gave a conference for us new pastors. Among many suggestions he talks about the Sunday liturgy. He underscored the three elements which most impact our people: the homily, music and hospitality. He was saying something very similar to Cardinal Ratzinger. That our parishes and our liturgies be truly welcoming so that a stranger or a newcomer can easily fit in. That our efforts at creativity not distract people, but draw them into the mysteries we celebrate.

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