Matt Watson

Notes on The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Matt Watson

A while back, I read The Spirit of the Liturgy1 by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who is now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.2 I had read his Jesus of Nazareth series years ago and liked them, so I decided to look up this book and found it as a free PDF checkout on, a website I cannot recommend enough for finding free PDF books.

Part of what prompted me to read The Spirit of the Liturgy was the “liturgy wars” going on in the Catholic Church, with Benedict XVI on one side and Pope Francis on the other. The clearest indication of these wars was Francis’ recent reversal of a law given by Benedict in favor of the pre-1970s traditional Latin Mass. Benedict’s public appearances and Masses also had a more traditional flair generally speaking, although he rarely celebrated in the Extraordinary Form (from what I remember at least). Maybe the traditionalist-versus-modernist war of these two living popes is a friendly one, as depicted in “The Two Popes” on Netflix, or maybe it is not. In any case, I thought it would be interesting to dig deeper into Benedict’s mind on these matters, especially since he straddles both sides of the line in a way, sympathetic to the traditional Latin Mass on the one hand, but also a strong supporter of the post-Vatican II reforms of the Mass on the other.

Another reason I wanted to read this book was that a lot of other ones I have read since becoming Catholic were about doctrine or history. I feel somewhat clueless on liturgy, defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as public worship (CCC 1069-70). There are a number of aspects of the Mass I either forgot or never knew, so I was looking for a refresher course. The Spirit of the Liturgy didn’t end up offering that in any practical sense, but the broad sweeps through the history of the Mass and dense theological explanations were nonetheless interesting.

My no-nonsense takeaways from Ratzinger’s book were:

Below are more extensive notes I took on the book. I’ve recently begun taking more active notes when I read, so I may throw some more notes here on my blog in the future from other books I have been reading. Sorry if this makes my blog disjointed.

I no longer have access to The Spirit of the Liturgy to clarify anything, but I’ve made these notes as clear as I can. Not sure who these will be useful for other than myself, but maybe also for people thinking about reading the book and/or don't have the time.

Table of Contents


In the preface, Ratzinger speaks to the need of the Liturgical Movement, claiming that the liturgy up till the 20th century had been very well guarded and maintained as a real treasure, like a fresco. The only problem was that because of this, it had accrued several layers of whitewash over the centuries, and the point of the liturgical movements, starting around the time of Romano Guardini, was to peel back some of the whitewash to reveal the liturgy in all its splendor. Ratzinger says that the Mass involved mainly the priest, while “as far as the faithful were concerned, it was largely concealed beneath instructions for and forms of private prayer” (8). However, the liturgical reforms also exposed this protected fresco to “climatic” conditions that must be corrected so as not to suffer irreparable loss.

Part One: The Essence of Liturgy

Chapter 1: Liturgy and Life: The Place of the Liturgy in Reality

Ratzinger views the origin of the Old Testament Exodus as first and foremost the need of Moses and his people to go worship God in the wilderness and in the manner God would show them. Worship is for God, not just a community event of sorts. At its highest form, it is not just us grasping at how we might serve the Lord, but rather us waiting on him to reveal to us the manner of worship he desires (13-23).

Chapter 2: Liturgy–Cosmos–History

The nature religions’ focus on the giving-receiving between gods and men is transformed by the Old Testament religion to be a linear goal toward Sabbath, when man rests in God in perfect order, anticipating the ultimate state and end of man in a linear history.

In this chapter, Ratzinger finds a certain logic in nature religions and ancient sacrificial practices that reflects something true about mankind and its relationship to creation. He also briefly touches on the evolutionary theology of Teilhard de Chardin.

A description of what worship and sacrifice is appears in this chapter, showing it’s transformation in God to something more than just destruction.

Chapter 3: From Old Testament to New: The Fundamental Form of the Christian Liturgy–Its Determination by Biblical Faith

Here, Ratzinger sums up the tensions within the religious history of all mankind, but in particular Judaism, as one between sacrifice and word/logos/prayer. During its exile(s), Israel had to come to terms with the impossibility of Temple sacrificial worship, and therefore a concept arises that God desires not the fat of bulls and goats but a contrite heart, a worship done “in spirit and in truth.” Prayer and synagogue (a sort of liturgy of the Word) can now replace Temple worship. This also combined well with Greek philosophy on the Logos. However, it would have perhaps become too disembodied if not for Jesus’ Incarnation:

For its part, the Hellenistic Logos-mysticism, however grand and beautiful, allows the body to fall into insubstantiality. The hope for spiritual ascent and universal reunion conforms to the Gnostic pattern of which we spoke earlier. Something is missing.

The idea of the sacrifice of the Logos becomes a full reality only in the Logos incarnatus, the Word who is made flesh and draws “all flesh” into the glorification of God. When that happens, the Logos is more than just the “Meaning” behind and above things. Now he himself has entered into flesh, has become bodily. He takes up into himself our sufferings and hopes, all the yearning of creation, and bears it to God. (47)

Part Two: Time and Space in the Liturgy

Chapter 1: The Relationship of the Liturgy to Time and Space: Some Preliminary Questions

He basically asks the question: Do we still need to go to church, since Christ was sacrificed “outside the gate” and embraces from the cross all of society, including our bodies, which are said to be temples of the Holy Spirit?

But he answers yes, we still need church, we still need liturgy, because the fullness of Christ’s redemption is only currently mediated through images, or symbols. Shadow, then image, then reality are the steps in salvation history. We are currently living in the “image” step, an in-between space where there is fulfillment in Christ but in the manner of anticipation. Furthermore, the reality of salvation, of Christ’s presence, only cuts across space and time in symbols, mainly the sacraments and the liturgy.

Chapter 2: Sacred Places–The Significance of the Church Building

He speaks here of how Temple worship evolved to synoguogue worship, which evolved into Christian churches and their physical layout.

He mentions that it’s true that the primary purpose of a church building (and this might apply to synagogues too, if I remember correctly) is functional, unlike other religions or Israel’s Temple worship, which focused on a temple exclusive to a few priests, where sacrifices must be made to seal a covenant. The switch to a functional purpose is because Christ himself is the one who offers worship to the Father. But this must not be seen as a “false opposition” or “a break in the inner continuity of mankind’s religious history” (63). As synagogue worship points largely symbolically to the lost Temple worship, so the Christian liturgy points toward worship, toward the covenant.

With synagogue worship, there was not just reading or learning from Scripture, but a kind of liturgy of the Word, since the Temple had been destroyed and words of prayer were now the only true worship that could be given. However, the synagogue retained motifs of Temple worship, such as the scrolls/scripture being in a sort of Holy of Holies and facing toward Jerusalem.

Christians picked this up, where you see in Eastern rites even more motifs (I’m using this word “motif”; Ratzinger doesn’t really use that term) of Holy of Holies in the form of veils at the sanctuary, as well as facing toward the east, which is of cosmic importance. The Temple is no longer the central place of God’s presence, but rather the Son who comes from the Orient. He says he’ll address post-conciliar debates later, but he says it’s good where possible to build churches where the apse faces east. He also explains toward the end of this chapter how all this theology and symbolism affected early church liturgy:

At the end of the Liturgy of the Word, during which the faithful stand around the bishop’s seat, everyone walks together with the bishop to the altar, and now the cry resounds: “Conversi ad Dominum”. Turn toward the Lord! In other words, look toward the east with the bishop, in the sense of the words from the epistle to the Hebrews: “[Look]…to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2). The Liturgy of the Eucharist is celebrated as we look up to Jesus. It is our looking up to Jesus. Thus, in early church buildings, the liturgy has two places. First, the Liturgy of the Word takes place at the center of the building. The faithful are grouped around the bema, the elevated area where the throne of the Gospel, the seat of the bishop, and the lectern are located. The Eucharistic celebration proper takes place in the apse, at the altar, which the faithful “stand around”. Everyone joins with the celebrant in facing east, toward the Lord who is to come. (72)

Chapter 3: The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer

Here Ratzinger addresses the issue of the priest (“presider” as they now say, which Ratzinger seems almost to roll his eyes at) facing the people. He says this is one of the most important modern practices to course correct. The priest and people should face the same direction (preferably east but if not possible, then a crucifix which sort of represents the east) during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. For the Liturgy of the Word, he says this was one of the reforms that made sense, because that liturgy is about “speaking and responding, and so a face-to-face exchange between proclaimer and hearer does make sense” (81). He also says moving the altar closer to the people was in line with some earlier traditions. In general, he stresses the importance of not “rejecting all the reforms of our century wholesale” (81) but says there is in every historical period “a thoroughly living kind of development in which a seed at the origin of something ripens and bears fruit” (82).

He says arguments for ad populum were always dubious, relying on the fact that at St. Peters and other churches at one point in time, the priest had to be positioned almost behind the people due to topological difficulties and the need to face east, but even in that situation, priest and people turned the same direction – east. He discounts other theological arguments that it’s about seeing Christ in your fellow man. He opens the chapter by pointing out the fact that Jews and Muslims take facing east for granted, but that an over-obsession with the truth that God is everywhere has caused Western Christians to ignore this more incarnational and cosmic element of the liturgy.

Toward the end of the chapter he has strong words about ad populum being a type of clericalization that makes everything about the priest and his performance, rather than focusing on the Lord. He says the most absurd modern development has been to set the crucifix over to the side instead of in the center. He says this must be corrected immediately and wouldn’t incur any remodeling cost.

Chapter 4: The Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament

Here Ratzinger defends the practices, which didn’t develop until the Middle Ages, of keeping the Eucharist in a tabernacle and having it displayed for adoration, among other practices underscoring the Real Presence. He says the objectors to this practice claim that in the earlier days of the Church, the Eucharist was a “thing-centered” gift that was meant to transform us into a Christ-like communion. Ratzinger says talk of “thing-centered” is ridiculous, because Christ is a person, not a thing. Nonetheless, he concedes that “something of the eschatological dynamism and corporate character (the sense of ‘we’) of eucharistic faith was lost or at least diminished” (87) during the Middle Ages. However, he says it was not outright denied, and the newly inspired focus on the Real Presence is in continuity with all those theological considerations. It is only through adoration, the Middle Ages liturgical movements discovered, that the soul becomes properly ordered to receive the gift of the Eucharist when eating the bread and the wine.

What happens in the Middle Ages is not a misunderstanding due to losing sight of what is central, but a new dimension of the reality of Christianity opening up through the experience of the saints, supported and illuminated by the reflection of the theologians. At the same time, this new development is in complete continuity with what had always been believed hitherto. (89)

Chapter 5: Sacred Time

In this chapter, Ratzinger spells out the main feasts of the year, centered around Easter and Christmas, highlighting their cosmic significance (i.e. their relation to God’s created order).

Just as on the weekly rhythm, observance switched from the last day of the week to the first day of the week – SUNday – and just as there is the tradition Ratzinger has already established of Christians praying toward the east, that is, toward the rising Sun, so the solar calendar, representing a new beginning, is incorporated into the lunar calendar during the first centuries of the Church, the moon representing the feminine but also transitoriness or death. “Death becomes resurrection and passes into eternal life” (101). Regarding Sunday as the Lord’s day, it is also associated with a so-called eighth day, the day after the last day, that is, a new beginning entering into eternity.

The Magi in the story of the nativity following the star also shows the cosmic significance of the faith, the tending of creation toward God. This narrative of the Magi was important “because it shows the inner connection between the wisdom of the nations and the Word of promise in Scripture; because it shows how the language of the cosmos and the truth-seeking thought of man lead to Christ” (110).

Part Three: Art and Liturgy

Chapter 1: The Question of Images

Here Ratzinger begins by looking at the development of liturgical art in the very beginnings of Church history, which included images such as the flood, the fiery furnace, or Jesus as shepherd (common themes in those times). But he says these were not merely images depicting some events that are now past. They were part of the reality of the Incarnation, God taking up finite matter and life up into His infinite realm, which happened in the sacraments. The sacraments in turn are pulling us in, calling us to look toward the oriens, the east, and be taken beyond ourselves. What is depicted in the image is made present in reality during the course of the liturgy.

The East and West were not very different in regard to images before the thirteenth century. They had developed iconography along the lines of the early Church, but the iconoclasm heresy led to a maturation and renewal of iconography as a spiritual reality. Art was a process that started in prayer and was meant to end in prayer, an internal reality. In the same way that the disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus until their eyes were opened, so the icon is not a portrait of Jesus, but a call to open our eyes to His presence.

Ratzinger then goes into the history of the West’s departure from Eastern iconography, starting with the focus on the Passion as opposed to the Resurrection during the Gothic period, as well as realism and the plastic arts. Nonetheless, these were upheld by a similar theology of art. The real break came with the Renaissance and the so-called emancipated man. He explains:

True, Christian subjects are still being depicted, but such “religious art” is no longer sacred art in the proper sense. It does not enter into the humility of the sacraments and their time-transcending dynamism. (129)

He says the Baroque period in art at its best based itself off the Council of Trent and “led once more to a new kind of seeing that comes from and returns within” (130). However, the Enlightenment, then positivism, then “impressionism and expresionism” (131) has led to another iconoclasm, that of an art void of its object.

He draws five conclusions from all this:

  1. “Iconoclasm is not a Christian option” (132).
  2. “Sacred art finds its subjects in the images of salvation history” (132), from biblical scenes to the saints.
  3. Images point to the sacraments and are contained within them, not merely a depiction of past events.
  4. Similarly, sacred images are not photographs. Their sacredness “comes from an interior vision and thus leads to such an interior vision” (133).
  5. The Church of the West need not disown its path, nor does it need to adopt the strict rules of the Eastern synods, but it needs to receive the lines of theology as given in Nicaea II. Sacred art and religious art are not the same. “Forms of art that deny the logos of things and imprison man within what appears to the senses are incompatible with the Church’s understanding of the image” (134).

He ends with observing:

Art cannot be “produced”, as one contracts out and produces technical equipment. It is always a gift. Inspiration is not something one can choose for oneself. It has to be received, otherwise it is not there. One cannot bring about a renewal of art in faith by money or through commissions. Before all things it requires the gift of a new kind of seeing. And so it would be worth our while to regain a faith that sees. Wherever that exists, art finds its proper expression. (135)

Chapter 2: Music and Liturgy

The first recorded use of song in a liturgical context is the Song of Moses after crossing the Red Sea, and this tradition carries through especially to the psalms of David. “When man comes into contact with God, mere speech is not enough. Areas of his existence are awakened that spontaneously turn into song” (136). St. John’s Apocalypse features the People of God in their final triumph praising with harps and singing the Song of Moses. The Song of Moses is recapitulated in the Cross and Resurrection and baptism as another exodus, an entering into a song that is a new song and that will be finally triumphant, followed no longer by enduring temporary sufferings.

Singing is a “‘pneumatic’ event” (140); it comes from the Holy Spirit, from the love between the Father and the Son and those who are taken up into this trinitarian love wherein a “‘sober inebriation’ of faith takes place–an inebriation surpassing all the possibilities of mere rationality” (140).

He gives an overview of the history of liturgical music that in many ways parallels that of the visual arts. That is, around the time of the Renaissance, liturgical music ceased coming from sober prayer to copying the styles of secular music, or the latest “hits.” In the Baroque period with Mozart, Bach, etc., a return was made to that “sober inebriation” that starts in contemplating the glory of God, but even here “there is already the threat of invasion by the virtuoso mentality, the vanity of technique, which is no longer the servant of the whole but wants to push itself to the fore” (146).

He then gives an overview of the problem of contemporary sacred music considering its secular counterparts. There is the question of how to accommodate various cultures (“inculturation”) but also the “world culture” (147) of music in modern society. He sums the problems up thusly, to quote at length:

On the one hand, there is pop music, which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient sense (populus). It is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. “Rock”, on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit’s sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments. (148)

He offers some general solutions involving ultimately a “renewal from within” (140) that leads away from sterile individualism to the Logos and to song as gift, a gift of the Holy Spirit, the breath, perhaps, of the Holy Spirit.

He relates the current problems of music to other arts, the “dissolution of the subject” and “deconstructionism” which he calls “the anarchistic theory of art” (155).

He concludes by saying there is still hope and that good sacred music is still being produced, although he doesn’t provide any examples.

Part Four: Liturgical Form

Chapter 1: Rite

He gives here an overview of all the various rites, the two largest being the Roman and Byzantium. These had interplay with other smaller rites. Even today, there is the Coptic Rite and various rites in India (St. Thomas Christians). The important thing about a rite is that it not be manufactured or invented of whole cloth, but it rather should have its origins in the apostles and the times and places of scripture through a grassroots tradition.

The more priests and faithful humbly surrender themselves to the descent of God, the more “new” the liturgy will constantly be, and the more true and personal it becomes. Yes, the liturgy becomes personal, true, and new, not through tomfoolery and banal experiments with the words, but through a courageous entry into the great reality that through the rite is always ahead of us and can never quite be overtaken. (169)

Chapter 2: The Body and the Liturgy

He says the practice of the liturgy should avoid entertainment:

Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment. (198)

He says the active participation of the people in the responses at Mass was one of the most important aspects of the post-Vatican II reforms:

This structure of Word and response, which is essential to the liturgy, is modeled on the basic structure of the process of divine revelation, in which Word and response, the speech of God and the receptive hearing of the Bride, the Church, go together. […] One of the important results of the liturgical renewal is the fact that the people really do again respond to the acclamation and do not have to leave it to a representative, the altar server. (208)

But he also says silence must be an integral part of the liturgy, which has been a challenge in recent times.

He also seems to say the silent prayers prayed by the priest during the Mass have been too much reduced through a mentality that views the priest as merely the “presider” of some sort of meeting (212-13).

He says the sign of peace “causes a lot of hustle and bustle” that takes aways from beholding the Lamb of God after consecration (214).

He says that while the old liturgical prayer books had a lot of “kitsch” (214), they constitute still a deep school of prayer formed over generations by the Holy Spirit, and newer prayers have often introduced banality, which could be remedied with reintroducing the unpopular notion of praying the Canon in silence (214-16).

Liturgical vestments are a way of putting on Christ and point to the Resurrection (220).

In regards to matter, it is central to the liturgy in things like candles, but most of all in the seven sacraments. While biblically, fire, air/wind, and water are all symbols of the Holy Spirit, water, used in Baptism, is the most earthly, and in a unique way it comes down from heaven. The other sacramental matters are oil, bread and wine, which were “typical gifts of Mediterranean culture” (223) representing the goodness of creation.

Ratzinger ends the book, rather abruptly it seems, by noting that some think bread, wine and oil should be replaced for more culturally appropriate signs in contemporary society, but he responds:

[I]n the interplay of culture and history, history has priority. God has acted in history and, through history, given the gifts of the earth their significance. The elements become sacraments through connection with the unique history of God in relation to man in Jesus Christ. As we have said before, Incarnation does not mean doing as we please. On the contrary, it binds us to the history of a particular time. Outwardly, that history may seem fortuitous, but it is the form of history willed by God, and for us it is the trustworthy trace he has imprinted on the earth, the guarantee that we are not thinking up things for ourselves but are truly touched by God and come into touch with him. Precisely through what is particular and once-for all, the here and now, we emerge from the “ever and never” vagueness of mythology. It is with this particular face, with this particular human form, that Christ comes to us, and precisely thus does he make us brethren beyond all boundaries. Precisely thus do we recognize him: “It is the Lord” (Jn 21:7). (224)

  1. Ratzinger, Joseph. The Spirit of the Liturgy. Translated by John Saward, Ignatius Press, 2000, Accessed 8 Aug. 2021. ↩︎
  2. I will be using the name Ratzinger when summarizing the book, since it is published under that name. I’m not sure what the proper protocol is for referring to a pope before he was pope. ↩︎