When he was yet Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI delivered four homilies using passages from the book of Genesis as points of departure. These later became a book: “In the Beginning”: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall.
The book gets to the heart of the matter. “In our own lives,” Benedict declares, “each one of us must answer, whether he or she wants to or not, the question about being human.”
Even after God came down from heaven and gave us the answer, we continue in no small number to cast about for an explanation of why we are here. Indeed, the assertions by nihilist historians such as Yuval Noah Harari—that all the meanings we attach to life are delusions—are evidence that the question will never go away.
Whereas the Socratics and the Scholastics would have contemplated the question with quiet serenity, we pursue it with anxiety, created and exacerbated by the ubiquity of screens. In screens so many of us search, and search, and search, without even realizing that it is meaning we’re searching for. How enervating a search, and how hopeless!
Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, knew where to locate our meaning, and he devoted his priesthood to directing and redirecting our focus there. He pointed us to the complementary realities for which man was made, the two experiences necessary for living a full life: divine worship and human friendship. As he insisted in his brilliant Spirit of the Liturgy, we must get the former right to get the latter right: “It is only when man’s relationship with God is right that all of his other relationships—his relationships with his fellow men, his dealings with the rest of creation—can be in good order.”
Where, how, does man put his relationship with God in good order? It is in the same place—the same experience—where he locates his meaning: in the liturgy.
Pope Benedict knew that we, in the post-conciliar age, had lost our sense of this truth. In his 1985 interview with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, Benedict, then Joseph Ratzinger, called our attention to “the post-conciliar [liturgical] pluralism,” noting that it was strange that it had “created uniformity in one respect at least: it will not tolerate a high standard of expression.”
It would be reductionist to understand this observation merely as the future pope seeking to rescue the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass from banal sanctuaries, insipid music, the innovations of narcissistic liturgists, and the extemporizing of bored priests. As his papacy would show, through his profound theological reflections on liturgy—ever rooted in his extraordinary grasp of Scripture, his command of classical languages, and his understanding of the anthropology of ritual sacrifice—and through his restoration and promotion of the traditional Latin Mass—Pope Benedict understood and wanted the faithful to understand that man is most himself participating in the liturgy, because it is in the liturgy that, on this side of the veil, man is most united—heart to heart—with God. So sacred an encounter, by virtue of the gravity and sublimity of its nature, must be elevated in its forms and expressions above all other human activity.
This word, participating, confounds us because we think Christianity is a religion of doing rather than being. What is meant by participation, or even “active participation”—participatio actuosa, as the Second Vatican Council puts it? “Unfortunately, the word,” Cardinal Ratzinger said, “was very quickly misunderstood to mean something external, entailing a need for general activity, as if as many people as possible should be visibly engaged in action.” Visit today a parish where even the most reverent Mass of Paul VI—what Benedict called the Ordinary Form of the Roman rite—is offered, and witness, for example, the collective arm-raising during the prayer “We lift them up the Lord” . . . even if it’s rendered “Habemus ad Dominum.” You will see what is not participation, but, in fact, a distraction from what Cardinal Ratzinger identified as the actio divina.
What should the faithful be doing at Mass, then, if not opening their arms or calling out responses or looking for work in the sanctuary? “The real action in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate,” Benedict wrote, “is the action of God himself.” In the “oratio, the priest speaks with the I of the Lord—‘this is my body,’ ‘this is my blood.’” At this moment, Benedict asks us, “are not God and man completely incommensurable? Can man, the finite and sinful one, cooperate with God, the Infinite and Holy One?” The answer is yes, and it is this cooperation that the Church intends when calling for our participation in the liturgy—not a participation of moving and speaking, but rather the participation that comes from cooperating in mind and spirit with what is happening on the altar. This requires the active engagement not of our arms, but rather, as the rite says, of our hearts. That engagement can be given silently, and no less ardently for the silence. Perhaps it should.
This participation, which becomes a constant living in the presence of God, informs and transforms all our other relationships, all our friendships. The Christian who leads such an integrated life, one that begins with participation in a rightly ordered liturgy, becomes another St. Andrew, bringing his brother to Christ.
In 2007, on the Feast of St. Andrew, Pope Benedict XVI published his second encyclical, Spe Salvi. “In hope we are saved,” it begins, quoting St. Paul to the Romans. This salvation, Benedict continues, citing the patristic studies of Henri de Lubac, “has always been considered a ‘social’ reality.” Real life, the pope declares, can be attained only within the context of “we.” The “individual,” an impossible concept conceived by Enlightenment philosophers, and one that their less imaginative heirs today keep attempting to foist on us, makes no sense to the Christian.
In marriages, in families, in associations and friendships and religious orders, we are not individuals, but a communion of persons. The Trinity—the God in whose image we are made—is a communion of persons. Our road back from the hopelessness of an atomized society of screens to true friendships is true liturgy. Pope Benedict XVI pointed the way—and will continue to.