The True Beauty of Liturgy

It was expected that Pope Benedict XVI would be a pope of liturgical reform, and he has not disappointed. Catholic conservatives eagerly awaited these reforms, anticipating a return to the “glory days” of pre-Vatican II Catholicism. At the same time, some progressive-leaning Catholics saw liturgical reform as a distraction from the many social and cultural problems the Church faces today.  But the message that the Holy Father continues to promote is that his pontificate is not about isolating anyone or returning to the past. It has nothing to do with politics, about “taking the Mass back to the Latin of the more rigid and remote Tridentine tradition,” as Tim Padgett wrote in Time, and has everything to do with the truth of worship and the human person.

The Third Edition of the Roman Missal, set to be implemented November 27, will seek to renew the meaning of the liturgy and to remind the Church of who she is and what her role will be in the third millennium.

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Throughout scripture, a change of name signified a new identity. A significant role or responsibility was being assigned. Abram became Abraham when the Lord promised to make him the “father of a host of nations.” After contending with a divine being, Jacob was given the new name Israel. And, of course, Jesus designated Simon as Cephas (Peter) upon their first encounter, later entrusting him with the keys to the kingdom of heaven. In each instance, a subtle change of just one word signifies a deeper change in identity, while also calling for a change of heart.

How fitting that, 2,000 years later, the successor of that very same Peter seeks to transform in a similar way the manner in which the Roman Catholic Church worships.

With seemingly small changes in diction, Benedict reminds the Church not only of its role in the modern world but also of the role liturgy plays in the Church’s own ministerial outreach.


Many critics of the new missal claim it imprudent of the Holy Father to focus time and energy on something as menial as a few word changes. As Padgett wrote, “It’s sad when Rome’s cassocked scholars subordinate their intellectual gifts to church expediency.” But what Benedict attempts to underscore with the new missal — and, in a larger sense, with his entire pontificate — is that the Church cannot step into the world as missionary until it understands its essence as being the presence of Christ in the world, and understands liturgy as the foundation of its identity and its first and most potent source of Christ.

According to Benedict’s Light of the World, the Eucharist is “the most intimate heart of the Church…. It is not just another social ritual where people meet in an amicable way; rather, it is the expression of being in the center of the Church.” And if the Eucharist truly is the heart of the Church and its “entire expression of being,” then this means that the source of life for the Church is none other than Christ Himself. No missionary apostolate can be undertaken unless the Church recognizes this and roots itself in the Eucharist.

If the liturgy is “the place where the Church is actually experienced most of all,” then the emphasis the Holy Father places on it is both prudent and necessary, since it is meant to be not only the inspiration and life source of all missionary activity but also the primary and most pure ministry. If we truly understand lex orandi, lex credendi, then lex vivendi must follow. The way we worship should reflect what we believe about the human person and his creator. Liturgy, then, invites us into an intimate moment with He who gave us everything, and consequently sends us forth to carry Him into the world as His disciples.

That is why Benedict’s reforms of the Roman Catholic liturgy could have an impact that reaches far beyond the Catholic Church. The Church is described in Light of the World as “giving expression to God’s message, which raises man to his highest dignity, goodness, and beauty.” This is and always has been the mission of the Church — to transform and to elevate man by creating a culture that fosters human flourishing. With his attention to liturgy, Benedict reminds us of the truth of our existence: that we are pilgrims on this earth, and we were created to live for more than the temporal.

The true beauty of liturgy is that it raises our eyes and our hearts toward Heaven, reminding us of the eschaton, the day when we pass from the temporal into the eternal. The Church exists to transform the world, to prepare it for the coming of Christ’s kingdom. Because liturgy is the primary place where this transformation occurs, Benedict is right to put it at the top of his agenda. If what we pray is what we believe, then the way we pray will determine the way we will live.


  • Tony Oleck

    Tony Oleck is a Roman Catholic seminarian for the Congregation of Holy Cross. He studies history at the University of Notre Dame and is currently working as a summer intern for the Acton Institute.

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