What in the Liturgy Is Going On?

Vatican watchers have noticed that Pope Benedict XVI is wearing fancier vestments than his predecessor. When he came out to bless the crowds after Christmas, he was wearing an ornate cope embroidered with gold and silver thread. On his head was an old-fashioned miter encrusted with gold and jewels. For Christmas vespers, and again on Ash Wednesday, he was arrayed in splendid apparel, with deacons attending in similarly magnificent vestments.
Why is Benedict suddenly wearing such ornate outfits? Is he spending lots of money on them? Is he trying to turn back the clock? Is there simply a flamboyant Baroque Catholic beneath that scholarly German exterior just waiting to burst out?
I think we can lay to one side the charge that the pope is a fop, a dandy, or one of those effete clergymen who collects china teacups and pretty vestments. The aisle of St. Peter’s is not a catwalk, and the pope is not an ecclesiastical supermodel.
Neither has the pope gone on a clerical shopping spree; he is using vestments from the Vatican store rooms. His people are getting out the gear used by earlier popes that was later put into storage when Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II attempted to simplify the trappings of the papacy.
Surely that must mean, then, that the pope is trying to turn back the clock to some golden age before the Second Vatican Council. But Benedict is too wise to attempt such a thing, even if it were possible.
Instead, the pope’s more traditional and splendid vestments have to do with a favorite phrase of his: “the hermeneutic of continuity.” Hermeneutic refers to a perspective, a way of looking at things, a method of interpretation; a “hermeneutic of continuity,” then, means that the past informs the present and guides us into the future. Benedict wishes our understanding of the Catholic faith to be guided by that continuity.
This philosophy is evident not only in Benedict’s vestments, but also in his catechesis. Over the course of his Wednesday public audiences, he began by expounding on the Gospel, and then went through the lives and personalities of the apostles; now he is continuing through the ages to pick out and explicate the teachings of the great saints and doctors of the Church.
By his teaching, the pope is asserting that the faith we have today is the faith we have had through the ages, one that can make no sense unless it’s viewed through the lens of the past. Furthermore, we cannot march into the future unless we are informed and enlightened and inspired by the past. Continuity is therefore a dynamic concept; it is another way to talk about the role of Tradition in the Catholic Church. Tradition is not a dead letter, but a living Word.
This hermeneutic also informs Benedict’s approach to the liturgy. In his seminal work The Spirit of the Liturgy, then-Cardinal Ratzinger argued that the purpose of liturgy is not primarily to develop human relationships, be creative in worship, or promote humanitarian agendas. Rather, the liturgy is the worship of God. The forms and styles are given to us by the Church of the ages; similarly, bishops and clergy are not innovators but stewards of the inheritance they have been given.
This explains Benedict’s ruling last July granting more freedom for the celebration of Mass according to the pre-Vatican II Latin Rite. The move was not an attempt to impose the preconciliar rite on the whole church; rather, new freedoms were given so that the Latin Mass might be celebrated more openly and widely, priests would be trained in its norms, and the Novus Ordo might be informed by the manner in which the old rite was celebrated.
Similar reasoning explains Benedict’s wish for Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony to be used more widely. No one expects that every parish will suddenly switch to Gregorian chant and polyphony, but rather that a wider use of traditional music will influence the positive development of Catholic sacred music.
The reasoning for these developments is one thing, but why have more formal music, a more traditional celebration of the Mass, more elaborate vestments, and a more ornate liturgy to begin with? What’s the point?
Here we’re brought back to a central question that has confused Catholics for 40 years: What is liturgy? The answer is related to the questions, “What is the Church?” and “What are the sacraments?” If the sacraments are mere symbols — things at the service of religious people gathered together to promote good deeds — then the church building, vestments, music, and liturgy should be practical. Thus, utilitarian concerns should reign: the vestments, architecture, and furniture should be bare, useful, and inexpensive. The liturgy should be folksy, down to earth, and plain.
If, however, the Church is the mystical Body of Christ, while the sacraments are the supernatural presence of His saving grace in our midst, and the liturgy points to the marriage feast of the Lamb, then when we attend Mass we are entering the very throne room of the King. Like Jacob when he dreamed of the ladder into heaven, we are at the doorstep of glory itself.
If this is so, then the whole perspective shifts; we must bring the finest gifts to the King of kings. The liturgy, as befitting a throne room, must be ceremonial, splendid, and regal. The music must be fit for the King; the vestments, too, must reflect the glory of the One we worship.
On my blog, a reader once commented that he didn’t think the humble fisherman Peter would be comfortable wearing a two-foot-high, jewel-encrusted miter with an ornate gold-and-silver embroidered cope. My reply was that the pope is not trying to image Peter as he was on earth, but as he is now in heaven. A humble fisherman he may have been, but I doubt very much that Peter is standing now at the pearly gates wearing a fisherman’s smock and smelling of yesterday’s catch. Rather, he is wearing the white robes of Christ’s righteousness and his own martyrdom. He is wearing robes so splendid that they make the pope’s rich vestments look like beggars’ rags.
This is why Pope Benedict is dressing up. Through fine liturgy, glorious music, and splendid vestments, he wants to remind us of our high and heavenly calling. We are a royal priesthood, adopted children of the King of kings and heirs of His promise. Through his new yet ancient style, Benedict wants to lift our hearts from this drab world of drudgery to the glory of our heavenly home.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker is chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves on the staff of St. Mary’s, Greenville. He is the author of Adventures in Orthodoxy (2002) and Christianity Pure and Simple (2005) from Sophia Institute Press.


  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Fr. Longenecker’s autobiography/conversion story, There and Back Again, is published by Ignatius Press. Follow his popular blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.

    Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

    Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

    Email subscribe inline (#4)

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...