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Do freedom and spontaneity undermine liturgy?

  • 08 March 2007

When he was Cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI often criticised the contemporary emphasis on spontaneity and on creativity in liturgy. His criticism, however, stands in tension with the qualities that the liturgical texts require of priests and, implicitly, of the congregations they serve.

For Cardinal Ratzinger, spontaneity and creativity undermines the central reality of liturgy. Liturgy is a gift that we receive, and we participate in it by being receptive, not creative. We do not shape the liturgy, but liturgy shapes us. The Cardinal compared the rites of the Church to the Creeds, which may not be altered.

He does not give detailed examples of misplaced creativity. He focuses his criticism on an attitude he believes to be widespread. This approach holds that local congregations and priests can adapt the liturgy, changing texts and modifying ritual in order to speak to their own situations. Inherent in such an attitude is a theology that is essentially not Catholic: it gives priority to the congregation over the Church, and minimises the distinctive status of the priest.

Before the changes to ritual introduced through Vatican II, Cardinal Ratzinger’s blanket opposition to creativity and spontaneity was more easily sustainable than it is today. Then sacramental rites were covered by black letter law that prescribed what should be done under every circumstance. But the new rites after Vatican II, as he has occasionally lamented, both imply and demand a degree of creativity and spontaneity on the part of the celebrant. Correlative to this creativity is the need to consult the community when shaping celebration.

This is evident, for example, in the instructions that introduce the marriage rite. The priest is instructed to go to the door of the church or, if more suitable, to the altar. There he greets the bride and bridegroom in a friendly manner. Where it is desirable that the rite of welcome be omitted, the celebration begins with the Mass. If there is a procession, the ministers go first, and according to local custom, the couple may be escorted by their parents etc. If incense is used, the priest incenses the altar.

These instructions require the celebrant to choose between options. In ordering the alternatives, he needs to show creativity. In greeting the bride and bridegroom, he is given no words, and will need to show spontaneity. Furthermore, in making decisions about which options to follow, wise celebrants will speak with the