Pope Benedict XVI: Preacher of the Holy Mysteries

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Benedict XVI Vespers.jpg

The Book I've Been Waiting For

Heartfelt thanks to Sandro Magister and to translator Matthew Sherry for this brilliant presentation of Homilies. The Liturgical Year Narrated by Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.

The book, to be presented in Rome this evening by Camilli Cardinal Ruini and Italian Minister of Culture Sandro Bondi, assembles the Holy Father''s preaching at Masses and Vespers, over the course of the year. Magister calls it "required reading for understanding this pontificate."

The Holy Father as Preacher

His liturgical preaching is one of the high points of Benedict XVI's pontificate. It's also the least examined and familiar. There's been news and noise over his lecture in Regensburg, his book about Jesus, his encyclical on hope, but much less, extremely little, about the preaching that he addresses to the faithful at the Masses that he celebrates in public.

Liturgical Preaching in the Patristic Tradition

And yet, without the homilies, the magisterium of this pope theologian would be incomprehensible. Just as without these, it would be impossible to understand a St. Leo the Great, the first pontiff whose liturgical preaching has been preserved to our day, a St. Ambrose, a St. Augustine, all of those great pastors and theologians, pillars of the Church, whom Joseph Ratzinger has as instructors.

More than anything else, the homilies are the most genuine thing that issues from the mind of Pope Benedict. He writes them almost start to finish by himself, and sometimes improvises them. But above all, he stamps upon them the unmistakable character that distinguishes his homilies from any other part of his magisterium: the fact that they are part of liturgical action, and are even a liturgy unto themselves.

Liturgist of Jesus Christ for the Nations

Benedict XVI said it clearly in the homily that he delivered on June 29, 2008, on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul: his vocation is to "to serve as liturgist of Jesus Christ for the nations." The striking expression is from Paul, in chapter 15 of the Letter to the Romans. And the pope has made it his own. He has identified his mission as successor of the Apostles precisely in being the celebrant of a "cosmic liturgy." Because "when the world in all its parts has become a liturgy of God, when, in its reality, it has become adoration, then it will have reached its goal and will be safe and sound."

The Mass and the Church

It is a dizzying vision. But Pope Ratzinger has this unshakable certainty: when he celebrates the Mass, he knows that the entire action of God is contained in it, woven together with the ultimate destiny of man and of the world. For him, the Mass is not a mere rite officiated by the Church. It is the Church itself, with the triune God dwelling within it. It is the image and reality of the entirety of the Christian adventure. The educated pagans of the early centuries were not mistaken when they identified Christianity by describing its act of worship. Because this was also the faith of those first believers. "Sine dominico non possumus," without the Sunday Eucharist we cannot live, the martyrs of Abitina replied to Emperor Diocletian when he banned them from celebrating it. And they sacrificed their lives for this. Benedict XVI recalled this episode in the homily of the first Mass he celebrated outside of Rome as pope, in Bari on May 29, 2005.

Church Time

In that same homily, the pope described Sunday as a "weekly Easter." And with this, he identified it as the axis of Christian time. Easter, or the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is an action that took place once in time, accomplished once and for all, but it is also an act carried out "forever," as the Letter to the Hebrews highlights well. And this contemporaneousness is realized in the liturgical action, where "the historical Passover of Jesus enters into our present, and from there its goal is to touch and embrace the lives of those who celebrate it, and, therefore, all historical reality." As cardinal, in the book "The Spirit of the Liturgy," Ratzinger wrote evocative pages about "Church time," a form of time in which "past, present, and future penetrate one another and touch eternity."

Verbum Caro Factum Est

Sunday sets the rhythm of Church time. It is "the first day of the week" (Matthew 28:1), and therefore the first of the seven days of creation. But it is also the eighth day, the new time that began with the resurrection of Jesus. For Christians, therefore, Ratzinger says, Sunday is "the true measure of time, the unit of measurement of their lives," because at every Sunday Mass the new creation breaks forth. Each time, the Word of God becomes flesh there. This is demonstrated by the paintings in so many churches of the Middle Ages and Renaissance: on the one side the angel of the Annunciation, on the other the Virgin Mary, and at the center the altar upon which, at every Mass, "Verbum caro factum est" through the working of the Holy Spirit. But the structure of the Mass also demonstrates this in a striking way, as Pope Benedict recalled in a commentary on the supper of the risen Jesus with the disciples in Emmaus, at the Angelus on Sunday, April 6, 2008. In the first part of the Mass, there is the listening to the Holy Scriptures, and in the second there are "the Eucharistic liturgy and communion with Christ present in the Sacrament of his Body and his Blood." The two tables, of the Word and of the Bread, are inseparably connected.

The Homily as Bridge

The homily is the bridge between the two. The model is Jesus in the synagogue of Capernaum, in Chapter 4 of the Gospel of Luke. When he rolled up the scroll of the Scriptures, "the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them: 'Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing'." In his homilies, Pope Benedict does the same thing. He comments on the Scriptures, and says that "today" they have been fulfilled in the liturgical act that is being celebrated. With the repercussions that follow from this for the lives of all, because - as he has written - "the celebration is not only a ritual, it is not only a liturgical game, but is intended to be 'logiké latreia', a transformation of my existence in the direction of the Logos, an interior contemporaneousness between me and Christ."

Preaching from the Liturgy

The Scriptures illustrated by Benedict XVI in each of his homilies are naturally those of the Mass of the day, to which they impart a distinctive character. And this brings up another great expression of Church time, which is the cycle of the liturgical year. On top of the basic rhythm, the weekly rhythm marked by Sunday, a second rhythm has been added since the early Christian centuries, an annual cycle centered upon Easter and with Christmas and Pentecost as two other centers of gravity. This second rhythm highlights the Christian mystery in its distinct aspects and moments, along the entire span of sacred history. It begins with the weeks of Advent and continues with the season of Christmas and the Epiphany, with the forty days of Lent, with Easter, with the fifty days of the Easter season, with Pentecost. The Sundays outside of these special seasons are those of ordinary time, "per annum." And there are feasts like the Ascension, Holy Trinity, Corpus Domini, Saints Peter and Paul, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption.

But the liturgical year is much more then the serial narration of a single great story and its main characters. Advent, for example, is not only the memory of the anticipation of the Messiah, because He has already come and will come again at the end of time. Lent is indeed preparation for Easter, but it is also preparation for baptism as the source of Christian life for each individual, a sacrament that is administered, by ancient tradition, at the Easter vigil. The human and the divine, time and eternity, Christ and the Church, the experience of all and of each one are surprisingly interwoven at every moment of the liturgical year. This is attested to by a magnificent antiphon for the feast of the Epiphany: "Today the Church is united with her heavenly Spouse, because Christ has washed her sins in the Jordan. The Magi come with gifts to the royal wedding, and the banqueters rejoice in the water changed into wine." The Magi, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the wedding in Cana, everything becomes an "epiphany," a manifestation, of the nuptial union between God and man, of which the Church is the sign and the Eucharist the sacrament.

* * *
Pope Benedict's Liturgical Year

This book contains the first collection of a cycle of homilies by Benedict XVI. They are from the liturgical year that began on the first Sunday of Advent in 2007, or rather with Vespers for the vigil of that Sunday. This first homily, and the one from the following December 31, were delivered by the pope during Vespers, before the Magnificat. All of the others were delivered at Mass, after the Gospel. Most of them took place at St. Peter's, in the basilica or in the square; one of them was in the Sistine Chapel; one at St. John Lateran; one at St. Paul's Outside the Walls; four in other churches in Rome; one at Castel Gandolfo; one in Albano; and the others in other cities that the pope was visiting: New York, Genoa, Brindisi, Sydney, Cagliari, Paris.

On two occasions, Benedict XVI, in addition to celebrating the Mass, administered baptism to children and adults. Once he conferred confirmation on young people. Once he ordained priests. Another time he consecrated the oils for the administration of the sacraments. Another time he imposed the pallium on new metropolitan archbishops. Another time, he consecrated a new parish church, and on another, the new altar for a cathedral. In all these cases, the pope dedicated part of the homily to illustrating these actions.

Moreover, three times the Mass was preceded or followed by a procession: on Ash Wednesday, on Palm Sunday, and on Corpus Domini. On Holy Thursday evening, the pope washed the feet of twelve people. At the Easter vigil, he presided over the liturgy of light, with the lighting of the Paschal candle and the singing of the Exultet.

On June 29, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, he was joined at the Mass - but without consecrating or receiving communion - by ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, who also participated in the homily, speaking immediately before the pope.

In any case, Benedict XVI has always based his homilies on the passages of sacred Scripture read at the Mass of the day, or at vespers. The reader will find these passages reproduced at the end of each homily: an indispensable supplement for situating it in its liturgical context. These passages almost always coincide with the readings of the Roman missal proclaimed on the same day in almost all the Catholic churches of the world. After the homilies for Vespers at the beginning of Advent and on December 31, the reader will also find the texts of the Magnificat and the Te Deum.

When they are read one after another, the homilies of Benedict XVI trace out the arc of the liturgical year, and therefore the Christian mystery, with exemplary clarity. This outline has blank spots in places, because there are some Sundays and feast days that the pope does not celebrate in public. But he himself demonstrates that he wants to fill in these blank spaces with messages addressed to the faithful and to the world every Sunday at midday before the prayer of the Angelus, or, during the Easter season, the Regina Caeli.

These messages are often mini homilies. In them, Benedict XVI, comments on the readings for the Mass of the day. They are unmistakably his own work, true jewels of short form preaching. The reader will find some of them in the appendix to the book. And with these, he will enrich his vision of that masterpiece that is the liturgical year, narrated by Pope Benedict.

The book, on sale as of November 6:

Benedetto XVI, "Omelie. L'anno liturgico narrato da Joseph Ratzinger, papa", a cura di Sandro Magister, Libri Scheiwiller, Milano, 2008, pp. 280, euro 15,00.

On the evening of November 5, in Rome, in the Sala del Cenacolo at the Palazzo Valdina, the book was presented to the public by Cardinal Camillo Ruini and by the Italian minister of culture, Sandro Bondi.

That same day, "L'Osservatore Romano" published both the preface by Sandro Magister, the same one presented above, and the presentation by Cardinal Ruini.

On November 2, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the pontifical council of culture, published an extensive review of the book in the Sunday supplement of "Il Sole 24 Ore," the most widely circulated economic and financial newspaper in Italy and Europe.



Do you know if the book has yet been translated into English?

Hello Father and thank you for this commentary.
I am somewhat confused about the book. Is this Volume I of the Pope's collected works, which is his collected writings on Liturgy. Only in German at the moment with an Italian transl. to follow. Surely Magister's book is not the same thing. Anyway Chiesa has Eng. Transl. of the Pope's own Preface to VOl I of Pope Benedict's collected works and also a rundown of what all the other volumes will respectively contain.

Is your copy of Magister's book in English?
Hope you can clarify this matter because if it's possible to buy the Magister book it will fill a gap whilst we're waiting for an English Translation of Benedict's Collected worksApparently it was the Holy Father's own choice to have his writings on the Liturgy publsihed first and Chiesa does have an English translation of his Preface to this first volume..

In Christo pro Papa

Ma chère J, No, this is not Volume I of the Collected Works. This is a collection of homilies, most of which can be found in English on the Holy See website. It will be very useful nonetheless to have all of them at hand in one volume. The book is in Italian.

Mon cher pere Marc,

Thank your for the clarification. Have found and printed off the two homilies you mention in this post, and treated the English translation of the Holy Father's Preface to Vol I as today's Lectio. 'The Spirit of the Liturgy' spends the day on my desk so that it is ready to hand.

In Christo pro Papa


Do you have that URL to hand?

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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