A multifaceted affirmation of Joseph Ratzinger’s theology of liturgy

In The Dynamics of Liturgy, Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, who studied under Ratzinger, brings his own experience as a theologian and as a missionary to his insightful interpretation of the great theologian’s thought and work.

German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is pictured in a 2002 file photo. (CNS photo from Catholic Press Photo)

The relation between ontology and history, writes Joseph Ratzinger, is “the fundamental crisis of our age.”1 It is the pressing question of contemporary theology, a question that Ratzinger repeatedly queries. In dense prose he argues that since creatureliness has its origin in creative freedom, i.e., God, “it includes, therefore, in a positive way, the temporality of being as the mode of its self-fulfillment, history as substantiality, not mere accidentally, but in such a way that time has its unity in the Creator Spiritus and, because it is sequential, is still a continuity of being by way of succession.”2

The human creature has a nature, but it is a nature that he fulfills on his pilgrimage through time. In Jesus Christ, God has time for us, and he draws us into the dynamics of relation: the Church is dynamic and so too is her liturgy. The motivating and driving force of liturgy—the other meaning of dynamics—is the Holy Spirit. Yet, the unchanging ground of liturgy, the Holy Spirit, works within history, continually bringing, as Fr. D. Vincent Twomey puts it, “order out of the chaos.” Liturgy involves fidelity and fecundity. It is with these two senses of ‘dynamics’—the driving force and the pattern of historical growth (the ontological and the historical)—that Twomey sets out his interpretation of Ratzinger’s theology of liturgy.

Twomey studied under Ratzinger in Regensburg in the 1970s, and, like his Doktorvater, is a truth seeker and thereby a bridge builder.3 The Dynamics of Liturgy is not a polemic for or against either the Tridentine Mass or the Novus Ordo. He does not polarize, nor does he remain naively uncritical:

Lest anyone be led astray by nostalgia for the pre-Vatican II liturgy, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger reminded the participants at the Fontgombault Liturgical Conference in July 2001 how much the traditional liturgy before the council was in urgent need of reform. That, to put it mildly, the reform was not exactly what the council had intended is what motivated Ratzinger to devote so much time to promoting what has been called the “reform of the reform”. In the meantime, this so-called Benedictine Reform seems to have lost some of its initial steam. But it is unstoppable, since it is so desperately needed.4

Twomey takes seriously the vital importance of liturgy. The epigraph to the Introduction, a quotation from Ratzinger’s A New Song for the Lord, appropriately sets the stage: “Liturgy involves our understanding of God and the world and our relationship to Christ, the Church, and ourselves. How we attend to liturgy determines the fate of the faith and the Church.”5 Originally essays, each chapter implicitly unpacks one or more element of this opening epigraph, exploring the relation between ritual and God, the world, Christ, the Church, and our own self-understanding.

It is worth noting that while inspired by Ratzinger’s theology, Twomey does not simply repeat or synthesize Ratzinger’s thought. He brings to bear on the matter his own experience as a theologian and as a missionary, a sort of personal, phenomenological, and theological affirmation of Ratzinger’s theology of liturgy.

“Liturgy,” writes Twomey in chapter 1, “is the communal nature of worship: the habitat of the sacraments, the oxygen they need to breathe. Liturgy is something living, a communal expression of our human response to Christ’s offer of grace that we call sacrament.”6 Liturgy is the world of sacrament; therefore, to understand liturgy we must understand sacrament. Liturgy without a sacramental understanding is at best beautiful entertainment and at worst slavish pharisaic extrinsicism. In Ratzinger’s theology, the world of sacrament is intrinsically connected to (1) the inner relation between the Old Testament and the New Testament concerning worship, i.e., typology; (2) the cosmic character of the liturgy; and (3) world religions. Thereby, liturgy has a history, an ontology, and an anthropology.

Inspired by the liturgical movement of the early twentieth century, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council hoped to implement this deep sacramental and liturgical understanding. What then went wrong, asks Twomey, a question that he repeatedly returns to and analyzes from a variety of angles. In the first chapter he answers with one word: creativity. Liturgical creativity overshadowed the awareness of rite as a prescribed liturgical form. According to Ratzinger “liturgy can only be liturgy to the extent that it is beyond the manipulation of those who celebrate it.”7 Liturgy is not made; liturgy is received. At the same time, liturgy is dynamic. It grows out of the experience of the Church as she moves through history, and thus “this Missal can no more be mummified than the Church herself.”8

What then is the Vatican II notion of participatio actuosa? At the deepest level, active participation is an inner process. It is more than mere external action (kneeling, standing, sitting, responding, etc.). It is Marian participation, not modern participation; active reception, not active recreation. Liturgy mediates an encounter with God himself, the mystery of mysteries—God cannot be circumscribed. Liturgical participation should reflect this mystery as should liturgy itself. Liturgy is not the place for banal enlightenment rationalism. Our eyes should be blinded by the smoke of incense, not by the fuzz of felt banners.

The Mass is rooted in creation. Felt banners belittle the cosmic nature of the Mass (chapter 2). God created us for relationship, for love, in which the apex is worship: we are called to be cosmic priests! With a cosmic sense of liturgy, we encounter the “awe-fulness” of worship; we are brought out of ourselves to participate in the rhythm of the cosmos.

Unfortunately, the Novus Ordo, as typically celebrated, does not give due attention to this cosmic element. Twomey gives two examples of this reduction. First, the orientation of the priest in the celebration of the Mass turned from the cosmic to the communal, ad orientum to versus populum (not a prescription of Vatican II). With the priest celebrating ad orientum the whole body of believers is oriented to the rhythm of creation, expectantly looking East together where the Lord will return in glory.

Second, “angels tend to be almost forgotten in the revised liturgy.”9 Not only are angels minimally invoked in the Novus Ordo, but they are also minimally represented by statues or paintings in post-Vatican II churches. Cardinal Schönborn, also a former student of Ratzinger’s, helpfully highlights the cosmic importance of angels:

Communion with the angels in prayer and love maintains our awareness that creation is not restricted to the earth. Without the knowledge our faith gives us of the angels, the invisible dimension of creation is in danger of fading from our minds, and with that will fade the complementarity of heaven and earth, of the spiritual and the bodily, of nature and grace, which embraces the whole scope of creation.10

The middle chapters of The Dynamics of Liturgy bring to the fore the importance of beauty. Twomey calls for an end to what Bishop Barron refers to as “beige Catholicism.” “Beauty and truth,” Twomey articulates, “are intrinsically related; not only can the denial of the one lead to the denial of the other, but the absence of either undermines our very humanity.”11 We need to exorcise the iconoclasm of modernity. Beauty, in all its forms, should be present in our churches and in our Masses. Church architecture should be an image of heaven, evoking wonder. Sacred music should lift our hearts in awe and reverence, but, Ratzinger points out, it “must be humble, for its aim is not applause but ‘edification.’”12 The Church is not a town meeting hall but a sacred place of human-divine encounter.

While the Tridentine Mass may be excessively moralistic and legalistic, similarly individualism, in the guise of creativity, highjacked the reform of the liturgy. According to chapter 5, a proper sense of liturgy requires a proper sense of ritual. Informed by ethnology, Twomey writes, “communal rituals are responses to primordial experiences that touch, not some aspect of our lives, but our basic humanity in its totality. The rituals open us up to what transcends our mundane existence and, in so doing, create a bond among the participants in the rites that makes life worth living at a personal and a communal level.”13 Rituals bring about communal oneness. What the Eucharist does at the level of sacramental mystery—form the body of Christ—is an extension of the natural pattern of human rites. Grace perfects nature!

The concluding chapter is rich and full of wisdom. Near the end, Twomey explicitly engages with Pope Benedict XVI’s Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum, which permitted the general use of the Extraordinary form. This is fitting because, in a way, the entire book reads like a dialogue between Summorum Pontificum and Pope Francis’ Traditionis Custodes, albeit Twomey wrote the book prior to Francis’ Motu Proprio. Twomey highlights that Benedict XVI’s intention was for a mutual enrichment between the two rites, something that would bring about liturgical unity. As two usages of one rite, Benedict XVI stated that “these two expressions of the Church’s lex orandi will in no way lead to a division in the Church’s lex credendi (rule of faith).”14

However, the dialogue between the Novus Ordo and the Extraordinary form, which Twomey admits is a far richer ritual (albeit, with its own inbuilt weaknesses), has led to division not unity. With great acumen he notes, “if the liturgy no longer serves the mission of the Church to gather together all things in Christ (cf. Ephesians 1:10), if it is a source of division, then something serious, indeed, is wrong, and the most perfectly conducted Extraordinary Form cannot compensate for the danger it poses to the Church’s mission.”15

Twomey is hopeful about the future of the liturgy, but the way forward is not entrenchment in an ossified past. Liturgy lives in history and thus dynamism is innate. The Novus Ordo has the potential for genuine rich ritual expression. By celebrating the Mass in accord with Sacrosanctum Concilium and orienting it with the cosmos—ad orientum—the Novus Ordo takes on a liturgical gravitas. I can attest to this; my parish priest abides by the prescriptions of Sacrosanctum Concilium, and he incorporates the cosmic into the Novus Ordo, all of which fosters a solemn and profound liturgy. Yet, Twomey pushes for more. The beauty of the Novus Ordo is inchoate; the depths have not been plumbed; the reform of the reform needs to continue. Perhaps, he insightfully suggests, one organic source of inspiration and guidance toward this end could be the Anglican Ordinariate (another of Benedict XVI’s initiatives).

The Dynamics of Liturgy is an important and insightful book, not just for Ratzinger scholars but for those who care about the mission of the Church to transform the whole world into a liturgy of adoration. It is fitting to conclude with Twomey’s own words, a hope-filled evangelistic call for the dynamics of liturgy:

Ours is a time of opportunity and, as ever, a time of hope. The Divine Liturgy is at the heart of the Church and her mission to save mankind, a mankind that is in the process of forgetting God and, so, descending into chaos and nihilism. The liturgy must be so formed and celebrated to enable contemporary man to experience God in a world that is becoming increasingly secular (and that not only in Europe or America). Since the dynamics of rituals are part of our DNA as human beings, our capacity for ritual is never entirely destroyed. That is a source of genuine hope, both for the Church and for the liturgy, once we face up to the inherent weaknesses of both the Ordinary Form and the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. But improving the rituals of the liturgy will take time and discernment, provided they are allowed to develop organically.16

The Dynamics of Liturgy: Joseph Ratzinger’s Theology of Liturgy: An Interpretation
by D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D.
Ignatius Press, 2022
Paperback, 187 pages


1Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, trans. Mary Frances McCarthy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 160.

2Ratzinger, Principles, 162.

3“What it was like to learn from Joseph Ratzinger in the 1970s” (Jan 3, 2023) by Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, SVD.

4D. Vincent Twomey, The Dynamics of Liturgy: Joseph Ratzinger’s Theology of Liturgy: An Interpretation (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2022), 31.

5Twomey, Dynamics of Liturgy, 15.

6Twomey, Dynamics of Liturgy, 40.

7Twomey, Dynamics of Liturgy, 50.

8Twomey, Dynamics of Liturgy, 50.

9Twomey, Dynamics of Liturgy, 63.

10Christoph Schönborn, Loving the Church: Spiritual Exercises Preached in the Presence of Pope John Paul II, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998), 38.

11Twomey, Dynamics of Liturgy, 65.

12Twomey, Dynamics of Liturgy, 88.

13Twomey, Dynamics of Liturgy, 101.

14Twomey, Dynamics of Liturgy, 149.

15Twomey, Dynamics of Liturgy, 149.

16Twomey, Dynamics of Liturgy, 153.

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About Andrew T.J. Kaethler 1 Article
Andrew T. J. Kaethler is Academic Dean and Assistant Professor of Theology at Catholic Pacific College in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He received his doctorate in systematic theology from the University of St Andrews. He is author of The Eschatological Person: Alexander Schmemann and Joseph Ratzinger in Dialogue (Cascade, 2022). He lives with his wife and six children in Aldergrove, British Columbia.


  1. This book and what it has to say may now be historically moot. One needs to keep up-to-date! Cardinal Roche apparently just claimed that the theology of the Church has now changed! Whereas one may have learned from Professor Ratzinger that a priest acts in ‘persona Christi,’ the current Pontificate’s lackey lays this down:

    “Whereas before the priest represented, at a distance, all the people – they were channeled through this person who alone was celebrating the Mass.” Channeled.

    Now, though, “it is not only the priest who celebrates the liturgy but also those who are baptized with him, and that is an enormous statement to make.”

    (Quotes taken from LifeSite news report.)

  2. Certainly a lot of good food for thought and prayer.When we look to Jesus on our knees with broken humility, we may truly begin to worship.Then either liturgy can infuse the soul in true worship.

  3. 1. I can’t shake the feeling that Pope Benedict’s edict removing all restrictions on priests conducting the traditional Mass, and Pope Benedict’s edict removing the stain of excommunication from the priests and bishops of the SSPX (who only conduct the traditional Mass), have some relationship to Pope Benedict’s sudden and never-really-explained resignation, and his replacement by an ultra-liberal/radical who hates, persecutes, and restricts the traditional Mass and those Catholics who adhere to the traditional Mass and who adhere to the traditional doctrines that the traditional Mass fosters.
    2. I believe it is a documented fact that Pope Benedict’s profound moves in the direction of traditional litury, traditional moral theology, and traditional ecclesiology (doctrine about what the Church is) were seen as a 5-alarm fire emergency and crisis among liberal bishops and cardinals.
    3. They saw Pope Benedict as bringing an end to the perpetual program of reformation (“renewal”) in doctrine and morals put in motion by the Vatican II Council.
    4. They panicked, wonndering how they would ever get homosexual unions and sex endorsed by the Church, with the likes of Pope Benedict in the seat of Peter? How would they ever cause the pre-Vatican II doctrines of the Church to be totally forgotten and/or repudiated in the present-day Church?

  4. We read that: “Ratzinger’s theology (a) […] is intrinsically connected to […] world religions; and, that (b) “the Holy Spirit, works within history, continually bringing […] order out of the chaos’,” but that “[t]he Mass is rooted in creation [!];” and (c) that “…the way forward [liturgically] is not entrenchment in an ossified past.”

    These are three good points, but also invite clarification:

    FIRST, Ratzinger’s overall theology also distinguishes between “faith” in the uniquely incarnate person of Jesus Christ as compared to the “belief” systems of the world’s natural religions;
    SECOND, “creation” ex nihilo (!) is categorically more than, yes, bringing order out of a then-existing [1] “chaos”; and
    THIRD, the role of personal/historical memory as part of the future (!) is not to be dismissed as a backward “entrenchment in an ossified past.” (During a different kind of war in 1940, and as the great theologian Winston Churchill posed to the House of Commons: “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”)

    Does the Liturgy of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church have something to do with what von Balthasar offers about all of the above?:

    “The responses of the Old Testament and a fortiori of Islam (which remains essentially in the enclosure of the religion of Israel) are incapable of giving a satisfactory answer to the question of why [!] Yahweh, why Allah, created [!] a world of which he did not have need in order to be God. Only the fact is affirmed in the two religions, not the why [!]. The Christian response is contained in these two fundamental dogmas: that of the Trinity and that of the Incarnation.”

    What, then, does the liturgical Church of a self-donating God have to say to Nietzsche and his world today—those who would remove the mystery of suffering from the condition of Man (and from the liturgical Mass?)—replacing the Suffering One with the preemptive cosmos of the self-made Superman or with the progressive chaos of amnesiac indifference?

    • I agree. At the ordinariate church I used to attend the alter rail remained because people wanted it. Many people say it leads to false piety. I disagree. And I am pretty sure all the priests at that ordinariate church disagree along with me.

    • Most Catholics don’t comprehend the true nature of the Communion rail. While listening to Fr. Ripperger recently he made the comment that the Communions is really an ALTAR by which the oblation of the high altar is “holocaust-ed” by the faithful. That is, it is our part in the mass to completely consume the remainder of the oblation to prevent it from being put to profane use (don’t get me started on communion in the hand!) I have always wondered why the TLM, which is rooted in the 3 sacrificial acts of Judaism, was replaced by a “mass” structured to appeal to Protestants who, themselves, formed their prayer services out of rebellion and disdain for the Catholic Church. Finally, isn’t it telling that even the Satanists affirm the validity and holiness of the TLM? Evidence for this can be seen by the fact that their “black mass” is a mongrelization of the TLM and not the NO.

  5. Most Catholics don’t comprehend the true nature of the Communion rail. While listening to Fr. Ripperger recently he made the comment that the Communion rail is really an ALTAR by which the oblation of the high altar is “holocaust-ed” by the faithful. That is, it is our part in the mass to completely consume the remainder of the oblation to prevent it from being put to profane use (don’t get me started on communion in the hand!) I have always wondered why the TLM, which is rooted in the 3 sacrificial acts of Judaism, was replaced by a “mass” structured to appeal to Protestants who, themselves, formed their prayer services out of rebellion and disdain for the Catholic Church. Finally, isn’t it telling that even the Satanists affirm the validity and holiness of the TLM? Evidence for this can be seen by the fact that their “black mass” is a mongrelization of the TLM and not the NO.

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