Rorate Caeli

Spaemann: "The Greatest Liturgical Problem is the Direction of Celebration of the Mass."

Robert Spaemann: “The biggest problem is the direction of the altar”

A native of Berlin and professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Munich, Robert Spaemann is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. A specialist in the thought of Fénelon and author of a well-known critique of political utopia, as well as numerous moral works (including Happiness and Benevolence, PUF, 1997), he is a great friend of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He received recent attention on account of some very critical comments on Amoris Laetitia. We are taking advantage of the holidays to present you with the reflections on the liturgy which he gave to Fr. Claude Barthe for the work Reconstruire la liturgie, published by Éditions Francois-Xavier de Guibert in 1997, that is, 10 years before the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum. Here, he explores the direction of the celebration, a question which has recently been the subject of a strong and clear intervention on the part of Cardinal Sarah, who was appointed Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship by Pope Francis, and to which we will return in subsequent letters.


Fr. Claude Barthe – You have often echoed the profound dissatisfaction of Catholics who are unhappy with the new forms of worship. You have contributed to a certain number of them rediscovering the traditional liturgical practice in Germany today.

Robert Spaemann – I have noticed that many of those who are unhappy with the situation which they encounter in their parishes experience mixed feelings when given the option of assisting at the traditional Mass. Among them, two categories can be identified: those who assist at this Mass for the first time in their lives, and those who knew it in their childhood. The former have to come back several times in order to get used to the traditional Mass, because at first it seems really strange to them, for instance on account of the Latin, or the canon recited in a low voice, but on persevering, they find they can no longer do without it. Personally, I had the following experience: at first, the new Mass did not particularly shock me; but as the years went on I grew more and more displeased with it. While with the traditional Mass it’s exactly the opposite. But what I find even more striking are the reactions of the older people, who have a sort of nostalgia towards the old Mass. When these people enter a church where the old Mass is being celebrated, they react in two ways. Some are spellbound and weep with joy; while others are very ill at ease and say: “No! This is no longer possible, you can’t do this”. […] Their reaction is to tell themselves: “How is it that these people continue to celebrate the traditional Mass, while we have had to pay such a price? It’s all been for nothing, we could just as well have continued doing as they do.” And they don’t want to accept that. As they have paid this price, they want things to change for everyone.

That said, it must be conceded that in itself, the traditional Mass does not have a definitive form. It is permissible to desire certain changes, for instance, the possibility of occasionally receiving Holy Communion under both Species in the course of one’s life. I find this corresponds with what Our Lord wanted.

What would you suggest as a starting point for modifying the liturgical experience of ordinary parishioners?

I believe that the biggest problem is the celebration versus populum. The Mass facing the people profoundly changes how we live the ceremony. We know, notably through the writings of Msgr. Klaus Gamber, that this form of celebration never existed as such in the Church (1). In ancient times, it had an entirely different significance. With the priest facing the people today, we get the impression that he says the prayers in order to make us pray, but it doesn’t seem that he is praying himself. I’m not saying that he doesn’t pray, and indeed some priests manage to celebrate Mass versus populum while visibly praying. John-Paul II comes to mind: one never got the impression that he was addressing the people during Mass. But it’s very difficult to achieve.

I once assisted at a Corpus Christi procession in the diocese of Feldkirch in Austria, presided over by the bishop, who is a member of Opus Dei. At the station altars, the bishop turned his back on the monstrance while reciting the prayers (2). I said to myself that if a child saw that, he could no longer believe that the Lord is present in the Sacred Host, because the little one knows very well that when you are talking to someone, you don’t turn your back on him. Things like that are very important. There is no point in the child studying his catechism if what he learns is contradicted before his eyes.
So I believe that the first thing to do is to turn the altar around. It seems to me that this is more important than the return to Latin. Personally I have many reasons for valuing Latin, but it is not the most fundamental question. For my part, I would prefer a traditional Mass in German to the new Mass said in Latin.

You said at the beginning that the Tridentine liturgy does not in itself have a definitive form. It could have and can still change.

The changes must be so gradual and so imperceptible that a person nearing the end of his life would have the impression that he is still using the same rite as that of his childhood, even if this rite has in fact changed. I don’t know if you are familiar with the letter in which Cardinal Newman recounts his first trip to Italy. He had entered the cathedral of Milan and had been struck by the number of ceremonies which were taking place simultaneously: a small procession to one side, Masses being said at the side altars, canons reciting the Divine office in the choir. One got the impression that everyone was attending to his own business, but ultimately it was all part of the same thing. Newman was awestruck by this kind of plurality, because the Protestant influence in England was so strong that everyone had to do the same thing at the same time.

Catholic freedom! You are therefore in favour of different methods of participation?

I actually believe in the importance of there being different ways of participating in the Mass. And first of all, it seems to me a scandal that all of the faithful always receive communion at every Mass, because it is impossible to assume that each person can consider himself to be always in the state of grace—having the right dispositions to communicate. When the topic of Protestants practising intercommunion with us is discussed, no one ever speaks about them going to confession. Of course a person can remain in the state of grace throughout his entire life, but it cannot be assumed. Yet this is never discussed. One should be able to assist at Mass without receiving Communion. For this reason, it seems to me personally that persons who consider themselves always disposed to receive Holy Communion should occasionally refrain from receiving, for instance once a month, in order to make this abstention possible for others. And if someone said to me: “I absolutely have to receive Holy Communion”, I would tell them: “Receive It on Mondays.” Those who really need to receive Holy Communion often, assist at Mass during the week. If they don’t go to Mass throughout the week, they cannot say that they absolutely need Communion.

It must be possible to participate to a greater or lesser extent in the Mass. So near the door you have the publican’s place. And this place should be respected, without the person occupying it being obliged to speak or even to listen to what is being said into the microphone. I knew a young girl, a non-Catholic, who was very attracted by the Church. But when she entered a church and saw the microphones on the altar, she no longer wanted to take the plunge. She said: “If there’s a microphone there, that means it’s not serious, because God doesn’t need a microphone to hear me.” It is very important to know that in a church it is God we address.

Yes, there is a lack of freedom in the current liturgy and this, in fact, is one of the characteristics of today’s Church.

(1) Gamber Klaus, Tournés vers le Seigneur! Éditions Sainte-Madeleine, 1993. Msgr Gamber and Joseph Ratzinger were professors at the University of Regensburg at the time of the liturgical reform, a very bad experience for both of them.
(2) In the traditional rite, the celebrant does not even turn his back to the monstrance for the “salutations” to the people (Dominus Vobiscum, etc.), but stands to one side.

[Source: Paix Liturgique. / Translation by Maria McDermott]
[Image Source: Dominican Mass on the first day of the Ars Celebrandi conference, August 4, 2016, in Lichen, Poland]