Müller Speaks at CSL Anniversary in Würzburg

On December 4, the 50th Anniversary of the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, we had a great celebration here in Würzburg, hosted by the liturgy chair at the University of Würzburg in cooperation with the Diocese.  One might say it was actually five years in the making. There has been an event each year leading up to the big anniversary this year. Each celebration featured a major speaker, whose task it was to reflect on the reception of the Liturgy Constitution in the life of the Church, and its future prospects. From 2008 to 2012, these speakers were: Godfried Cardinal Danneels, Bishop emeritus Paul-Werner Scheele, Karl Cardinal Lehmann, Friedrich Cardinal Wetter and Archbishop Piero Marini. This year, the speaker was Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Featured Speaker

Archbishop Müller (photo credit: Jessica Krämer)

Why would the perspective of the head of the CDF be sought out for this topic? One does not have to look far for a precedent, here in Germany. On the fortieth anniversary of the Liturgy Constitution, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then prefect of the CDF, gave an address at the Liturgy Institute in Trier that is still remembered, in which he laid out the liturgical ideas he later pursued as pope. It is also true that as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Müller has oversight of the Ecclesia Dei commission. Therefore his comments about the reform and the various reactions to it would be interesting to hear.

Archbishop Müller, as a theologian, is obviously very much influenced by the thought of Pope Benedict, whose collected works he edited and who selected him for his current important position. Yet, although there were respectful references to Benedict’s liturgical thought in his talk yesterday, I felt that Müller took his own line.  His talk was marked by a pastoral and personal tone: he told stories from his childhood, and warmly recommended the domestic church as the foundation of liturgical piety and indeed the love of family as the basis for discovering the transcendence of God. What was most striking, however, is that he evinced a robust confidence in the reforms that issued from Vatican II. Without dismissing the critics of the liturgy, he nevertheless offered an apologia for the “inner coherence” and “outer harmony” of the liturgy which flowed from the Council.

The Reform: A Positive Evaluation

Müller observed that Catholics who “think with the Church” regard the reform as “essentially a success” and welcome the “rich fruits” which are fed by the liturgical piety it embodies. He contrasted this, on the one hand, with those who argue the reform did not go far enough and, on the other, with those who see the liturgical reform as a break from tradition or a deviation from right faith. He said that developments such as having the priest say the prayers of the Mass audibly and in the vernacular were not so much a break as a normalization.

The Archbishop also took issue with those who suggest that the liturgical reform is responsible for the decline in faith and religiosity in formerly Christian countries. Such problems are “post” but not “propter” Vatican II and its liturgical reform, he said. Instead of pinning the blame on Vatican II, he traced the current malaise to broader currents of thought, beginning long before the Council — from late medieval nominalism, through eighteenth century  historicism, all the way up to the contemporary phenomenon of constructivism, in which ideas of truth and morality are viewed as products of social subjectivity that say nothing about reality in itself. In the end, religion becomes nothing more than illustrations of morality, and no longer the means of grace or of the encounter with God.

Müller is obviously well aware of the contested aspects of the reform in the concrete, yet one could see that he is committed to steering a course that remains faithful to the reforms of Vatican II. He recommended countering criticisms of the reform with theological reasoning. As an example, he said that one cannot dismiss those who favor celebration toward the East, and he gave a sympathetic account of it. Yet he concluded by saying that “This is a very insightful idea theologically, but it is not part of the substance of the Eucharistic celebration.” He pointed out that the theological idea of “versus populum” celebration is “the communion of all with Christ” gathered at the altar. Thus the accusation that versus populum celebration makes the altar “a mundane table” without an opening to the transcendence of God, he said, “falls short and misses the objective of the renewed liturgy.”

Martyria, Diakonia, Leitourgia

The Archbishop began his talk with a reference to three basic features of the Church: Martyria, Diakonia, and Leitourgia–witness, service, and worship. At the end of his talk, he returned to this theme,  saying that the consummation of the Church in Martyria and Diakonia finds in the Liturgy its “source and integrating center.” Thus the note on which he ended underlined the pivotal importance of liturgy for the whole Christian project. 


Certain aspects of the talk were unsatisfying. An appeal to the domestic church as a foundation for liturgical participation, for example, although good in its way, leaves untouched the problem that so many households today no longer provide Christian nurture. What avenues of discovery can the Church open up for those who grow up in secular environments–now an urgent problem? Although I found myself agreeing with many of the sensibilities of the Archbishop, I also felt he did not probe very deeply into the theology of the reform in the talk, which was too bad, because he might have had some interesting things to say. Finally, as a gentle, pastoral talk to a friendly audience, it succeeded well; but it lacked a prophetic edge. The people I spoke with here were well-disposed toward Müller to begin with, citing his reputation as a scholar, his well-known and respected works, and the favorable opinion his students have of him. He was not the harsh, “mean guy” that I, as an American observer, was primed to expect. He was simply a rather old-school man of the Church. That’s a good thing, given the balancing act he has to perform in his job. But it doesn’t make for a scintillating speech.

Nevertheless, I felt the speech had a strategic importance that should not be underestimated. It showed, beyond doubt, that the prefect of the CDF fully supports the liturgical reforms that issued forth from the Council. In fact, not only does he support them, he sees and values their integrity as well.

A Glorious Celebration

Now the celebration as a whole, on the other hand, was scintillating. It began with solemn Advent Vespers in the Neumünster, the home of the relics of the martyrs who founded the Church in Würzburg.  We used the new hymnal. The bishop of Würzburg, Dr. Friedhelm Hofmann, preached. drawing on so many hymn texts that his homily was mostly in verse (!). The singing was strong, the ceremonial well-paced and elegant.

Brass players on the grand staircase (photo credit Jessica Krämer)

Afterwards, the crowd walked together to the Archiepiscopal Palace, where the talk was to be held. This is the magnificent eighteenth century Residenz built by Balthazar Neumann for the prince-bishops of Würzburg–an artistic and architectural monument for which the city is justly famous.  (The palace now belongs to the state and can be rented out for formal occasions such as this one.) The grand staircase of the Residenz is adorned with the largest ceiling fresco in the world: a masterwork of the Venetian painter, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. This monumental fresco depicts the continents of America, Asia, Africa, and Europe, each stretching out in all directions, with Apollo and his chariot in the center. The ceiling is the original, not a reconstruction. During the firebombing of Würzburg in World War II which destroyed 90% of the city, this portion of the Residenz survived miraculously unscathed. It remains dazzling. Add to this a five-piece brass ensemble playing fanfares as we mounted the stairs, and you’re talking about something really quite splendid.

The crowd  included students, teachers, clergy, seminarians, and many others, as the lecture was free and open to the public. Professor Martin Stuflesser, who hosted the event, gave the opening remarks and introduced the speaker.  He placed the talk in the context of the university’s sustained attention to studying the reception-process of Vatican II. After Archbishop Müller spoke, the published volume of major presentations from the Societas Liturgica Congress, held this summer in Würzburg, was presented to the Würzburg bishop and the university president. Both had supported the Congress, which gathered about 300 liturgy scholars from around the world. The brass ensemble played in the interstices of the program.

By sandwiching the talk in between the joyful announcement of the 50th anniversary and the presentation of the scholarly work of the ecumenical Congress of liturgists this summer, it became clear that the celebration was truly devoted to the Council at 50, and was not merely a fine welcome for the guest from Rome.

The guest from Rome was impressed, however, and remarked at the dinner afterwards that he had never received such a welcome, in all his travels. It was a remarkable evening for everyone, I think, and this guest from New York found it memorable too! I’m really not much of a fan of church anniversaries, so this is saying something.

What is an anniversary, after all? Does chronological time really matter? Are the true markers not somewhere other than the decades and the half-centuries? I don’t think we really know what an anniversary means until we’ve celebrated it, until we have “made it our own” in some way. As I watched the liturgical procession enter the church for solemn vespers it came home to me. All the people I’ve met since coming here were there–the people from the theology faculty, the student helpers from the Societas Congress this summer, the liturgy graduate students, the seminary rector and vice rector–as well as many whom I did not know. They took the time to come. They all “made” the anniversary and, one hopes, took away from it something to remember. It became a signpost on our common journey forward with Vatican II.


  1. The bishop of Würzburg, Dr. Friedhelm Hofmann, preached. drawing on so many hymn texts that his homily was mostly in verse (!).

    I would have loved that. Any particular lines you remember?

    Oh and also, thank you for this; you write so beautifully.

    1. @Elisabeth Ahn – comment #1:
      Dear Elizabeth,

      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I do not remember any particular lines, more the overall effect. Had I been familiar with the hymn repertoire he was quoting, I’m sure the lines would have “caught” but as a visitor / outsider, the rhythm and cadence and rhyme were all I remember.

      I’ve often wondered what it was like to listen to Ephrem the Syrian, whose sermons were written in verse.

  2. Rita–can you describe the Vespers? I’m interested to know what made them solemn vespers, as appellations denoting degrees in liturgy such as “solemn high Mass,” etc. seem to have been done away with since the revisions in the liturgy. Thanks!

    1. @John Kohanski – comment #2:
      Dear John,

      My friends who are better versed in the varieties permitted for the celebration of the Hours will have to come to my aid here. I believe the difference consists in having a full complement of ministers, a procession, and perhaps the bishop’s blessing at the end? This service was described on the program as Pontifikalvesper. There was the presiding archbishop, the local bishop, and a deacon, as well as acolytes and readers and the schola. The order was as usual, except with the addition of a homily and a Marian antiphon at the end. Incense at the Magnificat. I may have been in error in using the word “solemn” and should have said “pontifical”; I welcome corrections.

  3. I presume what was celebrated was a variation on what the Caeremoniale Episcoporum refers to as “De Vesperis in praecipuis sollemnitatibus celebrandis” – the concluding Marian antiphon would be a local addition. Simpler celebrations (“forma simpliciore”) follows the same rite, but with ritual adapted to local circumstances. The rite seems to admit of / envisage a spectrum of solemnity rather than two distinct forms.
    I suspect that the “pontifical” reference is to what its title would have been in the EF.

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