The Red and the Black (and a Brand New Word)! A Short Liturgical Meditation on a Teaching by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Blog12-10In recent years Fr. John Zuhlsdorf has made famous the liturgical instruction, “Say the black; do the red.” In other words, say the prayers as written in black ink (with no embellishments or deletions) and follow the instructions printed in red ink. After too many decades of liturgical errors—even outright disobedience—this is a pithy and memorable way to encourage proper demeanor and invoke the obedience that is due the Sacred Liturgy.

Recently I read an interesting remark from (then) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about the “red and the black” of the Missal. As always, he plumbs the spiritual depths in his commentary; he also introduced me to a word I never knew: nigrics. Pope Emeritus Benedict (then Joseph Ratzinger) wrote the following:

Participation [in the Sacred Liturgy] … is a question of what my professor of liturgics Joseph Pascher expressed in these words: “It is not enough to observe the rubrics—the external ceremonial directions; much more important is the claim of the nigrics—the inner demand made by what is printed in black, that is, by the liturgical text itself, which as such includes interaction in hearing and responding in prayer, acclamation, and song.” [Address on the Fortieth Anniversary of the Constitution on the Liturgy. Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11, pp 585-586]

It was a new word—for me, anyway. Nigrics are the black words in the Missal, as distinct from “rubrics,” which are the red words in the Missal. Sure enough, the Latin word for black is nigra.

But more spiritually, Cardinal Ratzinger was recalling the admonition of his teacher to meditate on and penetrate to the deeper meaning of the text of the Sacred Liturgy. It is the lex orandi (the law of prayer) expressing the lex credendi (the law of belief).

These are precious words, many of them quite ancient and time-tested. They are words that deserve our deepest respect and devotion. They are worthy of pondering in one’s private prayer and of being said with deep and prayerful attentiveness in the liturgical moments.

The Mass is to be prayed, not merely recited or executed. Even simple instructions such as “Let us pray” should incite us to do just that: pray! And the rubric of the collect admonishes just that: “He pauses for a brief time …”

On the table where my current spiritual reading is stacked is a book that has a semi-permanent place: Oremus. Let Us Pray. The Collects of the Roman Missal. It contains them all, in both Latin and English, for study and devotion.

To participate in the liturgy is not just to talk, move about, or sing. It is to plumb its depths through prayer and meditation on the very texts proposed for our worship. The nigrics (the black words) are surely the precious treasure, along with the sacred action of worship that the rubrics seek to preserve from profanation and personal embellishment.

The “inner demand” of the black text is the faith to which we are summoned. As we “say the black” exactly as worded, we must also pray it, plumb its depths, ponder its inner demand, and obey the faith it summons us to act upon. As we “do the red,” we serve the faith announced by the black.

This is a good and salutary remind for clergy and laity alike.

Below is a clip from the movie True Confessions (1981). One of the main characters is played by Robert DeNiro, a method actor. As such, he set about studying the precise details of the life of a priest, including the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. DeNiro says that he studied very carefully the sacred actions and words of the Mass and that very much shows in this clip. If an actor can develop such a devotion to carefully studying the Mass, how much more we who are priests in fact!

13 Replies to “The Red and the Black (and a Brand New Word)! A Short Liturgical Meditation on a Teaching by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger”

  1. Thank you for this guidance Msgr. Lately, I’ve been getting frustrated at the lack of Liturgical reverance in my and other Churches. What is particularly bothering me is the “Orans Position” trend where everyone know mimics the Priest during the Our Father. This is merely an example of the many creative ways that we tweak the Liturgy to suit our own whims. Narcissism and the desire to elevate our own role and importance in the Sacred Mass is at the root of all Liturgical disruptions. We must protect the Sacred Liturgy so that ours and future generations can worship the Holy Father as the Church has always instructed. “Say the Black; Do the Red.”

    1. In some cases it may be narcissism or an inflated sense of self-importance. I think in many cases it’s simple ignorance. I raised my hands at the Our Father for years because everyone else did and no one ever explained to me why I shouldn’t. Be a good example, catechize in good charity when the opportunities come, and pray for our Church.

      1. Anthropocentric is probably the description your looking for, (man centered).
        Please see my comment below which was taken from our Parish bulletin although the same with regards to extended hands and hand holding can be found at ETWN.
        It is a grave abuse for any member of the non-ordained faithful to “quasi-preside” at the Mass while leaving only minimal participation to the priest which is necessary to secure validity. [ICP, Practical Provisions 6 2].”

  2. We have in our Parish a bit of tension between a conservative Pastor and a liberal Vicar.
    Now the Parochial Vicar who has been here for a lot longer period of time and served under a very liberal Pastor who now,thank goodness is gone, surrounds the alter with children holding hands below the alter while he expects the parishioners to assume the orans position which some do and others do not. Worse he has the school teaching all grades levels to do the same during the Our Father. Strangely, a notice came out in the Church bulletin this year in July that addressed this very issue in detail and describing it as a process that started in the 70s in protestant churches and was adopted by the Catholic Charismatic movement. Sadly the notice has been largely ignored and the practice goes on. The notice reads as follows.
    “The process for introducing any new rite or gesture into the liturgy is provided
    for in liturgical law. This process entails a two- thirds majority vote in the bishop`s conference and the go ahead from the Holy See before any change may take effect. Thus, if neither the bishop`s conference nor the Holy See has seen fit to prescribe any posture for the recitation of the Our Father, no lesser authority should assume to impose a novel gesture not required by liturgical law. While there are no directions as to the posture of the faithful, the rubrics direct the priest and any concelebrants to pray the Our Father with hands extended. ”
    “The U.S. Bishops have considered permitting the laity to mimic the gestures of the bishop or the priest, but the Holy See has not approved this, and the 1997 Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests, prohibits the laity from mimicking the gestures appropriate to a priest. Specifically it states: “Neither may the deacons or non-ordained members of the faithful use gestures or actions which are proper to the same priest celebrant. It is a grave abuse for any member of the non-ordained faithful to “quasi-preside” at the Mass while leaving only minimal participation to the priest which is necessary to secure validity. [ICP, Practical Provisions 6 2].”

    1. Well, if the rubrics require the priest and con-celebrant to make gestures and change liturgical positions, obviously this is done so that the laity may see it and relate it to the value and mode of the action. I am amazed at some who complain that the priest is made the center of attention instead of God, in the Novus Ordo, when the rubrics require the priest to do things which the laity must observe and meditate upon. This is part of the chaos of current times.

      As for the liberal vicar and conservative pastor, shame on the bishop for not caring enough to supervise and discipline his priests’ liturgical habits and on the priests for not following proper procedures for gaining authorization for deviations from the rubrics.

      However, this does not mean that the Protestant tradition of bringing children forward, holding hands, and allowing the laity to engage more fully in prayer through bodily gestures is bad. If it is not a narcissistic action or if it is not a disobedient action, but one which is oriented on true worship and on engaging the souls and minds of the Faithful in true worship, and if it is done within the customary form of the Mass (I.e, it does not take away, or redefine, or muddle or replace any of the form or sequence of the Mass) then how can it be bad? It is bad if it unauthorized or disobedient or narcissistic, for sure.

  3. I commented with a bulletin notice that explains the liturgical law pertaining to the orans position by the laity and holding hands. My comment was acceptable for Fr. Z`s blog but mot for this one. Perhaps Msgr Pope is fine with the laity holding hands and mimicking the priest which is a grave abuse as it has never been authorized by either the USCCB or the Vatican.

    1. Then again, maybe not. As a follow up, I emailed a copy of the notice in the bulletin to the Headmaster of the School and he Emailed me back and stated I was correct as was the notice and he will immediately have a meeting with staff to instruct all grades in the proper position for the Our Father during Mass. It is comforting to know that people do still care that the Mass be celebrated according to liturgical law and the norms of the GIRM (General Instructions of the Roman Missal) and the rubrics.

    2. No. Perhaps Msgr Pope, in his great compassion and mercy, refrains from approving comments which are easily misunderstood or which seem to be rash, etc.

  4. Happy to see this: “…After too many decades of liturgical errors—even outright disobedience…”

    People want the EF back because they think the OF is bad. It is not the OF that is bad; it is the human abuses and disobedience and poor, irreverent execution which are the issue.

    If there are liturgical errors now in the form of the Mass, then we would be right in stating that the entire Magisterium with the Pope (and all of the popes who embraced the error) are incompetent….Or is it the one who sees the error in error?

    1. I am simply bringing up logic here, and I apologize if it seems offensive. That stated, it would be quite right for all to be obedient to and compliant with authority, even if they do not listen to counsel, as long as their decisions are not illegal, immoral, counter to the Faith, and do not cause others to do anything illegal or immoral or counter to the Faith. Observed errors in liturgical practice, I suppose, are opportunities for works of mercy. For example, it would be a work of mercy for a person to bring an error to the attention of the one making the error, and if they don’t listen, to the next person in line of authority, and so forth, until action is taken to correct the habit or action is taken to instruct the complainant in order to correct their misunderstanding. But it would be wrong to respond to the complainant with a condemnation if they are acting in good faith.

      1. If the rubrics don’t tell people what to do at a given point in the liturgy, why is anything they are doing at that point other than mimicking the priest, which is forbidden, considered wrong. If you have hands you have to do something with them, after all. I generally put mine in my pocket at this point in the Mass lest someone who knows there is no statement by the Church as to what people are supposed to do with them at that point might think people aren’t supposed to have hands at that point, since the rubrics don’t mention them, and decide to start chopping them off to avoid violating the rubrics.

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