The Holy Father recently gave an improvised talk to the members of the Choir of the Pontifical Chapel. In this talk he made some truly extraordinary statements regarding the function that papal liturgies play in setting the liturgical tone for the universal Church. Benedict said:
"Papal liturgies, broadcast internationally, are a model by which all liturgical celebrations can be measured...papal ceremonies should be liturgical paradigms for the entire world. Those who follow papal ceremonies probably use them as a measure of accord by which the liturgy must be measured. In this way, the liturgy is transformed into a path through which the Pope teaches the Catholic faithful, giving them a proper idea of what they should expect [from the liturgy]." (Miles Christi Report, no. 107, Sept. 2009).
Two things to point out about this simple but true statement:
Number one. The pope is very clearly stating that his own liturgies are meant to be instructive. This means that when he decides that all communicants at papal masses will receive kneeling, or that he will celebrate Mass ad orientam in the Sistine Chapel, he is not simply doing these things because he is an antiquarian who happens to personally have a taste for them. When he celebrates ad orientam, he is saying in effect, "I am doing this to show you what you should be doing." This should give some ammunition to priests or bishops who want to institute these practices in their own parishes - the pope has stated that he is intentionally setting an example that he wishes the faithful to follow. I think this is common sense, so I'll move on to point two.
Second, the pope states something that should give us pause: whether or not the pope intentionally tries to teach through the liturgy, he points out that this is what will in fact happen regardless:
"Those who follow papal ceremonies probably use them as a measure of accord by which the liturgy must be measured."
In effect he is saying, "I know that my liturgies will be used as examples to follow regardless of whether I want them to or not; therefore, I'd better make sure all my liturgies give positive examples."
This provides the justification of the well-known disdain of traditionalists for the masses of the late John Paul II, which were frequently the scenes of grave liturgical abuse (click here for a video of JPII's World Youth Day Mass from 1995, and watch around the 0.55 - 1.20 area to see liturgical dancing and a weird neo-pagan incensing from a bowl). This is one reason why some say that John Paul II, for all his personal piety and self-service, failed fundamentally in his role as a shepherd of the Church. Pope Benedict points out the obvious truth that people will mimic what they see the pope doing - what does it mean then when John Paul II declares in encyclicals like Redemptionis Sacramentum and Eucharistia de Ecclesia that liturgical abuses are to be curbed immediately but then permits them at his own masses? We can only conclude one of two things: that John Paul II was terribly naive or else he was just a negligent pastor. However you slice it, John Paul II's liturgical administration was definitely not praiseworthy. This alone does not make or break his papacy, but it should definitely be taken into consideration, especially when questions about canonization come up.
Papal liturgies should be teaching moments, Benedict reminds us. The pope should do the liturgy the way he wants the Church to do it. He ought not to do a liturgy one way and then tell the Church to do it another; it was doing precisely this that led to the confusion of the JPII years. Hopefully we will see more bishops and priests taking the pope's liturgies as paradigms around which to structure their own masses.