57. “The Church has further used her right of control over liturgical observance to protect the purity of divine worship against abuse from dangerous and imprudent innovations introduced by private individuals and particular churches.” ~Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 1947
When we talk about the liturgical renewal that began in the twentieth century, and continues up to this day, several names and events come to mind. There are the positives, like the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI, Pope Benedict XVI, and then there are the negatives, like the “Spirit of Vatican II”, Archbishops Annibale Bugnini and Rembert Weakland, and liturgical dancers in leotards doing backflips and splits down the aisle. Outside in-the-know circles of liturgists however, the name Pope Pius XII rarely comes up. Pius XII is mostly remembered for his heroic efforts to protect Jews living in Rome during World War II. But he also deserves a good deal of credit for giving the green light for an authentic liturgical renewal in the life of the Church, also known as the Liturgical Movement. This post is hardly an expansive treatise on the subject of liturgy and the Liturgical Movement, but I hope it serves as a simple encomium of Pius XII’s inspired yet oft-overlooked encyclical.
Pope Pius XII’s landmark 1947 encyclical, Mediator Dei, clearly delineates where true development in liturgy was overdue, on the one hand, and where the Church was to stand pat with tradition on the other. Vatican II’s document on liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, should be read in concert with Mediator Dei. Some theologians argue that the latter document is actually more clear and eloquent on the topic of liturgy than S.C. True or not, what we can agree on is that both should be read together, not in isolation. Sadly however, precisely that has taken place over the past forty years, as you’ll be hard pressed to find any discussion of Mediator Dei in contemporary discussions on liturgical development. This omission helps explain why there is still such widespread confusion regarding liturgy in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, many priests and bishops were clamoring for varying degrees of change to the liturgy. Some argued for radical breaks from the past, which would include abandoning Latin, Gregorian Chant, the priest facing east, to name only a few. Others argued for more sensible and balanced reforms, like the readings and Gospel in the vernacular and a greater participation on the part of the laity. (“Participation” in this context did not mean gals in leotards doing backflips and splits down the aisle, but rather more vocalization of the responses and prayers.) In some cases, very limited, conditional permission was given to select parishes to try out bolder changes. One example was allowing the priest to face the people during Mass. This permission only applied to a handful of parishes, mostly in Germany and in the United States, and was totally absent from Latin countries. It was considered ad experimentum, which meant on an experimental, limited basis, after which an assessment would be taken and a decision made. A number of grainy black and white photos from the 40s, which I’ve posted here, show the priest facing the people during liturgy. The justification for the change was to return to the early basilica form of worship, with a freestanding altar that would allow the people to see what was going on. But as we pointed out in the Santa Sabina article, the faithful, during early liturgies, would not have faced the altar during liturgy. There wouldn’t even be pews! The faithful would face East, with the priest, in the direction of the rising sun. In any event, the Eucharistic Sacrifice on the altar would be concealed from view by the large candles, the crucifix, the bishop’s mitre and the relics. The “early Christian style of worship” argument is often only presented in an incomplete way, overlooking how the faithful in the early days of Christianity would face the same direction of the priest: East! And they certainly wouldn’t be neatly filed into perfectly linear pews, facing the altar like spectators as you see below!
So, Pius XII digested all these ideas and suggestions regarding the liturgical renewal and, after much prayer and counsel, he penned Mediator Dei. Radical reformers expecting bold changes to the liturgy were soon very disappointed with the encyclical. Far from calling for the abandonment of Latin, Pius reiterated its importance in liturgy, while giving a nod to the benefits of the use of the vernacular in limited situations:
60. The use of the Latin language, customary in a considerable portion of the Church, is a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth. In spite of this, the use of the mother tongue in connection with several of the rites may be of much advantage to the people. But the Apostolic See alone is empowered to grant this permission. It is forbidden, therefore, to take any action whatever of this nature without having requested and obtained such consent, since the sacred liturgy, as We have said, is entirely subject to the discretion and approval of the Holy See.
Soon-to-be Pope Saint John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council echoed these sentiments in the following decades. Regarding overly sentimental nostalgia for early Christian liturgical practices, Pius sounds a strikingly moderate, balanced tone.
61. The same reasoning holds in the case of some persons who are bent on the restoration of all the ancient rites and ceremonies indiscriminately. The liturgy of the early ages is most certainly worthy of all veneration. But ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savor and aroma of antiquity. The more recent liturgical rites likewise deserve reverence and respect. They, too, owe their inspiration to the Holy Spirit, who assists the Church in every age even to the consummation of the world. They are equally the resources used by the majestic Spouse of Jesus Christ to promote and procure the sanctity of man.
62. Assuredly it is a wise and most laudable thing to return in spirit and affection to the sources of the sacred liturgy. … But it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive tableform; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no traceof His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts, even where it conforms to regulations issued by the Holy See.
The seeds of the eventual explosion in liturgical experimentation and innovation in the latter half of the twentieth century were planted in the decades leading up to the Council. In fairness, many of the earlier suggestions regarding modifications were pushed by men of good will, but their historical scholarship in early liturgy left much to be desired. Many priests and bishops, like Bishop Peter Elliott (who at first endorsed the priest facing the people), supported bold changes during the Council, but changed their opinions after seeing the confusion that resulted. After the ad experimentum phase of the early 40s, Pope Pius XII sought to rein things back in with Mediator Dei. He reiterated the singular place of Latin in the liturgy and reminded Catholics that we cannot cut ourselves off from centuries of genuine liturgical tradition and development. There’s been a lot of confusion over the direction of liturgy. What’s been called the New Liturgical Movement is an effort to finish what Pius XII, the Second Vatican Council and Pope Benedict XVI started.
58. It follows from this that the Sovereign Pontiff alone enjoys the right to recognize and establish any practice touching the worship of God, to introduce and approve new rites, as also to modify those he judges to require modification. Bishops, for their part, have the right and duty carefully to watch over the exact observance of the prescriptions of the sacred canons respecting divine worship. Private individuals, therefore, even though they be clerics, may not be left to decide for themselves in these holy and venerable matters, involving as they do the religious life of Christian society along with the exercise of the priesthood of Jesus Christ and worship of God; concerned as they are with the honor due to the Blessed Trinity, the Word Incarnate and His august mother and the other saints, and with the salvation of souls as well. For the same reason no private person has any authority to regulate external practices of this kind, which are intimately bound up with Church discipline and with the order, unity and concord of the Mystical Body and frequently even with the integrity of Catholic faith itself.
(Many thanks to A.L.P who helped me better grasp Mediator Dei and the Liturgical Movement.)