What Is The Liturgical Movement?

by History of the Church, Mass

What is the Liturgical Movement?

In Desiderio desideravi (2022), Pope Francis writes, “We owe to the [the Second Vatican] Council – and to the liturgical movement that preceded it – the rediscovery of a theological understanding of the Liturgy and of its importance in the life of the Church (DD, 16).” What is this “liturgical movement” that the Pope invokes? 

The Liturgical Movement began in the 19th Century and continued through the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The movement sought to recover or rediscover the worship practices of the early Church of the Apostles as well as key insights from the Middle Ages. It was also contained a systematic historical exploration of the Liturgy. There was an exploration of the Sacred Liturgy as a human activity of worship – of course the Liturgy is primarily what God is doing, but the organic human response of worship was what was beings studied. Finally, there was an attempt in the liturgical movement to move towards some sort of reconciliation with the ecclesial communities that resulted from the splintering that was the Protestant Revolution. 

Why a Liturgical Movement?

Following the Protestant Reformation in the early and mid 1500s, the Church responded with the Counter Reformation of the Council of Trent. The result, in terms of the Liturgy, was the consolidation of Roman worship practices under the standard of the Tridentine (named after Trent) Mass. The Tridentine Liturgy remained substantially unchanged for four hundred years. During this time, the Church could be likened to a great fortress, protecting Catholic orthodoxy against the onslaught of Protestant innovations. 

Along with this fortress mentality, the Church became adept as passing along the form and substance of the Sacred Liturgy with a particular reverence and adherence to the rubrics. Over the course of time, there were some strange oddities that crept into the Church. 

For example, over the past centuries, there was a practice where priests were ordained who did not know Latin and did not have much theological education at all. They were able to say the Mass and follow the rubrics they were taught, but they did not know what they were doing theologically speaking or what they were saying. 

Likewise, the people were trained well in piety and devotion, and they knew that they were present at the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. They also knew that the Eucharist, which they received infrequently received, is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. There is a lot to be said about having such a firm grasp of the foundations of Catholic practice!

However, some in the Church wondered if there could be a broadening of the Church’s understanding of Herself. What fruit would be borne if the priest and the people participating in the Holy Mass understood to a greater extent what they were doing and why they were doing it?

Dom Prosper Gueranger

The French Benedictine abbey at Solesmes, France was refounded under Dom Prosper Gueranger in 1832. Gueranger and his confreres worked hard to study the long history and genius of Gregorian Chant and the liturgies of the early Middle Ages. Currently, Gueranger was also able to study texts of the Church Fathers of the first millennia of the Church that had not previously been available. One of these documents included a 3rd century text from the Roman Hippolytus that contained the full text of the Eucharistic Liturgy from that century. Gueranger also provided key interpretations and commentaries of both Eastern and Western liturgies.

Pope St. Pius X

Many of Gueranger’s contributions were shared with the universal Church by the great liturgical reformer Pope: Pope St. Pius X. Elected in 1903, the pontiff encouraged the reforms suggested by Gueranger. One of the first works published by Pope St. Pius X was Tra Le Sollecitudini which was geared towards the participation of the faithful at Mass in music. Pope St. Pius X also called for more frequent reception of Holy Communion, especially for the youth. He also radically reformed the Breviary – the Liturgy of the Hours prayed by bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and those members of the laity who wish to do so.

Fr. Josef Jungmann, S.J.

Later in his life, Fr. Josef Jungmann was a peritus [expert] at the Second Vatican Council due to his study of the Sacred Liturgy. He authored Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development which is a masterwork in liturgical scholarship. Fr. Jungmann advocated for a stronger “active participation” of the laity in the Holy Mass. By this, he meant an external and vocal participation, but, more importantly, an internal participation of united heart, mind, and soul to the Sacred Action of the Mass. This would be a huge part of the document on the Liturgy in the Second Vatican Council. 

Fr. Maurice de la Taille, S.J.

In his 1921 book Mysterium Fidei [Mystery of Faith], Fr. Maurice de la Taille offered the faithful understanding of the Holy Mass as the one act of Christ’s Sacrifice. This Sacrifice begins with Christ’s self-offering at the Last Supper, is completed in the Passion, and then continued at each Mass. There is only one salvific act: Christ’s self-offering on the Cross two thousand years ago: the Last Supper looks forward and the Mass looks back. Rather, this sacred reality becomes truly present at Mass, outside of space and time. 

Dom Lambert Beauduin

One of the first major contributions to the Liturgical Movement by Dom Lambert Beauduin, a Belgian monk, was that worship is the action of both the people of God and the priest. There was an understanding prior to this that the Mass was offered solely by the priest and the people simply prayed and “heard” the Mass. Beauduin was not arguing that the offering of the priest and the people was the same: he is not a Protestant. Rather, he is accenting that the people have a real role in the Sacred Liturgy. 

Pope Pius XII

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was the first document passed at the Second Vatican Council. That document and what happened afterwards is a worthy subject of examination. It is beyond the scope of this article. We will end our walk through of the Liturgical Movement in 1947. 

Pope Pius XII, in 1943, wrote the encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi [the Mystical Body of Christ]. The Mystical Body of Christ is the Catholic Church. In this letter on the Church, the Pope explains that Jesus Christ is the Head of His Mystical Body: Teacher, King, and Priest. However, the people of God enter this reality through the Sacrament of Baptism and become members of the Mystical Body of Christ. 

In 1947, Pope Pius XII gave the world the wonderful encyclical Mediator Dei which warned against false liturgical innovations, radical changes in the Liturgy, and Protestant influence. He did, however, encourage an “authentic” liturgical movement, including active participation of the laity in chant and gestures. The Pope also reiterated the contribution of Fr. Taille that the Eucharist is a renewal of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Linking to Mystici Corporis, the prayer of the Church, the Holy Mass, the members of the Mystical Body of Christ are harmonized and united. In many ways, this encyclical was a huge tossing of fuel onto the fire of the Liturgical Movement.

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Jan-Erik Løken, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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