A Pope and a Council on the Sacred Liturgy, by Aidan Nichols OP

A Pope and a Council on the Sacred Liturgy, by Aidan Nichols OP

Msgr Peter J. Elliott

Pope Pius XII's 'Mediator Dei' and the Second Vatican Council's 'Sacrosanctum Concilium' with a comparative study

by Aidan Nichols OP

(St Michael's Abbey Press, 2002, 151pp, $36.60 plus $4.40 postage. Available from Australasian Representative Office, PO Box 180, Sumner Park, Qld 4074, (07) 3279 7415)

The monks of Farnborough Abbey have made accessible two key documents of the liturgical movement of our era. In 1948 Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical letter Mediator Dei, proposing classical teaching on divine worship. He endorsed the liturgical movement but wanted "to preserve it at the outset from excess if not outright perversion". Sixteen years later, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council approved Sacrosanctum Concilium, thus authorising the post-conciliar reform of the Roman Rite as the fruit of the liturgical movement.

In his essay introducing and comparing the documents, Fr Aidan Nichols OP manages a rather delicate balancing act. He does not set them against one another, for there is continuity. But he places the documents in a complex and ambiguous historical context, using words from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times and the worst of times". He identifies strengths and weaknesses in both documents, but in order to raise underlying issues.

Fr Nichols admits that he is comparing two different kinds of documents. The longer papal letter with much theology and instructive material is quite different from the practical conciliar document laying down principles and guidelines for liturgical reform. In his opinion, Mediator Dei was ahead of Sacrosanctum Concilium in terms of theology, but he recognises the superiority of the Vatican II document in presenting the future dimension of the earthly liturgy as an anticipation of the heavenly banquet (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 8).

However, he emphasises that both documents share the same understanding of liturgy as essentially "salvational" and Christo-centric. This redemptive trajectory in Mediator Dei was even more clearly summed up by the Fathers at Vatican II when they quoted a liturgical prayer, that through the liturgy "the work of our redemption is carried on" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2). Therefore, both authoritative sources never envisaged a functionalist understanding of liturgy which plagues us today, the notion that "we make liturgy", so liturgy is an instrument for social, educational or ideological ends.

Concept of development

The issue of liturgical development cannot be avoided when comparing these documents. The warnings of Pius XII about liturgical "archaelogism" did not survive the era of the post-conciliar liturgical reform. We still hear the argument that this or that was done "in the early Church" to justify, well, anything you like.

Fr Nichols raises the question whether the ideal set out in Sacrosanctum Concilium of going back to the "the age of the Fathers" (however that is defined) is the only model for reforming our rite? Does this question the Catholic concept of development? He reminds us that if we applied this principle to theology we would soon become un-Catholic. He criticises the way some liturgists simply wrote off the rich Gallican and medieval developments of the Roman liturgy.

The issue of defining "active participation" in liturgy is raised in the light of the strong emphasis Pius XII placed on liturgical devotion in Mediator Dei, a rebuff to anti- devotional views attributed, not entirely fairly, to the great liturgist of Maria Laach Abbey, Dom Odo Casel. Pius XII required true devotion in Christian worship.

Today we might ask to what extent we can slide into an externalised form of worship, with little interiority and devotion. Fr Nichols believes our problems can be traced back to the lack of emphasis on devotion in Sacrosanctum Concilium. I am not convinced, mainly because I do not think exhortation to devotion was envisaged in the conciliar document. Nor would I go as far as Fr Nichols in arguing that, through its pastoral perspective, Sacrosanctum Concilium contained "some seeds of its own destruction".

Others would argue that the way the postconciliar reform was carried out was in fact not in conformity with Sacrosanctum Concilium. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was not so much undermined by its own content as misapplied in practice and, as we often see today, it was eventually ignored. The celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Council is a good time for a careful re-reading of Sacrosanctum Concilium.

We may not agree with everything in Fr Nichols' fascinating and challenging essay. But A Pope and a Council on the Sacred Liturgy not only succeeds in raising uncomfortable questions. It offers us the inspiring vision of divine worship as the saving action of Jesus Christ in his Body, the Church. This is why such a compact work is invaluable for anyone who wishes to understand and love the liturgy more deeply.

Monsignor Elliott, parish priest of East Malvern and Episcopal Vicar for Religious Education in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, is the author of 'Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite', Ignatius Press, 1995.

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