Mediator Dei: Recovering the 'vital impulse' of the liturgical movement

Mediator Dei: Recovering the 'vital impulse' of the liturgical movement

Bishop Basil Meeking (Christchurch, New Zealand)

Pope Pius XII's 'Mediator Dei' after 50 years

Sometimes people speak as though the Second Vatican Council were a complete break with the past, as though it brought a different kind of Church into being.

The evidence is against that. Look at the liturgy. Yes, there have been big changes but it is the same liturgy, the same act of worship the Church has had for two millennia. The post-Vatican II liturgy, like the liturgy of all past centuries, still makes present in the Church for the world the great deeds by which Jesus saves us, his death and resurrection.

The Holy Father made that point not long ago. In the history of the Church, he pointed out, the "old" and the "new" are always closely linked. The "new" grows out of the "old"; the "old" finds more complete expression in the "new."


To illustrate that the Pope also pointed to the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council. That reform, he said, was the fruit of a long period of reflection going back to the pastoral initiatives of Pope St Pius X, a reflection that was given a remarkable impetus by the encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei (On Divine Worship).

It is just fifty years ago next year that Pope Pius gave that encyclical to the Church. I read it again recently, something I had not done for over thirty years. What a surprise. All the things discussed and put into practice by Vatican II are mentioned there - and more!

In order to understand well what Vatican II proposed for the renewal of the liturgy it is very necessary, even now, to keep referring to the Constitution on the Liturgy.

First of all that document was one of the fruits of the light and guidance of the Holy Spirit, so evident in the Council. At the same time by no means all that has been done in the name of the Council or its Constitution on the Liturgy has been faithful to the light of the Holy Spirit or to that Constitution.

I want to suggest that we begin re-reading the Constitution in the light of the encyclical Mediator Dei. There are two reasons for that - in order to get an overall picture of what the Council was trying to achieve as part of the liturgical movement, and in order to see better how the efforts of Vatican II fit into the Church's whole tradition of divine worship.

When you read Mediator Dei it is easier to get the real point of the reforms proposed by Vatican II. The encyclical of Pius XII led logically to the Constitution on the Liturgy. The Constitution was the fine flowering of part of the vision of Mediator Dei, carrying on its thrust and that of the liturgical movement in certain directions.

In no way did the Council set out to stop that liturgical movement so well launched by St Pius X and so ably guided and developed by Pope Pius XII. Nor did the bishops of the Council believe they had by their Constitution on the Liturgy achieved all its objectives for enabling the People of God to penetrate more deeply the mystery of Christ made present in the liturgy. Rather, it is as though they had decided some of the things set forth in Mediator Dei, some of the things emerging from the liturgical movement, needed to be implemented throughout the Church right away. That would facilitate the liturgical movement and promote it throughout the whole Church.

The trouble was, those reforms - in some of the rites of the Mass, in the rites of the sacraments, in the calendar, in the use of the vernacular, in facilitating greater participation - took so much effort that the work of the liturgical movement has been tied up just with the mechanics of the changes for the past thirty years or more.

That surely is one reason why so many professors of liturgy, especially in Europe, will readily tell you there is a crisis in the Church's worship today. The technicalities of renewing the rites and the task of implementing those changes have taken the time and energy that now urgently needs to be given to understanding and appreciating the meaning of the liturgy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church in Part Two on the Celebration of the Christian Mystery sets us on the right track. But that is still only a beginning.

Today our grasp of what the liturgy is has actually diminished because we have lost sight somewhat of the Church's tradition of worship and also because the vital impulse of the liturgical movement has been allowed to fade.

Liturgical movement

It is now quite urgent to recapture something of the vision of that liturgical movement. The fiftieth anniversary of Mediator Dei is a propitious occasion to do so.

Looking at the Constitution on the Liturgy in the light of Mediator Dei, we shall probably feel some dissatisfaction with both documents; each is of its own time in formulation and language. There is a sense in which, in continuity with the Church's Tradition, we need to go beyond both documents, taking into account the situation of the Church today as well as of the condition of the liturgy.

Perhaps a Synod of Bishops could be devoted to the question of the Church's worship. It might assess the developments in liturgy following Vatican II, recall some basic principles of the liturgy of the Catholic Church and give some pointers for a new impetus in the liturgical movement with suggestions as to how to develop an authentic sense of the Church's worship in our difficult times.

Or perhaps more immediately effective would be a document prepared by the Holy Father to mark the anniversary of Mediator Dei and to point the way to the future. That is worth hoping for.

The Most Rev Basil Meeking is Bishop emeritus of Christchurch, New Zealand.

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