I have just spent the last hour or two reading obituaries. I am old enough to remember when adult readers of newspapers in every home went first to the obituary pages—also known then as “the Irish sports pages”—to see who had died in Buffalo and to glean from the biographical sketches some clues about the deceased’s family circumstances and fortunes. Nowadays the obits, like just about everything else, repose on-line, no pun intended. In my on-line research for today’s post, I fell into a treasured site of the obituaries of the most outstanding U.S. liturgists and sacramental theologians of the reform era leading up to Vatican II and continuing to this day.
My journey began when I discovered, somewhat to my dismay, that my primary source text on the sacraments, Doors to the Sacred 2014, did not include a treatment of Father Virgil Michel, O.S.B. (1888-1938), widely considered to be the father of American liturgical reform. He was a contemporary of the German Odo Casel, about whom I had posted last week, and I had hoped to write about Michel’s contributions today. In searching for material I came upon an independent blog site operated by Gary Feldhege, a professional in the field of Catholic journalism and worship recently employed by Liturgical Press. Feldhege has compiled a remarkable assemblage of obituaries/biographies beginning with Father Michel and continuing with the liturgical pioneers to the present day.
On the personal side, looking over the list, I was somewhat shocked to see that I have had contact with at least fifteen of the individuals listed—in some cases I attended their workshops or lectures, some I knew from Catholic University, one was a friar—Regis Duffy, O.F.M.—with whom I lived and took courses for four years. And one, Christiane Brusselmanns, I escorted for a day through EPCOT after she had given a major presentation in Orlando, just a year or two before her tragic death.
Looking at this survey of sacramental giants from the professional side made me realize how hard it will be to explain the “liturgical movement” from the late nineteenth century through to our present time—and indeed, the continuing renewal of the sacraments, particularly the Mass, has much work still to do. Probably the biggest challenge—though also the greatest strength—is the reality that theology is not one discipline but is a network of subsets. Liturgists (i.e., those specializing in worship and sacraments) are profoundly impacted by other aspects of theological studies. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw an explosion of interest in Biblical studies in both Hebrew and Christian testaments. The impact of biblical research brought much greater pressure for better presentation of the Bible in all Catholic sacraments. Thus the 1970 Mass of Paul VI would expand the Liturgy of the Word to three readings instead of two, develop the three-year cycle of readings, and recommend the proclamation of the Scriptures to congregations in the local tongue.
Similarly, the “systematic” theologians were reexamining the Creed and the writings of the Church fathers, discovering that early forms of the Mass, for example, served as symbols of multiple aspects of the mysteries of salvation, including the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. [This is actually a theme of Luke’s Gospel—that the saving, sanctifying Spirit is present in the breaking of the bread, as in the case of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.] Other ancient themes included the Eucharist as the new Passover and the Eucharist as the communal gathering of the Body of Christ. Theologians began to look at new rites for the sacraments that would embody these ancient realities. The Catechumenate or RCIA, for example, was returned to its third and fourth century form after Vatican II.
But again, I run the risk of making this evolution sound smooth, effortless, and inevitable. In fact, this was not the case. Nor did this evolution take place strictly behind the hallowed ivy-covered walls of academia. In reading obituaries, I came across Sister Louise Walz, O.S.B. (1864-1944). Sister Louise never advanced past the eighth grade, but she served as president of a Midwest Catholic college as well as prioress of her community from 1919 through 1937. During her years as Benedictine prioress she advocated successfully for the sisters in her charge to pray the full divine office (Liturgy of the Hours) as did the Benedictine monks. Prior to this change, the community had been praying a local variant of the hours coupled with popular devotionals. With an eye toward history and unity, this amazing superior struck a blow for all women religious to pray from the same page, in unity with the universal Church.
Father Pius Parsch (1884-1954) was a Czechoslovakian parish priest and teacher who volunteered for front line duty as a chaplain during World War I. He left behind his recollections, where he writes this: “I often said Mass for the soldiers, at times for the whole division, as well as for a small group, and for the sick and wounded. I found it distressing that the soldiers understood nothing of the Mass. On the other hand, I had learned about the collaboration of the faithful of the Greek rite in Galicia and Bukovina. Thereupon another idea came to me which, of course, matured only after several years: the active participation of the laity in divine worship.” Father Parsch spent his remaining years organizing like-minded reformers and experimenting with rites and forms till his death in 1954.
Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan (1911-1968) was one of my first “liturgical heroes.” Hallinan served as bishop of Charleston, S.C., and then as Archbishop of Atlanta. He was also awarded a purple heart during his war service as a chaplain in New Guinea. The Franciscans served in several locations in both dioceses in my early years and I knew of him, though I never met him. Hallinan brought a social justice influence to Catholic life and worship. He desegregated Catholic schools in both dioceses, a very courageous act in those times in the deep south. Hallinan believed strongly in the use of the vernacular language in the celebration of Mass and served on the liturgical commission at Vatican II. Regrettably, he was stricken with hepatitis at the Council and was hampered in his work till his death in 1968.
These are but three of the dozens of reformers. I will continue to draw from their experiences in future Saturday posts. But perhaps a question may be forming in your mind about the sitting popes in this era: were they in favor, or against, or active participants? It can be said for the moment that, in their own ways, Pius X and Pius XII were active participants in liturgical reform prior to John XXIII and Vatican II. We will take a look at their involvement next weekend.