It would be wrong to say that the official teaching office of the Church was indifferent to many of the liturgical reforms discussed and attempted in the twentieth century prior to Vatican II’s convocation and overview of the Church’s worship and Sacramental life. In fact, several popes distinguished themselves by their major interventions into the format of Catholic worship. The reform-minded liturgical popes were, in some respect, held captive by their own office. Ever since the Council of Trent (1545-1563) the official teaching regarding sacraments adhered to the ex opere operato rule: “by the work of the work” or the proper execution of the rite. A sacrament was considered “valid” if unleavened bread and wine were used, if the priest was validly ordained, if the correct prayers from the Missal were used, etc. In the jargon of my youth, a priest “said” Mass or “offered” Mass. German priests “read” Mass. We faithful “attended” Mass, though our role in the Mass, aside from being there, was never adequately explained or articulated in my memory, at any rate. I became an altar boy as early as possible—fourth grade—so I would have something to do.
As noted, this passivity of the faithful did not go unnoticed by a number of popes. One of the true innovators of the last century was St. Pius X (r. 1903-1914) He was an immensely popular saint in the 1950’s, noted for his encouragement of frequent reception of Holy Communion, and particularly for his setting the first communion age back to seven or the age of reason, from the teen years where it had been long observed. He is, in a way, the father of the First Holy Communion child’s event. In the 1960’s and beyond, he fell out of favor for several reasons, among which was his stern opposition to modern ideas, unlike his predecessor Leo XIII. [I do not have a precise source, but I have heard or read in various places that Pius favored early first communion to protect children from modern ideas.]
That said, Pius X was a strong advocate of Church reform with a particular devotion to Mary. He was a strong believer in the proper use of music in liturgy, particularly with the celebration of Mass. He believed strongly in Gregorian Chant, the rich treasury of arrangements dating back to the mid first millennium, and encouraged its use for the various prayers of the Mass we know today as the “peoples’ responses.” [It is still common to see St. Pius X daily missals and hymnals on Amazon and Catholic bookstores.] Pius emphasized the idea of active participation in the Mass by the laity, and it is unfortunate that his best contributions were not fully implemented for much of the twentieth century. It seems that his body of work is becoming better appreciated today, and I have attached a link to a liturgical blog at Notre Dame which provides a much better summary of Pius X’s personal devotion and commitment to the sacramental liturgy of his day and beyond.
Pius XII (r. 1939-1958) can be excused if he did not turn his attention to the liturgy immediately upon his election. He served as pontiff during World War II and did not devote himself to a major liturgical document until his Mediator Dei in 1947. Wikipedia’s summary of the encyclical is rather good, and it is curious to see where Pius XII directs his attentions. One factor that becomes immediately obvious is the reality that a fair amount of liturgical scholarship and experimentation was already taking place, and Pius XII was setting some boundaries for discussion. Thus, his encyclical warns against too much dependence upon raw history. He notes, for example, that some scholars were making arguments for the reconfiguration of altars to resemble (dining) tables in view of the Eucharist’s identity as Christ’s banquet to his people.
Pius, a rather profound thinker, makes the point that just because something is ancient does not make it superior. With regard to sacraments, he explains that the Church’s liturgy has a long development, and that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, she has grown in both understanding and celebration. Although he is expressing concern about one aspect of the liturgical movement, he is strengthening the movement by his teaching that development has been a common feature of sacramental ritual from the beginning. In our present day, Pius’s writing actually refutes the argument of those who hold that the Tridentine Mass of Pius V after the Council of Trent is the perfect Mass ritual for all time.
He also raised concern about a growing idea that the Mass was a community banquet, and that for its proper celebration the Eucharist must be available to the faithful for reception. The reference here is to the practice of a priest offering a “private Mass,” simply by himself or perhaps with one sole altar boy or attendant. This was very common prior to Vatican II, and even a long time afterward, and in my seminary of the early 1960’s all of the priests celebrated Mass individually at rows of side altars on both sides of the seminary church, and all at the same time, while the seminarians’ Mass was offered concurrently at the high altar. In my fifth year in the seminary, after Vatican II had come to a close, the practice of concelebrating—where all the priests gathered at the high altar to celebrate the one Mass together—was introduced, and I suspect all of you have seen concelebrated Masses with the bishop or your pastor. Pius XII did not believe that the Church was ready for this kind of reform in 1947, but Vatican II invigorated the practice.
There is another Wikipedia entry on the specific changes recommended and authorized by Pius XII during his tenure. He was the first to allow for the evening celebration of Mass and reception of communion, and reduced the Eucharistic fast to three hours. Previously fasting was required from midnight for those planning to receive communion at a morning Mass. He allowed for some portions of the Sunday Mass to be prayed in the vernacular with the people, a practice called “a dialogue Mass” in Buffalo and, I assume, elsewhere, as early as 1961 or thereabouts—certainly before Vatican II was convened.
Pius XII is much remembered for his reforms of the Holy Week Services, beginning in 1951. Strange as it may seem, the liturgical celebrations of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday/Easter Vigil were celebrated in the mornings! This resulted in the odd arrangement of celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord on Saturday morning, with Lent officially ending at noon on Saturday when we were allowed to attack our Easter baskets. Pius XII restored all the Holy Week observances to their correct times as described in the Gospels. The restored rite of Holy Saturday was moved to Saturday night. I can recall that the ritual started around 10:30 PM so that the Gloria would occur at midnight and the Church bells would ring out the Resurrection…probably causing great confusion to the patrons of the twelve saloons located around my parish on Fillmore Avenue.