Mar 15, 2003

How to Heal the Liturgy to the Roots

Online Edition

– Vol. IX, No. 1: March 2003

Book Review-

How to Heal the Liturgy to the Roots

A Pope and a Council on the Sacred Liturgy: Pope Pius XII’s

Mediator Dei

and the Second Vatican Council’s

Sacrosanctum Concilium

with a comparative study "A Tale of Two Documents"

by Aidan Nichols OP. 2002, Farnborough, England: St. Michael’s Abbey, 160 pp. sewn softcover. £10.95 [


Sanatio in radice

, a healing to the roots. Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, theology professor (now bishop of Regensburg, Germany), offered this prescription in a recent address on the current state of the liturgy organized by the Congregation for Clergy.

Bishop Müller thus confirmed both the urgency of the renewal of the liturgy and hinted at the plan of action.

While few dispute the need for a renewal of the liturgy, many disagree on the direction this renewal should take. The serious pastoral problems of a drastic decline in Mass attendance, the near extinction of confession and vast ignorance of the fundamentals of the faith and the meaning of the liturgy itself, have pushed some to seek extreme and exotic solutions.

Another factor, often overlooked, is that the Second Vatican Council is already getting old — it has been 40 years since the Council opened. That means that nearly two generations of Catholics either have no memory of the older rites and practices of the Church or were not even born before the promulgation of the new Missal in 1970. Many times younger Catholics, lay and clerical alike, encounter Catholics who are still fighting battles long over.

A good example of this kind of disjunction is the presentation of the history of the liturgy. At the risk of doing what I am criticizing, i.e. stereotyping, here is a typical four-stage narrative: 1. The liturgy in the early Church and the Fathers was ideal. (Smiley face). 2. Things took a turn for the worse, liturgically, when the Franks and Germans degraded the purity and austerity of the Roman rite. (Frowning face). 3. The third stage is one of utter darkness. The Tridentine Reform casts a long oppressive and life-denying shadow over the Church. (Dead frowning face). 4. The last stage, the one of sweetness and light in which we live, is born at the Second Vatican Council. We have returned to the pristine rites of the early Church and the Fathers, so we are told. (Big smiley face).

If one finds this ridiculous, please consult the table of contents from a standard work on the history of the liturgy. Take for example, Theodor Klauser’s

A Short History of the Western Liturgy


The point here is simple. For many who lived during or immediately after the Council, there can be a strong sense of before and after; that is a theme of rupture. This may work in either direction with one assigning all horrors to one age and all civilization to another. However for those who have lived only in the last forty years or so, this experience will often not be one so much of rupture, but continuity. Vatican II, like Vatican I or Trent — or for that matter Nicea — is in the past.

Some now freely admit the shortcomings in present circumstances of the liturgy. This honesty, salubrious in the life of the soul as well as in the life of the Church, leads one to consider not only the difficulties that must be faced, but also possible courses of action. The Müller proposal of a

sanatio in radice

offers a promising one.

Healing to the roots

A healing to the roots requires a diagnosis of what exactly the liturgy is as well as what it is not. There must be as well a willingness to undertake the prescribed course of treatment, which like any serious medical procedure, may at times be painful and unpleasant — and require patience and perseverance.

Administering the treatment is a fundamental and unavoidable task of the bishops — who must be willing to endure all sorts of name-calling from the liturgical establishment to effect this renewal. The clergy and laity also need to be involved. All effective reform requires strong leadership as well as an interested and committed clergy and laity who are willing to pay a price with their bishops. Their interest and commitment finds its source in love for God and an accurate understanding of the Church’s faith and practice.

Thus we return to the diagnosis. If we are to take a constructive part in the renewal of the Roman Rite, then knowing how we have arrived at the current state of affairs is vital.

To this end, Saint Michael’s Abbey in Farnborough, England, has done the Church a great service with the publication of

A Pope and a Council on the Sacred Liturgy

. The long subtitle, "Pope Pius XII’s

Mediator Dei

and the Second Vatican Council’s

Sacrosanctum Concilium

, with a comparative study,

A Tale of Two Documents

, by Aidan Nichols OP", summarizes the contents of the volume.

In the preface, Alcuin Reid locates the purpose of this tripartite book in the current debate over the relationship between the pre-conciliar Liturgical Movement and the subsequent renewal of the liturgy. Did the reforms authentically realize the hopes of the reformers? This book returns to the sources:

Mediator Dei

(MD), a 1947 encyclical of Pius XII, and

Sacrosanctum Concilium

(SC), Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy.

Father Aidan Nichols’s essay is a useful presentation of the backgrounds and principal themes of both documents. His thesis is that the earlier document is theologically more substantial. He begins with three caveats: theological, literary-historical and political-pastoral, making note of the different purposes and styles of the two documents. He points out that both documents hold the same rationale for liturgy: it is not psychological, pedagogical, moral or political, but soteriological — that is, the Liturgy is about salvation.

Father Nichols retells the story of the tangled relationship between

Mediator Dei

and the pre-conciliar Liturgical Movement in "Doing Justice to Devotion". The reformers suspected — perhaps with good reason — that the faithful did not understand what was happening at the Liturgy, and did not receive the full benefit of the Liturgy in their daily struggles to achieve sanctity.

The solution, a radical one, proposed that only liturgical, or — as they called it — "objective", prayer was authentic Christian prayer. This assault on the Church’s ascetical and mystical traditions, whether inadvertent or not, could not be ignored.

Pope Pius XII’s encyclical on the Liturgy is in part a response to this challenge, Father Nichols, says, and he explains the theology of devotion and the role of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s theology of justice and the virtue of religion. This teaching underlies the authentic sense of

participatio actuosa

, a key phrase Father Nichols translates as "engaged participation", avoiding the connotations of "active" participation.

The difficulties caused by the Council’s affirmation of legitimate


of the Liturgy while simultaneously according preference to its earliest versions, is explored in the chapter "Honouring History". Father Nichols observes that a return to "pristine" rites is difficult, since reconstruction of these rites by scholars is always tentative and subject to change.

He notes that the sobriety and moderation of the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy is less evident in the subsequent implementation of the renewal.

Mediator Dei

, he says, has the advantage since it foresaw the danger of stripping away the devotion life of the Church in the name of returning to the pure Liturgy of the early Church. Pius XII in

Mediator Dei

also upheld that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in all ages, bringing her to a deeper appreciation of doctrine and worship alike.

Looking at Last Things

Father Nichols compares preparing for the


(Christ’s return) in these two documents. Here he believes

Sacrosanctum Concilium

is theologically superior. Both documents acknowledge what Jesus Christ has accomplished in the Paschal Mystery and the making present of the life-giving mystery through the sacraments and rites. But

Sacrosanctum Concilium

presses us to consider the future fulfillment of the Paschal Mystery in Christ’s second coming and consummation of the New Heavens and the New Earth.

Concern over the eschatological perspective or lack thereof may seem arcane to many people; but a truncated eschatology leaves open the temptation to find the final consummation of our hopes, not in the future, but in the past. Nostalgia leads away from the promises of Christ and from the demands placed upon us to trust in Him, Whom we neither see nor hear.

Even the first Christians, the apostles and evangelists, did not idealize their times or themselves. Yes, there was the unity and power of Pentecost and the Jerusalem community. But that dissolved quickly into the strife and discord so openly addressed in Saint Paul’s letters and in Revelation, and in the background of other writings.

An eschatological perspective reminds Christians that we still need Our Savior and always will. In the Church there is always light and darkness or chiaorscuro, as Nichols calls his penultimate section.


sanatio in radice

One minor point: for those unfamiliar with the original documents, it might have been better to put the explanatory essay after the encyclical and the Constitution so as to give a pope and a Council a chance to speak for themselves.

Doubtless, a

sanatio in radice

is coming. Scholars like Dominican Father Aidan Nichols will provide a proper diagnosis and prescribe a treatment — and bishops like Gerhard Ludwig Müller will no doubt have the will to see that the patient recovers. With this book, clergy and laity alike can take a constructive step on the way to being both interested in and committed to care and treatment of a patient we love — the Liturgy.


Reviewed by Father Elias Carr

Father Elias Carr is a novice of the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine in Klosterneuburg, Austria.

To order in USA: St. Augustine’s Press

c/o Chicago Distribution Center

11030 South Langley Avenue,

Chicago, IL 60628

tel: 800-621-2736 (773-568-1550); fax: 800-621-8471 (773-660-2235);


To order in UK: St. Michael’s Abbey Press, Farnborough, Hampshire,

GU 14 7NQ,





The Editors