Blessed Ildefonso Schuster – Pioneer of the Liturgical Movement in Milan
Jan 25, 2023

Blessed Ildefonso Schuster – Pioneer of the Liturgical Movement in Milan

Although it is mildly embarrassing to acknowledge, it was not until I was in my early fifties and fully two decades into the serious study of the liturgy that I was first acquainted with the legacy of Blessed Ildefonso Schuster (1880–1954), a prominent figure of the Liturgical Movement of the 20th century. The occasion was my participation in the international liturgical conference Sacra Liturgia, which took place at Milan in June 2017.1 As one might expect, the program included lectures and liturgical celebrations, in this case according to the Ambrosian Rite.2 One of the venues for Mass and Vespers was the grand Cathedral (or “Duomo”) of Milan, where Schuster was installed as cardinal archbishop and where his incorrupt body is entombed. This article is a brief introduction to Cardinal Schuster’s life and work as a monk, scholar, and pastor of souls.

Monk in the Making

Alfredo Ludovico Schuster was born in Rome on January 18, 1880, and baptized two days later at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. His twice-widowed Bavarian father, Johann Schuster (1819–88), had served as chief tailor of the Papal Zouaves.3 His deeply religious mother, Maria Anna Tutzer (1849–1912), came from South Tyrol, a German-speaking region of the Austrian Empire which now is part of Italy. The Schusters lived in Rome and remained there after the Papal States fell to the young Kingdom of Italy in 1870.

As a boy, Alfredo often served Mass at the Church of Our Lady of Mercy in the Teutonic Cemetery, in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica. He received his earliest education at a private school in Rome. At the age of 11, he entered the Benedictine abbey of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls in Rome to continue his schooling. On November 13, 1898, he began his novitiate at St. Paul’s, receiving the name Ildefonso,4 and two years later to the day he made his religious profession. Having obtained (in 1903) doctorates in philosophy and theology from the Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm in Rome, Dom Ildefonso was ordained a priest at the Lateran Basilica on the feast of St. Joseph, March 19, 1904. Attending his first Mass on the following day were his mother and younger sister, Giulia (1882–1956), who later entered the Daughters of Charity.

For the next several years Schuster lectured on history, archeology, and the liturgy at various pontifical institutes, while also serving his community as novice master (1908–16) and then prior (1916–18). On April 6, 1918, he was elected abbot-ordinary of St. Paul’s, although his service to God’s Church would extend far beyond the monastery. Since 1914 he had been procurator general of the Benedictine Congregation of Monte Cassino, a position he held until 1929. While abbot, Schuster was also president of the Pontifical Oriental Institute (1919–22) and apostolic visitor to the seminaries of Lombardy (the region whose capital is Milan), Campania, and Calabria (1924–28).

Recognizing Abbot Schuster’s talents, Pope Pius XI appointed him Archbishop of Milan on June 26, 1929.5 A few weeks later, on July 15, the Pope created him cardinal, and on July 21 consecrated him bishop in the Sistine Chapel. Schuster’s installation as archbishop was delayed, however, until September 8, the feast of Our Lady’s Nativity, so as to coincide with the titular feast of Milan’s cathedral.

A Liturgical Cardinal

From the outset of his reign, Cardinal Schuster formed the Milanese Church in the pastoral benefits of the liturgy fully and properly celebrated. He issued meticulous prescriptions regarding the decorum to be observed during religious services, supervised two Eucharistic congresses, and wholeheartedly promoted the Ambrosian Rite, overseeing new editions of the Ambrosian liturgical books and founding the Institute of Ambrosian Chant and Sacred Music (now the Pontifical Ambrosian Institute of Sacred Music). Moreover, his Eminence led by personal example through his assiduous celebration of and attendance at the major cathedral services. Diminutive and frail looking, yet a powerhouse of spiritual and physical energy, Schuster inspired “a true flourishing of liturgical piety among both the clergy and the laity.”6

Liturgical piety was, after all, the original aim of the Liturgical Movement. As St. Pius X tells us, the active involvement of the people in the Church’s liturgical rites is the “primary and indispensable source” from which the “true Christian spirit” is acquired.7 Note the expansive modifier in Pius X’s statement: Christian spirit. Liturgical piety is not the preserve of monks alone, or the clergy; it is the primary spirituality of the entire Church. An anecdote about Cardinal Schuster brings home the point. While visiting his archdiocesan seminary at Venegono, near Lake Como, the newly consecrated monk-archbishop was asked to describe Benedictine spirituality. “There is no such thing,” he replied. “It is nothing other than the spirituality of the Church: the praying of the Sacred Liturgy.”8

During most of Cardinal Schuster’s tenure, Italy was ruled by Fascism, a form of totalitarianism that divinized the State and continually sought to subjugate the Church to its politics. Like certain other prominent churchmen, Schuster initially showed himself favorable to Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and Italian policy in general.9 Ostensibly for evangelical reasons, he invested the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 with the attributes of a crusade. The Italian flag, he said, carried the Cross over the Ethiopian plains, and the Italian army opened the gates of Ethiopia to the Catholic faith and Roman civilization.10

On the other hand, Schuster had already found himself at odds with the State, particularly in the clash over Catholic Action.11 By the late 1930s he had become a brave critic of the regime, refusing to compromise with the Fascists once they followed Nazi policy against the Jews. He condemned Italy’s anti-Semitic racial decrees of 1938 as born of heresy.12 As did other Italian bishops, the Pope included, he exercised leadership in helping to protect Jews. During the German occupation of Lombardy from 1943 to 1945, Jews seeking to escape were aided by a major rescue network centered in Milan and directed by a Jesuit priest who served as Schuster’s head of the Office of Religious Assistance.13

In the early months of 1945, as World War II was approaching its end, Schuster tried to negotiate both with the Germans, imploring them not to harm people or destroy property as they retreated from Italy, and with the Italian partisans so that they would let the Germans proceed without molestation.14 On April 25 he met with Mussolini and tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to surrender to the Allies and to be reconciled with God.15 After the war Schuster worked to build up the spiritual and civic life of his flock by means of catechesis, Catholic Action, opposition to Communism, and charitable initiatives.16

At age 74 and infirm, the “monk on loan to the world”17 retired to his seminary, where he died of a heart ailment on August 30, 1954. Cardinal Angelo Roncalli of Venice (the future St. John XXIII) celebrated the funeral. Schuster’s cause for sainthood was opened three years later. When his tomb in Milan cathedral was opened in 1985, his body was found to be intact. St. John Paul II beatified him on May 12, 1996.

Breadth and Depth

Ildefonso Schuster wrote many scholarly articles and books during his lifetime. His copious lecture notes on the Roman liturgy became the multi-volume Liber Sacramentorum,18 chiefly a commentary on the liturgical year, published from 1919 to 1929 and known in its English translation as The Sacramentary.19 This was not the first work of its kind. Schuster’s confrere and predecessor in the field of liturgical studies, Abbot Prosper Guéranger of Solesmes (1805–75), did the same. His fifteen-volume l’Année liturgique, published from 1841 onward, combines a wealth of historical, doctrinal, and meditative material on all aspects of the Church year as contained in the various Roman liturgical books.20

Like Guéranger’s pioneering work, Schuster’s Sacramentary covers not only the liturgical seasons, Sundays, and feast days of the Roman Church, but also the individual texts of the Mass, providing useful insights into the development of the liturgy. Yet, unlike Guéranger, Schuster “says very little about the Divine Office, or about other Eastern or Western rites and their texts, except where they may occasionally be brought in to illustrate a point about the Roman Rite.”21 This is not a criticism, however, because the work’s title indicates a specific focus on the Mass.22 Apart from the liturgical year, Schuster addresses such diverse topics as Christian initiation, sacred art and architecture, Eastern influence in the Roman liturgy, the place of monasticism in the liturgical life of Rome, the consecration of basilicas in the early Church, and the portraits of Our Lady venerated at Rome.

In his foreword to a 2020 reprint edition of The Sacramentary, Gregory DiPippo (editor of the website New Liturgical Movement) writes that Schuster, like other liturgical scholars of his day, sometimes let his assumptions about the past history of the liturgy get the better of him, causing him “to state as facts about the liturgy things which were really just speculations.”23 I believe this worth mention because later liturgical scholars invoked such theories as warranting substantial ritual reforms. Without giving examples, DiPippo explains that such “overconfidence was perhaps inevitable, given the eagerness of scholars of his era to ‘return to the sources’ of early Christianity, together with the scarcity and incomplete state of early sources for the liturgy.”24

What is beyond speculation, indeed what radiates from every page, is Schuster’s true liturgical spirit. He could hardly be clearer about the importance of the liturgy in the spiritual lives of Christians—and, by implication, about what is at stake when one neglects the Church’s corporate worship of God. The liturgy, he writes, “not only shows forth and expresses the ineffable and the divine, but also, by means of the sacraments and of its forms of prayer, develops and fulfills the supernatural in the souls of the faithful, to whom it communicates the grace of redemption. It may even be said that the very source of the holiness of the Church is fully contained in her Liturgy; for, without the holy sacraments, the Passion of our Lord, in the existing dispensation instituted by almighty God, would have no efficacy in us, since there would be no channels capable of conveying its treasure to our souls.”25

While it is true that the Lord can bestow grace apart from the sacraments, it is also true that he established the sacraments as the ordinary means by which the grace of salvation comes to us. By the worthy celebration of the sacred mysteries in the liturgy, we encounter Jesus Christ interiorly, in the soul, and obtain the fruits of his redeeming work.26

Another well-known work of Schuster is his biography of St. Benedict of Norcia, published in English as Saint Benedict and His Times.27 Despite Benedict’s great importance in the history of the Church, the sources of information about his life are meager. Practically all that we know is derived from the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, written in the late 6th century. Pope Gregory, however, did not intend to write a biography in the modern sense. The Dialogues simply narrate the most striking miracles of various holy men and women of Italy in Benedict’s lifetime (c. 480–543), including of Benedict himself. They contain no chronological data about the patriarch of Western monasticism, and whatever biographical items can be gleaned are merely incidental to the miracles Gregory is relating. Schuster therefore had to rely on his own vast fund of knowledge of liturgical and ecclesiastical history, early canon and civil law, archeology, and monastic tradition so as to fit the few disconnected facts about Benedict into their historical setting. Even if some of the solutions he offers for disputed questions can be accepted only as probable, his reconstruction of St. Benedict’s life is remarkable for its breadth of vision and richness of scholarship.

Holy Memory

Nearly a fortnight before his death, Cardinal Schuster addressed his seminarians in these words: “You want something to remember me by. I have nothing to give you but an invitation to holiness. People seem no longer to allow themselves to be convinced by our preaching, but in the face of holiness, they still believe, still kneel and pray. People seem to live unaware of supernatural realities, indifferent to the problems of salvation. But if an authentic saint, whether living or dead, passes by, everyone rushes to be near him. […] Do not forget that the devil is not afraid of our sports fields and our cinemas; instead, he is afraid of our holiness.”28

That advice by itself is worth a modest sort of immortality, for it gets to the heart of what the liturgy is all about: the beautiful symbiosis of God’s glory and our sanctification.


Father Thomas Kocik is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, MA. He is a member of the Society for Catholic Liturgy and former editor of its journal, Antiphon. Among his many published works are The Reform of the Reform? A Liturgical Debate (Ignatius Press, 2003) and Singing His Song: A Short Introduction to the Liturgical Movement (Chorabooks, 2019). A complete bibliography is available at https://thomaskocik.academia.edu.

Image Source: AB/Wikipedia

Father Thomas Kocik

Father Thomas Kocik is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River (MA). In residence at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Hyannis, he serves as chaplain to Cape Cod Hospital and to the Latin Mass Apostolate of Cape Cod. He is a member of the Society for Catholic Liturgy and former editor of its journal, Antiphon. Among his many published works are The Reform of the Reform? A Liturgical Debate (Ignatius Press, 2003) and Singing His Song: A Short Introduction to the Liturgical Movement (Chorabooks, 2019). A complete bibliography is available at www.thomaskocik.academia.edu.

Footnotes

  1. To date there have been five Sacra Liturgia conferences: Rome (2013), New York (2015), London (2016), Milan (2017), and San Francisco (2022).
  2. The Ambrosian Rite is in use in the Archdiocese of Milan and in some areas of the surrounding dioceses, for a total of nearly five million Catholic faithful. Considered to be as ancient as the Roman Rite, it takes its name from St. Ambrose (337–97), bishop of Milan, although the Milanese liturgical tradition predates him. Like the Roman Rite, it was heavily revised after the Second Vatican Council.
  3. The Zuavi Pontifici was an infantry regiment of volunteers from various countries, dedicated to defending the Papal States against the forces of Italian unification. These were mainly young men, Catholics of good repute, who fought alongside the Swiss Guard and Noble Guard.
  4. In honor of St. Ildephonsus of Toledo (607–667).
  5. Pius XI (born Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti) had himself been Milan’s archbishop immediately prior to his papal election in 1922.
  6. Gregory DiPippo, Foreword to The Sacramentary (Liber Sacramentorum): Historical and Liturgical Notes on the Roman Missal, vol. 1, trans. Arthur Levelis-Marke (Waterloo, ON: Arouca Press, 2020), xii.
  7. St. Pius X, Motu Proprio Tra le Sollecitudini (November 22, 1903). The original document is in Italian and uses the phrase partecipazione attiva, active (or actual) participation; the official Latin version simply says participatio. See Acta Sanctæ Sedis 36 (1903–04), 331 (Italian) and 388 (Latin).
  8. As related by Dom Alcuin Reid in his blurb for the Arouca Press reprint of The Sacramentary. Schuster may have taken his cue from Dom Lambert Beauduin’s (1873-1960) reply to a Jesuit who criticized the Liturgical Movement for promoting a specifically “Benedictine” spirituality. Beauduin, we are told, “countered this attempt to relativize liturgical piety with the observation that ‘it is not Benedictine, but Catholic.’” Alcuin Reid, “The Twentieth-Century Liturgical Movement,” in T&T Clark Companion to Liturgy, ed. Alcuin Reid (London and New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 157. Beauduin was a monk of Mont César Abbey in Leuven, Belgium. His lecture at the Malines Congress of September 1909 is widely regarded as the beginning of the modern Liturgical Movement.
  9. See Daniel A. Binchy, Church and State in Fascist Italy (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1941).
  10. Daniel A. Binchy, 679. From 1861 to 1946 the Italian flag bore at its center the Savoy Cross, a white cross on a red field.
  11. Catholic Action originated in the efforts of Catholics to deal with the modern secular state. As endorsed by the popes beginning with St. Pius X, it was also called the “lay apostolate,” meaning lay Catholics working to reshape society according to Christian principles, guided by the hierarchy. How this was to be done depended on the circumstances of particular countries. In Mussolini’s Italy, Catholic Action and the Church’s work with Italian youth were continually under attack by the Fascists, who could tolerate no rival to the State. The conflict peaked when Pius XI issued his encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno (June 29, 1931) on Catholic Action in Italy.
  12. Daniel A. Binchy, Church and State in Fascist Italy, 624.
  13. See Angelo Majo, Gli Anni Difficili dell’Episcopato del card. A. I. Schuster (Milan: Nuove Edizioni Duomo, 1978), 119.
  14. By the summer of 1943, Allied troops had taken North Africa and were moving up the Italian peninsula toward Rome. The Italian government switched sides, joining the Allies against Nazi Germany. Mussolini was ejected from office at the behest of King Victor Emmanuel III and imprisoned. After German commandos effected his escape in September 1943, Mussolini agreed to Hitler’s suggestion that he establish a new Fascist government. The Italian Social Republic thus established at Salò, in northwest Italy, was effectively a puppet state of Germany.
  15. Two days later Mussolini, his mistress, and some of his ministers were captured by Communist partisans in the small town of Dongo, near Lake Como. They were shot the next day. Their bodies were taken to Milan and hanged upside down in the Piazzale Loreto.
  16. Among other postwar initiatives, Schuster founded the Domus Ambrosiana to provide inexpensive housing for families, and two Catholic cultural centers: the Ambrosianeum, for addressing the religious problems that press upon the modern world, and the Didascaleion for the training of clergy to teach religion in schools.
  17. “Un monaco in prestito al mondo,” as Servite Father David Maria Turoldo said of Schuster. See Angelo Majo, Schuster: Una vita per Milano (Milan: Nuove Edizioni Duomo, 1996), 30.
  18. Liber Sacramentorum. Note storiche e liturgiche sul messale romano, 9 vols. (Turin: Marietti, 1919–29). Schuster also wrote an Ambrosian version of this work: Il libro della Preghiera antica, 4 vols. (Milan: Ancora, 1943–44).
  19. The Sacramentary (Liber Sacramentorum): Historical and Liturgical Notes on the Roman Missal, trans. Arthur Levelis-Marke and (vol. 5 only) W. Fairfax Cholmeley, 5 vols. (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1924–30). Reprinted by Arouca Press in 2020.
  20. Published in English in several editions as The Liturgical Year. Volumes 10–15 were written by Dom Lucien Fromage after Guéranger’s death.
  21. Gregory DiPippo, Foreword to The Sacramentary (Liber Sacramentorum): Historical and Liturgical Notes on the Roman Missal, vol. 1, trans. Arthur Levelis-Marke (Waterloo, ON: Arouca Press, 2020), x.
  22. Sacramentary (Lat. Liber sacramentorum) is the ancient name for the Roman liturgical book containing only the celebrant’s parts of the Mass. Sacramentaries also contained ordination formularies, blessings, and other prayers used by priests and bishops.
  23. Gregory DiPippo, Foreword to The Sacramentary (Liber Sacramentorum): Historical and Liturgical Notes on the Roman Missal, vol. 1, trans. Arthur Levelis-Marke (Waterloo, ON: Arouca Press, 2020), xi (italics in original).
  24. Gregory DiPippo, Foreword to The Sacramentary (Liber Sacramentorum): Historical and Liturgical Notes on the Roman Missal, vol. 1, trans. Arthur Levelis-Marke (Waterloo, ON: Arouca Press, 2020), xi.
  25. Schuster, The Sacramentary, 1:3.
  26. Cf. Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (December 4, 1963), no. 2.
  27. London and St. Louis: B. Herder, 1951. Reprinted by Arouca Press in 2021.
  28. Giovanni Colombo, “Novissima Verba,” in Scritti del card. A. Ildefonso Schuster, ed. Giulio Oggioni (Venegono Inferiore: La Scuola Cattolica, 1959), 25 (translation mine). Regarding the sports fields and cinemas, Gregory DiPippo furnishes this useful information: “In the postwar period, Italian parishes built countless playing fields for various sports and movie theaters, to provide healthy activities for young people, while keeping them away from similar facilities run by the communists. This was especially common in the urban centers of the north, Milan most prominent among them, which were taking in large numbers of new residents from the poorer regions of the south.” See “The Final Days of the Blessed Ildephonse Schuster,” New Liturgical Movement, August 30, 2022.