A Holistic Approach to Holiness: Louis Bouyer’s <i>Liturgical Piety</i>
Jul 6, 2024

A Holistic Approach to Holiness: Louis Bouyer’s Liturgical Piety

We should be grateful to Cluny Media for publishing so many classic works of our Catholic intellectual tradition that otherwise would be difficult to find. This gratitude arises not only from the appreciation for what bright minds achieved long ago, but also from the benefit that hearing these voices can bring to our discernments today. Louis Bouyer’s Liturgical Piety is a good example of this.

Liturgical Piety was published in 1954, seven years after Pius XII issued the encyclical Mediator Dei, known as the magna carta of the Liturgical Movement. This context is noteworthy: Bouyer wrote this work during a period that could be described as the hinge between the Liturgical Movement and the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. Liturgical Piety is an example of mature liturgical scholarship that shows the possibility of what we could term “dynamic fidelity,” that is, the intellectual effort to be faithful to tradition and therefore, open to renewal. Bouyer, an influential theologian and historian, illustrates several aspects of the liturgical life of the Church in need of true reform in the mid-20th century, and he approaches these challenges avoiding the pursuit of irreflexive progressive change and of rigid attachment to particular historical forms.

Liturgical Piety by Louis Bouyer. Providence, RI: Cluny Media, 2021. ISBN: 978-1685950118 338 pp. $24.95 Paperback.

Traditional Understanding

The key to this balanced approach is the right understanding of tradition. Boyer writes: “The Catholic tradition is not a thing of the past, fixed once for all in detailed written form, never to change or progress. Neither is it a changeable thing to be remodeled at will either by individuals or by an authority…. This tradition is, rather, a living pattern given once for all in its essentials by Christ and His Apostles. And this pattern has to be lived out through all the ages, not by individuals separately, but by a living community” (83-84). As Pope Benedict XVI would later say, tradition is like a river: always the same water, and always moving.

The Liturgical Movement was “the natural response arising in the Church to the perception that many people have lost that knowledge and understanding of the liturgy which should belong to Christians, both clergy and laity” (44). This response motivated a twofold objective: the rediscovery and the renewal of the liturgy. For this, the paradigm of enduring value was to be found in the “Patristic embodiment of the Church’s tradition” (23), in which we encounter the richness of that period of primitive vitality and creativity. The Fathers are, precisely, our Fathers “because of their witness to the truth [that] can never be superseded or even rivalled in its primeval freshness and also in its organic wholeness and its living unity” (24).

However, Bouyer does not write a book about the Fathers or ancient liturgy in isolation but rather provides an all-inclusive view of the sacred liturgy, understood as “that system of prayers and rites traditionally canonized by the Church as her own prayer and worship” (1). Aware that many liturgical handbooks emphasized mainly or exclusively the official and external character of the liturgy, thus ignoring or rejecting both the desire to understand and to pray the liturgy, Bouyer proposes a view of the liturgy beyond that of sacred etiquette or court ceremonial for the King. For this, he embraces Mediator Dei’s definition of the holy liturgy as “the whole worship of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, of the Head and its members” (20). At the core of Bouyer’s approach is the idea of mystery: “the re-enactment in, by and for the Church of the Act of our Lord which accomplished our salvation, that is, His Passion and Death in the fulness of their final effects—the Resurrection, the communication of saving grace to mankind and the final consummation of all things” (20).

Ancient Newness

Based on these principles, Liturgical Piety offers a comprehensive view of the sacred liturgy in 19 chapters, based on theological and historical reflection. With a keen capacity to perceive what’s behind the historical manifestations of each era, Bouyer offers insightful reflections on the distortions of the Baroque and Romantic approaches to the liturgy. Perhaps one of the main contributions of Liturgical Piety for the 21st-century Church is the understanding of the need to go beyond the particular ritual expressions of each time toward the spirit of the liturgy, based on the following principle: “that we must not try to provide an artificial congregation to take part in an antiquarian liturgy, but rather to prepare the actual congregations of the Church today to take part in the truly traditional liturgy rightly understood” (16).

In what might surprise with uneasiness some believers interested in liturgical tradition, Bouyer criticizes certain aspects of the work of Dom Prosper Guéranger. While recognizing his unique contribution to liturgical renewal, the study of the Solesmes reform can be an instructive example of the risks involved in the project of liturgical reform, regardless of the undeniable good intentions and fruits. For instance, Guéranger emphasized a sentimental notion of the divine presence of Christ, which shifted the focus of the liturgy from “sacrificial action” to “the physical Presence of our Lord” (14). It is fair to say that this devotional preference for “presence” over “action” is found today in many liturgical expressions, in conferences, and the daily life of parishes, where we often see exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament as “the height both of personal devotion and public ceremonial,” just as it happened in Solesmes (14).

Another aspect of the work of Dom Guéranger relevant for us today is this: for him, “to go back to the authentic liturgy meant to go back to medievalism” (17). We can also notice in many a traditional environment the idea of the so-called Middle Ages as the ideal Christian era. But “the fundamental error of the Middle Ages, when they are compared with Christian antiquity, would be… their turning from an objective kind of piety to a subjective one” (19). Ultimately, liturgical reform in any time must avoid the temptation “to try to remodel the external aspects of the Church of today according to the external aspects of that same period” (23), including the early Church. David Fagerberg has recently said about this: “Any reform of the liturgy does not have the aim of bringing us closer to the rubrical style of some given historical era, it has the purpose of bringing us closer to Christ” (Liturgical Mysticism, 83). Our efforts for liturgical reform in the 21st century have sometimes been entangled in the details of concrete aspects of historical practices. A priority for us today is to go deeper, to explore the truth behind those customs and discover the ever-fresh spirit of the unchangeable liturgy of the Church. Only this effort will give us the prudence to implement any renewal. For liturgy is traditional: always the same, always unfolding in time.

A related contribution of Liturgical Piety pertinent for today’s Church is the awareness of another risk: to allow varied spiritual currents or devotions to become more important than the liturgy as the source of spiritual life. Bouyer describes the cleavage between liturgical and popular piety unwittingly promoted in the Middle Ages by the well-intentioned efforts of Franciscans and Dominicans, “the Franciscans with drastic abbreviations, the Dominicans by systematically reducing [the liturgy] to a position of honorable but distinctly secondary importance in their life” (283). Today, many well-intentioned initiatives and charisms emphasize their own devotional practices and spiritual preferences, thus marginalizing the liturgical life of the Church, practically perceived as the obligatory rituals that must be kept, but not as the central source of spiritual life and apostolic strength. But, as the Second Vatican Council has taught, “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), 10). As such, the liturgy “is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree” (SC, 7).

Voluminous Insights

Liturgical Piety offers several other valuable insights. Bouyer explains the sacrificial aspect of the Mass, in connection with the Jewish tradition, understood through the act of thanksgiving (a topic he will develop in his influential 1966 volume Eucharist: Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer). Thanksgiving is the action of the Word that, as in creation, communicates his divine love and invites the human heart to respond with the act of thanksgiving. Thus, “thanksgiving, in the Christian Eucharist, is not one element of four, but rather one which embraces the other three [i.e., praise, expiation, petition] and also the Mystery itself” (152). Indeed, “apart from the prayer of thanksgiving, the Eucharist disappears” (160). Bouyer reflects on the whole act of thanksgiving, relating its parts (preface, Sanctus, anaphora) and reaching an important conclusion: “The tendency, then, either to reduce the consecrative action merely to a central prayer considered apart from the whole single Eucharist, or to reduce this action to a few words of God in Christ, distinct from the prayer of thanksgiving, is simply a tendency to disintegrate the Christian Eucharist and to lose its deeper meaning” (160). Relatedly, Bouyer confronts the “problem” of the lack of an explicit pneumatological epiclesis in the Roman rite and proposes a solution (a solution good in embryo but in need of further development): there is no Eucharist except by means of the Word of God in Christ, who “achieves the perfect sacrifice and gives us the heavenly good for divine life” (161).

The tendency of focusing too much on the so-called “words of consecration” (i.e., the institution narrative) is perhaps related to another misconception of sacramental theology, namely, to see the sacraments “connected to one another so as to make a single and well-organized whole” (182), forgetting the fundamental truth expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas, that the Eucharist, by containing the Passion of Christ, is the source of the whole sacramental order. A narrow approach will see the sacraments “as seven parallel and absolutely similar channels through which the grace of God comes to us” (182). The difficulties are many. Can we really apply the Medieval scheme of matter and form (originally conceived for the Eucharist) equally to all sacraments? How can the seven sacraments be such an important aspect of the life of the Church if their definition only came after several centuries? The answer is the Eucharist: “until the end of the Middle Ages, they [i.e., the seven sacraments] had always been understood to be component parts of a single whole, centered in the Eucharist” (182). Attachment to schematic explanations of the sacraments or consecration, while usually correct in theory, can sometimes miss the depth of the truth contained in the mysteries.

Finally, the exploration of other aspects of the liturgy, such as the theological explanation of blessings in relation to the Eucharist, the reflection on the liturgical year based on the mystery unfolding in history, and the distinctions between the different commemorations and seasons in the year, are quite insightful and provide direction for practical liturgical action. The appendix is also to be appreciated, with its summary of liturgical scholarship up to the middle of the 20th century.

Valuable Voice

Anyone interested in liturgical renewal will benefit from reading this work. If today, 60 years after the Second Vatican Council, we continue to discuss the real meaning of its liturgical reform, we would do well to consult one of the protagonists of this important chapter in our history. Louis Bouyer was keenly aware of the need of liturgical renewal and was also critical of the ways in which it was implemented. His contribution to the authentic reform of the liturgy in our times has lost none of its importance. With the hindsight of recent debates and confusion regarding the liturgy, Liturgical Piety deserves a prominent place in the liturgical deliberations of today’s Church.