Spotlight Archive

In July, Pope Benedict XVI sent ripples through the Catholic world by publishing his long-anticipated directive extending permission for the practice of the pre-1969 Latin Mass. The event is the latest significant development in the history of Catholic liturgy in the United States.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), Mass throughout the Catholic Church was celebrated according to the rubrics set in place by the reforms of the Council of Trent (1545–1563). Some of the more distinctive elements of the Tridentine liturgy included the priest’s conducting Mass in the same direction as the people (rather than facing them); the saying of the prayers in Latin; the use of traditional hymnody such as Gregorian chant and the motets of Palestrina; and the appeal to the senses made by ornate vestments, the use of incense, and the ringing of bells.

This was the Mass in use, then, when the New World was discovered and colonized by the Europeans who brought Catholicism to the future United States. Liturgical settings, of course, were quite different under the circumstances of colonial life. There were very few established Catholic congregations through the colonial period and Masses in personal residences were common. Where there were churches, they tended to be of the log variety rather than the impressive Gothic structures that would come to characterize American parishes. With few priests to serve a widely scattered populace, Catholic faithful could expect to participate at Mass rarely, perhaps once every several months. In some colonies, the Mass was explicitly or virtually proscribed. For a period of thirty years in the mid-18th century, St. Joseph’s Church in Philadelphia was the only building in the British colonies where Mass could be conducted legally.

Even during the era of Revolution and the New Republic, itinerant priests such as Pierre Gibault, John Carroll, and Demetrius Gallitzin covered vast territories as they strove to provide the sacraments to the new nation’s tiny population.

Within the future state of California, liturgical music and architecture followed the traditions imported from Spain by the Franciscan missionaries from that nation. The churches and presidios of the mission chain gave the American southwest its own architectural form—the “mission style.” At Mission San Jose, Padre Narcisco Durán (1776–1846) composed hymns for Native American choir boys, adapting tradition to the indigenous circumstances of the New World.

As Catholic populations boomed in the age of immigration, Catholic resources were poured into providing resplendent environments for the liturgy. Cathedrals such as Assumption in Baltimore and St. Patrick in New York were intended not only to be fitting places for worship but also to impress non-Catholic Americans.

Musical resources, too, were expanded. The first American Catholic hymnal was published in Philadelphia in 1787 by John Aitken. The first organization for Catholic musicians in the United States was the American Caecilian Society, founded by St. Francis Seminary (Milwaukee) professor John Singenberger in 1873. Hymnals in ethnic languages were common through the nineteenth century.

Diverse music reflected the fact that, although liturgical practice was ostensibly unified and universal, various immigrant groups carried with them diverse liturgical cultures from the Old World to the New. Paraliturgical customs especially varied, with differing devotions expressed by Catholic Americans of Italian, Irish, German, Polish, Mexican, and Caribbean descent.

Along with the immigrant laity came religious orders, who brought with them long liturgical traditions as well. Arguably most significant was the Order of St. Benedict. It was in the Benedictine abbeys of Europe that the twentieth century liturgical reform movement had its origin. From Dom Prosper Guéranger’s monastery of Solesmes in France in the 1840s, the ideas spread to other Benedictine establishments such as Maria Laach in Austria. Romano Guardini’s Spirit of the Liturgy (1918) catalyzed the movement and rendered its ideas accessible to a wider audience.

The movement viewed itself as a return to a liturgical past, a deeply traditional effort to improve the Church’s liturgical practice. But some of the specific elements of the reform—dialogue Masses (with the people saying prayers aloud); congregational singing; and the use of vernacular languages—struck many as innovative, even revolutionary, ideas.

The reform spread to the United States through Benedictine institutions. St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota became a prominent center, as did Conception Abbey in Missouri. One of St. John’s monks, Virgil Michel was the best known advocate of liturgical reform; together with diocesan priest Martin Hellriegel and Jesuit Gerald Ellard, he founded the flagship journal of the movement, Orate Fratres, as well as the Liturgical Press, in 1925.

Ellard, a professor at St. Mary’s College in Kansas, promoted the ideas of liturgical renewal in a host of articles appearing in publications such as Thought, Catholic World, America, and the American Ecclesiastical Review. His magnum opus was Christian Life and Worship (1933), which remained the major American work on the topic through the 1950s. He reached some 100,000 Catholics over twenty years through his classes on liturgy in the annual Summer School of Catholic Action organized by Daniel Lord, SJ. In 1948, Ellard’s The Mass of the Future predicted in important respects the character of the Mass implemented in the 1960s.

The reform movement had many manifestations. Laywoman Justine Ward, an associate of Virgil Michel, worked to rehabilitate the (properly performed) singing of Gregorian chant. She established, with Mother Georgia Stevens, the Pius X Institute of Liturgical Music at Manhattanville College in 1916. In 1928, a lay architect, Maurice Lavanoux, founded the periodical Liturgical Arts in an effort to promote understanding of the proper relationship between the Mass and the physical space within which it took place. In 1936, Joseph Stedman published My Sunday Missal, a significant and very popular attempt to provide instruction for the average Catholic Massgoer.

Another St. John’s Benedictine, Fr. Michael Ducey, initiated yearly “Liturgy Days,” a kind of conference focused on discussions and practice of Catholic ceremonies. The event evolved into the National Liturgical Week, which first took place in Chicago in 1940 and was attended by 1200 bishops, priests, and laity. Presenters included Martin Hellriegel, Godfrey Diekmann, and Reynold Hillenbrand. It was later incorporated into the National Liturgical Conference.

During the 1940s, two papal encyclicals lent credence and supplied added impetus to liturgical reform: Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis (1943) and Mediator Dei (1947). In the fifties, the movement came into its own. Liturgical Press published Pius Parsch’s influential European liturgical reform series, Year of Grace. The reordering of the Holy Week liturgies marked the beginning of a series of changes that would cascade from the ideas of Vatican II. The trend toward increased congregational singing gave rise to a new "liturgical industry” that would explode after the 1969 changes. Important musical publisher GIA had its beginning in Toledo, Ohio, with the publication of the Gregorian Institute Hymnal (1954). In 1958, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops created a standing Committee on the Liturgy.

In some respects, the reformers were validated by the changes set in motion by Vatican II. The Council’s document on liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, expanded the possibilities for use of the vernacular languages as well as active participation by laity. Some of the reformers became leading figures in the revisions of the liturgy continuing after the Council.

The new liturgy, introduced by Paul VI with the revision of the Roman Missal in 1969, created a need for resources that had not been necessary under the custom-laden older practices. Publishers such as Oregon Catholic Press and World Library Publications served the need for parish “missalettes” that facilitated the lay participation recommended by the Council. Composers and publishers of liturgical music suited to the new Mass sprang up around the country. The guitar music of the “St. Louis Jesuits” became famous and their names—Bob Dufford, Dan Schutte, John Foley, Tim Mannion, and Roc O’Connor—continue to dominate parish hymnals. In 1976, Virgil Funk organized the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

The transition from pre- to post-Vatican II liturgy was hardly seamless, however. For many Catholics, including some of the erstwhile reformers, the changes that came in the wake of the Council were too far-reaching and too far removed from liturgical traditions. They, too, could point to (what they perceived as neglected) Council teachings, such as Sacrosanctum's insistence that all Catholics be familiar with the Latin rendering of certain parts of the Mass. These “conservatives” made up one side in the ongoing debate with “liberals” in what would become known as the “liturgy wars.” Those Catholics most resistant to the changes joined an international movement led by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who sought to preserve the old liturgy and refused to participate in the new.

Although some Catholics devoted to the old Mass allied with Lefebvre’s schismatic Society of St. Pius X, others deferred to the authority of the Council and the pope. They were heartened by the extension of an indult by Pope John Paul II in 1984. Henceforth, a number of bisops permitted regular celebration of the pre-1969 Mass and increasing numbers of Catholics became reacquainted with the Latin liturgy.

There were also many Catholics who accepted the new Mass but wished to modify some aspects of it. These advocates of a “reform of the reform” found a voice with the founding of Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, in 1995. Much conservative criticism was directed at contemporary liturgical music, and part of the reform agenda included increased use of chant and other Latin hymnody.

The excitement and level of participation in the National Liturgical Conference waned after the reforms of Vatican II, though it continues to publish Homily Service and Liturgy (the successor to Orate Fratres). Now known as the Liturgical Conference, it has become thoroughly ecumenical and is no longer focused exclusively on Catholic liturgy. Another extant liturgical resource of even longer standing is Homiletic and Pastoral Review, a priestly aid first published in 1900.

As reaction to Pope Benedict's motu proprio proves, debate about the most efficacious form and style of the Mass remains contentious. Disagreement over the liturgy is in large measure disagreement over the question of how to balance the persistence of tradition—the Catholic's link to the Church of the past—with the need for adaptation to the present. In the answering of the this question, the history of the liturgy plays an indispensable role.

©2007 Posted August 4, 2007.
Photos, from top: Mass in New Mexico, 1941, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration (unrestricted);Virgil Michel, courtesy of St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minn.; Folk Mass in New Ulm, Minn., courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration (unrestricted)

Sources and Further Reading

Rachel Reeder, "The Liturgical Conference," and "The Liturgical Renewal Movement," The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History

Virgil C. Funk, "Music, Catholic Church in the USA," The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History

J. Leo Klein, SJ, "Ellard, Gerald," The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History

Joel Rippinger, OSB, "Benedictines," The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History

The Liturgical Institute

K. Pecklers, The Unread Vision: The Liturgical Movement in the United States of America : 1926-1955 


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