Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mediator Dei's Relevance for the Modern Day

On the 20th of November, 1947, sixty years ago to the day, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical, Mediator Dei, dedicated to the topic of the sacred liturgy. As a document, it remains as important now as it was then, perhaps moreso.

First and foremost, of course, it presents the liturgical theology of the Church as expressed in the venerable Latin liturgical tradition. It bears pertinent witness to the matter of organic development as contrary to either radical innovationism, an immobilistic kind of traditionalism or idealized archeologism; it bears witness to the interior and exterior dimensions of the sacred liturgy. The liturgical depths of the encyclical are indeed too many to go into in this brief mention.

Beyond these aspects, the encyclical also acts as a kind of historical witness, commenting upon some of the liturgical triumph and struggles of the time that were taking place in the context of the Liturgical Movement; a movement which, like all others, had its positives and its negatives; its goods and its excesses:

"...while We derive no little satisfaction from the wholesome results of the movement just described, duty obliges Us to give serious attention to this "revival" as it is advocated in some quarters, and to take proper steps to preserve it at the outset from excess or outright perversion. Indeed, though we are sorely grieved to note, on the one hand, that there are places where the spirit, understanding or practice of the sacred liturgy is defective, or all but inexistent, We observe with considerable anxiety and some misgiving, that elsewhere certain enthusiasts, over-eager in their search for novelty, are straying beyond the path of sound doctrine and prudence. Not seldom, in fact, they interlard their plans and hopes for a revival of the sacred liturgy with principles which compromise this holiest of causes in theory or practice, and sometimes even taint it with errors touching Catholic faith and ascetical doctrine." (Paras. 7-8)

Coming less than two decades before the Council, after which so much liturgical turmoil would be felt in so many parishes of the Latin rite, a reading of Mediator Dei might seem eerily prophetic:

"Assuredly it is a wise and most laudable thing to return in spirit and affection to the sources of the sacred liturgy. For research in this field of study, by tracing it back to its origins, contributes valuable assistance towards a more thorough and careful investigation of the significance of feast-days, and of the meaning of the texts and sacred ceremonies employed on their occasion. But it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive tableform; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer's body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts, even where it conforms to regulations issued by the Holy See." (paragraph 62).

The picture Pius XII paints of this "crooked liturgical path" (to develop upon the image of "the straight path" used by him) is the picture of so much modern parish liturgical praxis and modern liturgical thought.

Of course, this is not so much a case of prophetic insight as it is a testament to the fact that these liturgical propositions were not created ex nihilo at or after the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, many practices we today think of as "post-conciliar", while not as prevalent, did find their advent in the pre-conciliar period under the broad banner of the Liturgical Movement -- enough so that Pius XII felt compelled to address these propositions, and it is a correction that is still quite relevant. After all, the influence wielded by the archeologistic/innovationist school of the Liturgical Movement was able, despite this correction, to push many of these very things through in both thought and practice: the ancient table form of altar did become de rigeur to a great extent; black vestments were rarely seen and often opposed; many paintings and bits of statuary were removed from churches; it became fashionable for a resurrected form of Christ to be placed on the cross in place of the crucified Christ; chant was pushed aside and polyphony thought of as "art music".

Mediator Dei is both a sober reminder of our own task today to re-enchant the liturgy, as well as an excellent tool for liturgical formation. Particularly on this the anniversary of this great encyclical I would encourage people to read it and to study it: Mediator Dei

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