This encyclical is one of the longest in the history of the Holy See. It represents a true liturgical “summa” within which Pius XII addresses all aspects related to the worship of the Church.
The papal text is dated November 20, 1947. Its length marks the importance of the subject, but also the concerns of Pius XII and the various goals he pursued. We can thus distinguish several aspects.
An Expanded Teaching on the Liturgy
As was often the case during his pontificate, Pope Pius XII wanted to respond to the difficulties of the present hour by resorting to his supreme magisterium. For the pope was well aware of the questions raised, particularly in France, Belgium, or Germany, by the developments of the Liturgical Movement. The best way to correct the errors was to state the truth clearly and strongly. This is what Pius XII takes on with this encyclical.
The plan of the text reveals its broad and deep conception of the subject. All aspects of the liturgy are addressed therein.
The introduction reminds us that Jesus Christ is the High Priest of the new law, and the offering, which He made of Himself, for the salvation of the world. His priesthood continues in the Church renewing the sacrifice of Christ through the hands of priests. Now, the liturgy is entirely centered on this sacrifice.
In the first part, Pope Pius XII explains the nature and origin of the liturgy. It is rooted in the duty of individuals as well as societies to publicly honor God. This worship of God is the very one that Christ performed here below, which He continues in heaven, and by which the Church is united. Hence this famous definition of the liturgy:
“The sacred liturgy is, consequently, the public worship which our Redeemer as Head of the Church renders to the Father, as well as the worship which the community of the faithful renders to its Founder, and through Him to the heavenly Father. It is, in short, the worship rendered by the Mystical Body of Christ in the entirety of its Head and members.”
The Pope recalls that this worship must be exterior but also and above all interior. A purely exterior worship would be Pharisaism, and a purely interior worship would ignore its public dimension. This exterior worship must be regulated by the hierarchy of the Church, by the pope and the bishops, who alone have the power to codify it. Pius XII also recalls the healthy laws of liturgical development.
The second part of the encyclical discusses Eucharistic worship, the central part of the whole liturgy of the Church. The pope takes this opportunity to recall the nature of the Eucharistic sacrifice, a true renewal of the sacrifice of the Cross, because the priest is the same, as well as the victim, and the goals are identical. It is accomplished by the priest alone, but the faithful must participate in it, in their place.
The explanations given by Pius XII are crystal clear and essential, because they respond to deviations which were then emerging on the nature of the priesthood of the faithful, and which were imposed at the Second Vatican Council. He explains that the faithful, in union with the priest and Christ, whom he represents, offer the liturgical sacrifice, but that their action is not on the same level as that of the priest. He also insists that the faithful must offer themselves as victims, purifying their souls and reproducing in them the image of Jesus Christ. The practical advice he gives in this section is full of wisdom and prudence, but it will be swept away by the blast of the conciliar wind.
This part ends with communion and adoration of the Holy Eucharist.
In the third part, the encyclical considers the Divine Office, i.e., the prayer of praise that the Church continually offers to God through the intermediaries of clerics and religious brothers and sisters. In other words, by all those who are officially charged by the Church to perform this liturgical prayer, the elements of which are contained in the breviary.
The prayer of the Divine Office is as old as the Church herself, as it superseded synagogal worship. The Apostles already practiced it and it was gradually codified. The Divine Office is therefore the continuation of the very prayer of Christ here below. The Church militant unites herself thus with the Church triumphant to give glory, honor and praise to God, in union with Christ, Head of the whole Church.
The encyclical adds some considerations on the liturgical cycle which unfolds all the mysteries of the Incarnate Word during the space of one year, from the first Sunday of Advent to the last Sunday after Pentecost. Added to this are the feast days of various saints strewn throughout the temporal cycle.
Finally, in a fourth part, Pope Pius XII gives some pastoral directives on forms of piety that are not strictly liturgical, as well as on the liturgical spirit and apostolate. Thus, from theology to the arts, by way of piety, none of the fields related to the liturgy have been omitted. This is why we can speak of it as a true summa or liturgical synthesis.
Remove and Condemn Errors
But the encyclical also aims explicitly to denounce and condemn the errors that were circulating at the time. The pope denounced them from the introduction in a general way, saying that some “interject with principles that, in theory or in practice, compromise” the liturgy and sometimes defile it with errors. These are discussed throughout the document.
The first error consists in diminishing the value of subjective piety, i.e., not taking enough account of the good disposition of souls to take advantage of the liturgy. It turns into contempt of non-liturgical piety. This contempt was manifested by the incomprehension of true liturgical participation, subverted by the famous “active” and compulsory participation which was to drive the faithful away from the churches after Vatican II.
Pope Pius XII further condemns “the temerity and daring of those who introduce novel liturgical practices, or call for the revival of obsolete rites out of harmony with prevailing laws and rubrics,” and in particular the “use of the vernacular in the celebration of the august eucharistic sacrifice”; “who transfer certain feast-days…to other dates”; and finally, those “who delete from the prayer books approved for public use the sacred texts of the Old Testament, deeming them little suited and inopportune for modern times.” This particularly concerns the passages where the terrible God reserves for Himself vengeance against the ungodly.
The Pope adds that we must likewise judge the efforts of some towards “the restoration of all the ancient rites and ceremonies indiscriminately.” The reason is that these defunct rites cannot, by their antiquity alone, be considered more suitable and proper. In addition, the more recent rites “deserve reverence and respect. They, too, owe their inspiration to the Holy Spirit.” It is the condemnation of antiquarianism that will be all the rage at the Council and after. The pope develops this subject at length.
Another error also suppressed is that which tends to degrade the ordained priesthood or, conversely, to exalt the common priesthood of the faithful. The Pope recalls that it is “absolutely necessary” for the bishops to make clear to the faithful the radical difference between the ordained priesthood which performs the sacrifice, and the participation of the faithful in the Eucharistic sacrifice by virtue of their baptism.
The Pope condemns those who “assert that the people are possessed of a true priestly power, while the priest only acts in virtue of an office committed to him by the community.” Some go so far as to speak of concelebration - as Jungmann did. He still strongly insists on the priest’s place, “he goes to the altar as the minister of Christ, inferior to Christ but superior to the people.” He ends thus: “The people, on the other hand, since they in no sense represent the divine Redeemer and are not mediator between themselves and God, can in no way possess the sacerdotal power.”
In this line, he condemns those who reject private and unassisted masses. Masses such as this are celebrated by the whole Church, whether or not the faithful are there to assist. This error will also come back in force after the Council. For that matter, it paved the way for concelebration.
A final error is finally rejected, that which claims to separate the historical Christ from the liturgical Christ or even spiritual and glorified. This distinction is seriously flawed. It denies that Christ present in the Holy Eucharist is identically the same as the One who incarnated, lived among us, died, was resurrected, and ascended to heaven. There can be no distinction without denying the reality of the Incarnation.
Reception of the Encyclical
Comments in liturgical journals of the time were countless and enthusiastic. The perpetrators of the Liturgical Movement who were targeted were not left out, but they carefully avoided raising what condemned them.
Unfortunately, they were secretly supported by well-placed figures, like Msgr. Annibal Bugnini, soon to be secretary of the congregation of rites who would say to one of them: “I admire what you do, but the greatest service that I can render to you is never to say a word to Rome about everything I have just heard.” He had already begun his work of demolishing the liturgy by betraying the authorities of the Church.