With Romano Guardini, Fr. Pius Parsch is another key player from across the Rhine in the Liturgical Movement. Like Guardini, he was both a theorist and a liturgical “experimenter,” seeking to embody his ideas in new ceremonies.
Johann Bruno Parsch was born on May 18, 1884 in Neustift, in Moravia, which was then under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy—currently in the Czech Republic. He entered as a novice in the convent of the Canons regular of Saint Augustine, in Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, in 1904. He was ordained a priest in 1909.
He was appointed vicar of the parish of Maria Treu in Vienna. He received a doctorate in theology in 1911. During the First World War he was a chaplain on the Eastern front. After the war, he became involved in pastoral care. After reading Dom Guéranger’s Liturgical Year, he developed a love for the liturgy and wanted to work in this area.
His goal was to make the Mass accessible to the people by promoting the active and direct participation of the faithful. At the same time, he produced biblical studies on the life of Jesus.
On Ascension Day 1922, he decided to organize the first community Mass in the church of Saint Gertrude. Parsch relates: “During this time I heard talk of a Missa Recitata being celebrated among student groups. I resolved to celebrate…the first community Mass…This sung Mass was still quite primitive: the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Angelus Dei were sung in German…the responses, the Gloria, and the Credo were recited in choir by all present. The readings and prayers were said by the president. We made an offering, and even the kiss of peace was indicated by shaking hands. It was no doubt the first celebration of Mass in the spirit of popular liturgy in the German-speaking countries.”
These community Masses are considered to be the birthing of the liturgical movement in Austria. A breakthrough occurred when such a Mass was celebrated on Catholic Day in Vienna in 1933 (thanks to Cardinal Innitzer, who was very close to Pius Parsch). In 1950, Parsch founded a biblical apostolate, which published inexpensive editions of the Bible and introductions to the Holy Scriptures. In 1952, Pius Parsch was the victim of an attack which left him weakened. He died on March 11, 1954 in his monastery.
A Reductive Vision of the Liturgy
Pius Parsch was more of a pastor than a theologian, more a practitioner than an intellectual. His great preoccupation had always been bringing the treasures of the Mass to the people. This is why he also spoke of a “popular liturgical renewal” and his books all have a catechetical dimension. This perhaps explains why his thinking lacks coherence: on the one hand, Parsch drew inspiration from Catholic tradition (Dom Guéranger), and on the other hand he was strongly influenced by the new ideas of the liturgical scholars famous during his time. Thus, at one time he would defend the traditional doctrine of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and presented it in a luminous way, but at another time he would take up without discussion the doctrine of the mysteries of Odon Casel or the theory of the Mass-as-a-meal of Guardini.
The Character of the Mass as a Meal
“So what is Mass? Above all, it is a meal, and a truly significant meal, since it is linked to eternal life, union with Christ and the resurrection. It is then a memorial, just like its foreshadowing, the Passover, was a memorial: ‘Do this in memory of Me!’ Mass is finally a sacrifice, because one eats the flesh and the blood of the Lord, and it is truly this flesh which must be immolated in death, this blood which must be shed. Mass is therefore a meal, a memorial, a sacrifice. This is what Christ himself says about the Mass.”
In accordance with this misconception, Pius Parsch calls the altar a “table,” and on the occasion of the renovation of the Church of Saint Gertrude in 1936, he built the altar in the shape of a table. This practice was condemned by Pius XII in 1947 in the encyclical Mediator Dei: “one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive table form.”
The Theory of Mysteries
Dealing with the prayer of the canon of the Mass which follows the consecration (Unde et memores), he explains: “To say ‘remembering’ means more than a dead memory, it is reality, the realization of the death of Christ. We can therefore translate it as “make present.” It is clear, however, that the Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension and the other facts of the Redemption… also become mysteriously present… All of Christ’s life, His birth, His miraculous work, His death, His Resurrection, and His Ascension are made present to us by it. In this sense, the Mass is called mystery.” An affirmation which seems straight out of Odon Casel’s theories.
His main preoccupation: requiring the active participation of the faithful
He explains, “For many priests the Mass is a private devotion. In a church where mass is ‘read’ at several altars at the same time, I am always frightened and anxious…They have concealed and hidden from the laity their greatest nobility, the royal priesthood, only for the sake of preventing the laity from denigrating the ordained priesthood…Today, the layman has reached his majority. He participates in the royal priesthood of Christ and this allows him to be fully active in the Church…The main thing is the principle of activity: the community must and should participate.”
He adds a strong criticism of the liturgy of past centuries: “What does popular liturgical renewal want? In the Middle Ages, liturgical piety was increasingly reduced in favor of private piety. Thus, liturgical worship became more and more stunted. It became exclusively priestly, while the people abandoned themselves to acts of private piety during and in lieu of the liturgy… An important principle has been inscribed on the banners of the liturgical movement, namely that of the active participation of the faithful in the liturgy, which the abbeys had neglected.”
He also writes elsewhere: “We are not asking for passive participation, but explicitly for the active participation of the people in the liturgy. The liturgy is not a spectacle performed by the priest or the clergy, to which the people should only listen or watch… The liturgy, especially the Mass, is a ceremony in which both the priest and the people participate, each in a different role: the priest in the principal role, the people in a subordinate role.”
However, Parsch tried to set limits on active participation: “Of course, we must guard against false and excessive participation. It was an aberration of certain community Masses to want all the prayers of the priest to be prayed together by all…The community has its specific role, which it must observe; it must not assume the role of the priest.”
 Fr. Didier Bonneterre, The Liturgical Movement (Angelus Press, 2002), p. 28.
The Relationship Between the Word of God and the Liturgy
Through the Bible and Liturgy Review, Pius Parsch threw out dangerous ideas to the faithful on the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy. “This enlargement of the liturgical movement’s goal,” writes Father Louis Bouyer, “is a fact of the greatest significance for the history of its development, because the importance of this biblical renewal within the liturgical movement far exceeds the sphere of practical methods and implies the most important theological presuppositions. There is a close interrelation between Revelation and liturgy, or more exactly between the divine word and the community worship of the Church. Understanding this interrelation and grasping its full meaning is therefore a decisive factor if we want to attain a true and renewed understanding of the nature of the Church herself. Such intelligence is certainly the supreme goal of the whole liturgical movement.”
The analysis by Fr. Bouyer, who was very involved in the French post-war movement, is penetrating. The word of God, considered as the immediate revelation of God in the midst of the assembly, will completely upset the concept of the Mass. The Mass of the Faithful will give way to the Mass of the Catechumens. God will be present more through His word than through His Eucharist. The faithful assisting at Mass will be transformed into an assembly of the people of God. Such is the new concept of the liturgy, such is the new concept of the Church that is instilled in the spirit of Fr. Parsch’s “Biblico-liturgical movement.”
Thus, the errors of the Augustinian canon lead to:
- An exaggerated emphasis on external action: the strength of the royal priesthood is the active participation of the people as an essential part of the mass. The people are necessarily part of the liturgy and must participate in its liturgical functions.
- Hence the rejection of private masses. This is forgetting that essential participation in Holy Mass consists of an interior participation.
- The requirement of the German language (i.e., the vernacular), allegedly to facilitate active participation.
- The abandonment of Gregorian chant. However, it was St. Pius X, to whom Parsch refers, who promoted Gregorian chant in order to allow the faithful to participate more intimately in the liturgy.
In his encyclical Mediator Dei of November 20, 1947, Pius XII set forth the rules for “active” participation.
By recalling the truth about the common priesthood of the faithful
“As often as a priest repeats what the divine Redeemer did at the Last Supper, the sacrifice is really completed. Moreover, this sacrifice, necessarily and of its very nature, has always and everywhere the character of a public and social act, inasmuch as he who offers it acts in the name of Christ and of the faithful, whose Head is the divine Redeemer, and he offers it to God for the holy Catholic Church, and for the living and the dead.(Roman Missal, Canon of the Mass). This is undoubtedly so, whether the faithful are present…or are not present, since it is in no wise required that the people ratify what the sacred minister has done” (§96).
The essential participation consists in the interior union with Christ
“But the chief element of divine worship must be interior… It is an error, consequently, and a mistake to think of the sacred liturgy as merely the outward or visible part of divine worship or as an ornamental ceremonial” (§§24-25).
Means of promoting the participation of the faithful
Pope Pius XII lists them: “to strive to make [the Christian people] familiar with the ‘Roman Missal,’ so that the faithful, united with the priest, may pray together in the very words and sentiments of the Church;… strive to make the liturgy even in an external way a sacred act” by responding to the priest’s words, by joining in the liturgical chant. “These methods of participation in the Mass are to be approved and recommended when they are in complete agreement with the precepts of the Church and the rubrics of the liturgy”(§§105-106).
Condemnation of the exaggeration of external elements
“It is to be observed, also, that they have strayed from the path of truth and right reason who, led away by false opinions, make so much of these accidentals as to presume to assert that without them the Mass cannot fulfill its appointed end…They can lovingly meditate on the mysteries of Jesus Christ or perform other exercises of piety or recite prayers which, though they differ from the sacred rites, are still essentially in harmony with them”(§§107-108).
Pius Parsch’s Reaction to Mediator Dei
Pius Parsch was very concerned with the teaching of the encyclical Mediator Dei. He felt directly challenged and obliged to give an answer. He believed he had to speak “on behalf of the popular liturgical movement of all countries” because he knew “their spirit.” So he published a statement:
“Only the pope has the liturgical right, the bishops have the duty to supervise this right. But even if the liturgy in the Church has developed under the assistance of the Holy Spirit, it is also a work of man, who is always capable of perfection...The rubrics that are mandatory today come from a time when active participation was an unknown concept. But today, a movement has been born which wants to awaken the liturgy from its Sleeping Beauty dormancy, which wants to restore the liturgy to its former splendor, which wants to grasp the liturgy spiritually and realize it in a living way, and which does not just pay attention to the rubrics. The movement now finds itself confronted with things and circumstances that demand urgent renewal and reform.”
Parsch then made the suggestion to the Pope “to appoint the most eminent liturgists of all countries and the representatives of the liturgical centers to a commission, which would submit to him documents and proposals for liturgical reforms.” He recalls “the major problems coming up: the reform of the breviary, the reform of the celebration, the reform of the missal; but all these reforms must be carried out in the spirit of the liturgical movement, by the spirit of the liturgical movement…An in-depth reform is a necessity for the near future.”
It has unfortunately been fulfilled beyond all hope. Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s constitution on the liturgy, strongly promoted active participation, and Paul VI’s reform which resulted from it, fulfilled all the wishes of the Augustinian canon; but it has ruined the liturgy which is nothing more than a field of rubble, deserted by the faithful who now only participate with a vaguely Protestant animation.