Half a century ago, Pope Paul VI imposed a liturgical reform on the whole Church in the name of the Council which had just ended. From this was born the Mass of Vatican II. It was immediately rejected by two cardinals and, since then, opposition to it has not weakened. This sad anniversary is an opportunity to retrace its history.
After Dom Prosper Guéranger, who initiated the liturgical movement, this movement owes its impetus and its fulfillment to St. Pius X. He was the pope who gave it his letters of nobility and the support of Rome, which were essential for the movement's diffusion throughout the Church .
The first article dealt with the intervention of St. Pius X in the field of liturgical music, which enabled him to lay the cornerstone of the Liturgical Movement: to restore the liturgy to its full glory, and by this means, to revive the liturgy's true Catholic spirit .
The Liturgy Develops in the Sacraments
Another intervention by St. Pius X concerns the liturgy considered at its heart: the practice of the sacraments. Indeed, the liturgy, according to the beautiful definition given by Pius XII in the encyclical Mediator Dei (1947), is “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.”
Now worship is mainly accomplished through the sacraments. Each sacrament is a part of the liturgy of the Church, even when the priest is alone with the faithful in the confessional to give the sacrament of penance.
But it is in the holy mass that the worship finds all its amplitude and its full development: in fact, the mass gives Jesus Christ Himself; it consists of a sacrifice offered to the Father by the Son to which all unite, and the holy Eucharist is the greatest of the sacraments. It is in the divine sacrifice that worship reaches its perfection.
With all tradition, Pope Pius XII explains that the sacrifice is exterior and interior. Of course, the interior aspect is the most important: one must adhere with all one’s heart to the sacred liturgy, that is, to unite with Christ who is the high Priest. At mass, we unite with Christ through the ceremonies of the Church, and especially during holy communion.
The Practice of Communion Throughout History
This practice has varied over the centuries. While the explicit testimonies as to the frequency of communion are lacking for the first two centuries of our era, from the third to the fifth century, on the other hand, the practice of frequent or even daily communion was certainly approved by the Church. In that way it was recommended by certain Fathers such as St. Cyprian or St. Basil.
From the fifth to the 12th century, despite a decline in the practice of frequent communion, mostly due to the laxity and neglect of the clergy, the teachings of the authors remained most often favorable to frequent communion. The councils imposed communion on certain feasts.
From the 13th century to the Council of Trent, despite a general cooling, especially among the laity, theological teaching was almost unanimous in praising, at least in principle, frequent or daily communion. But even the saints did not communicate every day. Pastoral habits inherited from the previous period are the cause.
The Council of Trent demands that “that all and each of those who bear the Christian name” “believe and venerate these sacred mysteries of His body and blood with such constancy and firmness of faith, with such devotion of soul, with such piety and worship as to be able frequently to receive that supersubstantial bread (Mt. 6:11).” Likewise: “The holy council wishes indeed that at each mass the faithful who are present should communicate, not only in spiritual desire but also by the sacramental partaking of the Eucharist, that thereby they may derive from this most holy sacrifice a more abundant fruit” (session 13, October 11, 1551, and session 22, September 17, 1562).
Theologians and preachers also encourage this practice, such as St. Vincent de Paul, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Francis de Sales, and St. Alphonsus.
On February 12, 1679, Innocent XI declared that it was up to the confessor’s judgment to discern what each person should be allowed. He insists on the good dispositions and piety required for daily communion, while reproving those who argue that daily communion is by divine right (Decree on Frequent and Daily Communion, Dz. 1147).
On December 7, 1690, Alexander VIII condemned two proposals from the Jansenists who aimed to distance the faithful from the holy table: “They are to be judged sacrilegious who claim the right to receive communion before they have done worthy penance for their sins. Similarly, they must be prevented from Holy Communion, who have not yet a pure love of God, without any admixture” (Decree of the Holy Office, Dz. 1312.33 & .23).
The 19th Century
Despite the encouragement to frequent communion, it came to be practiced less and less since the eighteenth century. The fault lies with Jansenism, which was a determined adversary. In addition, tepidity, the fruit of the revolutionary movements which agitated minds all over Europe, the debasement of the Church, the impious and sacrilegious opinions contributed in keeping many souls alienated from the sacrament of the Eucharist. This is why the saints of that time, such as St. John Vianney, the holy Curé d’Ars, or St. John Bosco, were zealous apostles of frequent communion.
Finally, Pope Leo XIII vigorously opposed “this widespread and most pernicious error on the part of those who express the opinion that the reception of the Eucharist is for the most part assigned” to those who lead a more religious life (encyclical Miræ caritatis (May 28, 1902), Dz. 1978).
The Decrees of St. Pius X
It was up to St. Pius X to revive this sleeping piety and to repress the false ideas that opposed it. Between May 30, 1905 and July 14, 1907, the Holy Pope intervened no less than twelve times on this question. But the two main interventions relate to frequent communion and the age of first communion.
Decree on Frequent Communion
On December 16, 1905, by the decree Sacra Tridentina Synodus, St. Pius X urges frequent, even daily, communion of the Christian people, “so that no one, if he is in a state of grace and if he approaches the holy table with a righteous intention, can be removed from it.”
He specifies this last point: “Right mind is in this, that he who approaches the sacred table, indulges not through habit, or vanity, or human reasonings, but wishes to satisfy the pleasure of God, to be joined with Him more closely in charity and to oppose his infirmities and defects with that of divine remedy.”
The underlying reason that is given is clear: “The desire of Jesus Christ and of the Church that all the faithful of Christ approach the sacred banquet daily.” It goes with their sanctification: “is especially important in this, that the faithful of Christ being joined with God through the sacrament may receive strength from it to restrain wantonness, to wash away the little faults that occur daily, and to guard against more grievous sins to which human frailty is subject: but not principally that consideration be given to the honor and veneration of God, nor that this be for those who partake of it a reward or recompense for their virtues (Dz. 1981).
Decree on the Age of First Communion
Following this decision, the pastors questioned Rome about the case involving children. In fact, it had been the practice during the nineteenth century to delay first communion until 10, even 12 or 14 years of age and even later, to the great detriment of piety.
A first response was given on February 14, 1906 by the Congregation of the Council: "It is necessary for children to be nourished by Christ before they are dominated by passions, so that they can with greater courage repel the attacks of the demon, of the flesh, and of the other enemies without and within.”
In order to remove doubts and opposition, St. Pius X was led to define the age for first communion. The Quam singulari decree on communion and confession for children (August 8, 1910) declares that “the age of discretion both for confession and for Holy Communion is that at which the child begins to reason, that is, at about the seventh year, more or less.” He specifies: “Those who have charge over children must make every effort to see that these same children after first communion approach the holy table often, and, if it can be done, daily, just as Jesus Christ and Mother Church desire” (Dz. 2137 & 2142).
These two decrees are milestones in the history of the Liturgical Movement. They have contributed powerfully to a renewal of Eucharistic devotion and to a more intimate participation in the holy sacrifice of the Mass in the Catholic world. If they were received sometimes with reluctance, they have shown, by their abundant fruit, the admirable wisdom of the holy pontiff who had promulgated them, and his deep understanding of the liturgy.