When, in 1947, Pope Pius XII wrote the encyclical Mediator Dei, he was fully and painfully conscious of two opposing currents of thought concerning the sacred liturgy and the interior life. At the risk of oversimplifying an exceedingly complex issue, I would argue that Pope Pius XII was, in effect, attempting in Mediator Dei to reconcile the longstanding Benedictine —Jesuit controversy. Not surprisingly, a number of Dominicans aligned themselves with the Belgian, French, and German Benedictines; the Jesuits, for their part, had behind them the strength of the Apostleship of Prayer, various retreat movements, and an enormous sphere of influence in institutions of learning and among congregations of women religious.
The theological current emanating from the Rhineland Abbey of Maria Laach, and made illustrious by the writings and teachings of Dom Ildefons Herwegen, Dom Odo Casel, and Dame Aemiliana Löhr, promoted an “objective” approach to the spiritual life, an approach exclusively grounded in and expressed by the action of Christ in the liturgy. Some in “the opposing camp” misconstrued the affirmation of the sacred liturgy’s primacy over personal prayer as an absolutisation of the former and a denigrating dismissal of the latter.
To add to the complexity of the situation, there were, notably among certain German Benedictine proponents of objective liturgical spirituality, voices critical of adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament, of acts of reparation, and of the Eucharistic mysticism typified by Mother Mectilde de Bar and by the Institute she founded. The criticisms articulated by a few even affected the Institute of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration. I shall address this particular question in another article.
Repairing the Breach
A serene attention to the teachings of Mediator Dei would, I think, go a long way towards repairing the Benedictine—Jesuit breach. Here, then, are some of the pertinent articles of Mediator Dei with my own comments in italics:
25. 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. No less erroneous is the notion that it consists solely in a list of laws and prescriptions according to which the ecclesiastical hierarchy orders the sacred rites to be performed.
Here Pope Pius XII is correcting those in the “Jesuit” camp who were arguing that the liturgy is external and, therefore, not essential to the cultivation of the interior life, especially for the laity, for whom regular meditation and examinations of conscience would be, at least, sufficient and, in most cases, more beneficial.
26. It should be clear to all, then, that God cannot be honored worthily unless the mind and heart turn to Him in quest of the perfect life, and that the worship rendered to God by the Church in union with her divine Head is the most efficacious means of achieving sanctity.
Pope Pius XII is telling both sides to listen attentively: he reminds the “objectivists” that the mind and heart must be turned to God in quest of the perfect life and, to the “subjectivists” recalls that the worship rendered to God by the Church in union with her divine Head is the most efficacious means of achieving sanctity. Both sides stand admonished.
27. This efficacy, where there is question of the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments, derives first of all and principally from the act itself (ex opere operato). But if one considers the part which the Immaculate Spouse of Jesus Christ takes in the action, embellishing the sacrifice and sacraments with prayer and sacred ceremonies, or if one refers to the “sacramentals” and the other rites instituted by the hierarchy of the Church, then its effectiveness is due rather to the action of the church (ex opere operantis Ecclesiae), inasmuch as she is holy and acts always in closest union with her Head.
28. In this connection, Venerable Brethren, We desire to direct your attention to certain recent theories touching a so-called “objective” piety. While these theories attempt, it is true, to throw light on the mystery of the Mystical Body, on the effective reality of sanctifying grace, on the action of God in the sacraments and in the Mass, it is nonetheless apparent that they tend to belittle, or pass over in silence, what they call “subjective,” or “personal” piety.
Pope Pius XII sets about showing both what is right in the “objectivist” position and what needs to be corrected in it.
29. It is an unquestionable fact that the work of our redemption is continued, and that its fruits are imparted to us, during the celebration of the liturgy, notable in the august sacrifice of the altar. Christ acts each day to save us, in the sacraments and in His holy sacrifice. By means of them He is constantly atoning for the sins of mankind, constantly consecrating it to God. Sacraments and sacrifice do, then, possess that “objective” power to make us really and personally sharers in the divine life of Jesus Christ. Not from any ability of our own, but by the power of God, are they endowed with the capacity to unite the piety of members with that of the head, and to make this, in a sense, the action of the whole community. From these profound considerations some are led to conclude that all Christian piety must be centered in the mystery of the Mystical Body of Christ, with no regard for what is “personal” or “subjective, as they would have it. As a result they feel that all other religious exercises not directly connected with the sacred liturgy, and performed outside public worship should be omitted.
30. But though the principles set forth above are excellent, it must be plain to everyone that the conclusions drawn from them respecting two sorts of piety are false, insidious and quite pernicious.
“Two sorts of piety” — Pope Pius XII refers here to the “objective” piety promoted by the Benedictines and the “subjective” piety promoted by the Jesuits. He demonstrates that it is not a question of one or of the other but, rather, of both together, the objective calling forth the subjective response, and the subjective response disposing one to receive the fulness of what is objectively given.
31. Very truly, the sacraments and the sacrifice of the altar, being Christ’s own actions, must be held to be capable in themselves of conveying and dispensing grace from the divine Head to the members of the Mystical Body. But if they are to produce their proper effect, it is absolutely necessary that our hearts be properly disposed to receive them. Hence the warning of Paul the Apostle with reference to holy communion, “But let a man first prove himself; and then let him eat of this bread and drink of the chalice.” This explains why the Church in a brief and significant phrase calls the various acts of mortification, especially those practiced during the season of Lent, “the Christian army’s defenses.” They represent, in fact, the personal effort and activity of members who desire, as grace urges and aids them, to join forces with their Captain – “that we may discover . . . in our Captain,” to borrow St. Augustine’s words, “the fountain of grace itself.” But observe that these members are alive, endowed and equipped with an intelligence and will of their own. It follows that they are strictly required to put their own lips to the fountain, imbibe and absorb for themselves the life-giving water, and rid themselves personally of anything that might hinder its nutritive effect in their souls. Emphatically, therefore, the work of redemption, which in itself is independent of our will, requires a serious interior effort on our part if we are to achieve eternal salvation.
To the Jesuits, Pope Pius XII concedes the importance of engaging the intelligence and the will in a serious effort. This would been sweet music to Jesuit ears.
32. If the private and interior devotion of individuals were to neglect the august sacrifice of the altar and the sacraments, and to withdraw them from the stream of vital energy that flows from Head to members, it would indeed be sterile, and deserve to be condemned. But when devotional exercises, and pious practices in general, not strictly connected with the sacred liturgy, confine themselves to merely human acts, with the express purpose of directing these latter to the Father in heaven, of rousing people to repentance and holy fear of God, of weaning them from the seductions of the world and its vice, and leading them back to the difficult path of perfection, then certainly such practices are not only highly praiseworthy but absolutely indispensable, because they expose the dangers threatening the spiritual life; because they promote the acquisition of virtue; and because they increase the fervor and generosity with which we are bound to dedicate all that we are and all that we have to the service of Jesus Christ. Genuine and real piety, which the Angelic Doctor calls “devotion,” and which is the principal act of the virtue of religion – that act which correctly relates and fitly directs men to God; and by which they freely and spontaneously give themselves to the worship of God in its fullest sense – piety of this authentic sort needs meditation on the supernatural realities and spiritual exercises, if it is to be nurtured, stimulated and sustained, and if it is to prompt us to lead a more perfect life. For the Christian religion, practiced as it should be, demands that the will especially be consecrated to God and exert its influence on all the other spiritual faculties. But every act of the will presupposes an act of the intelligence, and before one can express the desire and the intention of offering oneself in sacrifice to the eternal Godhead, a knowledge of the facts and truths which make religion a duty is altogether necessary. One must first know, for instance, man’s last end and the supremacy of the Divine Majesty; after that, our common duty of submission to our Creator; and, finally, the inexhaustible treasures of love with which God yearns to enrich us, as well as the necessity of supernatural grace for the achievement of our destiny, and that special path marked out for us by divine Providence in virtue of the fact that we have been united, one and all, like members of a body, to Jesus Christ the Head. But further, since our hearts, disturbed as they are at times by the lower appetites, do not always respond to motives of love, it is also extremely helpful to let consideration and contemplation of the justice of God provoke us on occasion to salutary fear, and guide us thence to Christian humility, repentance and amendment.
Pope Pius XII continues his endorsement of elements of the Jesuit program, wedded, as it is, to “devotional exercises, and pious practices in general, not strictly connected with the sacred liturgy”. He further affirms the role of the will, saying that it must be “consecrated to God and exert its influence on all the other spiritual faculties”. The will is enlightened and moved by “an act of the intelligence”. This act of the intelligence depends on one’s “knowledge of the facts and truths which make religion a duty is altogether necessary”. Again, sweet music to Jesuit ears.
33. But it will not do to possess these facts and truths after the fashion of an abstract memory lesson or lifeless commentary. They must lead to practical results. They must impel us to subject our senses and their faculties to reason, as illuminated by the Catholic faith. They must help to cleanse and purify the heart, uniting it to Christ more intimately every day, growing ever more to His likeness, and drawing from Him the divine inspiration and strength of which it stands in need. They must serve as increasingly effective incentives to action: urging men to produce good fruit, to perform their individual duties faithfully, to give themselves eagerly to the regular practice of their religion and the energetic exercise of virtue. “You are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” Let everything, therefore, have its proper place and arrangement; let everything be “theocentric,” so to speak, if we really wish to direct everything to the glory of God through the life and power which flow from the divine Head into our hearts: “Having therefore, brethren, a confidence in the entering into the holies by the blood of Christ, a new and living way which He both dedicated for us through the veil, that is to say, His flesh, and a high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart, in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with clean water, let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering . . . and let us consider one another, to provoke unto charity and to good works.”
Practical results: the very goal of the Ignatian method. And for the protagonists of the Benedictine approach, Pope Pius XII says, “Let everything, therefore, have its proper place and arrangement; let everything be “theocentric,” so to speak, if we really wish to direct everything to the glory of God through the life and power which flow from the divine Head into our hearts”.
34. Here is the source of the harmony and equilibrium which prevails among the members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. When the Church teaches us our Catholic faith and exhorts us to obey the commandments of Christ, she is paving a way for her priestly, sanctifying action in its highest sense; she disposes us likewise for more serious meditation on the life of the divine Redeemer and guides us to profounder knowledge of the mysteries of faith where we may draw the supernatural sustenance, strength and vitality that enable us to progress safely, through Christ, towards a more perfect life. Not only through her ministers but with the help of the faithful individually, who have imbibed in this fashion the spirit of Christ, the Church endeavors to permeate with this same spirit the life and labors of men – their private and family life, their social, even economic and political life – that all who are called God’s children may reach more readily the end He has proposed for them.
“Serious meditation on the life of the Redeemer” is a not–so–veiled allusion to the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius.
35. Such action on the part of individual Christians, then, along with the ascetic effort promoting them to purify their hearts, actually stimulates in the faithful those energies which enable them to participate in the august sacrifice of the altar with better dispositions. They now can receive the sacraments with more abundant fruit, and come from the celebration of the sacred rites more eager, more firmly resolved to pray and deny themselves like Christians, to answer the inspirations and invitation of divine grace and to imitate daily more closely the virtues of our Redeemer. And all of this not simply for their own advantage, but for that of the whole Church, where whatever good is accomplished proceeds from the power of her Head and redounds to the advancement of all her members.
And in a nod to the Benedictine side of the debate he affirms the goal of “participation in the august sacrifice of the altar”, concluding that “whatever good is accomplished proceeds from the power of her Head and redounds to the advancement of all her members”.
36. In the spiritual life, consequently, there can be no opposition between the action of God, who pours forth His grace into men’s hearts so that the work of the redemption may always abide, and the tireless collaboration of man, who must not render vain the gift of God. No more can the efficacy of the external administration of the sacraments, which comes from the rite itself (ex opere operato), be opposed to the meritorious action of their ministers of recipients, which we call the agent’s action (opus operantis). Similarly, no conflict exists between public prayer and prayers in private, between morality and contemplation, between the ascetical life and devotion to the liturgy. Finally, there is no opposition between the jurisdiction and teaching office of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the specifically priestly power exercised in the sacred ministry.
Pope Pius XII makes a grand affirmation here: “No conflict exists between public prayer and prayers in private, between morality and contemplation, between the ascetical life and devotion to the liturgy”. This is his attempt to bring the Benedictine and Jesuit approaches together — public prayer (Benedictine) and prayers in private (Jesuit); morality (Jesuit) and contemplation (Benedictine); ascetical life (Jesuit) and devotion to the liturgy (Benedictine).
37. Considering their special designation to perform the liturgical functions of the holy sacrifice and divine office, the Church has serious reason for prescribing that the ministers she assigns to the service of the sanctuary and members of religious institutes betake themselves at stated times to mental prayer, to examination of conscience, and to various other spiritual exercises. Unquestionably, liturgical prayer, being the public supplication of the illustrious Spouse of Jesus Christ, is superior in excellence to private prayers. But this superior worth does not at all imply contrast or incompatibility between these two kinds of prayer. For both merge harmoniously in the single spirit which animates them, “Christ is all and in all.” Both tend to the same objective: until Christ be formed in us.
Here Pope Pius XII comes down strongly on the side of the Jesuits: “the Church has serious reason for prescribing that the ministers she assigns to the service of the sanctuary and members of religious institutes betake themselves at stated times to mental prayer, to examination of conscience, and to various other spiritual exercises”. At the same time, he affirms the Benedictine position: “Unquestionably, liturgical prayer, being the public supplication of the illustrious Spouse of Jesus Christ, is superior in excellence to private prayers”. He concludes with a synthesis: “This superior worth does not at all imply contrast or incompatibility between these two kinds of prayer. For both merge harmoniously in the single spirit which animates them, “Christ is all and in all.” Both tend to the same objective: until Christ be formed in us”.