Saint Pius X: Reformer of the Liturgy

Fr. Pascal Thuillier

An historian of the liturgical movement wrote:

St. Pius X

With St. Pius X, the liturgical movement entered an entirely new era. For until then, it had been the prerogative of individual forces in the Church. Voices had been raised here and there, manifesting their agreement on a kind of reaction against the invasion of the profane and preaching a return to sources as the true means of re-Christianization....But these appeals scarcely ruffled the accustomed practice, and could not unseat the indifference of a significant part of the clergy, who little desired a change of habits of piety and methods of ministry. From the day when, having become Pope, Pius X became the official propagator of the liturgical restoration, things changed. His manifold interventions on religious music, the psaltery, and frequent communion, were "so many energetic turns of the helm which decisively steered the Church towards a liturgical life imbued by traditional piety, sacramental grace, and inspired beauty."1

The Reform of Sacred Music

St. Pius X's interest in liturgy did not start with his elevation to the supreme pontificate. While still a young vicar at Tombolo, he created a schola cantorum of young men of Salzano, whom he carefully trained in plainchant and liturgical ceremonies. Already in his parish he achieved an ideal of liturgical splendor that was the admiration of clergy and people. He would say, "One mustn't sing or pray during Mass, one must sing and pray the Mass," and "I became convinced by long experience that the pure harmonies of ecclesiastical chant, such as are required by the holiness of the temple and the sacred ceremonies that take place there, admirably foster piety and devotion, and consequently the true worship of God."2

As bishop of Mantua, for a time he wanted to fulfill himself the functions of rector, professor of theology and of Gregorian chant in his seminary, and to teach the ceremonies to the seminarians in order to inculcate in them a sense of grandeur and respect for sacred things. As Patriarch of Venice, on May 1, 1895, he published a pastoral letter on the chant and music of the Church.

Chant and sacred music must by their melody excite the faithful to devotion, and dispose them to receive more easily the fruits of the grace accompanying all the holy mysteries solemnly celebrated. Sacred music being thus closely united to the liturgy, it must by that very fact harmonize with the text and present the qualities without which it would be nothing more than an hors d'oeuvre: in particular, holiness, perfection of art, and universality.

The very first reform concerned sacred music. Throughout the 19th century, numerous abuses, slow and progressive deviations, had been introduced into Church musical practice. They culminated under the pontificate of the preceding pope, Leo XIII. Hippolyte Taine had this comment one day at the end of a nuptial Mass: "A very nice opera, analogous to the fifth act of Robert the Devil, only Robert the Devil is more religious."3

The causes of this decadence were resumed by St. Pius X in his motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini, published on the Feast of St. Cecilia, November 22, 1903 (reprinted in The Angelus, March 1995):

And indeed, whether as a result of the changeable nature of this art, or of the many alterations in people's taste and custom during the lapse of time; whether from the unhappy influence of secular and theatrical music on that of the Church, or from the pleasure excited by the music itself, which it may not be easy to retain within proper limits; whether, lastly, it be because of the many prejudices on this subject which sometimes obstinately remain even among persons of great piety and high authority, there certainly is a constant tendency in sacred music to neglect the right principles of an art used in the service of the liturgy, principles expressed very clearly in the laws of the Church, in the decrees of general and provincial councils, and in the repeated commands of the sacred congregations and of the supreme pontiffs.

The Pope explained his thinking:

And since indeed Our first and most ardent wish is that a true Christian spirit flourish and be kept always by all the faithful, the first thing to which We must attend is the holiness and dignity of the churches in which Our people assemble, in order to acquire that spirit from its first and most indispensable source, by taking an active part in the sacred mysteries and in the solemn public prayers of the Church.

The liturgy appears as the source of the Christian spirit:

Sacred music, being an integral part of the liturgy, is directed to the general object of this liturgy, namely, the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful.

In the next part of the motu proprio, qualified by the author as "a canonical code concerning sacred music," Pius X enumerated the qualities of sacred music. It must be holy, and consequently exclude every profane element, not only in itself, but also in its execution. It must be a veritable art, for it is otherwise impossible for it to have upon the souls of its hearers the efficacy the Church expects of her liturgy. But at the same time, it must be universal. The Pope here allows every nation to admit into religious compositions the particular forms which, in a certain manner, constitute the specific character of their own music, while these forms must nonetheless be subordinate to the general characteristics of sacred music.

Where is the sacred music meeting these requirements to be found? St. Pius X's answer is threefold: 1) most perfectly in Gregorian chant; 2) to a high degree in music of the classical school (for example, that of Palestrina); and 3) finally, in modern music, but greater care must be taken that nothing be reminiscent of theatrical pieces.

The Pope restated that the Roman Church's own chant is Gregorian chant. It has regained its place since the recent studies of the end of the 19th century (Dom Gueranger, Dom Pothier) have restored it to its pristine purity. It is the supreme model of sacred music. The holy Pope insisted that "especially should this chant be restored to the use of the people, so that they may take a more active part in the offices, as they did in former times." In particular, special care will be taken with the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, the psalms, and hymns. Still, it was not the Pope's intention to impose the exclusive use of Gregorian chant, as his secretary of state Cardinal Merry del Val wrote: "He did not agree with the attitude of a few fanatics who would banish from our churches all music but Gregorian chant. He declared that such an attitude was an exaggeration."4 In this can be seen the realism, prudence, and scope of St. Pius X, and how his enemies' accusations of fixity, narrow-mindedness, and rigorism were false.

Some practical dispositions come next: use of profane language, exclusion of women from the choir, the role of the organ in the accompaniment, the exclusion of certain instruments such as the piano, drums, kettledrums, cymbals, triangles, and so on. Finally, the document indicates the means most apt to promote this reform: diocesan commissions, practical and theoretical education in the seminaries, resurrection of scholae cantorum.

The Pope wanted the reforms to be executed rapidly. He wrote to his Cardinal Vicar on Dec. 8, 1903:

For you, do not be indulgent, do not grant any delays. By postponing [its implementation], the difficulty is not diminished, it is increased; and since it involves suppression, it must be done swiftly and resolutely. Let everyone have confidence in Us and in Our word, to which are attached the graces and blessing of heaven."

One of the first concrete acts that followed the publication of the motu proprio was the celebration of the 13th centenary of St. Gregory the Great at St. Peter's Basilica at Rome on April 11, 1904, during which 1,200 seminarians sang the Mass in Gregorian chant. Numerous acts followed to confirm and continue the document's prescriptions. Soon after the motu proprio, an official revision of Gregorian chant books was announced (Jan. 8, 1904). A special commission presided by Dom Joseph Pothier, O.S.B., (abbot of St. Wandrille), was created on April 25, 1904, in order to examine the work that needed to be carried out by the Benedictines of Solesmes. Among its members are to be found the great names of the artisans of the reform: Dom Andre Mocquereau, O.S.B., (prior of Solesmes), Fr. Ange de Santi, S.J., Msgr. Laurent Perosi (permanent director of the Sistine Chapel), Msgr. Charles Respighi (pontifical master of ceremonies). The publication of the new Gradual was dated March 12, 1908, that of the new Antiphonary, Dec. 8, 1912. In 1910, the Pontifical Higher School of Sacred Music was founded.

Twenty-five years later, Pope Pius XI renewed the impetus of Pope Pius X in the bull Divini Cultus, dated Feb. 6, 1929. In particular he declared:

It is absolutely necessary that the faithful not conduct themselves as strangers or mute spectators, but, seized by the beauty of the liturgy, they must take part in the sacred ceremonies...alternating their voices, according to the established rules, with the voices of the priest and the schola.


Reform of the Breviary

Next to the reform of sacred music stands another, not less important: the revision of the calendar and the Breviary. The culmination of a lengthy preparation, this reform was promulgated by the bull Divino Afflatu of Nov. 1, 1911. It mainly involved the rearrangement of the liturgical psalter (150 psalms), the weekly recitation of which by clerics had long since been compromised by the addition of numerous saints' feasts with their own propers. Moreover, it was necessary to work to reunify the liturgy. In France, for example, the Revolution and the Concordat of 1801 had introduced much confusion among the local liturgies. A single diocese could count as many as seven or eight different liturgies!

"Formerly it was decreed," says the Pope, "by the acts of the Roman Pontiffs, conciliar canons, and monastic rules, that the members of the regular and the secular clergy would sing or recite the entire psalter weekly. And this law, our forefathers' heritage, Our predecessors in revising the Roman breviary have religiously maintained. That is why, even today, during the course of every week, the psalter should be recited in its entirety if the changes that had occurred in the course of things did not often impede this recitation. For, in the course of time, the number of those whom the Church, after their mortal life, is accustomed to inscribe among the blessed and to propose to the Christian people as protectors and models has constantly increased. In their honor, the offices of saints were multiplied little by little, to the point that the offices of Sunday and weekdays were almost never recited and that, consequently, numerous psalms were neglected." And then the Pope quotes St. Athanasius: "Truly, it seems to me that to one who psalmodies, the psalms are like a mirror, so that, contemplating in them both himself and the movements of his own heart, he recites them with these sentiments."

During the pontificate of Benedict XIV (1740-1758) a half-hearted attempt had foundered (the attempt to suppress numerous saints' feasts was labeled "the massacre of the Innocents"). The project was never followed up. At the First Vatican Council, the complaints of the Fathers were numerous, but remained powerless to prevent new encroachments of the Sanctoral on the Temporal. (The liturgical year distinguishes, on one hand, the Temporal, or the office of the season, which follows the major stages in the life of Christ, and thus the corresponding feasts: Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost...; on the other, the Sanctoral, or Office of the Saints whom the Church honors every day.) In 1879, at the beginning of Leo XIII's pontificate, there were 239 days of the year which excluded the Office of the Temporal. In 1911, on the eve of Pius X's reform there 252! To these numbers it would be necessary to add, for the universal Church, a dozen movable feasts, most assigned to a Sunday, the proper feasts of the season, and then, in each diocese, their local saints... The Office of the liturgical cycle which follows Christ's life had substantially disappeared. Leo XIII himself failed in his attempt to remedy the disorder.

Pope St. Pius X's idea was to restore the psalms to their traditional place in public prayer, with precaution, nevertheless, that the integral recitation of the psalter weekly not in any way diminish the cult of the saints, and, moreover, that it diminish, rather than increase, the obligations of clerics bound to the recitation of the Divine Office.

The principle enactments of the reformer can be reduced to two general ideas: 1) Include in the week the recitation of the entire Psalter, and to this end abridge the ferial Psalter; 2) resolve the conflict between the Temporal and the Sanctoral, especially by re-establishing the ancient Offices for Sundays. Thus the length of the Offices of the breviary were reduced (for example, Matins went from 18 psalms recited on Sundays and 12 on ferial days, to 9 psalms or parts of psalms, never more, with the result of reaching a fairly equal number of verses for each day–between 360 and 497–whereas the former Office of Saturday contained 792, and that of Sunday, 721).5 Once again, the psalter was recited integrally each week without suppressing the feasts of saints; the proper liturgy of Sundays and weekdays was restored; the readings of Holy Scripture proper to the seasons of the year were privileged.6

The distribution of the psalms in St. Pius X's breviary was entirely new. It only partially took into account the ancient tradition of the Church, for example, abandoning the number of 12 psalms at Matins, a number consecrated by a tradition going back to the Desert Fathers and expressly codified in the Rule of St. Benedict. Another point controverted at the time was the suppression of the immemorial and universally held usage of reciting psalms 148, 149, and 150 at the end of Lauds daily. This amounts to saying that the Breviary of Pius X did not have so much in common with that of his predecessor, and that clerics were significantly unsettled in their habits!

It must be admitted that many other technical difficulties came to light, in particular as regards the reform of diocesan propers. It was estimated that it would take 30 years to conclude the reform of the Breviary.

At the same time, several documents had been published in July and August, 1911, to recognize a situation that already existed in some way in almost every country. These legislative dispositions reduced the holydays of obligation. The political upheavals in Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries had de-Christianized social life. To avoid too great a number of transgressions (rest and attendance at Mass), to take into account "the different conditions of the time and of civil society," the 36 holydays of obligation then in force were reduced to 8 by the motu proprio Supremi Disciplinae7 of July 2, 1911.

Finally, on Oct. 23, 1913, Pius X completed the document of November 1, 1911, by the motu proprio Ab Hinc Duos Annos,8 which modified the calendar. No feast was to be fixed to a Sunday except the Holy Name of Jesus and the Blessed Trinity (later, the feasts of the Holy Family and of Christ the King would be added). The octaves were equally simplified.

Another audacious project: Pope Pius X had even envisaged fixing the date of Easter. A questionnaire was sent to all the bishops in 1913. A majority were in favor. Yet the Congregation of Rites pronounced against the idea on December 9, 1913, because it risked "naturalizing the great event of Christ's Resurrection." The project was abandoned.9


The Eucharistic Decrees: Frequent Communion and the Age of First Communion

Closely related to the liturgical reforms are, of course, the decrees of St. Pius X on the Eucharist.

On April 19, 1880, Msgr. de Segur had written these prophetic words to Mademoiselle Tamisier, the animator of the Eucharistic Congresses:

It seems to me that if I were pope, the principal aim of my pontificate would be to restore daily communion. I let Pius IX know my idea, but perhaps the time has not yet come. The pope who will do it, under the impulsion of the Holy Ghost, will be the renovator of the world.

From May 30, 1905, to July 14, 1907, St. Pius X made 12 interventions to this end. But to give an idea of the mindset of certain priests during the 19th century, we quote this letter of the curate of Rouilly-Sacey, sent to his bishop on Christmas Eve: "Monseigneur, rejoice with me. There was no sacrilegious communion today, because I did not open the tabernacle." This was the bishop who, later on, when asked if a Eucharistic Crusade could be organized in his diocese, replied: "Crusade? Yet another machine for fabricating sacrileges!"10

The importance of Communion was never put in doubt by popular Catholic piety. Nonetheless, the tepidity, a vestige of 17th-century Jansenism (under pretext of respect), kept numerous souls away. In the 19th century, there were zealous apostles of frequent communion, such as St. John-Marie Vianney and St. John Bosco. From June 5-8, 1905, a Eucharistic Congress was supposed to be held at Rome. Pius X approved and indulgenced a prayer to obtain the diffusion of the pious practice of daily communion. Each year thereafter the Pope would send to the International Eucharistic Congress a pontifical legate.

On December 20, 1905, the decree Sacra Tridentina Synodus: De quotidiana SS. Eucharistiae sumptione was published. The decree first declares: "[It is] the desire of Jesus Christ and of the Church that all of the faithful should daily approach the sacred banquet." Then it gives the motives which should bring the faithful there each day: "[It] is directed chiefly to this end, that the faithful, being united to God by means of the Sacrament, may thence derive strength to resist their sensual passions...."11

Two conditions are necessary for this practice: the state of grace and a right intention. Nine articles specify the spirit of the decree, and conclude with this sentence: "...all ecclesiastical writers are to cease from contentious controversy concerning the dispositions required for frequent and daily communion."12

Thus was the true Christian notion of communion restored. The canonist Ferreres, S J., wrote:

This decree puts an end to a controversy that has lasted for centuries. It resolves questions that have been debated by the most eminent geniuses, corrects on several points opinions set forth by great saints and illustrious doctors. There are almost no works of morals heretofore written that do not need to be amended, and the same could be said of rules, constitutions, spiritual direction, books of devotion, and critical works.13

Did it become necessary to foster frequent and daily communion in schools? Was it necessary to recommend its practice to children from their First Holy Communion? Was it better to maintain the custom of letting a year elapse between the first communion and the second? The Congregation of the Council responded on Feb. 14, 1906:

It is necessary that children be nourished by Christ before they become dominated by their passions, so that they can more courageously repulse the attacks of the devil, the flesh, and other enemies without and within.

It remained to define the child's age for the first communion. The decree Quam Singulari of August 8, 1910, specified it. During the previous century, the custom had been accepted of delaying the age of first Holy Communion to 10, 12, 14 years or even later. The document definitively fixes it at the age of "discretion," that is to say the age at which the child begins to reason, or about the seventh year, or even before. From this moment commences the obligation to satisfy the double precept of confession and communion. It is clearly indicated that a perfect knowledge of Christian doctrine is not necessary to meet this obligation. The sufficient knowledge consists of knowing according to one's degree of understanding the mysteries of Faith about necessity of means and of being able to distinguish the Eucharistic bread from ordinary bread.

Despite the Sovereign Pontiff's will, the application of these Eucharistic decrees was not carried out without some reticence on the part of a clergy whose doctrine in this domain was derived from a rigorist formation.

Several dispositions were added in order to facilitate the practice of these directives. In favor of the sick who were prevented from receiving Holy Communion by the obligation to fast, the decrees of Dec. 7, 1906, and March 6, 1907, introduced certain dispensations. For them, the Congregation of Sacraments, in December 1912, facilitated the carrying of consecrated hosts.

Here mention should be made of St. Pius X's support given to the Eucharistic Crusade, which sanctified millions of children for decades. Indeed, saints were not lacking among children, and Pius XII was to pay warm homage to his predecessor in an official letter of September 9, 1948.

To complete the narrative of St. Pius X's action in the liturgical domain, one could also mention the inscription of 4 blesseds in the catalogue of the saints, and 73 new blesseds.

The ensemble of St. Pius X's liturgical modifications manifested the scope and audacity of his ambitions. At the time, some even pronounced the word "revolutionary," especially as regards his decrees on frequent (1905) and early (1910) reception of Communion. Taken in its pejorative sense, it is evidently inexact. Yet, taken with a certain exaggeration, it signifies well enough the audacity of many of his reforms.

Profoundly marked by his pastoral experience at every echelon of the Church's hierarchy, this realist pope knew how to initiate the reforms needful for the sanctification of clergy and faithful at the beginning of the 20th century. St. Pius X was farsighted. We still see the fruits of it today. Falsely accused of being rigid, or, more pejoratively, a 19th-century pope, this pope, on the contrary, proved his modernity by his immense work of liturgical restoration. Nor did he fear the hostile reactions of certain clerics attached to the forms of piety of a past that was no more....His was an indefectible attachment to essential principles, and his flexibility in more contingent matters gives us today a model of pontifical prudence.

The history of the Church has shown us, alas!, that this impetus would be quickly turned from its true end and co-opted by the instigators of the changes which we know. Suffice it to quote Dom Lambert Beauduin:

The place where this alliance of humanity with the Blessed Trinity must be sealed and renewed daily is the Eucharistic Sacrifice, symbolized by the altar, the center of the liturgy. The disposition of the altar is that of the ancient Roman basilicas: the celebrant is turned towards the people in order to signify "the active participation of the faithful in the sacred mysteries," the principal objective fixed by Pius X in the liturgical restoration.14

In this we see the dawning of a new interpretation, a new rite, the cult of man made God, the participation of the faithful who become the actors of the liturgy, subjects of the sacred rite and of the priesthood. Nothing could be more foreign to the thought of St. Pius X than these seeds of a Revolution in tiara and cope.

Translated exclusively for Angelus Press from Saint Pie X: Les Actes, Acts of a colloquium held March 29, 2003, by the Society of Saint Pius X in Paris, sponsored by the Society's St. Pius X University.

1. Olivier Rousseau, Histoire du mouvement liturgique (Paris: Cerf, 1945), p. 201, cited in Dom A. Stoelen, "La Papaute et le renouveau liturgique au debut du XXème siecle," Tu es Petrus (Paris: Bloud & Gay, 1930), pp. 780-801.

2. Benediction sent to the Rassegna Gregoriana, August 27, 1903.

3. Cited by Edgar Tinel, "Pie X et la musique sacrée," Musica Sacra, vol. 28 (1908-09), p. 19-27.

4. Cardinal Merry del Val, Pie X, Impressions et souvenirs (St. Maurice: Ed. de 1'oeuvre de St.-Augustin, 1951), p. 38.

5. Dom Baudot, O.S.B., Le breviaire (Bloud et Gay, 1929), pp. 71-76.

6. A. Molien, L'office dans le breviaire romain (Paris: Bloud et Gay, 1931), pp. 606-607.

7. Documents pontificaux de sa Saintete Saint Pie X (Courrier de Rome, 1993), II, 361.

8. Ibid., p. 644.

9. H. Hinck, "Une tentative de Pie X pour fixer la date de Paques," Revue d'Histoire Ecclesiastique, April-June 1975, pp. 462-468.

10. J.-M. Derely, S.J., "Les decrets eucharistiques du bienheureux Pie X," Nouvelle Revue Theologique, no. 9 (1951), pp. 897-911.

11. [Passages are quoted from Doctrinal Writings of Saint Pius X (Manila: Sinag-tala Publishers, 1974), p. 145.]

12. Ibid., p. 154. 10

13. Juan Bautista Ferreres, S.J., La communion frequente et quotidienne (n.p., n.d.), prologue. [An English version appeared under the title The Decree on Holy Communion: A Historical Sketch and Commentary (St. Louis: Herder, 1909).]

14. Dom Lambert Beauduin, O.S.B., La pieté liturgique (Fides, 1947), p. 14.