The Primacy of the Liturgy
On November 22, 1903, only a couple of months after his election to the Supreme Pontificate, St. Pius X wrote a relatively short Motu Proprio on Sacred Music titled Tra le Sollecitudini. Among the many points in this instruction, one sentence in particular has become famous: “Filled as We are with a most ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish in every respect and be preserved by all the faithful, We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church.”
Saint Pius X – Holiness of the Sacred Liturgy
In this statement we have the key to understanding the program of St. Pius X’s pontificate. We can consider it as a sort of commentary on his motto, “Omnia instaurare in Christo—to re-establish all things in Christ.” The aim of his pontificate is stated in a few words: “We...desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish in every respect and be preserved by all the faithful.” St. Pius X’s first and foremost intention was to lead the flock of Christ to its Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and to educate it so that it may resemble Him.
Then St. Pius X explains how he intends to reach this supra-human aim of his: “We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple.” He means much more than the sacredness of the physical buildings. The end of the sentence shows that what the Pope has in mind is the holiness of the Sacred Liturgy in general: the sanctity and dignity of our churches must be always provided for, because of what is taking place within them, the molding of our souls to Christ’s likeness (“in which (temples) the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable font”). And so, by “the sanctity and dignity of the churches” must be understood not only the local buildings themselves, but also and foremost what happens inside these sacred walls and which is the vehicle of the grace of Christ, in other words the holy ceremonies of our Sacred Liturgy (“(the) foremost and indispensable font (of the Christian spirit), which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church”), and in particular the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (“the most holy mysteries”).
The Very Priority of Saint Pius X
The Sacred Liturgy was thus the priority of St. Pius X, the very pope who had to deal with the assault of the modern world against the Church. Let us remember his main liturgical reforms, which had a tremendous effect on the life of the Church:
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre – Spirit of the Society
In 1969, the Good Lord inspired Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre to found our Priestly Society of Saint Pius X as a little army to defend the Church. What was the idea of the Archbishop in creating this Society? What was its spirit? The answer to this question shows very clearly how much Archbishop Lefebvre understood the teachings of St. Pius X, the last pope to be canonized and thus to be proposed to us as a model.
In Cor Unum, the internal bulletin of the Society for its priests, Archbishop Lefebvre stated his mind very clearly about this. The following extensive excerpts will show how much the Archbishop and St. Pius X were close in their very understanding, first of the Mystery of the Church, and consequently of the place of the sacred liturgy in this very Mystery.4
“The spirit of the Society, being above all that of the Church, will see to it that the members of the Society...will ever increase in their knowledge of the Mystery of Christ....5 We will penetrate the depths of the great mystery of our faith, the Holy Mass, and so have a limitless devotion for this mystery, making it the center of our thoughts, our hearts and our interior life....All the life of the Church is turned towards the altar of sacrifice....
“These are also the fundamental convictions of the Society....The spirit of the Church focuses upon the divine and the sacred. One of the characteristics of the Society will be that of showing respect towards baptized souls, of treating sacred things with respect, especially concerning the sacred action par excellence, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”6
“...Whence come the splendours of the liturgy, that sings of the crucified and risen Christ. The Church knows how to present and make us live these mysteries in a truly divine manner, in a way that our hearts are captivated and our souls uplifted. All has been thought out with the love of a faithful spouse and a merciful mother. We find edification in the holy places, the ceremonies, the chant, the choice of prayers from the Missal, the Breviary, the Pontifical and the Ritual....
“The consequences of this attachment to the liturgy will be seen in the care and attention given to the beauty and cleanliness of holy places, the sacred linens and the objects used in worship. It will also manifest itself in beautiful ceremonies, chant and the regularity and edifying recitation of the Divine Office....If the Liturgy is, above all, the praise of the Holy Trinity, offering and sacrifice, a source of divine life, then it is also the most vibrant and effective means of catechizing....”7
“...We have seen that the spirit of the Society is essentially a priestly spirit, enlightened by the radiance of our Redeemer’s Sacrifice on Calvary and in the Mass, “the Mystery of Faith.” This great mystery, the sun of our faith, is brought to us by the Church’s Liturgy, where, like a mother, she unfolds to us the infinite riches of this mystery, by the actions, words, chants and liturgical vestments, all of which differ according to the remarkable liturgical cycle. The Society...zealously seeks to understand the Liturgy and to bring it forth in all its beauty and splendour....The spirit of the Society is a liturgical spirit.”8
Fundamental Principles of This Teaching
The primacy of the Liturgy in the life of the Church, and thus in the life of all Catholics, is founded on the primacy of the Sacrifice of our Most Blessed Lord. As a true Bride, the Church has always striven to embellish the celebration of this Sacrifice with many ceremonies which altogether form the Liturgy. For indeed, even the ceremonies which do not seem immediately connected to the Mass, like the other sacraments, the Divine Office, and the many blessings of the Ritual—all actually prepare or complete the Sacrifice of the Mass! In the case of the sacraments in particular, St. Thomas explains that all sacraments are connected somehow to the Holy Eucharist, because “all the other sacraments are ordained to this sacrament as to their end.”9 And the same could be said of all the other ceremonies of the Liturgy, which should be considered as a backdrop or a jewel case enshrining the Most Holy Eucharist. All have their place in the Liturgy, even the most insignificant ceremony.10
1 Motu Proprio Tra le Sollecitudini, November 22, 1903. It is important to notice that having been elected on August 4, 1903, Saint Pius X wrote this Motu Proprio only three months after having sat on Saint Peter’s throne! This is indeed a sign of how important the holy Pope deemed the Sacred Liturgy is in the life of all Catholics.
2 Decree Quam Singulari, August 8, 1910
3 Bull Divino Afflatu, November 1, 1911.
4 The following citations have been taken from articles written by Archbishop Lefevbre in five consecutive issues of Cor Unum, the internal bulletin of the SSPX. These five articles can be found in the Third Order of the Society of St. Pius X’s Handbook, edited by the SSPX, and available in all our chapels.
5 The similarity of sentence with Saint Pius X’s previous citation is striking: “Filled as We are with a most ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish” (St. Pius X).
6 Cor Unum No. 9, June 1981 (cf. Third Order of the Society of St. Pius X’s Handbook, p. 16).
7 Cor Unum No. 10, October 1981 (cf. Third Order of the Society of St. Pius X’s Handbook, p. 17).
8 Cor Unum No. 11, Febr. 1982 (cf. Third Order of the Society of St. Pius X’s Handbook, p. 19).
9 Summa Theologica, III, Q. 65, Art. 3,: “All the other Sacraments are manifestly ordained to this Sacrament as to their end. For it is manifest that the Sacrament of Order is ordained to the consecration of the Eucharist. And the Sacrament of Baptism is ordained to the reception of the Eucharist. To which (reception) also, one is perfected by Confirmation, that one may not fear and thus abstain from such a Sacrament. By Penance also, as well as by Extreme Unction, man is prepared to receive the Body of Christ worthily. And even Matrimony, at least in its symbolical signification, is connected to this Sacrament, in that it signifies the union of Christ and the Church, which union is expressed through the Sacrament of the Eucharist, whence the Apostle says, Ephes. V, 31, ‘This is a great sacrament: but I speak in Christ and in the church.’
10 For the faithful who have access to the Summa of Saint Thomas, there are many articles in the third part dealing with these ceremonies. With regard to Baptism and its ceremonies, cf. III, Q. 71; Confirmation, III, Q. 72, Art. 12; Eucharist, III, Q.74, Q.83; Penance, III, Q. 84, Art. 4, AD SUPPL. Q. 28; Extr. Unction, AD SUPPL. Q. 29, 32; Holy Orders, Q. 37, Q. 40.