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Mediator Dei: devotional approach to the mystery of Christ.

Nothing is more important for Catholics than the Church's public worship in which she continues the priestly office of Jesus Christ. Consequently, the Church devotes to it the greatest attention. Fifty years ago, on November 20, 1947, as a point of culmination of a hundred years of liturgical studies and research, Pope Pius XII published the encyclical Mediator Dei (Jesus, Mediator between God and man. . .). Then, in 1963, the Second Vatican Council adopted as its first document the decree Sacrosanctum concilium, which envisaged renewed forms of worship. Ever since, the liturgy has been a much-debated issue, sometimes heatedly so.

Fr. John Mole of Ottawa is a long-time commentator on liturgical developments. Here he draws attention to our need to see these two documents as complementary, avoiding the mistake of thinking that the more recent document has supplanted the earlier one. Indeed he sees Mediator Dei as the more important of the two.

On May 3, 1996, before the plenary assembly of the Congregation of Worship, John Paul II declared that "the liturgical reform is the fruit of a long period of reflection which dates back to the pastoral activity of St. Pius X and which was given a remarkable impetus in Pius XII's encyclical Mediator Dei whose 50th anniversary we will commemorate next year." (1) Subsequently the secretary of the said Congregation, Archbishop Agnelo, enthusiastically endorsed the intention of the Holy Father. At the same time, he intimated that the Pope's tribute to Mediator Dei identified it as the magna carta of the liturgical movement. (2) This poses a problem in that the title of magna carta had already been attributed by Paul VI to the Constitution on the Liturgy of Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium. (3)

Magna carta means "the big map," showing the course to be followed in a given domain and the dangers to be avoided on either side. Since we have two documents so designated in respect to the liturgy, let us consider which has the better claim.


The heavenly song Gloria in excelsis Deo, heard on the night of the Nativity and chorused down the ages at Mass, provides a twofold criterion: theocentricity - "Glory to God in the highest" - as well as anthropocentricity - "Peace on earth to men of goodwill" - the latter being subordinate to the former.

Sacrosanctum Concilium begins by proposing to invigorate Catholic worship by adapting it to modern man. This obviously man-centred purpose remains dominant throughout the text. As for Pius XII's encyclical, permit me to quote the opening paragraph of an article shortly to appear in the Homiletic & Pastoral Review of New York: "Mediator Dei et hominum announces the theme of Pius XII's encyclical. Embracing both God and man in a context where God comes first, theocentricity resounds throughout the document. Its article 33 exhorts us to `let everything be theocentric . . . if we really wish to direct everything to the glory of God.' This theme should reverberate in our ears today as we consider the extent to which the liturgy has become inordinately anthropocentric."

The criterion of theocentricity therefore marks Mediator Dei as superior to Sacrosanctum Concilium. This is not to disparage the latter document but simply to indicate that its light can only be useful and beneficial to the extent that it shines with the radiance of Pius XII's encyclical. For the comparison between the two documents is like that of sun and moon. Sacrosanctum Concilium cannot illuminate if it eclipses the light of Mediator Dei. (4)

Mystery of Christ

It is not enough to be attracted to God. We also need to be impelled towards Him. To put it pithily, we need push as well as pull. When we take part in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we seek to approach God present in the mystery of Christ. The Roman Rite begins: Introibo ad altare Dei -- I will go unto the altar of God - and ends, in the Prologue of St. John's Gospel, thus: "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But to as many as did receive Him, He gave the power to become the sons of God." Christ Who comes to us in the Mass expects that we will go forward to meet Him. So the worth of a document reputed to be the magna carta of the Church's teaching about the Mass and the Eucharist surely depends on its telling us how to respond to Christ's coming, as in His parable of the ten virgins: Awake, the bridegroom cometh! Go forth to meet Him.

We were accustomed to the call of Maranatha - the Lord cometh! - by the rudimentary catechetical teaching we received in childhood. The Penny Catechism of the London Catholic Truth Society, still popular in the English-speaking world at large, answers the first question (Who made me?) with: God made me. The second question: Why did God make me? is answered: God made me in order to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this life. . . .

To know and love God requires being focused on Him by the theological virtues of Faith and Charity. In order to serve God, that is, actually respond to Him as He comes into our lives, we are endowed with moral virtues, or those forms of spiritual strength to which we can have recourse in the domain of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. If I use them to hallow the name of my Father in Heaven, if I strive to be His fame, not His shame, if I seek not merely to be His child, but to behave as such, then one day He will say, "Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of thy Lord."

Now the summit and centre of the Christian life taught by the catechism is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. So says Mediator Dei. Hence we should expect from it a more specific answer to the question of how to go forth to meet Christ as He comes in the mystery of the Mass. Who is He, this divine king of glory? cries the psalmist: Quis est ipse rex gloriae? (Psalm 23). The New Testament shows this infinitely majestic God, King of Kings, becoming man and humbling Himself unto death, even the death of the cross. Who is He Who comes in tremendous humility? When Mary Magdalene bathed his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, kissed them and anointed them with perfume, the Pharisee host of Jesus asked: Who is this? If he were a prophet he would surely know he is being touched by an impure woman. And when Jesus said to her, Go in peace. Thy sins are forgiven, the other guests asked each other: Who is this who forgives sins? Their perception of what He does prompts the question: Who is He? That is the mystery.

The Roman Rite priest is moved to exclaim in the same breath with which he utters the words whereby Jesus becomes really present as Priest and Victim: mysterium fidei! The Novus Ordo has the priest turn aside from consecrating the sacred species in order to prompt the people to acclaim: Christ has died - Christ is risen - Christ will come again. But the heart of the mystery lies in Who He is rather than in what He does. The rational approach of trying to put into words the ineffable is ineffectual.

Catechetical teaching directs us in general to have recourse to all four moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. The liturgical teaching of Mediator Dei concentrates our attention specifically on a single moral virtue, that of religion. This impels us towards Christ and makes us intent on penetrating His mysterious presence in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Is religion yet another moral virtue in addition to the other four? No, it is a form of justice. The virtue of justice obliges us to give the other his due. Religion is that form of the virtue of justice whereby we give God His due, in terms of worship, that is, prayer, adoration and sacrifice.

Devotional approach

According to St Thomas Aquinas, cited by Mediator Dei (art. 32), the principal act of the virtue of religion is devotion, which moves us to pray, adore and make sacrifice to God. So in regard to how to penetrate the Mystery of Christ, Mediator Dei teaches us the devotional approach.

Here we can appeal to human experience, given that the problem of approaching a human person is not utterly unlike that of approaching a divine person. Personality is an attribute which is absolutely unique. There are no two persons alike in all creation. Each person cannot be other than a profound mystery to every other person.

Married couples learn that sheer devotion towards one's partner is the only way to penetrate eventually the mystery of that person. Magnum sacramentum is what St. Paul calls matrimony, in a context where "sacrament" simply means "mystery." (5) Marriage is a huge mystery insofar as it has an affinity with the mystery of the Mass. For Christian spouses are called upon to unite in a manner which shows forth the union between Christ the Bridegroom and His mystical bride, the Church. This union is consummated on the cross and celebrated in Eucharistic sacrifice.

The mystery of one's spouse unfolds little by little each time some joyful or sorrowful event occurs which causes one or the other to reveal something of himself or herself. This can take the whole of a lifetime. Indeed, it will take eternity to find out who one's conjugal partner really is. This union does not reveal itself in words. The words of endearment of elderly couples are usually small talk. The language of their union, too deep for words, consists in silent acts of devotion.

If such be the case with a human person, how do we penetrate the mystery of a divine person? How do we enter into the mystery of Jesus?

St. Luke tells us early in his Gospel of occasions when Mary could not fathom the meaning of actions and words of Jesus. So, Luke adds, she pondered over the mystery of these episodes in her heart. And she shares her prayer life with us in the mysteries of the Rosary. This is her means of helping us to learn gradually Who Jesus is.

And Holy Mother the Church emulates the Blessed Virgin by likewise pondering over different aspects of the mystery of Christ. In doing so, she has enriched her liturgy with feasts which seek to penetrate the mystery now by this devotion, now by that. So the principal act of the virtue of religion, which is devotion pure and simple, differentiates into the rich variety of devotions which are aspects, or gateways, into the mystery of Christ as a whole. The history of the liturgy since the Middle Ages has been intertwined with the chief devotions which illumine the person and mission of Christ. Thus the Church instituted the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in the 13th century, of the Holy Name in the 15th century, of the Sacred Heart in the 17th century and of the Precious Blood in the 19th century. Thanks to such devotions, the mystery of Christ unfolds through the ages.

Anti-devotional mentality

What actually prompted Pius XII to produce the encyclical Mediator Dei was an anti-devotional mentality which erupted amongst German liturgists in the 1940's. Carried away by an exaggerated enthusiasm for the liturgy, they propagated the notion that the prayer life of the people needed nothing else. They made the specious claim that, in the Middle Ages, the people had turned to the popular devotions as a substitute for the Mass because they could not understand Latin. The prestige of the German liturgical movement was then so great that there was a danger of this anti-devotional mentality spreading everywhere. So Pius XII responded with an encyclical addressed to the whole Church in which he strongly affirmed that not only are the popular devotions not detrimental to the liturgy but are absolutely indispensable thereto (art. 32.) The whole encyclical is grounded on the virtue of religion of which the principal act is devotion, whether it be pure or simple, or differentiated into the rich variety of devotions which have grown through the ages under the maternal care of the Church.

The anti-devotional mentality became entrenched in the liturgical movement in spite of Mediator Dei. It infected the reform launched by Paul VI. The Consilium, to which he entrusted the task of implementing Sacrosanctum Concilium, was not wholly immune from this deviant trend. A striking example is the fate of the encyclical In primis which John XXIII issued on June 30, 1960, and in which he implored the bishops to promote devotion to the Precious Blood. He did so with a note of urgency, using the phrase "with anxious foreboding of the heart." He set forth his case in the context of the three principal devotions to the different aspects of the Person of Christ: Name, Heart and Blood. The only response to this plea came five years later from the Consilium sub-committee entrusted with the task of making changes to the liturgical year. The new calendar suppressed two of the Feasts of John XXIII's trilogy: the Feasts of the Holy Name and of the Precious Blood.

While Paul VI intended Sacrosanctum Concilium to be the magna carta of his reform, this did not happen. The reformers did not accept the guidance of key stipulations such as: the language and music of his Novus Ordo must continue to be Latin and Gregorian chant: change must be effected by organic growth, not artificial fabrication: and the substance of the Roman Rite must be safeguarded.


The chief criterion of the excellence of Sacrosanctum Concilium is generally taken to be its position on participation: "In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy the full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else" (art. 14.) The achievement of this "before all else" aim has been sought by making the mystery of the Mass "intelligible," that is, totally vernacular, article 36 of Sacrosanctum Concilium notwithstanding. Such a thrust could only result in an emphasis on the external aspects detailed in article 30: "To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalms, antiphons, hymns, as well as by actions, gestures and bodily attitudes." Of course, what should come "before all else" are interior dispositions (briefly mentioned in article 48) whereby the faithful offer themselves in union with the sacrifice of Christ.

In contrast, about a third of the 210 articles of Mediator Dei are devoted to participation by interior dispositions. The faithful are urged to offer sacrifice with the priest (85-97); offer themselves as victims (98-104); take part devoutly in Holy Communion (112-128); and adore the Blessed Sacrament (129-133).

Such participation involves the entire deployment of the virtue of religion of which the principal act, devotion, elicits the acts of prayer, adoration and sacrifice. So even in regard to this criterion, the teaching of Mediator Dei is also grounded firmly on the devotional approach. However the rational approach is not excluded. Articles 105-108 encourage the faithful to follow the Mass in hand missals wherein the words are shown in their native tongue, side by side with the Latin. In a word, the rational is secondary to the devotional aspect.

The greatest act of devotion ever posed in the history of mankind is that whereby the Son of God made man offered His life on the cross for the glory of God and our salvation. To this we must respond with our own devotion. This is the main message of Mediator Dei.

(1) . Cf. Notitiae (official bulletin of the Congregation of Worship), No. 359/360, p. 398.

(2) . Ibid. p. 467.

(3) . Discourse to the Consilium, Osservatore romano, Eng. edition, Apr. 23/70.

(4) . In fact Mediator Dei was eclipsed by Sacrosanctum Concilium, which makes not a single reference to it. The title of our HPR article is "Mediator Dei - End of Eclipse."

(5) . Ephesians 5:32.
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Author:Mole, John W.
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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