Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875) devoted himself to liturgical scholarship, polemics, and the establishment of Benedictine communities in France.
The Holy Mass is Guéranger's most extensive treatment of the heart of the liturgy and firmly established him as a leading liturgist. By turns devotional, exegetical and historical, this is therefore a timely publication of one of the great treasures of Catholic liturgical spirituality.
Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875) was ordained to the priesthood in 1827, in the France of the restored Bourbon monarchy. France, and particularly the Church, was in the painful process of recovering from the French Revolution and responding to a century of rationalism inimical to spiritual values. Monasticism and liturgy—both fundamentally alien to the Enlightenment mentality—were to play a pivotal role in re-establishing the primacy of the spiritual and in bearing witness to the reality of the supernatural order. Guéranger’s chief glory was in being at the fountainhead of both.
In 1836, with four other priests, he reopened the ancient priory of Solesmes, and the next year it was elevated by Gregory XVI to an Abbey, and established as the head of the Congrégation Française de l’Ordre de Saint Benoît. Guéranger was appointed the Abbot of Solesmes and Superior General of the Benedictines in France. From that point on, Solesmes was to be the engine-room of the Benedictine revival in France and England, and of the liturgical revival throughout the world. For the remainder of his life, Guéranger devoted himself to liturgical scholarship, polemics, and the establishment of Benedictine communities in France. His influence was powerfully felt by such men as La Cordaire, Montalembert, Veuillot, and Bloy, as well as in the formulation of papal infallibility at Vatican I, although he himself was unable to attend the Council.
His greatest legacy is, however, undoubtedly in the field of liturgy. His monumental series, l’Anné e Liturgique,—a comprehensive study of the calendar of the Church—is probably the most famous work ever written on the Liturgy, and can be said to be the foundation of the whole modern liturgical movement, which reached its apogee in the 1930s and 40s. His work in restoring the place and norms of Gregorian chant has also had an incalculable influence and its ideals are enshrined in St Pius X’s 1903 motu proprio on sacred music.
Nevertheless, even though Guéranger can be seen as the founder of the modern liturgical movement, his work fell into disfavour with liturgists in the two decades preceding the Second Vatican Council, for its supposed romanticism and “neomediaeval irrelevancy.” However, the shortcomings of modern liturgists have been cruelly exposed in the years following the liturgical changes of the 1960s. Many of these scholars were animated by a reactionary hatred of the nineteenth century not unlike that found in the secular academic circles of the same era. They lie open to the charge (many of them) of a new rationalism, whose effect on contemporary liturgy and spirituality bears a disconcerting resemblance to that of the eighteenth century. In the wake of these liturgical disasters, and the renewal of a sympathetic interest in the culture of the nineteenth century, Gué ranger’s work is being restored to its rightful place. As Fr. Aidan Nichols remarked in his now classic Looking at the Liturgy, “Guéranger conceived his work as monastic founder and liturgist precisely as a response to the social and cultural anomie and individualism of post-Revolutionary France, not in some kind of ‘precious’ abstraction from the same. The question he faced was: How is Christian community to be re-created? … In the prayer of the Liturgy … the supernatural unity of the many in Christ is established and realised.”
Guéranger’s return to favour as a major liturgist is only one aspect of a general reappropriation of important elements of Catholic tradition in recent years: not only the nineteenth century, but also the Baroque and the fourfold interpretation of Sacred Scripture. The Holy Mass is not only Guéranger’s most extensive treatment of the heart of the liturgy, but also a fine example of the fourfold interpretation. The fourfold interpretation means employing the four different sense of Scripture when one reads the Bible. Thus every passage of Sacred Scripture is understood to have four senses: the moral sense (conveying truths about the Christian life), the allegorical sense (conveying truths about Christ), and the anagogical sense (conveying truths about Heaven). This form of Biblical interpretation has been reasserted as normative by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see “The Senses of Scripture“, nos. 115-119). We should read the Scriptures prayerfully - in effect, we should pray the Scriptures. The Mass is supremely a scriptural prayer: thus Guéranger’s use of this method in The Holy Mass is particularly appropriate.
By turns devotional, exegetical and historical, this is therefore a timely publication of one of the great treasures of Catholic liturgical spirituality.
The Great Bishop of Poitiers, Mgr. Pie, in his funeral Oration on our Father, Dom. Guéranger, said: “You have long been feasting at a royal board, where you were daily regaled with the most delicate and varied food. Those Conferences on the Christian Life and Virtues, and that incomparable Commentary on your Rule,—you have no right to keep them to yourselves.”
Notwithstanding so pressing an invitation on the part of so competent a judge, as was this devoted friend of our Father, we have hesitated long before yielding up to public gaze the secret of our family treasure. It seemed to us that such notes as these would only do for his own sons, eager of paternal instructions and never likely to carp at either the simplicity of the form, or at the incorrectness of the language.
But so very many friends, assiduous readers of Dom Guéranger’s Liturgical Year, by their repeated solicitations and earnest appeals, have succeeded at length in dissipating our first fears. They are fully aware that they cannot expect to find once more the eminent writer himself, in mere notes, jotted down at the time, almost on the sly, and afterwards hastily put together in a form, the faultiness and inexactitude of which can never be imputed to any one, save to the more or less faithful copyists. But there is one thing they are sure to find in these pages,—the Teacher and the Father, who in intimacy with his friends or his monks, ever with lavish hand, distributed that sure and luminous doctrine which leads souls to God.
We here open our proposed publications, by a short commentary on the Ceremonies of Holy Mass, incomplete though we certainly know it to be, in many points, and characterised, as were all our Father’s Conferences, by a total absence of all pretension to erudition: we have not, therefore, presumed to change or add anything. Yet, mere notes, as these are, they seem to us calculated to do good of no little importance.
In order to render them of more practical utility, we have given, in the Appendix, the Ordinary of the Mass, interspersed with the same paraphrase, which has already appeared in the Liturgical Year of Dom Guéranger.
Thus will the Faithful be provided, in this small work, with an efficient means of uniting themselves with the Priest in an enlightened manner, and be helped to derive more fruit from their assisting at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
On the welcome accorded to this first attempt at giving publicity to our family treasures, will depend our future decision as to the opportuneness of continuing the proposed series of this Collection of Notes.