Maybe it was the priests who taught me, and I so greatly admired them, or maybe it was deeper studies in religion classes, but in high school I began to take daily Mass seriously. I liked going to Mass each morning when I attended Father Ryan High School in Nashville.
I had one problem about going to Mass. The Mass was in Latin, and in much of the Mass the priest was forbidden to speak above a whisper. I had to use a missal, but my missal was large, bulky and heavy.
One day I told my father’s unmarried oldest sister, who took a special interest in her nieces’ and nephews’ advancement in their religion, that I did not like my missal. She nodded but said little else.
About a week later a package arrived for me in the mail. I shall never forget. (To start, receiving packages in the mail was a big event for teenagers those years ago.) The package was from a Catholic bookstore in Chicago, and it contained St. Andrew’s Daily Missal, copyright 1947, in Latin and English, but in four small volumes. I knew it was ordered by my aunt.
I rushed to call her and thank her for the gift. She said that now I had a missal that would fit in my pocket — so go to Mass and use it!
To this day, the four volumes occupy a special place on my shelf, partly for nostalgia’s sake, but mainly because they give me a look into the Roman liturgy as it was celebrated before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council — and before the reforms of Pope Pius XII a decade before the council.
Beside these four volumes rests a Missale Romanum, all in Latin, published in 1936. (It came my way via a secondhand bookstore.) I have it also as a reference.
These sources gave me a glimpse of the Holy Week ritual prior to Pius XII, to the Second Vatican Council. The council permitted the use of the vernacular, but Pius XII dramatically reformed Holy Week worship. The present Triduum rites belong to him, not the council or to Pope Paul VI who implemented the council’s wishes. Actually, the liturgical reforms of Pius XII not only predated the council but inspired the council.
For example, before Pius XII’s reforms, the Holy Saturday Vigil occurred at the crack of dawn on Saturday, no Sunday sunrise. First, as now, the priest blessed the new fire. The Paschal candle was lighted and blessed. Chanting the Exsultet followed. Then twelve Prophecies were read, most of which appear in the present ritual. The baptismal font was blessed. The Litany of the Saints was chanted.
Here was the change. After the Litany, the old rite proceeded at once to the biblical readings, now called the Liturgy of the Word, precisely Colossians 3:1-4 and Matthew 28:1-7. (The Gospel selection never varied.)
The emphasis in Colossians 3:1-4 differs from Romans 6:3-11, the passage now used. Colossians proclaims the majesty of Christ and foretells the Second Coming. Romans, the current selection, says, “We were indeed buried with him through baptism in death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”
By substituting Romans for Colossians, Pius XII brought back to the Vigil liturgy, and made essential to it, actual baptism, and even confirmation, for persons giving themselves to Christ, but he also provided a strong symbolic opportunity for persons already baptized to recommit themselves to the Lord.
The priest said the Creed after the Gospel, by himself usually, in Latin, of course, but choirs might sing the Creed in Latin.
Pius XII changed this, again emphasizing baptism. Instead of the Creed, at all Masses on Easter, he provided for the renewal of baptismal promises by persons baptized perhaps many years prior and spoken in the vernacular.
He also put this in the order of worship. Even Christians of considerable long-standing at Easter had the moment to announce to all around them that they wished to be the Lord’s disciples, to live in, and for, Christ, indeed to die with Christ.
(Pius XII’s stress on baptism at the Easter Vigil had a major role to play in the future development of the RCIA, Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, now a routine part of life in every parish.)
On the cover, on Page 40 with the story about the Roman centurion present at the Lord’s crucifixion, and on Page 50 with the article about Barabbas are reproductions of the artwork of Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902). These paintings belong, by the way, to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The Priest uses them, with appreciation, with the museum’s consent.
The editors chose them, first, because they vividly picture important events and major personalities in the Passion Narratives of St. Matthew, proclaimed on Palm Sunday, and of St. John, read on Good Friday. Additionally, they are the work of Tissot, the person, an example himself of renewed faith.
Born in Nantes, France, when Catholic resurgency after the French Revolution was in its prime, he learned religion from his devoutly Catholic mother.
He made a name for himself in the 19th century when he reached adulthood, but his mother’s inspiration faded, as did his regard for Catholic moral standards. He had a long, intimate relationship with an English divorcee, to whom a child was born. Tissot and the child’s mother never were married.
In 1885, something happened in Tissot’s soul. He rediscovered his faith. The discovery was so powerful that from then onward he painted nothing but religious subjects. The art in this edition of The Priest is from 365 works by Tissot showing the life of Christ painted after his return to the Church.
The article about the Roman centurion who witnessed, and perhaps oversaw, the crucifixion of the Lord adds another dimension to the thought of conversion. While it must be freely given, genuine conversion is the product of grace. That any pagan, let alone a Roman centurion, would ever receive divine grace was unthinkable in the Jewish circles of Christ’s time.
Yet the centurion, whatever his name, however his future life unfolded, received the grace of God — and he acted upon it with his stunning pronouncement, “This was the Son of God.” The story about Barabbas appears as a warning and as advice, reminding Christians constantly to recommit themselves to the Lord.
“Barabbas,” the name, the word, had a meaning, as did many proper personal names among Jews at the time. It meant “son of the father.” The name reveals that by its choice to crucify Jesus, to kill Jesus, to be rid of Jesus, rather than Barabbas, the mob in effect preferred the son of an earthly father to the Son of the divine Father.
It happens all the time. This is where re-commitment enters the story. By sinning, or indifference to God, or preference for earthly things, professing Christians set the Son of God below the things of earth.
On a note of encouragement, on the cover this month, Tissot shows the Lord in agony on the cross and the two thieves dying beside him. Subdued coloring plays an important role. It puts the thieves at the periphery of the story. Central to the image are Christ and Mary.
The Blessed Mother’s anguish, born of her true, human maternal love, comes to life. So does her loyalty. She was there, when most of the disciples had fled. Throughout her place beneath the cross of Jesus, it has made her the model of intense and unrelenting faith and of Christian discipleship. It has strengthened Christians to see God when God seems obscured or absent.
God bless Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli. He must be counted as among the great successors of Peter. (He wrote more encyclicals than any other pontiff, and many of his writings are among the most profound theological statements in the whole, immense catalogue of Catholic reflection on Revelation. The Second Vatican Council quoted him more often in its pronouncements than any source other than Scripture itself.)
One dazzling gift to us was his reformation of the Holy Week liturgy with its spectacular, breathtakingly appropriate, and piercingly personal invitation to every believer to recommit, to re-convert, and, again immersed in the holy waters of baptism, to die and to live with Christ Jesus. Resurrexit sicut dixit! Alleluia! Lumen Christi! Deo gratias! Flectamus genua. Oremus.
MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.