Rev. Pius Parsch, C.R.S..A
NORTHERN MORAVIA, TODAY A PART
OF CZECHOSLOVAKIA, IS the homeland of my forebears. I can trace
my lineage back to the sixteenth century. The first seven of
my identified ancestors were farmers, thereafter they were townspeople
and artisans. My father was a small businessman in the city of
Olmutz in Moravia. All my ancestors, both on my father's and
my mother's side, were German; they were practicing Catholics;
were sound and healthy people; and most of them reached a ripe
old age. They were not rich, neither were they paupers, but honest,
My birthplace was in a little
village near Olmutz called Neustift. I was born on May 18, 1884,
the second child of my parents, and was baptized on May 25, 1884.
Two uncles, priests, took part in the ceremony; one as minister,
the other as sponsor. My baptismal name was John (the Evangelist)
Bruno. I was a good, quiet child of whom my mother used always
to boast, saying I was very diligent.
Though somewhat delicate, I
was always healthy, and had no serious illness; I did suffer
a lot from headaches, however. In the city of Olmutz where the
family had settled I attended first the kindergarten and then
the primary school. After the fourth grade I was ready for the
"exchange," that is, a year spent in a Czech village
in order to learn Bohemian. After completing the fifth grade
in the primary school, I entered the classical "gymnasium"
for eight years. We had Latin from the first year on, and Greek
from the third. Except for one year, I was always an excellent
student, even though I was not particularly gifted and, specifically,
had no talent for languages. Nevertheless, I was diligent and
ambitious, a student who took his studies seriously. Already
as a schoolboy I had some hobbies, favorite subjects which are
unusual for that age: I took an interest in genealogy and later,
I was always religious. At
home there reigned a pious spirit, the more so as there were
priests on both my father's and my mother's side. One especially
strong influence came from my father's brother, a priest, with
whom we two brothers always spent our holidays. In his rectory
we used to play at being priests and had our complete equipment
for Mass there. Certainly it was there that my future vocation
to the priesthood was awakened and developed. Indeed, I felt
in me the call to the priesthood from childhood. Neither in the
family nor outside it was I ever urged to it. But at home it
was taken for granted: Hans will be a priest, Rudi (my brother)
would be an officer.
I cannot say that, otherwise,
in my time at the "gymnasium," any man or priest exerted
a great spiritual or religious influence upon me. There was no
student club or religious society. My fellow students were mostly
indifferent to religion, and the townspeople very liberal. At
school I was considered an outsider, and went my own way. A very
close bond existed between my father and me. I loved him dearly.
He was a fine man, and a good father. And although he possessed
only a little schooling, he was mentally keen. He had a preference
for historical subjects, was a coin collector, and was city archivist.
As a self-taught man, he had to acquire his linguistic and historical
knowledge laboriously. So, as a student at the "gymnasium,"
I was able to help him in many things. I took an interest in
his work too. My parents' family life was a model one and close.
Alas! my father died quite early in 1902, in his forty-seventh
year. I was barely eighteen years old. After graduating with
distinction, I at once entered the monastery at Klosterneuburg
near Vienna as a novice, and on August 28, 1904, I was clothed
with the habit. Thus began my clerical life.
I might now indicate how, at
the very beginning of my vocation to the cloister, the first
signs of my later life's work, the Bible and the Liturgy, became
evident. I brought with me from the world little religious science;
of the liturgy and the Bible I had no idea. But even in the cloister
I discovered no enthusiasm whatever for the liturgy. The cultivation
of liturgical worship in the monastery was likewise by no means
extraordinarily vigorous. Yet my first encounter with the liturgy
made a deep impression upon me. I remember that right after the
first few days I asked for a commentary on the psalms from the
library, because it was intolerable for me to say the psalms
without understanding them. Thus a particular fondness for the
breviary took hold of me at once. In the course of my theological
studies this fondness increased so much that I formed the resolve
to write a commentary on the breviary, since I found none in
all the liturgical literature. I also began to read the Bible
zealously and became very fond of it.
After my priestly ordination
(1909), I immediately went to a parish in the capital, and remained
for four years as assistant pastor at Maria Treu in Vienna. At
that time I parish societies, and organizing a student club.
Meanwhile, I had received my doctorate in theology. My liturgical
preferences were put entirely in the background. In those first
four years of my priesthood I did not learn how to direct a single
activity which could awaken an interest in the liturgy. I was
exclusively a parish priest.
When obedience called me back
to the cloister after four years, I had the choice between the
chair of pastoral theology and that of the New Testament in our
theological school. Because I liked parish work, I chose pastoral
theology. Along with that, I was expected to help in the training
of the novices. Once more my old love for the liturgy awoke.
In the novices' classes I occupied myself chiefly with the explanation
of the psalms and the breviary.
This activity did not last
long, for the first World War broke out. It did not keep me at
home however; I volunteered for chaplain duty at the front. ~
My wish was granted in May, 1915. I went to a front line regiment
and remained with it until the end of the war. It was a particularly
instructive period for me. In my association with officers and
men I acquired a knowledge of man; I learned to know the mind
of the ordinary individual and his need for religion. Pre-war
parish life had been weak and soft. Mankind was too little understood.
My own ideas matured in caring for souls during the war. Man
needs, I thought, stronger fare than that which the often sugary
piety of pre-war days could offer him. Thus was the way paved
for the new ideas which are joined to the two well-springs, the
Bible and the Liturgy.
But in the field I also came
into direct contact with the Bible and the liturgy. It happened
this way. After the first year, when there were so many troop-movements,
my regiment took up a position in the Carpathians, where we encamped
for the winter. Thus I had plenty of free time One day the thought
that I knew nothing at all of the life of Our Lord and Savior
was weighing heavily on my mind. At once I had a commentary on
the Gospels sent to me from home, and then I began with avidity
to investigate the life of Jesus. A harmony of the Gospels hung
before me, and so through study I came closer to the Gospels.
I said to myself: something is lacking in priests and in the
people when they know and understand so little of the Holy Scriptures.
Again my love for the breviary
and the psalms appeared. Just at that time the new Psalter of
Pope Pius X had been introduced. I now began a commentary on
it, a liturgical explanation of the psalms of each of the hours.
And then a third interest arose.
I often said Mass for the soldiers, at times for the whole division,
as well as for a small group, and for the sick and wounded. I
found it distressing that the soldiers understood nothing of
the Mass. On the other hand, I had learned about the collaboration
of the faithful of the Greek rite in Galicia and Bukovina. Thereupon
another idea came to me which, of course, matured only after
several years: the active participation of the laity in divine
worship. The war came to an inglorious end, but I brought back
with me a rich booty, the two goals of my life's work which are
of farreaching importance for the entire Catholic Church: to
make the Bible a book of the people, and to guide Catholics to
an active participation in the liturgy.
In the middle of November,
1918, I returned to my cloister. I was not given much time to
adjust myself. Again I took over the task of teaching pastoral
theology and instructing the novices. I also soon found a meeting
of minds. With the novices I at once conducted a Bible class
on the life of Jesus, and then a class on the explanation of
the breviary, especially the psalter. Thus I was enabled to make
the clear observation that the simple Bible class by far gave
the young men the greatest pleasure. Then I started a Bible class
for the laity too, dwelling particularly on the life of Jesus,
and soon after began an explanation of the Mass.
It was about this time that
I heard of a missa cantata which was held in student circles.
I decided to hold, with my lay group, the first Mass with the
active participation of the whole congregation. It was near the
feast of the Ascension in 1922. The day before, I assembled the
group in St. Gertrude's, the little church which was destined
to become the cradle of the lay liturgical movement, and explained
the action and meaning of the congregational Mass (we called
it the liturgical Mass then). On that occasion a difference of
opinion arose. Many a Catholic in the group, recruited in other
circumstances, from that moment broke off from our association.
The congregational Mass was, frankly, still very primitive. The
Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei were sung in German; Professor Goller
had prepared simple, hymn-like melodies for us. The Proper parts,
and the Gloria and Credo were recited by the faithful in chorus.
The leader read the lessons and prayers. We had an Offertory
procession, and even the kiss of peace was signified through
charity. That was the first lay liturgical celebration of the
Mass in German-speaking territory. Since that time, such "liturgical"
Masses were often celebrated and were by degrees perfected. It
now set up for me years of liturgical missionary work. In some
twenty churches of Vienna I held liturgical weeks, in which I
explained the Mass and at the close conducted the congregational
Now the so-called lay liturgical
movement began, of which I can be called the originator. I must
explain briefly, then, what are its goals. The liturgy, the public
worship of the Church, which in early times set the rhythm of
Christian devotion, was, in the Middle Ages, put further and
further in the background in favor of private and lay devotion.
Hence subjectivism and individualism in the religious life of
Catholics came strongly to the forefront. All too much leeway
was given to human action in opposition to the operation of divine
grace. So liturgical worship languished more and more and finally
became a function of the priest, at which the people, during
the liturgy and in place of it, gave themselves to private devotions.
Pius X, the great pope of the
liturgical reform, was the first to take cognizance of this anomalous
situation. He is the father of the liturgical revival which set
in after the war. The movement first caught fire in Belgium.
In Germany it was the abbeys of Maria Laach and Beuron which
ardently took up the idea. They turned first to the academicians
and intellectuals, for whom a whole new world was unfolded and
made accessible by it.
Up to that time, however, the
movement had one weakness: it was still very intellectual, that
is, it confined itself to explaining the movement. Cultured Catholics
were indoctrinated in the spirit of the liturgy, they learned
to understand the text, and were qualified to assist at the solemn
rites of the abbeys, without themselves, however, being permitted
Forth from Klosterneuburg came
the second impulse. The people, the ordinary people ought likewise
to be included in the movement. And then was a most important
axiom, which the abbeys had left completely out of account, inscribed
upon our banner: the active participation of the laity in the
liturgy. The faithful should be present at worship not "like
dumb listeners," but should actively enter into the liturgy
and play the role in it that was meant for them. That is the
particular aspect of the liturgical revival as it went forth
The lay liturgical movement
has concerned itself first of all with the Mass, and it looks
for all the possible ways of bringing the laity into its celebration.
The laity must realize then that much in the Mass has become
set and fossilized. The movement recognizes the fact that the
instruction part of the Fore-Mass has almost completely lost
its purpose of bringing the word of God to the hearer. It realizes
that the laity were left almost entirely out of consideration,
and were represented by the choir and the ministers. It even
had to wage a campaign so that the Offertory-meal might be distributed
to the faithful in the Mass. The lay liturgical movement then
came to three types of congregational Masses: the Mass recited
in unison (gesprochene Chormesse), the Mass sung in unison (Betsingmesse),
and the Solemn Mass sung by the congregation (Volkschoralamt).
The Mass sung in unison is the popular type, which should be
the parish Mass of the people; the solemn congregational Mass
doubtless comes close to the classic liturgy.
Yet, not only the Mass has
been included in the movement, but also the ecclesiastical year
with season and feast, with procession and custom; the parish,
the church with its altar, organ, baptismal font; i,he sacraments,
the canonical hours with their psalms and lessons-all these have
been brought within the compass of the movement. Indeed, a new
type of piety has been developed which goes back again to the
early Church. The Middle Ages and modern times preferred impetratory
devotion and the fear of sin; the early Church lived in devotion
proceeding from grace, in that common worship for which our movement
stands. Thus we believe, and our work will extend in ever widening
circles in the Church and, also, will erect a bridge of agreement
with our separated brethren.
For this lay liturgical work,
two organizations were established in Klosterneuburg which complement
each other: the Lay Liturgical Apostolate and the Liturgical
Society of St. Gertrude. The former is an institute that includes
a publishing house and an advisory board for lay liturgical work.
The latter organization is a Catholic association which endeavors
to carry out the lay liturgical revival in a practical way. Theory
and practice thus go together. The Apostolate studies the method,
and provides texts and aids; the Society is the training school,
as it were, which is expected to put into practice what the Apostolate
The lay liturgical Apostolate
has grown from an insignificant beginning to become a noteworthy
institute. Here are two proofs from our publishing house, two
columns upon which it rests: the Mass leaflets and the Klosterneuburg
liturgical calendar. The Mass leaflets are sixteen page booklets
which contain the Mass of the day with both the proper and the
common parts. Millions of these leaflets were distributed in
the past twenty years and have helped countless Catholics to
understand the Mass and the ecclesiastical year.
The liturgical calendar, Jahr
des Heiles, is a sign-post through the ecclesiastical year. In
1923 it appeared as a small directory; since then it has gone
out year after year in ever larger editions and in ever greater
size. Finally, it became a perpetual calendar which ran through
all the phases of the Church's year and drew from every liturgical
source. Upwards of 200,000 copies of this work have been distributed.
The book is a daily companion for unnumbered priests and lay
people. Bishops state that it lies upon their prie-dieu for daily
meditation. Convents use it for table reading. To the missionaries
in pagan lands it is a book of consolation. It has been translated
into many languages. It is the only book of its kind in the world.
The publishing house has endeavored
furthermore to disseminate all the liturgical texts-the Mass,
the breviary, the ritual, and the pontifical-in inexpensive,
The cradle of the lay liturgical
movement is the small, eight hundred year old chapel of St. Gertrude,
where, since 1922, the liturgical society has held its services.
There, all that the lay liturgical Apostolate has striven for
has been tried out. There, on all the Sundays and Holydays, divine
worship has been celebrated with the active participation of
the laity. There, the canonical hours have been said with the
people. There, Holy Week and the other feasts, and the Easter
services have been carried out liturgically. From all the corners
of the globe have come priests and laymen to study there the
possibility of the liturgy for the laity. This beautiful development
was broken up in 1938 by National Socialism. In 1941 the monastery
of Klosterneuburg was seized by the despots of the Third Reich
and expropriated. We choir-monks had to go into exile. The publishing
work had to be given up, and the modern printing presses were
destroyed. I went into a workers' parish in Vienna (Florisdorf)
where I remained for five years and worked for the parish. When
the bombs fell on Vienna, the industrial district of Florisdorf
was badly hit. My own house was demolished. For a year and a
half I lived in the tower of the church. In September, 1946,
I returned to o*r monastery, which had been restored to us. Now
once again I can resume my literary and liturgical work. If God
grants me life, I want to work on for these two blessings of
the Catholic laity: the Bible and the liturgy.
EDITOR S NOTE: Dr. Parsch died
at Klosterneuburg in 1954. His autobiographical chapter, written
expressly for The Book of Catholic Authors, was translated from
the original German by Father Paul Day, C.M., professor at St.
Joseph's College, Princeton, N. J.
English translations of some
of Dr. Parsch's works are The Liturgy of the Mass (Herder, 1940),
The Breviary Explained (id., 1952), Know and Live the Mass (Catholic
Book Pub. Co., 1952), The Church's Year of Grace (Liturgical
Press, 1953), and Sermons on the Liturgy for Sundays and Feast
Days (Bruce, 1953).