Pius Parsch, CRS.A
May 18, 1884 – March 11, 1954
May 18, 1884 – March 11, 1954
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, solid folk.
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, Egyptology.
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 Mass.
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 to participate.
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 from Klosterneuburg.
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 teaches.
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, popular editions.
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, NJ.
This tribute prepared by CatholicAuthors.com.