Odo Casel, OSB
September 27, 1886 – March 28, 1948
September 27, 1886 – March 28, 1948
Theologian of the Mystery
In many ways, Dom Odo Casel (1886–1948) was not so different from his comrades in the first wave of the liturgical reform. Like Guéranger, Beauduin, and many other pioneers of the liturgical movement, Casel was a Benedictine. A monk of the abbey of Maria Laach, he personally was responsible for much of its liturgical genius. Also like other pioneers, he was a proponent of Mystical Body theology, expanding it toward previously unexplored horizons (pushing it, some said, well over the brink). Casel even has ministry to and reform work with religious women in common with other liturgical reformers.
Despite these similarities, Casel was a unique figure. It has been said that he was singularly responsible for removing the theological shackles of the post-Reformation Roman church. He was at least a thinker not to be ignored and both the hierarchy and the scholars cast suspicious and even condemnatory glances in his direction. Because of these denunciations, the liturgist H.A. Reinhold confessed to have lost nights of sleep “worried sick over the master.” Casel, by contrast, seems to have weathered the controversy well.
Perhaps “the master” came into conflict with the hierarchy and the theological establishment more than did other early proponents of the liturgical movement because of his peculiar concerns. He was not suspect because of his liturgical experimentation, but because his thought was believed by some to be unorthodox, even heretical. A jaundiced eye was cast as well on those who accepted or elaborated Casel’s teachings.
The Roots of His Thought
Casel was born September 27, 1886, in Koblenz-Lützel in western Germany. After preparatory schools, he attended the University of Bonn. There he came to know Ildefons Herwegen, monk of Maria Laach, through whose influence Casel was to embrace the monastic life. He began the novitiate at Maria Laach in 1905, making his profession in 1907. After philosophical study in his own monastery, he studied theology at the international Benedictine house in Rome, Sant’ Anselmo, and in 1911 he was ordained a priest by the archbishop of Trier.
Casel wrote two doctoral theses. The first was submitted to the faculty of Sant’ Anselmo in 1913. It concerned the eucharistic doctrine of Justin Martyr and subsequently was published in serial form. On its completion, Casel was sent immediately to Bonn (thanks to the prodding of Herwegen) to study philosophy and classical philology. There he produced his second doctoral thesis, concerning mysticism and Greek philosophy. These two dissertations established the patterns for Casel’s subsequent scholarship.
Hundreds of articles and a number of books came from the pen of Casel during the next 30 years. Among them, his two volumes in the Ecclesia Orans series are lauded as his most important contribution to the advancement of liturgical renewal. Originally published in German and later in French, the books might be titled in English The Memorial of the Lord in the Ancient Christian Liturgy and The Liturgy as a Mystery Rite. His thought was substantially developed in the 15 volumes of Jahrbuch für Liturgiewiissenschaft (1921–1941), an important liturgical journal that Casel himself edited.
He called his system Mysterientheologie, mystery-theology. It attempted to explain how the divine is present in Christian worship: in Casel’s terms, the “mystery-in-the-present,” the Mysteriengegenwart. Drawing from the witness of both the early church and Hellenistic religious traditions—the areas of his dissertations—Casel proposed that in the liturgy, the mystery of Christ (which is Christ himself) actually is made present again. This mystery is not simply grace, nor a memory of Christ in the minds of believers, nor in the case of the eucharist only the presence of Christ in the bread and wine. Rather, Christ’s historical life as well as his glorified life is made present for the liturgical assembly, which can experience its impact anew. Exactly how this is possible, neither Casel nor his disciples were able to say. Casel, in fact, resisted asking the question because he believed that it intruded into an aspect of the divine life beyond the proper limits of human inquiry. He was satisfied with asserting, on the basis of his understanding of scripture, tradition, and liturgical writings, that Christ is present in his historical and glorified reality in the liturgy. By celebrating the church’s rites, including the Liturgy of the Hours and sacramentals, contemporary Christians transcend time and are brought into transformative contact with Christ. Because Jesus’ life reached its culmination in the pascal mystery—his passion-death-resurrection—it is in these events that the church especially knows him in its common prayer.
Some theologians, in an attempt to explore Casel’s teaching, suggested that it was the effect of Jesus’ life that was made available in the sacraments: Sacraments thus can be seen as channels of divine life, of grace. This, however, was not what Casel intended and he was insistent in his own position. He claimed that the Mystery that the rites make present is not a substance, sentiment or state of being before God. The sacramental Mystery is Jesus himself. Referring to a quote from the Apostolic Constitutions, “This [martyr] died with Christ in suffering death, the others die with him in the typos of his death,” Casel explained:
That indicates that baptism does not confer only an image, a pure and single figure of the death of Christ, but that the death of the Lord becomes a reality in [the one baptized], that it [the death] is accomplished in a “mystical” fashion, under the external image of the sacrament, just as the witness of the blood carries the death of the Lord in all its natural reality.This theory has far-reaching implications for the liturgy. For example, because Christ lives in mystery in the entire Mystical Body, the liturgy is seen as an act of the whole church. In the liturgical prayer of all the gathered church, not only in the work of its ministers, the liturgical reactualization of Christ’s life is accomplished.
Sources of His Ideas
Casel concerned himself with theory far more than with practice, except as it was affected by his theology of Mysteriengegenwart. Casel drew his position from four sources. The first three—Jewish tradition, Christian scriptures, and early church writers—were universally accepted (although Casel’s interpretation of them was not). However, the fourth source—Graeco-Roman traditions—brought vehement criticism. He dared to claim that pagan religions have something to say about the Christian cult.
Casel’s opponents were many. Some sought to prove that he was not in accord with Aquinas, even though Casel claimed to be. Others mastered the Caselian system well enough to question its lack of internal consistency. And some merely dismissed the whole affair as absurd. The one issue that most captivated the critics was the seeming dependence of Mysterientheologie on the pagan mystery religions. Since the death of Casel, it has been shown that he approached the study of Graeco-Roman mystery cults with a certain naïveté and actually imposed Christian and New Testament concepts on them. At the time, however, his critics were not concerned with how well Casel understood the ancient religions in themselves. Their fear was that Casel was subordinating the church’s sacraments to pagan rites. By investigating the similarities between pagan ceremonies and Christian rites, Casel appeared to doubt that Jesus has instituted the sacraments and the Christianity was unique among religions. He seemed to be undermining the Christian cult rather than restoring it.
Mediator Dei and the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
Mediator Dei was written just one year before Casel’s death. His opponents saw him condemned on its pages. He, however, saw the encyclical as his vindication. After Casel’s death, a friend wrote that both affirmation and renunciation could be found in Mediator Dei, but that the gentle condemnations were not of Casel’s own thought but of his disciples’ theories that misconstrued Casel’s intent. More impartial witnesses suggest that, in fact, the document skirts the issue. Its Latin is carefully constructed to capture the tenor of Caselian thought while denying some of its specific tenets. The papacy, it seems, wanted nothing to do with this battle of theologians.
Neither did Vatican II. It did not “directly take a position on questions discussed among Catholic theologians; that is not the function of a council.” Casel’s thought nonetheless can be shown to have had a profound influence on the documents that were written for Vatican II, especially its liturgy constitution. The Constitution understood the liturgy not as an act of the ordained only, but as an act of all those assembled; it recognized that Christ is present in every act of the liturgy, not only in the so-called sacramental moments; it emphasized that Christ is present in the liturgy not merely as abstract grace but as a living person; and further, it acknowledged that he is present among his people in several ways, not only in the eucharistic bread and wine. In these examples, we hear echoes of Casel’s thought.
The Nuns at Herstelle
During the days when the battle over Casel’s orthodoxy raged more fiercely, Abbot Herwegan assigned Casel to the peaceful work of resident spiritual director and chaplain of the Benedictine nuns in Herstelle. Although Herstelle had been founded as a Benedictine house, it bore but little resemblance to a classical monastery. The community was dedicated to perpetual adoration and the ceremonies surrounding the Blessed Sacrament eclipsed everything else liturgical. In place of the psalms of the Divine Office, the nuns recited eucharistic devotional prayers. In their chapel, nuns were chained voluntarily for a given period each day to a “pillar of scourging” in commemoration of the scourging of Jesus. This sort of piety was far from the liturgical life of a Benedictine monastery.
In matters of governance, the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict mandates the election of abbots for life. Yet the nuns at Herstelle held annual elections of an abbess. The one elected always was the same: the Virgin Mary, whose image was annually led through the ceremony of abbatial enthronement. The earthly superior at Herstelle was a prioress, not an abbess.
Some of the nuns, realizing that their life was not in line with the Benedictine tradition, sent to Maria Laach for help. Herwegen undertook the task of lifting the obligation of perpetual adoration, imposing the canonical Office and having an abbess elected and bestowed with pontifical insignia. After these canonical tasks had been accomplished, Abbot Herwegen sent Casel to continue the education of the nuns in the ways of monasticism. Many of those who wrote obituaries of Casel referred to the place of his death as “Dom Odo’s Herstelle.” Clearly, he was thought to have had a profound impact on the community. The nuns themselves verified the assessment, referring to him as their “mystagogue.”
“Death is Conquered, Glory Fills You”
The circumstances of the death of Odo Casel could not have been more fitting or remarkable. Casel, who had sought to give back to the church a belief that Christ in the paschal mystery was present in every liturgy, died as he proclaimed that resurrection. He had just intoned the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil liturgy at the convent at Herstelle. One commentator remarked that if such an event were recorded in a medieval biography of a saint, moderns would disregard it as pious fantasy. It was not.
It was in light of the wonder of Casel’s death that the sisters of Herstelle concluded the obituary of their mentor:
His whole life was beset with bodily suffering and given to untiring labor in sacred sciences; his passing over into the eternal Pentecost took place by the grace of God during the great night of the Pasch. Deo gratias.
Tribute from How Firm A Foundation: Leaders of the Liturgical Movement, (pp. 50–56) by Patrick Malloy. Copyright © 1990, Archdiocese of Chicago, published by Liturgy Training Publications. All rights reserved. Used with permission.