The Liturgical Movement


Mass celebrated at St. Dominic’s Priory     Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew via Flickr

20th century ecclesiastical architecture throughout the world had undertaken the most momentous changes in its nearly two millennia of history. Partly responsible for the changes in the physical fabric of churches were, of course, the introduction of new materials such as steel and concrete, discussed in previous posts. But as N. Pevsner outlined”architecture is not the product of materials and purposes (…) but of the changing spirit of the changing ages”. Indeed the changing spirit in the 20th century religious architecture was prompted by the Liturgical Movement which generated form alterations that can be seen in nearly all the ecclesiastical buildings designed after the 1920s.

The Liturgical Movement, with origins in Pope St. Pius X’s Motu Proprio (1903) and Dom Lambert Beaudin’s Liturgy the Life of the Church (1914), had as primary aims to establish a closer relationship between the clergy and the congregation, promoting the active participation of the later in the liturgical service. Throughout his pontificate, St. Pius X encouraged personal holiness and piety and believed this could be facilitated through the adoption of smaller, more intimate churches.

The innovation of liturgical concepts was considered an obvious basis for the desired renewal of the sacred architecture. The movement intended to generate a highly innovative artchitectural production, closely tied to liturgy, which aspired to continuing and moving forward the tradition. It would formulate an alternative for the artistically ‘outdated’ Neo-Gothic style on the one hand, and the exceedingly individualist artistic practice of the Art-Noveau on the other.

Without being Modernists, a group of Catholic architects were open to the use of new materials and to a well considered collaboration with industrial producers. They consistently pursued the new liturgical ideas and combined them with modern functionalism. Greater simplicity (sadly in some cases even to the point of banality), cubic shapes and intelligibility of the structure were introduced into the program of religious buildings.


Corpus Christi by Rudolf Schwarz, 1930       Photo: Konstriktion via Flickr

Gradually the movement started to shift the emphasis of the liturgy from the glory of God towards the needs of the congregation. The church began to be seen as a place for doing, for corporate action where all are participants and have their appropriate functions to perform as part of a re-enactment of an event. This understanding of the liturgical sacrifice can be seen in the stage-like charter of numerous post 1920s churches. Centralised plans became preferred, facilitating the participation of the congregation in the religious service and the practice of the mass versus populum.

Questions on the originality of the liturgical functions and the form of the pure church also started to arise. Preference for the early Christian archetypes of the meeting room or the cenacle and the rejection of medieval and baroque developments which were considered unorthodox illustrate the contradictions between the 1920s ideas and the rich tradition of the Church.

Later Pope Pius XII would identify in the Liturgical Movement certain trends that alarmed him, in particular a kind of divorce between the presence of Christ in the liturgical action and the presence of Christ in the reserved Sacrament. Contrary to the common practice for hundreds of years, the tabernacle was gradually removed from the sanctuary and given a less worthy location within the church while the altar, seen as the symbolictable’ of the Last Supper gained importance and prominence.

In conclusion, the profound and far reaching theological changes brought by the Liturgical Movement had a remarkable impact on church architecture after the 1920s and the effects can still be seen in today’s ecclesiastical buildings. In future post I will focus on these changes and how they paved the way for even more radical alterations in the second half of the century.


2 thoughts on “The Liturgical Movement

  1. “Throughout his pontificate, St. Pius X encouraged personal holiness and piety and believed this could be facilitated through the adoption of smaller, more intimate churches.”

    This is something GE Kidder Smith wrote about in “The New Churches of Europe”. Do you have a source for this claim?

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