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The importance of Schuster’s monumental, multi-volume Sacramentary

The five-volume work, consisting of over 2100 pages, includes detailed theological exposition, historical study, and spiritual meditation.


Most of those debating the changes in Catholic liturgical life since the 1950s base their positions in—or pay lip service to—the principles of the early to mid-twentieth century “Liturgical Movement.” The argument centers on: whether those changes constitute an implementation or a betrayal of Liturgical Movement principles, and whether the alleged betrayal is to be found only in deviations from the liturgical books promulgated by Pope Paul VI or (to some significant degree) in the official reforms. Conscious opposition to the Liturgical Movement is largely limited to a subset of those devoted to the Tridentine Mass, though implicit opposition is common enough among Catholics whose interest in liturgical matters is limited to a desire for reverence.

Such debates can give the impression of a choice between three bodies of opinion. One is based in the early to mid-twentieth century “non-Liturgical Movement” status quo, which combined scholastic liturgical and spiritual theology with a strong emphasis on devotional and mental prayer. The other two are the “moderate” and “extremist” variants among Liturgical Movement “reformists.”

Those of both groups held at least one, and generally most, of the following four positions:

(1) Desire to replace neo-scholastic liturgical theology either with the moderates’ attempted synthesis of Patristic theology and “continental philosophy” or the extremists’ Modernism.

(2) Support for extensive changes to the then standard (Tridentine) liturgical forms. The most moderate wanted a simplified but still ceremonial liturgy. The “middle ground” favored relatively non-ceremonial sparseness. The most extreme reduced the liturgy to a vehicle for social and political activism, “building community” or “feel good” banality.

(2) Criticism of medieval and Baroque Catholicism, which were sometimes seen as having lost pastoral efficacy but were more commonly believed to be either serious “imperfections” (even for many “moderates”) or complete “corruptions” (for the most extreme).

(3) Desire for a drastic reduction in devotional prayer. A more moderate view wanted it to have a distinctly subordinate (not non-dominant) place in the lives of all Catholics (not just those so inclined). Others wanted it either marginalized or virtually eliminated.

Emphasizing similarities between moderate “reformists” and the extreme dissidents they have done so much to oppose since the time of Vatican II may seem unfair but it is useful for the sake of contrast with another body of opinion—one which was neither “reformist” nor content with the “pre-Vatican II” status quo.

This fourth school of thought was committed to scholastic liturgical theology, desired to preserve the Tridentine Mass, was favorable to the medieval and Baroque periods, and encouraged the strong mix of liturgical, devotional and mental prayer which had marked the medieval mendicants, the early Jesuits and the Tridentine reform of ecclesial life. Such a “mixed spirituality” would restore liturgical prayer to the prominence it held prior to devotional prayer becoming predominant under the influence of the seventeenth century “French school of spirituality”—without going to the opposite “extreme” of “liturgical spirituality” favored by the Liturgical Movement.

This school’s most comprehensive work of scholarship was almost certainly Blessed Ildefonso Schuster’s multi-volume, 2,000 page Sacramentary—which after decades of neglect was finally reprinted late in 2020.

Schuster was thoroughly a man of Rome—the city in which he was born (to a German immigrant father and Italian mother), educated and entered the Benedictine monastery at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. He quickly went on to earn a doctorate from Sant’Anselmo (the pontifical university most focused on liturgical theology), teach as a professor, be elected his monastery’s abbot, and receive appointments to various positions in the Roman curia.

At the age of 40, he became archbishop of Milan and a cardinal. His twenty-five years there saw him ordain over 1,200 priests, improve and expand catechesis, develop pastoral programs to strengthen marriage and emphasize what is now called the “universal call to holiness.” Saint John Paul II beatified him in 1996.

The Sacramentary Schuster wrote is of truly monumental scope, including theological exposition, historical study, and spiritual meditation. Most of the text concerns such aspects of every liturgical season, Sundays, and at least the vast majority of feast days. Numerous other topics—ranging from the most general to the most specific—are addressed separately from the liturgical year and are as varied as: “Christian Initiation,” “Sacred Art in the House of God,” “Hierarchy and Worship in Rome in the Early Centuries of Christianity,” “Eastern Influence in the Roman Liturgy,” “The Place of Monasticism in the Liturgical Life of Rome” and “The Vocation to the Priesthood and the Prayer of the Christian People.”

Such thoroughness naturally makes Schuster’s Sacramentary much more than just an introduction to an overlooked school of thought. And is far more than just a work that helps demonstrate that one can share the concerns of “moderate reformists” within a theologically scholastic and broadly “traditionalist context” and that “moderate reformists” had legitimate concerns.

It is also—like the best “moderate reformist” works—filled with insights which are universal, which standard apart from debates between schools of thought and which can help all Catholics to better understand and better pray the liturgy.

The Sacramentary: Volumes 1-5
By Ildefonso Schuster
Translated into English by Arthur Levelis-Marke and W. Fairfax-Cholmeley
Acoura Press, 2020
Paperback/Hardover, 438 pp., 444 pp., 458 pp., 476 pp., 368 pp.

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About James Baresel 18 Articles
James Baresel is a freelance writer. He holds a Master of Arts in philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Cincinnati.

1 Comment

  1. The predecessor work by Dom Geuranger The Liturgical Year should be acknowledged, since it was a source for much information on the year by Cardinal Schuster.

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  2. The importance of Schuster’s monumental, multi-volume Sacramentary | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers

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