Ecumenism is the third rail of traditionalist criticism. The universal church prays for Christian unity, that all may be one, Father, etc. So what kind of Catholic would choose a wary, un-Christian approach by questioning such a vine goal? A fool or a charlatan or an all-round mean person. That kind.
And yet traditionalists have been wary, boldly claiming to see a problem in the business of uniting somehow, some way, with the separated brethren, suspecting a watering-down of what they believe to be the true Church, its values, and in the case of liturgical change, its everyday ways of praying and worshiping.
Be that as it may, as the liturgical movement flourished in the 1920s, it began to absorb this presumed given of contemporary Christian life that in the view of many seemed to undermine and contradict true Catholicism.
At the heart of this movement within a movement was a man whose penchant for activism led him during the recently completed war to acts of daring, even heroism, in the cause of thwarting invaders, a bold and courageous fellow who risked his life in the cause of freedom from under the German boot.
This was the Belgian monk Dom Lambert Beauduin, a once parish priest with an eye for the progressive in the cause of soul-saving — a “workers’ priest” under and in the spirit of Pope Leo XIII, accustomed to getting with the common people — who later joined a monastery known for its innovative approach to pastoral work, Mont César by name, of which more later.
In the war, he had a large part in drafting and circulating a letter heard round the world from Belgian Cardinal Mercier protesting German tactics and implicitly exhorting Belgians to resistance. After a succession of adventures, he fled to England under threat of execution, connecting there with Anglican “personages.” This was his entry into “the troubled circles of ecumenism,” said the traditionalist Bonneterre.
He was already chafing at his “too conservative,” monastery and “could now dream” only of “a new monastic foundation” (monastery), which would “restore the life of the monks . . . from the East.” His superior, aware of his “highly sanguine temperament” and “extremely vivid imagination,” sent him off to teach in Rome.
The superior was right about Beauduin’s “passion for the Eastern Church,” which in Rome was encouraged by a Jesuit, Michel d’Herbigny (1880-1957), an “ardent Orientalist” who had the ear of Pius XI from the start of his papacy in 1922. Thus the “impetuous” Pius XI (as Bonneterre characterized him), took up his ideas and Beauduin’s “grand ideas” about starting a monastery aimed at achieving “rapprochement” with Eastern, primarily Russian, churches.
The Jesuit d’Herbigny rose under this pope, becoming his “confidential agent for Eastern affairs” — heading the Pontifical Oriental Institute — was consecrated bishop in 1926 in Berlin by the future Pius XII, Archbishop Pacelli — and in 1930 becoming president of the Pontifical Commission “Pro Russia,” in which capacity he tried and failed to restore the Catholic hierarchy in the USSR.
In four years d’Herbigny had lost it all, having resigned his appointments — “officially for reasons of health,” wrote Bonneterre — and returning to Belgium, where he ended his days “in strict seclusion.”
Meanwhile, Beauduin’s abbot, “baffled by all this,” wondered how the Pope could give support to one he (the abbot) considered “afire and ablaze for his own projects,” being “almost contemptuous of the Western Church, a man with a powerful attraction to external activity,” according to Bonneterre.
What he didn’t get was the influence wielded on Pius XI by d’Herbigny and Cardinal Mercier, who until his death in 1926, said Bonneterre, was “obsessed by a whirlwind of ‘Unionism.'”times.
As Mercier’s theologian (or speech writer), Beauduin had prepared a report on “the Anglican Church united but not absorbed,” in which he spelled out what Bonneterre called his “more than dubious ideas” on ecumenism, which he “would soon be inserting . . . into the Liturgical Movement . . . working to adapt our liturgy to the needs of the apostolate, or rather to the pressures of ‘church union.'” Beauduin was teetering on the edge of trouble, and Bonneterre was clearly not pleased by any of it.
Indeed, one may say that Beauduin’s successors were to see traditional liturgy as the enemy of (a) pastoral requirements and (b) ecumenism. And yet major changes of the 1970s and later, the Novus Ordo era, were to coincide with steep declines in (a) pastoral success as measured by declared faith and attendance and (b) slippage to back-burner status of any move towards ecumenical union — unless one could except the case-by-case absorption of Anglican and other clergy and congregations, drawn to the Roman church not by its liturgical changes but by its holding the line on female clergy and homosexual morality.
Another view of the Beauduin emphasis was given in a laudatory New York Times book review in 1973 by Carroll E. Simcox, a prolific writer and editor and an Episcopal priest, that the goal of Christian reunion should not be “return” or “submission” of other churches to Rome but voluntary union of the churches, each keeping its own traditions, ethos and jurisdiction.
Simcox was approving — and attributing to Beauduin — what Bonneterre and other traditionalists strongly disapproved, as we have seen. But Simcox did not approve Beauduin’s “strong opposition” to use of vernacular. This he found “baffling,” as would many a liturgical reformer of decades to come.
Baffling? Beauduin had his reasons, including deep appreciation for worship for its own sake and for people who worshiped in the old ways. He loved liturgy for good reasons, even if he proved susceptible to another enthusiasm which for many years, 1930 to 1950, led to his being in effect banished from Belgium and the monastery he founded.
During this period, he served as a chaplain to two convents in France. He traveled widely and wrote frequently. In 1943, he was among the founders of the Centre de Pastorale Liturgique in Paris.
And another wrinkle:
In 1944, Beauduin renewed an old friendship with the papal nuncio to France, Angelo Roncalli (later John XXIII).
With whom he was in enthusiastic agreement.
But he was opposed to the vernacular! A very interesting guy, about whom more later . . .