As I’ve studied the English Reformation, I’ve read often about the state of religious practice before Henry VIII broke away from the Pope and established himself as Supreme Head and Governor of the Church of England. As Eric Ives points out in his recent study, The Reformation Experience, 16th century Catholics in England demonstrated great devotion to the Blessed . At Sunday Mass, they were most attentive at the moment of consecration, worshipping the Body and the Blood of Jesus as the priest elevated the Host and the Chalice. At great shrines and cathedrals, the faithful wanted to see the Precious Body and Blood as each Mass was celebrated in separate chapels. The Feast of Corpus Christi was instantly popular in England with its processions and special liturgies as written by the Dominican friar, Thomas Aquinas. Holy Week, with its special vigil protecting the consecrated Host from Good Friday to Easter, also demonstrates their devotion to the Real Presence. The one thing they did not do is receive Holy Communion often. They were obligated to receive during the Easter Season (Easter Duty), but the practice of frequent Communion had fallen off during the Middle Ages.
The Council of Trent addressed this issue of Catholic laity not receiving Holy Communion and urged frequent reception of theby the laity at Mass, provided that they were free of Mortal Sin. Even as Catholicism in England was driven underground, Catholic nobles who had secret chapels and disguised priests in their homes received Holy Communion at Mass frequently, even daily. Many of the great religious orders founded after the Reformation, like the Society of Jesus, the Oratorians, the Redemptorists, and others, encouraged the laity to receive Holy Communion and also aided the laity with devotions and prayers.
Jansenism, a heretical movement beginning in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, discouraged frequent Communion. Pope St. Pius X referred to this problem in his “Sacra Tridentina: On Frequent and Daily Reception of Holy Communion,” issued on December 20, 1905:
Piety, however, grew cold, and especially afterward because of the widespread plague of Jansenism, disputes began to arise concerning the dispositions with which one ought to receive frequent and daily Communion; and writers vied with one another in demanding more and more stringent conditions as necessary to be fulfilled. The result of such disputes was that very few were considered worthy to receive the Holydaily, and to derive from this most health-giving its more abundant fruits; the others were content to partake of it once a year, or once a month, or at most once a week. To such a degree, indeed, was rigorism carried that whole classes of persons were excluded from a frequent approach to the Holy Table, for instance, merchants or those who were married.
Jansenism required such rigorous standards of preparation because of its overall belief “that there are some commands of God which just men cannot keep, no matter how hard they wish and strive” as stated in one of the five propositions condemned by Pope Innocent X in 1653.
Although, as Pope St. Pius X wrote, several of his predecessors made statements against these rigorist views,
The poison of Jansenism, however, which, under the pretext of showing due honor and reverence to the, had infected the minds even of good men, was by no means a thing of the past. The question as to the dispositions for the proper and licit reception of Holy Communion survived the declarations of the Holy See, and it was a fact that certain theologians of good repute were of the opinion that daily Communion could be permitted to the faithful only rarely and subject to many conditions.
The Pope pointed out that others went to the opposite extreme:
They held that daily Communion was prescribed by divine law and that no day should pass without communicating, and besides other practices not in accord with the approved usage of the Church, they determined that themust be received even on Good Friday and in fact so administered it.
(Note that he was writing before the major revision of the Holy Week liturgy, which now includes a Communion service on Good Friday with Hosts consecrated at Mass on Holy Thursday.)
So Pope St. Pius X stated unequivocally that the laity were to be encouraged to receive Holy Communion frequently, even daily, as long as they had the correct disposition and were not in a state of Mortal Sin. He called on both factions to unite around this discipline and not place obstacles in the way of the lay faithful. For this document, and his decision on the proper age for First Holy Communion, Pope St. Pius X became known as “the Pope of the”.
In 1910 he approved a “Decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of the ” setting the age of discretion or reason at about age seven. Inspired by the verse from the Synoptic Gospels: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for of such is the kingdom of God”; he again urged that the Church unite around this discipline because of the sacramental benefits of Holy Communion. on First Communion
Giuseppe Sarto succeeded Pope Leo XIII in 1903 and began his reign at Pope Pius X with the motto “To Restore all Things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). Among other liturgical reforms, he also revised the Breviary and issued the motu proprio “Tra le Sollecitudini” in 1903 soon after becoming pope encouraging not only the revival of Gregorian chant in the celebration of Mass, but active participation by the laity in chant. He acknowledged progress in the arts by commending the use of Renaissance polyphony (especially the works of Palestrina), but warned against any “theatrical” or “profane” influences in liturgical music.
Pope Pius X died in on August 20, 1914 at the beginning of World War I and was succeeded by Benedict XV. In 1954 he was canonized and his feast is on August 21 (since St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s feast is on August 20).
Pope St. Pius X, the Pope of the, pray for us!
Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com. Stephanie is working on a book about the English Catholic Martyrs from 1534 to 1681. From August 4 through October 20, she will host a weekly radio program, “The English Reformation Today” on Radio Maria US.