USML | The Liturgical Institute

Hillenbrand Exhibit

Spreading the Movement

Hillenbrand's Liturgical Theology

Through his studies, Hillenbrand developed his own particular  understanding of liturgical theology which combined his deep foundations in St. Thomas Aquinas, the nouvelle théologie, and the social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII, Pius X, Pius XI, and Pius XII.

From Saint Thomas Aquinas Hillenbrand learned the notion of humanity’s destiny to share God’s divine life. God therefore gave humanity natural human life as a foundation for supernatural life. In the Fall, mankind lost that share in divine life, and Christ’s mission was to restore the share of divine life to the human race and restore the oneness of God and humanity. This mission continued in the church, with participation in the liturgy and reception of the Eucharist as the means of restoring this divine life through sanctifying grace.

From the nouvelle théologie Hillenbrand found a new approach to Aquinas. Like many of the liturgical pioneers of the twentieth century, Hillenbrand showed his move away from the “sawdust Thomism” of Neo-Scholasticism and toward the nouvelle théologie which incorporated ideas from patristic sources. Important for Hillenbrand was the notion of divinization, where participation in the divine life enables humans to become more like God. Participation in divine life, therefore, was not merely an individual inner sanctification, but an imitation of the Trinity acting in creation. Hillenbrand wrote in 1948: “Divine life, sanctifying grace, makes us be divine. It is not enough to be; we must also act… Therefore in the new existence God has given us not only divine life, but new powers to act divinely, to live divinely.” This action would take place in the world, but be nourished by the liturgy and the sacraments. For this reason, the image of deer drinking from flowing streams was a favorite of the Liturgical Movement.

From the papal encyclicals on social justice Hillenbrand learned of the Christian’s duty to society. Leo XIII’s 1891 Rerum novarum addressed the pressing issues of relations between labor and capital, while the many writings of Pius X, XI and XII called for Christians to take an active role in the liturgy and the reconstruction of society. Hillenbrand  joined these notions with the revived interest in the Mystical Body of Christ, seeing the Christian community as an integrated whole with Christ as its head rather than a community of individuals unconcerned with the common good. Because the reconstruction of society on Christian principles could only happen through human beings filled with divine life, and this life was made available in the sacraments and the liturgy, the renewal of the social order was deeply tied to liturgical reform and the full participation of Catholics in the liturgy In this way, all things could be restored in Christ.
The Mystical Body of Christ

Monsignor Hillenbrand wrote and spoke throughout his life of the “Mystical Body of Christ,” a theological supposition he believed critical to liturgical and social reform. The idea of the Mystical Body is as old as the New Testament itself, with John’s imagery of Christ as the Vine and the faithful as the branches (Jn 15:5-8). Paul wrote in Ephesians of Christ as the head of the whole body, the Church. (Eph 4:4-13). Because Christians belong to one body with Christ as its Head, the members of the Church are bound by supernatural life nourished by Christ in the sacraments. Throughout his life, Hillenbrand preached the Mystical Body of Christ, encouraged by Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis, which made official the teaching that Hillenbrand and others had been teaching for decades.
     The doctrine of Mystical Body was particularly salient in the early years of the twentieth century, when two great wars and the economic collapse of the Depression had led many to believe that an un-Christian individualism had taken hold in society. Because people and nations thought of themselves as individuals rather than corporate entities united in Christ, the inevitable result was lack of concern for the other. In 1943, Hillenbrand gave a speech at the National Liturgical Week in which he wrote that “the evil of individualism is disastrously clear.” By contrast, he wrote, the doctrine of the Mystical Body “stresses our oneness, our corporateness, our living, organic wholeness in Christ, Who is our Head, and consequently our absolute need of acting together.” Nowhere was this need for oneness more necessary than in the liturgy. Hillenbrand continued: “…it is at the Mass that we learn our oneness…the great corporate act of the Mystical Body. For the Mass is Christ and all His members sacrificing, joined in the greatest of actions, giving God the Father the most exalted worship.” Once this corporate worship occurred, the faithful would be filled with divine life which would then overflow into charity toward self and neighbor, the foundation for a peaceful and just society.


This “Mass Chart,” developed by Hillenbrand collaborator Fr. Martin Hellriegel, emphasized the unity of the Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, and living the Catholic faith in daily life. This living out of the Faith was called “Catholic Action,” and is here poetically entitled “Mass During the Day.”


Hillenbrand's Collaborators in the Liturgical Movement

William Busch
William “Billy” Busch, was a diocesan priest and faculty member at St. Paul Seminary. As something of the elder statesman of the group, Busch had been an advisor to Virgil Michel as early as the 1920s, and together they planned the foundation of the Liturgical Press. Busch served a translator for many of the European works the Press published, particularly the German writings of Pius Parsch. Busch also helped form the League of the Divine Office, a group determined to help lay people pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

H. A. Reinhold
H. A. Reinhold was a diocesan priest from the state of Washington, and perhaps the only true radical in the leadership of the Liturgical Conference. Known for his acerbic and hard-hitting opinions, his writings appeared frequently in his regular column in Orate Fratres, entitled “Timely Tracts.” Along with Hillenbrand, Reinhold was among the most vocal proponents of the connection between liturgy and social reconstruction. He was also a noted commentator on politics, art and architecture, leading to many articles in Commonweal and Liturgical Arts.





Martin Hellreigel


Martin Hellriegel brought great pastoral experience to the Liturgical Conference, having served for 22 years as chaplain to the Precious Blood Sisters in O’Fallon, Missouri and nearly forty years at Holy Cross parish in St. Louis, which he turned into a model of proper liturgical reform. German-born, he invited Virgil Michel to experience his liturgies, and the two became lifelong collaborators. The author of over 100 articles for Orate Fratres, he also held a great interest in popular religiosity and devotions, spreading the notions of parish and family piety within the context of exquisite ceremonial.

Gerald Ellard, SJ
Gerald Ellard, SJ, a historian, was considered one of the great scholar minds of the Liturgical Conference, holding a doctorate in liturgical history from the University of Munich, where his doctoral dissertation was considered the first scholarly work by a citizen of the United States in the field of liturgy. As associate editor and frequent contributor to Orate Fratres magazine and author of many of the pamphlets of the Popular Liturgical Library, Ellard helped form the large themes of the movement and identify areas of particular need. He was the author of the influential textbook Christian Life and Worship (1933) and Mass of the Future(1948) which spoke of the coming reforms of the liturgy.


National Liturgical Weeks
Though he was often busy with his official duties, Hillenbrand found time and energy to be a significant force in the local and national movement toward liturgical renewal. Along with other members of the newly-formed Liturgical Conference, Hillenbrand helped organize the first Liturgical Week in 1940. The weeks were modeled on the Belgian Semaines liturgiques held between 1910 and 1939, with the goal of bringing together those interested in liturgical renewal for talks, discussion and liturgical role-modeling. Held at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, Hillenbrand served as its keynote speaker, with over 1,200 people in attendance.

In the photo at the left,  Liturgical leaders prepare for the 1948 Liturgical Week in the study of Msgr. Martin Hellriegel (standing). Hillenbrand is seated at the far left. The photo appeared in the Boston Pilot, October 3, 1947.
     Hillenbrand served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Liturgical Conference from 1943 to 1955, also acting as the organization’s Treasurer and Vice-President. As a young seminary rector who had earned the respect of Cardinal Mundelein and Archbishop Stritch, Hillenbrand’s virtuosity and papal loyalty brought to the conference an air of stability and respectability which would assuage some bishops suspicious of liturgical reform.
     The papers of the Liturgical Weeks were collected and published, bringing together an invaluable record of the ideas of the American pre-conciliar liturgical leaders as well as artists, musicians, local clergy, and laypeople. Hillenbrand delivered a number of forcefully worded addresses across the years of the conference, revealing not only his powerful rhetorical style, but opinions and comments from colleagues and audience members, who called his writings “serious, scholarly and earnest.”

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