USML | The Liturgical Institute

Hillenbrand Exhibit

Vatican II and Years Later

Hillenbrand and Vatican II

Hillenbrand welcomed the reforms of the council, seeing the reforms of the liturgy as a formal recognition of the ideas he had been promoting for decades. Hillenbrand helped his own parish and others in the Archdiocese to understand the texts coming out of Rome. For years he served on the Liturgical Commission of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Though his mission to reform the liturgy had begun thirty years earlier, even in the very last years of his life he gave lectures at Sacred Heart parish entitled “The Main Themes of Vatican II” and :The New Rite of the Anointing of the Sick.” Because Hillenbrand had spent almost twenty years catechizing the parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish, he implemented all of the Council’s changes as they were permitted.

Because of his long experience in studying and teaching the liturgy, Hillenbrand saw the liturgical reform of the Council less of a break with the past than a continuous process that had begun decades earlier. He opened one lecture on the council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy by beginning with the reforms of Pius X, XI and XII. Though he emphasized that the word "participation” was mentioned 19 times in the new document, he made sure to insist the Council did not give unlimited freedoms as was claimed by some of the more zealous “reformers.” Always a loyal and devoted churchman, Hillenbrand opposed priests using their own unofficial translations, deplored the lack of vestments, use of non-scriptural readings and priests’ elimination of parts of the Mass they thought irrelevant Dismissal of papal authority and the possibility of scandal to the laity worried always him greatly.

Hillenbrand’s long view of the liturgy and staying near the heart of the Church in this liturgical meant that some thought him overly cautious, yet his approach has proved prophetic as the liturgical exaggerations of the immediate post-Conciliar years have moderated under the influence of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.



Hillenbrand's Life of Mission
Divine Life through the participation of the Mystical Body in the Liturgy

Hillenbrand died in May of 1979, and like many of the pioneer reformers of his generation, was viewed by some as ‘limited” in his ability to adapt to new theological and ecclesiological ideas because of his strict adherence to the teaching of papal encyclicals and official liturgical norms. The very encouragement of the laity that he had recommended all of his life began to bear some bitter fruit as the social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s grew into outright disobedience and disrespect toward the Church and the Sacred Liturgy. He faced the organized resistance of the teachers at Sacred Heart School when he insisted that children attend daily Mass, and was asked by some of his closest associates to step down from his leadership positions in the national organizations he had founded and promoted. At the end of his life he had doubts about some of his life’s choices, thinking that he may have wasted years of his life working with small groups instead of larger ones. Yet Hillenbrand continued on, giving talks and addresses and promoting the participation of the faithful in the life-giving sacraments of the Church.

Always in frail health and living in constant pain since his 1949 car accident, Hillenbrand’s death came at the age of 74. Great crowds of admirers, among them the “Hillenbrand men,” so called because they had been deeply formed by him while in seminary and modeled their priestly lives of justice and activism on his own. Though a man of high ideals and wide influence, Hillenbrand’s own life remained quite humble. Though he spoke on the liturgy frequently, he managed to spread his ideas without publishing a single book or holding long-term academic positions at the university level. When asked to leave his position as seminary rector, he packed and moved quietly and obediently, telling seminarians that serving in a parish was the goal of every priest. He continued his pioneering work in new ways: in the parish, in diocesan groups, and in national organizations. Yet he always remained a pastor first, teaching and encouraging his flock to find salvation in the liturgy, the source and summit of the Christian life.




“The strongest passion in Reynold Hillenbrand’s life was reserved for the liturgy. The sacrifice of the Mass was the center of his life, the core of his spirituality. If there is any area of study to which he devoted total concentration, it was to understand more and more of the beauty, the meaning, the depth of the “Mysterium Fidei.” He loved the Mass, knew its history, he searched the scholarly works for deeper insight. It was the liturgy which animated his work in social action, in the family life apostolate, and in seminary renewal. His life was lived in such a way that he was united with the Lord in his passion an death. May his soul now taste the joys of the resurrection which for his love for Jesus Christ, his Church, and his people, so deserved.”

–Monsignor John J. Egan, 1974

To see this video you need to upgrade to the latest HTML5 compatible browser or download Adobe Flash Player.