Solesmes became a great center of renewal for the entire Church and its refounding brought forward a larger than life figure, who would oversee this renewal. Guéranger (1805-1875), originally a diocesan priest, literally saw a local, beloved church in crumbles, a medieval abbey, whose remnants were meant for demolition, and felt a call to restore not only that building, but also to begin a new way of life as a monastic. His response, reminiscent of St. Francis, entailed not only a restoration of one particular building, but a propping up of the Church itself.Share
The crumbles that Guéranger noted were of the Abbey of Solesmes, noted for its medieval statuary. This was only one small piece of the general destruction of the Church wrought by the French Revolution and Napoleon. The Corsican tyrant had seen to the nearly complete extermination of monasticism from Europe, deeming contemplatives useless to society. As Guéranger was ordained a priest in the early nineteenth century, the Benedictines were on the verge of extinction in France. He would oversee a return of monasticism not only to France, but also to Europe more generally.
It is frankly hard to underestimate the influence of Guéranger on the Church as a whole in the nineteenth century and beyond. Besides resurrecting the Benedictines, he battled the remnants of Gallicanism and Jansenism, initiated the liturgical movement, paved the way for the declaration of the Immaculate Conception and Papal Infallibility, and instructed generations of Catholics through his monumental, The Liturgical Year.
“Prayer is man’s richest boon,” begins Guéranger’s The Liturgical Year, a work for which he is probably best known. This work is testimony to Guéranger’s lifelong study and devotion to the Roman liturgy. It is hard to believe that when Guéranger was first ordained he had to receive special permission to say the Mass of the Roman rite, instead of the widespread Gallican rite of France. Guéranger would champion the Roman rite with great success in his homeland, but also proposed it as the center of spirituality for lay Catholics. The Liturgical Year provides a daily guide for Catholics to pray and meditate on the prayers of the Mass and breviary and to enter more deeply into the liturgical seasons.
Solesmes would also become the center of the renewal of Gregorian chant. Guéranger related that “the great impressions of the soul were meant to be sung,” and that “Christians … cannot be content to recite things; they must sing them” (quoted in Solesmes and Dom Guéranger, 95). In order to assist the Church in this end of praising God in song, Guéranger began another great work of rebuilding, dedicating Solesmes to the restoration of Gregorian chant. This was no easy task, as the ancient melodies and methodology had grown corrupt, to the point that Guéranger remarked that “authentic chant was ‘forgotten, mutilated, changed, altered’” (ibid., 104). To overcome this problem, the abbot turned to medieval manuscripts, and, with the aid of his monks, set about a great program of restoration. This project would reach a pivotal moment when Pope Pius X entrusted Abbot Joseph Pottier, a protégé of Guéranger, with the restoration of Gregorian chant for the entire Church, which produced the Vatican Edition of the Graduale Romanum.
Like the restoration of chant, Solesmes was also influential in collecting and promoting the works of the Church Fathers. Guéranger sent one of his monks, Dom Jean Baptiste François Pitra, on missions across Europe seeking manuscripts. Pitra collaborated with Migne in his monumental Patrologia series. Pitra was also known for his work in archeology and the Eastern Church, spending seven months in Russia and overseeing new liturgical books for Eastern rites. Pius IX named Pitra a Cardinal and appointed him librarian of the Vatican Library, confirming the universal importance of the work of Solesmes. (Read more.)