WASHINGTON (CNS) — For those who think the movement to reform Catholic liturgical practices started sometime early in the 20th century, Jesuit Father John Baldovin suggested looking back earlier in time. A lot earlier.

Like, say, 1786.

That was when the synod of a diocese in the Holy Roman Empire suggested several changes now taken for granted, such as one altar per church, earlier and more frequent reception of Communion, the abolition of the silently prayed eucharistic prayer, and a simplified liturgical rite.

Father Baldovin, a professor of historical and liturgical theology at Jesuit-run Boston College, said these recommended reforms were “decried and abrogated” by Pope Pius VI when he learned of them, but it gives evidence that church leaders even then were thinking of ways to reform the liturgy.

Speaking July 30 at the annual convention of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians in Washington, Father Baldovin said the 19th century had its own moments of searching for liturgical reform.

In 1833, for instance, the Benedictine monastery in Solesmes, France, was re-established, he said, a welcome sign after the French Revolution of a generation earlier that violently separated church and state in France.

In fact, Father Baldovin said, it was that experiment in democracy in France that tempered European church leaders’ enthusiasm after World War II for systems of government in Western Europe that lent themselves to more democracy — a telling point in the years prior to the Second Vatican Council, whose Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in 1963 set the wheels in motion for liturgical reform throughout the church.

Also in the 19th century, Catholic theologians were responding to Protestant challenges to the what Father Baldovin called “Neo-Scholasticism,” which he said had largely devolved over the centuries into a series of question-and-answer polemics. The Protestants were using historical research to issue their challenges, he added. The “Tubingen School” of Catholic theology was responding with arguments later coined as modernism, “which Pope Pius X called ‘the synthesis of all heresies,'” Father Baldovin said.

But Pius X, in 1908, was also the first pontiff to use the term “active participation” to describe the laity’s role in the liturgy. He, too, had urged more frequent reception of Communion.

Despite the tensions and mixed signals, others in Europe and North America continued their efforts. A 1908 liturgical conference in Malines, Belgium, said that liturgical reform was not an end unto itself, but that “ecumenism and Christian social teaching (were) critical to the development of the liturgical movement,” Father Baldovin said.

In France, “La Nouvelle Theologie,” spurred by Jesuit and Dominican theologians and liturgists took hold. They, too, were subject to criticisms and the modernist label. “They were not rehabilitated until Vatican II,” Father Baldovin told convention delegates during his address, “The Contexts of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.”

Even so, small reforms took place within the Tridentine liturgy in use throughout the church at the time. In 1955, the eucharistic fast was lessened from starting at midnight the night before to three hours before reception of the host; the fast is currently one hour. In 1956, the laity could receive Communion during the Good Friday liturgy.

With the reforms mandated by Vatican II, the battles fought within the church, according to Father Baldovin, focus more on “tradition,” and what it means to different constituencies of Catholics.

Still, Father Baldovin said, the liturgy has come a long way since he was a student in Catholic grade school. The students would attend an 8 a.m. Mass at the church, he recalled, but the school bell rang at 8:30. So, as an accommodation, the priest would stop the Mass after the consecration, a second priest would go to a side altar to retrieve a ciborium with previously consecrated hosts, and the two clergy would then distribute Communion.

“The Mass was completely dis-coordinated, uncoordinated,” Father Baldovin said. “This would be unthinkable today — I hope!”