Liturgy and Justice

The 20th Century Social and Liturgical Movements in the U.S.: Working out of a Common Vision

March 07, 2007


On a bulletin board near my desk hangs a photograph of Virgil Michel, O.S.B. I keep it there for inspiration, especially on those days when it seems that I am whistling in the wind when talking about liturgy and justice as inseparable dimensions of the Christian life.  I quickly discovered that not all people are as immediately taken by the topic as I am.  The reactions vary widely.  Some are simply disinterested; others are so bewildered by the two words appearing together that they dismiss it without finding out more.  Because the word “justice” carries so many connotations in society, some people are uncomfortable with thinking that Christian prayer has any bearing upon or is influenced by the various brands of “justice” (social, legal, distributive, and so on).  Others react with “The Church should stay out of politics” before hearing that the liturgy-justice relationship is about so much more.

Some professional liturgists are preoccupied these days with new rubrics and other liturgical minutia, so they do not have the time or energy to devote to deeper consideration of the liturgy-justice relationship.  Some social activists might dismiss the topic because they are uninspired by the Church’s liturgy.  Still other people question whether in the celebration of the liturgy itself, the Church is an authentic model for justice.

At the same time, I have also witnessed the sudden openness to the idea that liturgy and justice are inseparable once people hear more.  Initial impressions that might cause hesitation fall away; people begin to get a glimpse of the tremendous potential there is for seeing anew the liturgy and our mission in the world.

Virgil Michel can be a source of inspiration for all us, because he also encountered resistance and opposition to his message.  Yet, he was undaunted by the negative voices.  His convictions were powerful, so much so that he could not help but be vigilant about calling the faithful to see the liturgy as a source for the work of justice.

How he went about his mission of spreading the word is in itself something at which to marvel.  But first, let’s look at what his message was – just what did he see in the liturgy that led him to point to it as the source for social renewal, a school for servants of justice?       

Key to Dom Virgil’s insight that the formation of a social consciousness for Christians is dependent on the renewal of the liturgical spirit is the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ.  (Let me note here that the descriptor “mystical” is typically not part of today’s vocabulary when talking about the Body of Christ.  While there are all sorts of theological nuances that have emerged since Michel’s day about the “Mystical Body of Christ” versus “Body of Christ,” we need not go down that path to appreciate Dom Virgil’s insights.)  He was introduced to the doctrine by his European mentor, Lambert Beauduin, OSB, a prominent figure in the Modern Liturgical Movement of the 20th century.  That introduction was a “ah-ah” experience for Michel – a rush of insight, a moment of conversion.

It might be difficult for us today when we are very familiar with the Body of Christ metaphor expressed in the writings of St. Paul, to appreciate that in Dom Virgil’s day, this metaphor and its implications for our understandings about church, liturgy, sacraments, social mission and much more had to be retrieved, even defended at times.  So for Michel and other liturgical reformers, the Body of Christ image generated new and exciting ideas (many of which were adopted by the Second Vatican Council). 

The Body of Christ – Christ as the head and the baptized as the members.  For Virgil Michel, this is not simply a “dream-image,” but a “real living organism.”  (Our Life in Christ (The Liturgical Press, 1939) 35.)  It is the means by which Christ actively continues his saving work in the world.  In other words, Christ acts in and through all of us who are baptized.  We each become “another Christ” because we are filled with and moved by the Spirit of Christ.  As sharers in the Incarnation then, we are to manifest to the world the divine life.  We do this each and every time we strive to bring about justice and harmony in the world, because the God in whose image we are made and in whose life we share is a God of justice.

Further, when we become members of the Body of Christ through baptism, Michel said “we are no longer to ourselves alone but above all to Christ and his cause.” (Orate Fratres 9 (1935) 243.)  With our baptism – our membership in the Body of Christ – come responsibilities.  We become co-responsibile for one another and for all of humanity and the created world, because we are “intimately united with Christ and through Christ with [one another].” (The Christian in the World (The Liturgical Press, 1939) 8.)  We therefore cannot act and live in isolation, because the life lived by Christians is “the same life possessed by Christ and all the other members of Christ.” (Ibid. 8-9.)  (This notion, of course, aided Virgil Michel in fighting the rugged individualism that was emerging in society and even in Catholic worship.)

To carry out our role as “another Christ” in the world, we must continuously be tutored in and rehearse the Christian ways of being and doing.  For Virgil Michel, our school – the source of our call to mission and ministry in the world – is the liturgy.

Dom Virgil described the liturgy as the “pulse-beat of the Church,” which makes our worship together an indispensable source of learning and nourishment for us as the Body of Christ.  This led Michel to insist that the revitalization of the Christian spirit and responsiveness to social needs are utterly dependent on the renewal of the liturgical spirit.

In a nutshell, Virgil Michel was able to point out the inherent relationship between liturgy and the Christian responsibility for justice in the world in this way.  Our membership in the Body of Christ (that network of relationships that we are baptized into) and the inherent call to building right and just relationships that comes with this membership are formed and visibly expressed in the liturgy.  (The Liturgy of the Church [New York: Macmillan, 1937], 50-53.)

Michel recognized liturgy as a profoundly social act, because it is where the network of relationships and the union in the Body of Christ are concrete.  He explained that through active participation in the liturgy, we become conscious of our intimate union with Christ and one another (“Liturgy and the Catholic Life,” unpublished ms., 141.)  The liturgy, and especially, the Eucharist, should remind us again and again of the social implications of being a member of the Body of Christ.  If we were to ask Dom Virgil what the right structure of society should be, he would answer, “You need only point to the Mystical Body of Christ, for there is the model that we should try to follow in our human relations.”  (Christian in the World, 76-77.)

Keep in mind that Virgil Michel’s experience of Catholic liturgy was pre-Vatican II, which for me, makes his insights that much more remarkable.  He was able to see underneath a fossilized liturgy and raise up the fundamental truths that comprise the Christian life.  He also realized that for the Catholic faithful to understand and live what he saw as the critical relationship between the Church’s worship and its mission of justice in the world, participation in the liturgy was a must.  In fact, we find in Dom Virgil’s writings the words “full, conscious, and active participation” in the same sentence – a phraseology and more importantly, a fundamental shift in thinking about and doing liturgy that was adopted by the Second Vatican Council.  Before his death in 1938, Michel even came to support the use of common languages in the liturgy, because he recognized the incentive it would give people to really participate in the liturgy and hopefully, in the liturgy that continues as we as “other Christs” live out our role as servants of justice and peace.

Michel’s concern for catechizing Catholics about the liturgy and its importance to the doing of justice was so great that he took concrete steps to ensure this would happen.  First, upon his return from Europe in 1926, he started The Liturgical Press in Collegeville, which over 75 years later remains a key publisher of both academic and pastoral resources.  When Michel founded the Press, he did so in order to publish and disseminate materials about liturgy in order to help educate and form all the faithful in the liturgy.  (Among the publications was a Life in Christ series for children in grades 1 – 8.)

In the same year, he began Orate Fratres, the journal now known as Worship.  The early issues of Orate Fratres were striking in that Dom Virgil made certain that the articles of each issue concerned not only the Church’s liturgy but contemporary social issues as well.  Michel held fast to his conviction that the two dimensions of Christian life had to be constantly placed in dialogue with one another.  Also notable is that the readership for Orate Fratres was wide and included laity, clergy, and religious.  Michel even included in the journal essays and comments from the readers – which he invited them to submit.  One of his letters to the readers made this appeal: “Just live the liturgy, as I am sure you do, and you will realize the need of sharing in Christ’s Calvaries to have a share also in His resurrections.  As soon as you get a few good ideas on liturgy and sociology [a word used then to speak of social issues] in relation with your work, put them down on paper and let us here have a look at them.  A hearty God bless you!”

As a teacher at St. John’s University, Michel invited the students to join him on Saturday afternoons for conversation about the liturgy-justice relationship.  As a pastor to the Native Americans of northern Minnesota, he became even more committed to spreading the message that what we do in liturgy has everything to do with how we carry out our social responsibilities.

Finally, Virgil Michel enjoyed the supportive friendships of many people who were also inspiring and influential figures in the liturgy and social movements in the U.S.  Among them was Dorothy Day, cofounder of The Catholic Worker and the Catholic Worker Movement, who wrote about her passion for liturgy:  “To be in church isn’t to be calmed down, as some people say they get when they are at Mass.  I’m worked up.  I’m excited by being so close to Jesus, but the closer I get, the more I worry about what He wants of us, what He would have us do before we die.”  (Robert Coles, Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (Radcliffe Biography Series) (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987) 76-77.)

There was Catherine de Hueck Doherty, pioneer of the lay apostolate in Canada and founder of Friendship House, who said that the Mass, “fully participated in, will open to us the mind of Christ, and we will radiate him in our lives.  And then we shall be able to go forth and fight the good fight of Christ against poverty, misery, injustice.”  (“I Saw Christ Today,” Orate Fratres 12 (1938) 309-10.  Other co-workers in the vineyard included William Heulsmann, Bernard Laukemper, Martin Hellriegel, Cecilia Himebaugh, Hans Ansgar Reinhold, and Reynold Hillenbrand, all of whom contributed to promoting the vision Virgil Michel had for liturgy and for society.

This has been only a glimpse into the richness of Dom Virgil’s hopes and dreams for liturgy as the basis of social renewal.  Does this man from a generation past have anything to say to us today? Yes, I think so. Perhaps now more than ever, his is a voice that needs to be heard.

I end here with the powerful words Virgil Michel spoke to Catherine de Hueck Doherty during a visit to the Friendship House:  “Go, live the Mass and you will restore the social order and the world to Christ – but first begin with yourself!  That is the soul of the apostolate.  That is your soul.  That is your vocation.  Be steadfast in it, persevere and Christ will use you to renew the face of the earth.  You will become pregnant with him, give him birth, allow him to grow to his full stature by the process of his growth in you and your corresponding death to self.  You will be his hands, his feet, his eyes, his voice, his heart!  He will walk the earth again in you, for this is the hour of the laity.”  (Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Not Without Parables: Stories of Yesterday, Today and Eternity (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1977) 104.)

Anne Koester works and teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.  She has edited or co-edited three books:  Liturgy and Justice: To Worship God in Spirit and Truth (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002); Vision: The Scholarly Contributions of Mark Searle to Liturgical Renewal (co-edited with Barbara Searle; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2004); and Called To Participate: Theological, Ritual, And Social Perspectives (co-edited with Barbara Searle; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2006.  Anne is also the author of Sunday Mass: Our Role and Why It Matters (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007.)


A Participation that Is Demanded by the Very Nature of Liturgy
Jesus as Model Relationship Builder
Justice: What Are We Talking About? (Part I, Part II, Part III)
Liturgy: Some Key Ideas
Putting on Our Sunday Best
To Live & Learn: What Does Liturgy Teach?

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