Liturgy and Justice

A Participation that is Demanded by the Very Nature of Liturgy

March 07, 2007


In my article, “The 20th Century Social and Liturgical Movements in the U.S.: Working out of a Common Vision,” I attempted to call attention to the remarkable vision and work of the social and liturgical reformers of the first half of 20th century America. Granted, my essay gave us a mere glimpse inside of the tradition that we have inherited and of the dreams yet to be realized.  There’s so much more to say about the prophets of the social and liturgical movements – women and men who walked and worked and prayed together.  But for now, let’s take what we have discovered about their mission and ministry, and consider why it’s critical for their voices to be heard again through us – through our worship, words, actions, and way of being.

We begin with an historical note.  Given the tremendous passion of people like Virgil Michael, OSB about the vital role of liturgy in the work of social renewal, one would think that this vision would have been a given in the documents of Vatican Council II, e.g. in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.  Regrettably, it’s not as direct and as clear in the council’s documents as one would hope.  What happened?

Could Virgil Michel’s early death (at in 1938 at age 48) be one reason for the council’s oversight in explicitly pointing out the relationship between liturgy and justice?  Had he lived longer, had he had the opportunity to speak before the world’s bishops when they gathered in 1962…well, we can only wonder and imagine what might have been.  The liturgical reformers of Europe led the way in the drafting of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.  They are to be commended for their marvelous work; however, could it be that explicit mention of the liturgy-justice relationship was overlooked because Europe didn’t have a Virgil Michel?  Possibly.  And indeed, this fact underscores the uniqueness of the American liturgical movement.

I do not point out the absence of an explicit statement in the liturgy constitution about the interrelationship between the church’s worship and its social mission to devalue this document in any way.  Far from it!  We owe a debt of gratitude to all who had a hand in envisioning and crafting this document, as well as to the 2,147 bishops who voted for its acceptance.  (By the way, amazingly, only 4 bishops voted against the constitution.)  I note the oversight only to suggest that the absence of specific recognition of liturgy-justice could have something to do with (1) the lack of momentum that was needed to sustain the work of Virgil Michel and others; (2) why the liturgy-justice relationship seems like news to present day Catholics; and (3) why we need to read between the lines of the liturgy constitution and to do so with eyes that see – really see the breadth and depth of Vatican II’s wisdom and vision for the church.

So, let’s do a little reading between the lines.  First a story.  I was blessed with the opportunity during my studies at St. John’s in Collegeville, MN to get to know Godfrey Diekmann, OSB († 2002), who served as one of the experts at the Second Vatican Council and as a member of one of the subcommissions charged with drafting the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.  Fr. Godfrey was also the person to whom the mantle of editing Orate Fratres (now Worship) was passed after Virgil Michel’s death.  He told me that his moment of conversion with regard to his understanding of liturgy came when Virgil Michel taught him about the Mystical Body of Christ doctrine (see my article of April, 2004).  With this metaphor as the foundation, Fr. Godfrey saw anew how our work of worship and our work of justice are threads of the same cloth.

Fr. Godfrey bemoaned the lack of a clear lifting up of the liturgy-justice relationship in the liturgy constitution; however, being the great optimist that he was, he insisted, “It may not be explicit, but it’s implicit!  After he said this to me, I re-read the document  in order to grasp for myself just how it’s implicit.  It was then that I reflected more carefully on paragraph 14 of the liturgy constitution:  “It is very much the wish of the church that the faithful should be led to take that full, conscious, and active part in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people” (1 Pet 2:9, 4-5) have a right and to which they are bound by reason of their Baptism” (emphasis mine).

The participation in the liturgy that the council calls the church to is the kind that “is demanded by the very nature of liturgy.”   Further, we have a right and a responsibility to take part in liturgy.  Now, how does this help us discover the liturgy-justice dimension?  First, we are reminded that our participation in the liturgy does not end when we go out the church doors on Sundays.  Our right and responsibility to participate in the church’s liturgy continues in the liturgy of everyday life.  (The liturgy of everyday living in the world is different from the ritual event of our worship together, but there are common features.  For example, in the liturgy of life, just as in the church’s formal liturgy, there are countless opportunities for us to respond to God in praise and thanksgiving.  Daily life is where God works through the work of God’s people – which is also what happens in when we gather as a worshiping community.)

Second, recall what makes up the “very nature” of liturgy.  For instance, liturgy is always about recalling and making present here and now the network of relationships into which we are baptized – our relationship with God, ourselves, other human beings, and all of the created world.  In liturgy we become more conscious of and more attuned to what is required of us to be faithful to these relationships.  Here is where justice intersects.  Justice is also about relationships – the establishment of right relationships.  Liturgy teaches us much about our daily charge to build up right relationships – with God, family, neighbors, co-workers, strangers, the local and global community, and so on.  Of course, we learners need to pay attention.  We need to: 1) be mindful about what we do in our rituals; 2) be aware of Christ’s presence in the people gathered; 3) listen well to the word of God proclaimed; 4) pray for the needs of the world; 5) offer gifts for the poor; 6) eat from the one bread and drink from the one cup to be reminded of who we are and who we are to become even more fully – the Body of Christ.  In all these ways, we learn about divine justice; we absorb it into our bone marrow so our very lives are epiphanies of God’s intimate communion with humanity.

Further, by its very nature, liturgy is a social act – something which we can only do together.  It is not a private affair.  The social nature of liturgy was key for Virgil Michel.  He saw that if we truly appreciate that liturgy is something we do as a community of believers, we will become more and more conscious of our co-responsibility for one another and for all God’s people.

By its very nature, liturgy is not confined to an hour or so a week inside a church building.  Liturgy is meant to help us imagine a better world and then turn us outward so that by acting in and with the Spirit of Christ, we can help bring about a more just, compassionate, and peaceful world.  We are always dismissed from the liturgy to love and to serve the Lord in our ordinary but graced lives.

Liturgy – by its very nature – is where we tell our story as a people, that is, a covenant story in which God is always faithful to being in relationship with us.  And we bring our own stories and the stories of all God’s people, and we search for points of connection with the story of salvation.  One such point of connection is the revelation of God’s justice in the world.  We might come to liturgy holding in our hearts personal stories of injustices.  The liturgy can help us to be in touch in new ways with divine justice and to gain insights into injustices present in our own lives.

And by its very nature, liturgy always has an end in and of itself – to praise God who is justice.  Liturgy is a means by which we respond as a people to all God has done for us in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

(For further reading on the meaning of participation in the liturgy, see Called To Participate: Theological, Ritual, And Social Perspectives by Mark Searle (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2006).

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.)


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
The 20th Century Social and Liturgical Movements in the U.S.: Working out of a Common Vision
To Live & Learn: What Does Liturgy Teach?

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