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Social and Liturgical Action in the 21st Century

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Many of my fellow Catholic Millennials are concerned for moderate to drastic social change, especially in the United States. I would venture to guess, though, that many of these same Catholic Millennials do not realize there is a long history of Catholic social action deriving from the “source and summit” of the Catholic life, the liturgical action. How are these two seemingly different aspects of life connected? We cannot forget the words of our Lord for loving our neighbor and caring for the environment, but I would like to focus on making connections between the Liturgical Movement of the twentieth century and my generation’s affinity for social action.

Virgil Michel, OSB was one of the foremost proponents of the connection between social action and liturgical action in the twentieth century. A monk of St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota, Michel is famous for his promotion of lay “active” or “actual” participation in the liturgical life of the Church. Founding the Liturgical Press in 1926, he used this venue to spread the latest news from the liturgical renewal happening in continental Europe. As time went on, Dom Virgil began to make connections between actual participation in the liturgy and recreating society in the image of God. How was this to happen?

It is the relation of all things to this ultimate divine Goal that gives us an effective unifying bond in all our human contacts. This holds especially of the right relation of man to man in the social family . . . . the results achieved in social reconstruction will come close to the divine model of the fellowship of souls in Christ, which is known as His mystical body.[1]

So Michel knew that social change had to start with participation in the Mystical Body. Where does the Mystical Body discover its mission and identity? The Mystical Body discovers its mission and identity at the Holy Mass.

And what is the Holy Mass but the life of Jesus Christ in microcosm. Michel called the laity to a deeper participation in the life of Christ, the Paschal Mystery, but most of all His love. It is this love, the love of God for man embodied in the new and eternal covenant of Jesus Christ, that Michel asked the laity to love each other.

Once this love has transformed (or “divinized”) them, the laity bring the love of Christ into the world. They bring Christ and His love into the world after they have shared His Body and Blood at the Eucharistic Table. For Michel, the participation in Christ’s Body and Blood is what will enable the renewal of society at the “grassroots,” the human being.

How do the words of a Benedictine monk from the early twentieth century help us in the twenty-first century by participating more profoundly in social action? I would argue that true Christian social action begins in the action of Jesus Christ in the liturgy. We, the assembled members of the Mystical Body, see with our eyes of faith the profound love Christ has for all creation. By virtue of our incorporation into Christ’s Body – the Church – we have a duty to evangelize the world and bring that transformative and divinizing power of Christ’s love to people who desperately are in need of it.

Therefore, when we participate in the liturgy, we enter more deeply into the mysteries of heaven and the life of the Holy Trinity. We are thus transformed by our earthly participation in the heavenly liturgy to bring about the transformation of human society into the Kingdom of God on earth. This transformation, though, begins with our participation in the liturgical action; then we can truly participate in social action.

[1] Virgil Michel, Christian Social Reconstruction: Some Fundamentals of the Quadragesimo Anno (Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1937), 114.

Novice Joseph Wagner, O.S.B.

Joseph Wagner holds an M.A. in liturgical studies from the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. His research focuses on the social and political ramifications of the Liturgical Movement in the United States. He at St. Meinrad's Archabbey.