The Liturgy the Basis of Social Regeneration
Jul 20, 2020

The Liturgy the Basis of Social Regeneration

By Dom Virgil Michel, OSB

Editor’s note: The COVID-19 pandemic, economic depression, racial conflict, and social upheaval might lead one to ask about the significance of the Catholic liturgy today. Does it matter, for example, if one sings hymns or chants antiphons? Or if the priest offers the Eucharistic prayer ad orientem or versus populum? Or if the Ascension is observed on a Thursday, forty days after Easter, or is moved to the following Sunday? Why should these ceremonial details—to say nothing about how the faithful actively and authentically participate in the rite—make an iota’s worth of difference in such a troubled and chaotic world?

Readers of Adoremus Bulletin know that the liturgy is essential. Readers of Orate, Fratres from a century ago knew this, too. Orate, Fratres was a liturgical journal that began in 1926 (and exists today under the title of Worship) and in many ways served as a forerunner to the work that Adoremus is doing. The following reprint by Dom Virgil Michel—founder of Orate, Fratres, and of the American liturgical movement—explains clearly how the liturgy is the basis of any social regeneration.

When this article first appeared in 1935, extreme individualism and atheistic socialism and communism were preparing for battle. Yet, as Dom Michel explains, neither was the solution to social ills—they were causes. Today, as similar evils emerge, the liturgy remains the indispensable source of social renewal.

At the first mention of the subject of this address one might be inclined to ask: What has the liturgy to do with social reconstruction or the social question? Can the liturgy help to give jobs or raise wages? Can there be any connection between the liturgy and the social problem?

It is now seven years ago that the Central Bureau of Central-Verein [an assembly of German, Roman Catholic organizations providing aid and direction to German Catholics in the United states] published a pamphlet that was more than usually distinguished for its keen Christian sense as well as its historical vision. It was entitled The True Basis of Christian Solidarity and it carried the explanatory subtitle: “The Liturgy an Aid to the Solution of the Social Question.”

The moment we deal with the problem of social regeneration, we shall do well to have recourse to the classic Catholic text on the question, the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno of the present Holy Father [i.e., Pope Pius XI (d.1939)] “on Reconstructing the Social Order.”

The very idea of social regeneration or reconstruction implies that there is something very much awry with our present social order. Pius XI refers to this fact in the following brief sentence: “Nowadays, as more than once in the history of the Church, we are confronted with a world which in large measure has almost fallen back into paganism.” In analyzing conditions, the Pontiff speaks of a double danger. This is how he expresses it when he discusses the particular question of private property: “There is, therefore, a double danger to be avoided. On the one hand, if the social and public aspect of ownership be denied or minimized, the logical consequence is Individualism, as it is called; on the other hand, the rejection or diminution of its private and individual character necessarily leads to some form of Collectivism. To disregard these dangers would be to rush headlong into the quicksands of Modernism.”

These, then, are the two dangers the Holy Father warns us to avoid if society is to be regenerated; they are the products of an un-Christian view of life and are therefore pagan at heart; and they are both current symptoms of a diseased social order.

Don’t Go It Alone

I shall deal first with individualism. Christianity has always upheld the supreme value of each individual soul, and so has always been the champion of a moderate form of individualism. It could do no less since the whole Christian view of life, both natural and supernatural, is dependent on the existence of individual human responsibility for one’s action and conduct. Christianity has always stood for a proper appreciation of human personality and has always opposed the treatment of men as if they were animals or mechanical robots.

When the great break occurred four centuries ago in the Christian tradition that had been developing for centuries, it showed itself precisely in the question of individualism. For many persons the individual conscience was then made the supreme judge in all matters of religion; each man became his own highest authority in the interpretation of the scriptural word of God. At the height of the 18th-century enlightenment, the principle of extreme individualism had entered into the entire field of social life. All authority superior to man was denied, and human traditions were laughed out of court. There was then no longer any master superior to man. Man was his own supreme authority, his own sole lawgiver, not only in religion but in all the fields of human conduct, especially also in economic life. Man no longer had any real duties towards his fellowmen. He had a duty only towards his own self, and that duty was the pleasant one of looking after his own best interests in his own chosen way and not bothering about anyone else. This principle of extreme individualism was then given moral justification by the view that if every individual looks to his own best personal interest and makes that his supreme law in life, then the good of society will also be best attained.

What actually happened thereupon was that this principle of exaggerated individualism made of society a battleground of each against all. This was a condition not of dignified human personalities and life, but a human version of the law of the jungle. It was a raw “struggle for existence and survival of the fittest” disguised under the phrase of “free competition.”

Here is what Quadragesimo Anno has to say on this point: “Just as the unity of human society cannot be built upon class warfare, so the proper ordering of economic affairs cannot be left to free competition alone. From this source have proceeded in the past all the errors of the ‘Individualistic’ school. This school, ignorant or forgetful of the social and moral aspects of economic matters, teaches that the State should refrain in theory and practice from interfering therein, because these possess in free competition and open markets a principle of self-direction better able to control them than any created intellect. Free competition, however, though within certain limits just and productive of good results, cannot be the ruling principle of the economic world. This has been abundantly proved by the consequences that have followed from the free reign given to these dangerous individualistic ideals.”

Such is one of the dangers alluded to by the Holy Father. And it is pagan in nature because it contradicts true Christian principles of social life. It has developed, moreover, during the past four centuries step by step with the gradual abandonment of traditional Christianity. As the mighty of the world went on from an abandonment of the Church of Christ to a denial of the divinity of Christ and then to a denial of God, so did the jungle law and pagan principle of the right of the strong and the fortunate spread ever wider into every field of human life.

Altogether Wrong

The other danger pointed out by the Holy Father is called by him Collectivism, the opposite extreme to Individualism. In the sense in which the Papal encyclical refers to Collectivism, it is just as pagan, just as un-Christian as Individualism; and it is just as one-sided as the latter. Just as the undue stressing of the individual led to the neglect of the social nature of human life, so the undue stressing of the social nature of man leads to a one-sided neglect of his individual rights as a human person.

“It is true, indeed,” says our encyclical, “that a just freedom of action should be left to individual citizens and families.” Hence this Collectivism is wrong in fact and principle. To quote again: “Just as it is wrong to withdraw from the individual and commit to the community at large what private enterprise and industry can accomplish, so too it is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of the right order for a larger and higher organization to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies…. Of its very nature the true aim of all social activity should be to help individual members of the social body, but never to destroy or absorb them.”

That is the true danger of Collectivism: that it destroys or absorbs the individual. For it the individual does not count for anything. Authority and obedience is everything, and the human person nothing. That this danger is real today a glance at the face of Europe sufficiently proves. We may express it in one word: the totalitarian State. And we shall do well to remind ourselves that similar State absolutism, and supreme and arbitrary political power over life and death was a characteristic of pre-Christian pagan kingdoms and empires. No wonder that where the principles of the totalitarian State have been followed to the full, in Russia and Germany, for instance, we have a conscious espousal and enforcement of atheism on the one hand and a barbaric revival of pagan religion on the other. Such Collectivism is as much the antithesis of Christianity as is Individualism.

Charity’s Antidote

Now what is the Christian principle over against these two pagan extremes? It is such a mutual balancing and limitation of the two as brings them into harmony. Pius XI refers to this principle at various times. Speaking of the question of Capital and Labor he states it as follows: “In the first place, due consideration must be had for the double character, individual and social, of Capital and Labor, in order that the dangers of Individualism and Collectivism be avoided.”

It is this double character, the harmonious fusion of the two elements of human nature, the individual and the social, that we must not only keep in mind, but that must again become dominant in all human life. How can that be done?

Pius XI answers by referring to a “new diffusion throughout the world of the Gospel spirit, which is a spirit of Christian moderation and of universal charity.” By reason of it, he says, “we confidently look forward to that complete and much desired renewal of human society, and to ‘the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.’”

Now this renewal of human society, which must needs bring about a harmonious relation between men, one of cooperation and mutual aid and not one of mutual strife and cut-throat competition, must have its origin and inspiration in religion. The Holy Father quotes his great predecessor Leo XIII to that effect: “For the ‘foundation of social laws being thus laid in religion, it is not hard to establish the relations of members one to another, in order that they may live together in concord and achieve prosperity.’”

He is indeed very emphatic on this point: “If We examine matters diligently and thoroughly, We shall perceive clearly that this longed-for social reconstruction must be preceded by a profound renewal of the Christian spirit, from which multitudes engaged in industry in every country have unhappily departed. Otherwise, all our endeavors will be futile, and our social edifice will be built, not upon a rock, but upon shifting sand.”

Now the question logically arises: Where are we to find this Christian spirit that is essential to the successful regeneration of the social order? The answer was given long ago by the saintly Pius X in a statement that many of you have undoubtedly heard repeated time and again. He first of all expressed it as his keenest desire “that the true Christian spirit flourish again and become more firmly grounded in all the faithful.” Then he pointed out the great need “of deriving this spirit from its primary and indispensable source, which is active participation in the sacred mysteries and the public and solemn prayers of the Church.”

Basic Ingredients

With this we have come to the liturgy. For the liturgy is nothing else than the solemn and public worship of the Church, her official prayers and blessings, the sacraments, and above all the holy Sacrifice of Christ, the Mass. Pius X not only called this liturgy the indispensable source of the true Christian spirit, but added that the faithful must derive this spirit from the Church’s worship by active participation; therefore, not by passive bodily presence, but by being present in such a manner that mind and heart are actively joined to the official worship and take intelligent part in the holy action.

There is no time here to dwell on the meaning of active participation, nor to analyze further the nature of the elements that make up the Church’s liturgy. I shall proceed at once to the question: What is the basic idea of this liturgy?

It is that of the Mystical Body of Christ—a concept that was not only well known to the early Christians but also a primary inspiration for all their conduct and life. It was constantly preached by the Church Fathers and taught by the Church down to our own day, but it has often, among the faithful of all ranks, been left in the background, even quite forgotten, especially since the growing dominance of an un-Christian individualism.

The doctrine of the Mystical Body was explained by Christ under the example of the vine and the branches and by St. Paul under the picture of the human body composed of head and members. When through the liturgical initiation of Baptism we enter the Church, by the same fact we become intimately united with Christ as members of the Mystical Body of which He is the Head. Christ is then most truly and supernaturally our Brother, we are all children of God in a very special and sublime manner; we are all brethren together who are intimately united in the one Christ. In this holy fellowship we find a harmonious combination of the two complementary factors of humankind, that is, organic fellowship coupled with full respect for human personality and individual responsibility.

This is not merely an abstract doctrine or truth of our Christian lives, but one that should be the basis of our every thought and action as Christians. The active character of it is seen for instance in what our catechism has taught us about the communion of the saints and the common treasury of supernatural merits in the Church. By becoming members of the Mystical Body of Christ through Baptism, we no longer belong to ourselves alone but above all to Christ and His cause. All our good actions and merits likewise, which we perform only through Christ, belong strictly to Christ for attaining the purpose of Christ. Thus all the merits of Christ, which exceed all human needs, and those of His members, form a common treasury of graces and merits, which are in turn applied to all the members according to their needs and their desert. This is the highest type of Christian solidarity—a supernatural living solidarity or fellowship—not only in theory but also in practice.

Prayer in Practice

Similarly the liturgy of the Church not only makes and keeps us members of this fellowship, but it always puts the idea of fellowship in Christ into full practice. Just in so far as we participate in the liturgy after the mind of Christ do we also live and breathe this supernatural social unity of all members in Christ. This is why the liturgy is so truly the primary and indispensable source of the true Christian spirit: it not only teaches us what this spirit is but also has us live this spirit in all its enactments. In the liturgy the teaching is inseparable from the putting into practice.

I shall have to content myself with one or two examples of this truth. The sacrament of the Eucharist, holy Communion, is called by St. Thomas the sacrament of the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ. When we receive Communion we may be inclined to think of it as Christ coming into our hearts and becoming our own exclusive possession, and we think with gratitude of the infinite Christ confining Himself within the limits of our small heart. When twenty persons receive Communion at Mass and go back to their separate pews, this would almost imply that there were now twenty Christs extant among the pews. We know, of course, that this is not the Catholic doctrine. When twenty or more individuals receive Communion they have all been intimately united to one and the same sacramental Christ. Christ is not divided or really multiplied among them after Communion; rather are they all contained in one and the same Christ, and thus united most closely into a single supernatural fellowship with Him. The early Christians understood this very well. And therefore they had no difficulty in transferring this intimate fellowship of love that was wrought among them in holy Communion into every action of their daily lives. They also understood that Communion was God’s answering gift to the offering they had made in an earlier part of the Mass. At the Offertory they all entered with full understanding and heart into the Offertory procession that was a universal custom of the Church for many centuries. What was the real meaning of this Offertory procession?

First of all, everyone who assisted at Mass brought his own individual gift to God, something of his own, something he had raised or worked to acquire, something that he could have used for his own support and that therefore stood for himself. In bringing to the altar this gift, which was generally a portion of bread or wine, olive oil, or some such product, he was fully conscious of thereby dedicating his whole self to God, of giving body and soul, mind and heart to his Maker, and of doing so not only by internal intention but also by external action. Moreover no one brought his gift in isolation from his brethren. All joined together in the Offertory procession and together brought their gifts as one single common offering to God, each one offering not only himself and for himself but each one offering all and for all. It was thus a beautiful example as well as realization of true Christian solidarity and love.

Of the gifts offered, some bread and wine were laid on the altar to be the essential elements of the Sacrifice of Mass, and all the rest of the one common offering was laid aside on tables to be used for the poor and the needy. Thus the common offering made by them to God became at the same time a common act of love and charity to the poor and the needy, so that in one and the same collective but unitary action they worshiped God directly and served Him indirectly in their fellowmen. Such was the sublime lesson of Christian solidarity that was brought home to the early Christians increasingly by their active participation in the liturgy. It was brought home to them not only as a truth learned, but as a principle put into regular practice, which by repetition formed a permanent attitude and habit of mind. No wonder that they lived so true to this genuine Christian spirit in all the actions of their daily lives!

Rites of Fellowship

The liturgy is replete with instances of the actual working out of this Christian fellowship and solidarity, this mutual Christian love which cannot bear to see a member suffer without an attempt to aid him. We are all aware of the fact that no Mass is offered without an official commemoration of the poor souls in purgatory. This is but another illustration of the general principle of Christian solidarity between the different divisions of the fellowship.

Sometimes we view the sacrament of Confession as a striking instance of God’s dealing solely with the individual. But here too we have another example of the same solidary Christian spirit. Here too the merits of the common treasury of all is drawn upon for the needs of the individual member. This is beautifully expressed in the official prayer recited by the priest after the sacramental absolution. In a most offhand way the good works of the individual in question and of all the saints and of Christ are mentioned together: “May the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints, whatever good thou mayest do and whatever evil thou mayest have to endure, profit thee unto the remission of sins, increase of grace, and glory in the life without end. Amen.”

This, then, is the true Christian spirit and first and last the supreme lesson of the liturgy as the official worship and life of the Mystical Body of Christ. And this spirit must needs be the source of all further extension and application of the principles of solidarity and fellowship in our common life and civilization.

So it is pointed out by the Holy Father himself. For him this mutual supernatural relationship of men united in Christ is the model towards which all social regeneration must strive. Speaking of the proper economic relations between men he says, for instance: “Where this harmonious proportion is kept, man’s various economic activities combine and unite into one single organism and become as members of a common body, lending each other mutual help and service.” Again: “Then only will it be possible to unite all in a harmonious striving for the common good, when all sections of society have the intimate conviction that they are members of a single family and children of the same heavenly Father, and further, that they are one body in Christ and everyone members one of another.”

The True Missing Link

The whole trend of ideas I have tried to bring before you is admirably expressed in a quotation from one of the most active and inspiring as well as profound apostles of Catholic Action in our day, Christopher Dawson. “The Mystical Body,” he says, “is the link between the liturgy and sociology; and in proportion as men are brought to realize, through the liturgy, their position as members of that Body, will their actions in the social sphere be affected thereby…. A visible manifestation of incorporation into Christ, a visible united action on the part of the members, cannot fail to revive and foster in them a determination to carry their Christ-life into the social and economic sphere.”

In conclusion, I may summarize in what happens to take on the form of a logical syllogism:

Pius X tells us that the liturgy is the indispensable source of the true Christian spirit; Pius XI says that the true Christian spirit is indispensable for social regeneration.

Hence the conclusion: The liturgy is the indispensable basis of Christian social regeneration.

The above article appeared in 1935 in Orate Fratres (9:536-545) and is reprinted with the permission of The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN..

Virgil Michel, O.S.B.

Dom Virgil Michel, O.S.B., 1890-1938, was a monk of St. John Abbey in Collegeville, MN, and considered the Father of the American liturgical movement.