header icons

The Liturgy the Basis of Social Regeneration (Virgil Michel)

At the mention of the subject of this article 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?

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 Quadregesimo Anno of the present Holy Father “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 (e.g., communism). 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.

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.”

Renewal of Christian Spirit Needed

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.”

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 anaylse 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 member. When through the liturgical initiation of Baptism we enter the Church, by that 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.

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 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.

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 fellowhsip 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.”

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

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

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

Liturgy: Font of Life in the Body of Christ

This then is the sublime function of the liturgy of the Church: to assimiilate us unto Christ, to make us partakers of the Christ-life, of the eternal life of God. We attain God through the mediatorship of Christ who lives and acts in his Church. The life of the Church is this continuing life of Christ. Hence we must seek God first of all in this life of the Church, that is, in her liturgy. Without the latter it is impossible to attain union with Christ. To be in the Church, to be a living member of the Church and of Christ, means precisely to be in living union with the divine Godhead of the Trinity. And so the Church, which has been characterized as the continuation of Christ on earth, is constituted not only of those who by special transmission from the apostles exercise the priestly and missionary office of Christ in an official way, but of all those who by participation in the liturgical life of the Church also live the life of Christ.

Thence arises the beautiful idea of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ, all the faithful being the members that make up this body, with Christ as the head; and again the idea of the faithful as the branches of the vine which is Christ. “I am the vine; you the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.” The members of the Church of Christ are all engrafted upon him as the vine. They are not an accidental agglomerate or aggregate, like a heap of stone, no matter how close these may be together, but a unified organism. The Church is thus a common fellowship of souls in Christ, a fellowship that extends to all who have been incorporated in Christ. It therefore embraces also the souls of the blessed in heaven–a doctrine which Christian tradition expresses by the term communion of saints.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XV, No. 3, April 1995. Excerpted from Virgil Michel, The Liturgy of the Church according to he Roman Rite, Macmillan, 1938, and Michel, “The Liturgy the Basis of Social Regeneration,” Orate Frates, Nov. 1935.