Rediscovering the Liturgical Movement

Recently I’ve become curious about the decades leading up to Vatican II.  What events and ideas emerged then that supported changes at the Council?  A bit of research led me to the liturgical movement that occurred during the first half of the 20th century.  Fascinating reading!

Originated in Europe and brought to the U.S. in the 1920s by a Benedictine monk named Virgil Michel, its goals were full, active participation in the liturgy by all as a wellspring for transforming action in the world.  Advocates insisted that these two aspects of Catholic life – praying the liturgy and social activism – were inseparable.  To Michel, “full and active” referred as much to activity outside the church building as in it, and “liturgy” meant the mass but also daily praying of the Liturgy of the Hours by lay people, not just vowed religious.

The basis for connecting liturgy and social justice concerns came from the image of the church as the body of Christ described in the New Testament.  Although not a new image, the “one body with many parts” had been replaced over the centuries by a hierarchical view reflecting the structure of the church.  The liturgical movement worked to bring this body of Christ image to life.

And it wasn’t just theoretical.  Catholic Worker founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin supported the liturgical movement and had regular contact with Virgil Michel in the 1930s.  They incorporated a liturgical awareness at their Houses of Hospitality, where evening prayer was recited by all who were present. Day wrote in her December 1935 column in the Catholic Worker that, “In the Liturgy we have the means to teach Catholics, thrown apart by Individualism into snobbery, apathy, prejudice, blind unreason, that they are members of one body and that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.’”   In 1933, she had written, “We feel that it is very necessary to connect the liturgical movement with the social justice movement.  Each one gives vitality to the other.”

These ideas need revisiting!  They contain a richness that seems sorely lacking in liturgical discussions these days.  I wonder what Virgil Michel would say about the new translations that will take effect later this year.

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