Lessons from the Liturgical Movement… and a Few Chuckles, Too

One of the joys of plumbing the Vigil Michel Papers in the St. John’s Abbey Archives is the correspondence between Michel and Patrick Cummins, OSB, an Associate Editor of the journal Michel founded, Orate Fratres (now, Worship).

Cummins and Michel first met in 1924, when Michel was sent to study at Sant’Anselmo in Rome. Cummins was rector of that Benedictine university. Over time, they grew close enough to trade teasing barbs, but also to get down to the serious business of shaping the direction of the American liturgical movement.

MichelMichel’s vision comes through when he reminds Cummins to steer clear of polemics: “We may be revolutionaries, but not posing at such.” “If we state our views positively, the negative criticism follows without our stating it.”

He wants to inspire, to win over, to bring people along with him by taking them by the hand. The leaders of the liturgical movement, the theologians in its contemporary ressourcement movement, and the documents of the Second Vatican Council all have been critiqued (and celebrated) from different quarters for offering an abstract ideal for which we should strive. One could suspect Michel of offering such a beautiful picture here, but he is actually after something else.

Michel is an educator, an explicator, and working with students taught him to be clear and direct. “Keep in mind,” he encourages Cummins’ work on a fasting article, “the high school mentality of today, whose leanings are toward the concrete and the factual, then you’ll succeed.” “Do not try to be startlingly striking.”

CumminsCummins had jokingly threatened to “Gather quotations from the Liturgy; coordinate them into a series of paragraphs; piously wish primitive fervor may return—and basta.” Cummins really wanted a coup de grace: to dissipate “that world-wide prejudice against all things traditional and Catholic” and thought that quoting liturgical books would not deliver. Michel assured him that an article built around some clear liturgical texts could, in fact, teach people a good bit.

These are wise words from someone who knew how to deal with opposition—friendly and unfriendly. It seems that cultural currents lead us to work on finding that one striking thing—a picture, a song, a post, a liturgical celebration—that’s going to change the game, fix the problem. Michel knew better. He saw the big picture and he knew how to collaborate with others diplomatically to achieve the long-range goals of the movement, which involved nothing less than the full flowering of the mystical body of Christ, liturgically and socially.

Cordiality and collaboration amid frank honesty—and some teasing—run throughout the letters between Michel and Cummins. The skills demonstrated in these letters are skills that I fear as a society we are losing, or have lost. We are good at drawing ourselves into opposing camps or greeting each other with pleasantries that never get to the heart of the matter. Despite their disagreements in disposition and, at times, in substance, Cummins and Michel continued to collaborate on liturgical reform. They resisted the tyranny of smiling and nodding, continuing instead to share their thoughts frankly in a framework of mutual respect. And they worked to bring those opposed to their cause into the fold, or at least Fr. Virgil kept encouraging Fr. Patrick in that regard!

Surely their Benedictine brotherhood aided their efforts at collaboration, but I can’t help but think that their view of the liturgy and the mystical body of Christ played a role too.

Some other tidbits from various letters, just for fun:


Deaf Father Virgil,… I’m going to let that F stand, just to show you what troub an old man has with the typewriter. Deo Gratias, here at last is what I feel should be my first article.


Don’t strue scraps and scraps of paper with thoughts and push them aside impatiently. That’s the way the schoolboy gets at his essay assignments before he has learned that there is something like method.


Jansenism, fortified by rubrical correctness, is in the saddle.


You ask me what strikes me most as needing to be stressed in the outline of your first paper. My answer is: the general point you want to bring out. WHAT IS THAT?


Cheer up, old fellow. We’re all with you. Just wait till we get going. That we includes me. My threats come through sometimes. This is one.

Lastly, Cummins’s erudite defense of procrastination:

Composing is for me a torture. I have never written anything in that wait-till-the-last-minute-any-old-way-will-do attitude. I put off, not because there will be plenty of time tomorrow, but because today’s floundering efforts have made me sick.

Maybe THAT’s why I return to these letters every once in a while, because in Cummins I find a kindred spirit! I have a colleague who when asked if she likes writing responds, “I like having written.” Yeah, that’s about right.


  1. Everything about Virgil Michel interests me. I relate wholeheartedly to his efforts. In every course I teach I introduce my students to him.
    Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece of history!

  2. I’m keeping these. My Superiors are imposing writing assignments and procrasnate. Rearranging my Hermitage. Adding attritional Hours to the Divine Office. Then, once I am embarrassed, I begin the work and rediscover in my heart that maybe I am a WordSmith. I find myself reflecting on the Bard. How did St. Paul, a tentmaker, write with such passion? “Come Holy Spirit…”

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