In researching and preparing a PrayTell blog post on the topic of liturgy and justice, I recalled having read an excellent article on the topic in the pre-hashtag days of the mid-90s. The article was featured in the newsletter of the Office for Prayer and Worship, Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Though much has changed contextually in the intervening nearly twenty-five years, there is much foundational insight here. I am grateful to my colleague Mike Novak for re-connecting me with this article, and to Kim Mandelkow and the archdiocesan worship office in Milwaukee for permission to reprint it. AJH
Separated at Birth? Liturgy and Social Justice in the 1990s
John Schwantes, S.J., and Michael Novak
Long before it was “politically correct” to be responsive to the needs of the various groups both within and outside of our liturgical assemblies, the issue was an important one for Christians. St. Paul scolded the Corinthians for ignoring the hungry in their midst during their communal sup¬pers. Cyprian criticized a rich woman: “You think you celebrate the Lord’s Supper when you come to the Lord’s Supper without a sacrifice, when you take as your share in the sacrifice what the poor person has given.” In his description of an early celebration of the eucharist, cited in the office of readings for the third Sunday of Easter, St. Justin, martyr, speaks approvingly of the rich among his congregation helping the poor and of the wealthy making a contribution to help or¬phans, widows and all who were in distress.
Early in this century, Virgil Michel, O.S.B., among others, saw in the liturgy an opportunity to form the Christian social conscience. In his frequently-cited words: “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 indispens¬able basis of Christian and social regeneration.” (Michel, “Liturgy the Basis of Social Regenera¬tion,” Orate Fratres 1934-35) As we look toward the end of this century and the beginning of a new millennium, it seems an appropriate time to ask if our liturgical celebrations have any connec¬tion with our approach to issues of social justice in our time.
From the preceding descriptions and quotations one can detect a dual movement between life and liturgy: how do my actions for justice find expression in the liturgical celebration, and how does the liturgy influence the way I choose to lead my life? Our thesis is that these two questions exist in dialogue with each other, that neither one on its own exhausts the relationship between liturgy and social justice. To the extent that one can enter into the lives of those around one who are in need, to that extent can one experience in a new way the words and actions of the liturgical cele¬bration, as affirming the life that God has given to all and lifting up those who are bowed down. To the extent that liturgy is experienced as a place and time where justice is practiced, to that extent can one feel called to practice justice in one’s daily life. Both elements are present because that is the central dynamic of liturgy: to express and celebrate one’s life experiences and those of the community, and to deepen and strengthen the faith dimension of one’s life and the life of the worshiping community.
From Life to Liturgy
When someone committed to social justice is asked how that commitment is reflected in the lit¬urgy, several answers are possible. For some, participating in liturgical celebration with a com¬munity made up of those who are experiencing the brokenness of our society and those who are committed to healing that brokenness, there is a powerful experience that comes from being in the midst of all that diversity, and the fuller meaning of the eucharist can arise. One senses a solidar¬ity with these people and with Christ in these people as they celebrate God’s saving actions in their lives. Experiencing the brokenness and the vitality of these people can give one new eyes and ears to hear the Scriptures and encounter the eucharist in a new way. There is the sense that liturgy can anchor one more firmly and help one to find meaning in the midst of pain and discourage¬ment.
For others, they can discern no real connection between their life and commitments and the litur¬gies which they might attend. To them, liturgy seems to be irrelevant, to “talk past” their experi¬ence or to ignore it. At times, they may see liturgy as an occasion for the smug and self-satisfied to hide from or (even worse) pretend to embrace the challenges of the Gospel rather than actually live them out.
How can the liturgy be experienced in such radically different ways by committed people of good will? We believe that the answer can be found in two places: in these people them¬selves and also in the liturgies and the way they are being celebrated.
A New Vocabulary
We live in a time when individualism is highly prized in this country. The growing influence of this “cult of individualism” on religion has been remarked upon by many. We seem to be at a point now where individuals do not possess the language that enables them to make meaningful connections between their personal faith and a communal faith that can anchor them in a tradition and nourish their spiritual side through the community. In such a milieu the language of liturgy loses its power to make connections because at its best it is a radically communal language and may well be almost unintelligible to those whose “native tongue” is individualism. Many who seek to address the needs of others do so out of their personal relationship with God and see little or no connection between that call and the faith communi¬ty that can nourish and enrich their commitment.
It would seem that the agenda of religious formation needs to address not only the communi¬cation of Catholic social teaching but also the enabling of people to recover the language of community. Liturgical celebra¬tions might help in this regard, since they are a place where people can rehearse what it means to be a faith community, but liturgy cannot do this alone. Engaging in work with the poor, outcast and oppressed can precipitate a faith crisis in the individuals who undertake such work. They need to confront these underlying spiritual issues outside church and chapel or liturgy will continue to be an exercise in irrelevance for them.
From Liturgy to Life
Liturgy has long been described as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, an opportunity to rehearse how life will be lived in the dominion of God. At its best, liturgy can illuminate the everyday experience of the assembly while drawing them so compellingly into the humanity of Christ that they can do no other but respond with a deepening concern for their sisters and brothers. Unfor-tunately, our liturgical celebrations are not always at their best. Potentially a source of unity, instead they often reinforce the divisions within our society and culture. One doesn’t have to buy into any particular political agenda to observe that many feel excluded from the heart of our faith, the “source and summit” of our religious life.
While we remarked earlier that liturgy may seem to “speak past” the experience of some, perhaps it might be more accurate to suggest that liturgy may “speak to” their experiences all too pain¬fully. What do our liturgical celebrations say to the “unemployed and underemployed? To women? To those stigmatized by our culture due to illness, lifestyle or race? What is communi¬cated to people when they gather at eucharist if they are removed from the pain of others in the society? . . . Who plays what roles? Who is excluded from a role? Who is excluded from the group entirely? What patterns of human interaction are reinforced by the ritual? Subverted by it? What language is used to articulate the group’s understanding of themselves? Of God? What qualities of God and the gospel life are consistently praised and held up before the community? What attributes of the divinity, what dimensions of the gospel, are rarely mentioned?” (Kenneth R. Himes, “Eucharist and Justice: Assessing the Legacy of Virgil Michel,” Worship, May 1988). The answers to questions to such as these should be important indicators of the health of the relationship between liturgy and social justice. If our answers are unsatisfactory, then there is work to be done.
Our Liturgical Life
Because the socio-economic segmentation of our society is reflected in our civic and even parish boundaries, many of us celebrate our liturgies with a rather specialized population, perhaps even a privileged one. We must work especially hard to develop in them a sense of mission, a sense that they are called to serve others beyond their comfortable worship space. With our music, our homilies, our language and the way we model inclusiveness, we can create an environment that supports those who are searching for what it means to be a committed Christian in today’s world. Our aim should not be to inflame or tear down, but rather to inspire and build up the connections between eucharist and the larger world. This may be the only setting in which we have the free¬dom to ask how we are fractured like the Middle East or to address questions about our own racism and divisions. Without endorsing particular candidates, our worship can help us address election-year issues through the lens of our faith. Once the election is over, our weekly Sunday celebrations can continue to stir up in us a desire to do justice in our world.
Possibly the only real measure of the liturgical life of any community is the extent to which its members feel invited and challenged to be “people for others” through their liturgical celebrations. Those who are working now in the area of evangelization have rediscovered the old truth that the basic mission of any parish is not self-preservation but rather spreading the Good News. In a similar way, we need to remember that the fourth and final action of the eucharistic celebration is mission. When we do so, we may find our work reflected in and enriched by our liturgical prayer. Thus the dialogue between life and liturgy can bear fruit for the reign of God.