Virgil Michel, OSB, monk of St. John’s Abbey and lover of the liturgy, died on November 26, 1938.
Fr. Virgil does not want us to remember him, however. He knew he was a touchstone, a starting point, a spark, a switchboard—for others to connect, to find love in Christ and communion with each other. Fr. Virgil knew that life could be changed if others came to see liturgical worship for what it was: the source of true social transformation.
Virgil Michel was a great reader, a consumer of philosophy, theology, and news in more than one modern language (though German was close to his Minnesotan heart). He was likewise a great writer—and used his words to encourage, communicate, and to admonish the faithful to find something more than a serving station for grace when they stopped at Church. In fact, when Virgil died, the only items found in his monk’s cell belonging to him…were a set of St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica and…a typewriter.
When Virgil left this world, he left his words behind him—and many saddened hearts, in sorrow over the loss of their friend. On his desk, in fact, were some stacks of unpublished articles and chapters. Some were complete, but others left unfinished when he had to leave his work for St. John’s infirmary, while he struggled with pleural pneumonia (the acute cause of death was an infection—from cutting himself while shaving).
One of the last items on Virgil’s desk was a “Timely Tract” he began composing at the beginning of September 1938, an opinion piece which was to appear in Orate Fratres (now Worship) with the title “Catholic Workers and Apostles.”
In it, he recounts not a strictly liturgical venture, but joyfully praises the proliferation of publications which he had read promoting Catholic social action (he names 7, one of which is in German), and the multiplication of Catholic Worker affiliates (a total of 21 houses, 17 “cells” or centers, and three [ill-fated] farms). He describes the work of such publications, such as the latest subscription to arrive on his desk, the Chicago Catholic Worker: “This youngest scion of the [Catholic Worker] movement is energetic and lively, as one would expect from the metropolis of the Middle West, known to us in youth as the ‘Windy City’! Its Worker is breezy indeed, not however with the mouthings of the world, but with the gentle and insistent breath of the Holy Spirit.”
Virgil, who had personally visited and spoken at most of the Catholic Worker houses in the United States by the summer of 1938, felt well-suited to evaluate their work and publications. In his opinion, the new Chicago Catholic Worker’s paper was well-grounded in the “doctrine of the mystical body of Christ,” and frequently drew upon it as inspiration for an “apostolic Christian life.” Such work reminded him of the homilies of the Church Fathers in their own “ancient and vital conception of the Christ-life.” He concluded his review, asking, “Why not save on lip-stick (women) or cigars (men) or cigarettes (both) and try a year’s subscription?”
After finishing his plug for Worker publications with a dose of humor—Virgil turned to a more serious issue. Over the course of that same summer, in which he had visited a number of states, he had frequently encountered questions about the legitimacy and Catholicity of the Catholic Worker. As he explained with some frustration, “believe-it-or-not, the old slanders are still circulating and believed even by some priests”: that Catholic Workers are Communists…or worse.
In this last Timely Tract that would appear (the issue date was November 27th—the day after his death), Virgil came to the defense of those Catholics who were fearlessly embracing the call to be Christ’s Body in the world, and to serve the least among us. For Virgil, this call to social action was the heart of the liturgical movement: becoming the Mystical Body of Christ alive in the world. He offered these words:
Catholic Workers and apostles! You have your faults and your shortcomings. But who among us on earth is not burdened with them?
If people slander and calumniate you, so did they Christ.
You are indeed an eyesore and a scandal even to Catholics, but usually only to such as revel in their self-complacency, whose religion is one of asking from God and knows not the blessedness of giving.
If you are a stone of scandal to the self-righteous, so was Christ. And he told us that it was not the Pharisee but the Publican who went away justified. […]
Blessed are you if you are among those who suffer persecution for justice’s sake, since “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Virgil Michel, lover of the liturgy, friend of the Catholic Worker, and child of God—pray for us.
—Virgil Michel, “Timely Tract: Catholic Workers and Apostles,” Orate Fratres 13, no. 1 (1938): 28-30. Also consulted for this piece: Paul Marx, “Dom Virgil Michel,” The Catholic Worker 20, no. 4 (1 November 1953): 1, 6.