The Forgotten Eucharistic Vision of Virgil Michel

Father Paul Marx O.S.B., the founder of Human Life International, wrote his dissertation on the life and work of Virgil Michel O.S.B. (1888-1938), who was one of the leaders of the liturgical movement in the United States. Michel is famous in some circles for a syllogism that summarizes the focus of the papacies of the early 20th century:

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 indispensable basis of social regeneration.

For Michel and many of the leaders of the liturgical movement, the foundation for the renewal of Christian culture is the celebration of the liturgy. The liturgy helps individual members of the Church realize their call to be a part of Mystical Body of Christ.

Dom Virgil Michel O.S.B. (1890-1938)

According to Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est, the “Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of self-giving” (no. 13). Each communicant enters into a union with Christ and “all those [to] whom He gives Himself” (no. 14). The liturgy unites the love of God and love of neighbor, which forms the greatest commandment given unto us (cf. Matthew 22:38-40).

The Mystical Body of Christ is a supernatural realization of society as it is meant to be through the transformation of grace. We are meant to be united in one love for God. This type of unity is achieved in the liturgy. It steers between the two extremes of autonomous individualism or socialism.

Virgil Michel writes:

[T]he supernatural structure of the Mystical Body of Christ, far from being contrary to the best human nature, is in fullest harmony with the latter; and the Mystical Body must therefore serve for us as the model towards which man should strive in all his natural relations and life. When we ask ourselves what should the right structure of any human society be, or how should the individual be relation to any society of men, we can always point to the Mystical Body and say: There is the model that we should try to follow in our human relations; for God constructed it on the basis of what is best in and best for our natures.

In summary, social action or social justice need the liturgy in the same way that nature needs the gift of supernatural grace. Social justice divorced from the liturgy easily becomes ideology.  Liturgy, which does not pass over into social action, can become narrowly focused on ritualism or antiquarian preferences.

The connection between social justice and liturgy becomes clearer when we begin with a definition of true social justice. Michel defines social justice as “that virtue by which individuals and groups contribute their positive share to the maintenance of the common good and moreover regulate all their actions in proper relation to the common good.” In the Eucharist, the model of virtue is summarized by Christ’s words of Institution: “This is my Body given for you.” Loving self-gift should be the model for all of our actions in relation to the common good.

In a concrete manner, the action of self-giving love is modeled for us on Holy Thursday during the washing of the feet. The Bishop or priest celebrating the Mass will humble himself like Christ to wash the feet of others. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to serve likewise in charity.

Our responsibility for loving our neighbor flows from the connection that we have with one another in and through the Eucharist. Through the gift of Holy Communion, we enter into communion with Christ and with all members of the Mystical Body. The liturgy never isolates us from others. It deepens our communion with them. Michel argues:

A Christian, to be such, must be united with Christ spiritually and supernaturally; and he cannot be united with Christ by himself alone, or in total isolation from his fellowman. By his intimate spiritual union with Christ he is also most intimately united with other Christians. The two, union with Christ or with God through Christ, and union with all the brethren in Christ stand or fall together.

The gift of the Eucharist is meant to transform us so that we become more like Christ in our words and deeds. In particular, it should compel us to serve those who are less fortunate or marginalized in today’s culture: the unborn, the elderly, women, people with physical or mental disabilities, the imprisoned, immigrants, etc.

The Eucharist is not given to us so we can simply cultivate our own personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The love of Christ in the Eucharist urges us to stand up against the countless injustices we face in our society such as: abortion, euthanasia, the proliferation of pornography, human trafficking, forced sterilizations, and dehumanizing poverty.

We begin the Triduum this evening by celebrating the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood. Our culture may still be transformed if more Christians realize the call they have received in and through the Eucharist to be a gift to others in love. When we fail to see our call to give, oftentimes we will seek to take or use. The latter defines the culture of death, which sees others as a means to some selfish end. We would do well to contemplate how the liturgy is the indispensable basis of social regeneration, so we can be better prepared to build up a culture of life and love.

Roland Millare is the chair of the Theology Department at Saint John XXIII College Preparatory in Katy, TX. He also serves as the Director of Middle School CCE at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Sugar Land, TX and an adjunct professor of theology for Deacon candidates at St. Mary's Seminary in Houston, TX. He has a BA in Theology from Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH, a MA in Theological Studies from the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College in Alexandria, VA, and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) from the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, IL.  Roland is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and an advisory board member to the Pope John Paul II Forum. Currently, he is a candidate for a Doctorate of Sacred Theology (STD).  He lives with his beautiful wife Veronica and their baby girl Gabriella in Sugar Land.
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  • Barbara Stoecklein

    Fr. Paul Marx was a tireless worker for life and a great supporter to those of us who were in the early stages of bringing Natural Family Planning to our Catholic parishes.

  • Joanne Perez

    I was a friend of Father Marx, A wonderful brilliant Man. When I was young I passed out to all the churches information I have severe painful back problems . Now Pray for Life and use the computer to get out info. Only can stay siting for a few minutes at a time. God Bless HLI. LOVE THE CHURCH