Virgil Michel, OSB
1888 - 1938
An Apostle of Liturgical Life
It was at the very close, on the last day of the liturgical year, the day preceding the first Sunday of Advent, that Father Virgil Michel was called to cease from his work in this world, work which, though it ranged over a wide field, had its central motive in the liturgical apostolate. The liturgy’s theme as the year closes is that great day of the Lord of which St. Paul says: “When Christ shall appear, who is your life, then you also shall appear with Him in glory.” Father Virgil’s dominant idea was to possess and to promote everywhere the Christ-life that resides and operates in the liturgy. His last contribution of Orate Fratres dealt with the theme of Advent.
Those who knew Father Virgil well were in admiration of the broad range of his activity, and of its intensity, and of its sureness. He himself regarded these three characteristics in the reverse order. He strove first of all to be correct and accurate. He was not given to hasty and impulsive judgment. And when once his line of action was clear to him he pursued it with apparently quiet but intense energy, and with a great readiness to carry it into every field that offered an opening. Thus he appeared to engage himself in a wide variety of interests. But it was always with one chief purpose that unified all his endeavors. It was in this respect that I knew him especially, and in our many conversations it was always evident in what way his various interests and activities converged.
There is perhaps no other single individual to whom more credit is due for the inception and promotion of the liturgical movement in America. For the movement in this country, in its organized form, may truly be dated from the foundation of the liturgical review, Orate Fratres, near the end of the year 1929.
Who can say precisely when and where a movement of this kind begins? There are those who have marked the time when the meaning of the liturgical movement became clear to them. And there are others to whom it seems to have come as a progressive and continuous experience from childhood. Such has been my own case, although I have marked the year 1919 as the time when I became distinctly aware of the need of a general liturgical movement, and then discovered that such a movement was under way in European countries. Abbot Herwegen of Maria Laach has stated in a foreword to his published lecture, The Art-Principle of the Liturgy, that this lecture unconsciously and unintentionally gave the first impulse to the liturgical apostolate in Germany in 1912. In that same year Belgium saw the fourth of its Semaines Liturgiques (the first in the series of annual published reports) that arose out of the efforts of Lambert Beauduin and Godfrey Kurth in 1909.
Liturgical revival has arisen periodically throughout the history of the Church, and the spirit that animates such revivals is never inactive. In the summer of 1925, when at the meeting of the Catholic Educational Association in Pittsburgh, I offered an account of the liturgical movement as I then knew it. I met a priest some eighty years of age to whom, in private conversation, I outlined the theme that was in my mind. He listened quietly to the end and then said: “What you have expressed is something that has been the dream of my life.” At that time, I was well aware of the already active, though unconnected, efforts of such men as Abbot Alcuin Deutsch and Father Athanasius Meyer of St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, and Fathers Jasper and Hellriegel of O’Fallon in Missouri. It was in the fall of that same year that Father Virgil Michel, returning after his philosophy studies in Europe, advanced a definite proposal for concerted efforts and for an organized liturgical apostolate. I have at hand the letter that he wrote to me on September 20, 1925, in which there is indication of that talent for organization and coordination that he exercised so effectively in the subsequent years. In this letter he speaks of two projects then in his mind: the review, Orate Fratres, and the Popular Liturgical Library, and makes an appointment for oral discussion of the subject, adding cheerfully that he himself knows of at least six persons outside the Abbey who will be glad to cooperate.
The ensuing year was one of bustle and of pleasing excitement while the several associates went about their appointed tasks and looked forward to the new periodical which made its first appearance on November 28, 1926. Father Virgil had organized the local staff at the Abbey and by personal visits and correspondence had secured the aid of associate editors and of others who could offer cooperation. The first two numbers of Series One of the Popular Liturgical Library, were his translations of the booklets by Dom Beauduin and Dom Caronti. From then on the history of this work for the liturgical apostolate is recorded fairly well in the pages of Orate Fratres, through which he came to exert a nationwide and international influence. In addition to his editorial work, he contributed more than his quota of articles in his own periodical, and, knowing that as a new venture the number of its readers would be limited, he also strove to reach other readers and to extend the movement by means of personal contacts and of articles which he contributed to other periodicals.
There were some difficulties to be overcome: a certain amount of misunderstanding, and chiefly the inertia due to lack of interest, yet never enough difficulty to cause any misgiving as to the ultimate result. There were moments now and again when our desire prompted us to hope that now the interest would increase, yet we recognized that the best desire was for a slow and steady growth. Of my many memories of Father Virgil, my favorite one, I think, will be that of the first national Liturgical Day at St. John’s Abbey on July 25, 1929. When the day was over and he had attended to the guests who were staying at the Abbey, he came at last to my room and invited me for a stroll under the sky before retiring. As we paced to and fro in the soft night air, with the lake beneath us and at every turn facing again the lighted windows of the Abbey, I observed his subdued feeling of joyous satisfaction. The Liturgical Day had exceeded our expectations, and we knew that something memorable had been done. He was to go on to other achievements, but I doubt if any of them brought him more touch of joy.
In his editorial policy, Father Virgil was concerned from the start to insist that the liturgical movement was not, as some seemed for a while to imagine, a Benedictine specialty, but was rather an effort inviting cooperation everywhere and aiming to make all members of the Church aware of the true meaning of the liturgy as the Church’s public worship system in which all must find “the primary and indispensable source” of the Christ-life. He strove to correct the misunderstanding that makes the word “liturgy” to mean those things that are only its externals. He was careful, lest Orate Fratres might seem to stress beyond due proportion the merely rubrical and aesthetic aspects of the liturgy. Yet to place the aesthetic aspect in right perspective, Abbot Herwegin’s illuminating essay, The Art-Principle of the Liturgy, was published in the Popular Liturgical Library. Father Virgil recognized that a true understanding of the liturgy required a serious process of education and a new method of presentation in the teaching of religion beginning in the very primary grades. Here he was blessed in being given the cooperation of those who worked with him in the production of the Christ-Life Series in Religion texts for grade schools. This is a cooperative work, the credit for which must be distributed; but Father Virgil shaped its plan and guided its production.
In the early stages of the liturgical movement, it was unavoidable that in most cases its workers were obliged to contribute their efforts in what time they could spare from other occupations. Father’s Virgil’s desire urged him to attempt so much that he overtaxed his strength, and from 1930 to 1933 he was obliged to seek recuperation of health in outdoor work in the Indian missions of northern Minnesota. He turned aside from the tasks to which he had become so devoted, and, while recovering health, with characteristic determination he did excellent work in the mission field. He was consoled by the fact that the liturgical movement had advanced to a point where it could not cease, and this fact inspired him with all the greater energy on his return. Resuming the editorship of Orate Fratres, he carried on the work to ever mounting success as the number of associates increased and as the scope of the movement became more and more apparent.
With the Christ-Life Series brought to completion, Father Virgil proceeded to plan out a more advanced series for high schools, The Christian Religion Series, two volumes of which he wrote himself and produced in mimeograph. The first of these Life in Christ, is a treatment of Catholic dogmas made vital in liturgy, dealing chiefly with the Godward aspects of Christian life, as the second volume, The Christian in the World, deals with its manward or earthly aspects. Here Father Virgil’s purpose brought him to face the problems of modern economic and social and political life. I may leave it to others to speak of this phase of his work and shall only point out that in this portion of his activity he never lost sight of its relation to his central thought. I recall a conversation prior to the economic depression of 1929, in which we scanned the clouds that we discerned upon the horizon at a time when many still believed that the sky was clear. And we agreed that the liturgical movement had arisen under the providence of God to bring in dark days the secret of the world’s salvation. This thought pervades the various utterances of Father Virgil on economic and sociological topics that he multiplied as time went on and as the urgency became more apparent. It is the same thought now well expressed in two recent books, Theodore Wesseling’s Liturgy and Life and Hermann Franke’s The Salvation of the Nations.
The chief expression of Father Virgil’s desires regarding the liturgy appeared in the many retreat exercises and lecture courses that he conducted in widely spread parts of the country. If the precise record of these were available, the amount of work that he did in this way would appear quite astonishing, especially in view of his other activities. It was here that he strove to set forth the message of the liturgical apostolate in its length and depth. And he has left a record of this portion of his work in his volume The Liturgy of the Church and in its sequel that is still in unpublished manuscript. These, in conjunction with the new twelve volumes of Orate Fratres, are an enduring memorial of the liturgical apostolate of his busy career.
It is especially for his work in this apostolate that we think of him now that he has been called to his reward. For whatever may be our tasks in this world, it is the liturgy of heaven that will engage us in the life to come, and eternal employment to which Father Virgil gave so much thought and preparation during his years on earth.
This tribute prepared by Rev. William Busch, The St. Paul Seminary, published in Orate Fratres, Volume XIII, No. 3, January 22, 1939.