School for Revolution in Chicago – Sister M. Cecilia, O.S.B (1941)

We have in Chicago—besides railroads, stockyards, and gangsters—a student organization with the avowed intent of training youth to become revolutionists. These young “radicals,” five hundred strong, meet every Saturday morning in a downtown auditorium to discuss ways and means of overthrowing the present materialistic moral order and of setting up a world-wide Supernational, the mystical body of Christ. Their weapons? Not bombs and tanks. For this revolution has to be fought out in the depths of each individual soul against the natural man with all his undivine nature—his hates, his lust for power and pleasure. In such a warfare victory consists in surrender—the surrender of self to become a perfectly co-ordinated member of the First and only Supernational. For this purpose youth must be so orientated in that world-state that they, once recognizing their organic relationship to Christ, may put themselves more fully in contact with the heart-beat of His mystical body—that is, the liturgy, especially the Mass. Such is the task to which Cisca (Chicago Inter-Student Catholic Action) set itself this current year.

The organization was not blind to the difficulties involved when it undertook the project of teaching yourig Chicago boys and girls that Catholic Action consists in living with the Church, that the prime requisite is not doing things but being Christ. The first hurdle to cross was the necessity of convincing hard-headed, realistic, materialist-environed Americans that Catholicity is not, like big business, an organization with an efficiency program but an organism; that living with the Church does not consist in skilfully steering along the dizzy margin of safety from mortal sin but in living vitally and dynamically by the life of the body into which one has been incorporated. All this, of course, sounded very “mystical,” which for the modern mind too often means mythical—bedtime stories for little girls, not realities for strong men. Then, also, the whole idea was something new, not in the penny catechism. And youth, with yankee canniness, has developed a sales resistance to both novelty and “mystery.”

A further difficulty lay in the fact that Cisca’s membership consists in a school-jaded student body, to whom the Saturday meeting must not be “just another class in religion.’ The young people had to have all the “new,” dynamic doctrine of life-inChrist presented in a manner untrammeled by classroom formality, brought down out of the stratosphere of pure theory into the modern world of specific realities. In short, circumstances demanded that mysteries be presented in modern idiom and tempo, in the most human of terms for a humanistic generation. Hence it was decided that the play might be the thing wherein to catch the interest of youth, emancipate its self-consciousness, and dispel its suspicion that the mystical has no roots in, or relations with, reality. Accordingly, the presentation of this mystical doctrine— “inside Catholicity”—was done through the medium of fictitious boys and girls of high school age, who discussed and lived vital mysteries—not in the school room or catechism class but in their social life and recreations. Thus was found a way of concreting ideas in a normal group of young people, who “talked religion” in modern terminology and made it a perfectly natural topic for dates and dinners.

These dramatis personae, who indoctrinated by word and taught by example, were chiefly a group of “Cathactioners” belonging to an up-and-doing parish whose director, Father Ray, understood and loved but did not coddle his young hopefuls. Chuck Mundane, a young pagan, often came in as the object of a campaign, especially on the part of Joan, who knew not only her liturgy but also how to express it in five-cent words to a nickel audience.

Ciscans Are Taught the Source of Life

The first problem that presented itself in the year’s project was to inculcate a real understanding and appreciation of one’s parish. “You see,” observed Father Ray to a group of young people, “the modern parish is like the modern home: it’s getting to be just a supply base used only for servicing or refueling between weekly cruises. . . . There’s nothing wrong with that, but a lot missing. Persons who merely pay pew rent and keep the commandments are what we call outer-shell Catholics: they lack the inner spirit. A parish made up of such souls would be like a garage full of cars, whereas it ought to be a family full of children. … “

In a subsequent chat Father Ray startled his hearers by observing: “Your Catholic parish is a commune so red that beside it a Russian Bolshevik village would look like a study in pink.” Then, to illustrate, he flashed upon the screen a biologist’s slide of the circulatory system feeding the cells of the human structure. “A close-up of your parish, as the mystical body in miniature,” announced the priest. “Notice the multitude of cells that make up this organism. Now observe how one common bloodstream brings to every cell just what it needs. And see how each in turn contributes to the growth and activity of the whole body. That’s why Karl Adam says: ‘There’s no grace that is a purely personal possession.”

Then, to the objection of one rugged individualist, Father Ray explained, as he changed the slide to a picture of a priest elevating the chalice of Christ’s blood:

“Notice the upraised hands and face—the whole body straining upwards, as it were, in the effort to be united as closely as possible in the one great Act of the sacrificing Christ. Now this figure of the priest is a portrait of what a whole parish should look like at Sunday Mass: everybody giving himself entirely, body and mind, in the one common Act, in which each person takes as vital a part as the officiant’s own bodily members are now doing. Remember the prayer right after the Elevation : ‘we, Thy holy people . . . offer .. . a holy Victim . . . the bread of eternal life. . .'”

“Now,” challenged Father Ray, figure out for yourselves where is a good parishioner’s first line of action.” “I get you now, Father,” exclaimed Chris. “The kids get sore sometimes because they can’t make a dent in established parish organizations. But I’m beginning to think we’ve got a whale of a job right here: we offer ourselves with Christ and our fellow parishioners—especially those who don’t yet know the score. Why, then our life becomes their offering, our Communion a union with Christ-in-them! . . . Now I see why the parish is a commune. It’s blood-red with Christ’s own redeeming Sacrifice!”

In the discussions that followed these presentations there was a special emphasis on the together-ness of parishioners, regardless of race, nationality, or social class. In practice this meant teamwork with every member—from pastor to janitor through all the various society heads. Lastly Ciscans concluded that, since their parish home is the dispensing place of divine life, Catholic Action must necessarily begin at the altar of one’s own parish church. That this theory bore some practical fruit is attested by a parochial activity chart kept by Alvernia High School to measure the contribution of its students in terms of personal service ranging all the way from “complete” Masses to washing the dishes after a sodality social.

A Year’s Growth in the Mystic Vine

With the beginning of Advent Ciscans had to be instructed in the mystical meaning of the Church’s year and what it does to us. “You see,” said Joan to her friend Chuck, “the liturgical year, with its feasts of our Lord, seems to be merely a recalling of past events. But it isn’t. That’s why we use the present tense in the introit of the Mass for Christmas Day: Ά Child is born to us!’ And the message is just as new and fresh as when the nurse came in after Danny was born and told Dad: It’s a boy!’ “

“But you can’t freshen up Christ’s birth,” objected the realist. “It’s two thousand years old.”

“You can if the Person is still living, still being born sacramentally. The liturgy doesn’t merely tell us of our Lord’s birth nor just offer us a story. It actually causes Him to be born in us every Christmas by an increase of divine life. And that starts us out afresh on a whole year’s growth in Christ.
“Let’s take the mystic Vine as an illustration. Advent is the winter season, the time of preparation for a new influx of life. Nature’s long nights and the sun’s feeble rays vividly remind us of the darkness that enveloped those long centuries of waiting for the Redeemer. . . . Then, just as the sun begins its ascent to bring life and light back to our northern clime, we celebrate the coming of Him who is still more truly the light of the world. That’s Christmas and Epiphany. Now comes spring, which enacts the redemption both in nature and the supernatural sphere, thus restoring life full and overflowing to this earth of ours. I mean Easter. After that, around the time when the sun has reached the highest point of its approach, nature, now fully restored, puts forth a profusion of growth and activity. That’s Pentecost, when God gives us His final gift of life and divine energy, the Holy Ghost.”

In the ensuing discussions students saw a new purpose in Advent as the time for purging the branches so that they might bring forth more fruit. For, considering the organic nature of society, Christ’s birth in Ciscans’ souls would mean new life and the benefits of new fruit to all the members of the mystic Vine. One of the practical corollaries of this was the determination to put both Christ and the Mass back into Christ-mass, by reviewing the religious significance of the good old customs and by sacramentalizing the marvelous exchange with an offertory procession of gifts for Christ-in-His-poor. One school, St. Mary’s, unable to do this at Mass, produced in the class room a dramatization which made a deep impression on all who saw it.

“The Camels Are Coming!”

As has been said before, Ciscans were encouraged to live their liturgy in social life. Hence, in the presentation, Epiphany eve found Joan busily engaged in preparing for a twelfth-night party. Pitying her pagan friends who had crowded all their Christmas into one day’s feasting, she explained that, “having duly lived the mystery of Christ’s humanity, Catholics were now ready to celebrate His divinity: the gorgeous pageant of the three kings from the East.”

“Seems to me that three-king incident is kind of dated,” remarked the modernist.

“Well, of course, they didn’t arrive in the Clipper,” Joan conceded. “But the point is this: the drama they enacted at Bethlehem is exactly the same that we’re going to take part in tomorrow at Mass. For we too will then offer to God our gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. . . . Naturally, we don’t take these things literally. They just stand for our prayer, work, and mortification.” Then she explained how, according to the secret, our gifts of the offertory are changed into Christ at the consecration, so that at last we have a divinely perfect gift to offer God.

In the ensuing discussion it was suggested that Ciscans should, if possible, have, as a feature of their twelfth-night party, the Epiphany blessing for the home, in order, as the prayers for this purpose suggest, to construct a bomb-proof shelter from the infernal selfishness blitzkrieging the world today.

The Feast of Christ’s Offertory

“Why say it with candles?” asked Jack, when told that the Candlemas procession, begun as a protest against the debauchery of old paganism, could very well be offered now in expiation for the night life in our modern paganized cities.

“The candle is the symbol of Christ, whom we, like the old man in the gospel, receive into our arms,” Joan explained. “You see, our role in tomorrow’s Mass is that of Simeon. Just notice, then, how the introit and gradual take on a new significance: ‘We have received Thy Mercy (made Man) in the midst of Thy temple (our parish church).’ This, of course, has reference to Communion, when we actually receive infinite Mercy incarnate in the Eucharist. Then the Communion antiphon is a prophecy fulfilled. For we too shall not ‘see death’ before we have ‘seen’ and touched and been made one with ‘the Lord’s Anointed.’

“Such dramatic interpretation must not be misleading, however. After an ordinary play the actor doffs his costume, removes the grease paint, and leaves behind in the theater the character he had become. But not so the actor in the drama of the Mass. Having given himself as a member of Christ, especially on this Offertory feast of the redemption,’ the Christian must continue outside the holy Sacrifice to live with and in Christ even to the bloody consummation of Calvary.”

When asked if the above explanations had made their part in the morrow’s Mass more real and vital to them, Ciscans gave not only an affirmative answer but also voiced a plea for further instruction on their role in each Sunday’s Sacrifice. An effort has been made to meet this demand by publishing in the Cisca News a column: “Our Role in the Sunday Mass.”

Spring Practice for the Catholic Revolution

“If you think that all we Catholics think about during Lent is penance, you’re getting a mighty lop-sided picture of Catholicity,” said Joan indignantly. “Don’t you have to go out for spring practice in football because your muscles get soft and flabby during the winter months? Well, so we Catholics have to strengthen our moral muscles after the ‘winter months’ of living amidst all these modern luxuries and pleasures. That’s one aspect of Lent. The other side is this : by our penance we, though a mere handful of Catholics, can actually help to set things right in a dreadfully wrong world. For instance, the postcommunion on the first Sunday in Lent expects that, being ‘purged of our old self . . . some job! .. . we may ‘cross over into the fellowship’ with Christ, where He hangs crucified, so that we also may really have a part in redeeming this war-weary world.”

“But why,” queried the practicalist, “haven’t there been some visible effects of this revolution?”

“I don’t believe most of us ever actually surrender,” answered Chris. “No decisive victory. I’m afraid that in reality most of us let Christ be immolated alone on our altars, while we—we’re like the soldiers sitting beneath the cross and casting lots for the material gains of petty petitions. .. . I guess we just don’t realize that in every Mass Christ is still climbing Calvaries to be crucified anew in the mystical garments of our human flesh and souls. Otherwise this Holy Week, when we go down with Him into His death, would mean, like the first Easter, a real resurrection of humanity, that ‘renewal of the Christian spirit,’ which is the Catholic Revolution.”

During Lent the discussions centered largely on this “Christian renewal” and how Ciscans can help both spiritually and materially in bringing it about. To make sure that the Pasch would be for them at least a true resurrection with Christ, they discussed the Saturday celebration as a “holy wake” at Christ’s tomb until dawn, when the watchers, finally prepared by a renewal of their baptismal vows, found the risen Lord with them in the holy Sacrifice. Then the quickening forces of spiritual rebirth would course through the entire mystical body. “And it’s our job,” observed Chris, “to direct them to others, so that there may at last be a fruitful spring in a world now lying in the dreary winter of the great modern deicide.”

All this has been but a brief survey of some twenty-five plans presented to, and discussed by, about five hundred Ciscans at their Saturday gatherings. How far the effort has succeeded in its primary aim cannot fully be known ; for spiritual and moral values are not to be measured even in this age of efficiency experts and stringent evaluations. One can, however, be fairly certain that, though many students have obviously remained impervious to these thrilling inner truths, there is a nucleus of Ciscans, flesh and blood counterparts to the “Cathactioners” of the presentations, to whom this dynamic “inner Catholicism” is the marrow of life for seven days of the week. Many of these have actually said with real conviction: “Here we have all the requisites for successful revolution: a solidarity based on something far more real than a myth of blood and soil, an infinitely inexhaustible base of supplies, divine security of success! Why, in heaven’s name, don’t we ‘turn back the world’ to Christ?” Perhaps they have even now begun.

[M Cecilia Sister. “School for Revolution in Chicago.” Orate Fratres, vol. 15, no. 8, June 1941, pp. 352–359.]