The Liturgical Movement and Catholic Action in Belgium – Helen M. Larke (1938)

[This article was originally (?) published in Liturgical Brief, the October 2nd issue.]

I have been asked to write about two holidays I have spent in Belgium, because I saw there something of the liturgical movement and of Catholic Action. I say “saw something,” for my experiences when recounted make a series of pictures, as it were, related to each other by the idea underlying each: the idea of making religion live.

An unknown laywoman, and an avowed and convinced Anglican, I arrived at a social workers’ office in Brussels, armed only with a letter of introduction from Father O’Hea, of the (Roman) Catholic Social Guild. I was going to Dinant. I asked if I could see any of the social work which was going on in that region. I was given an address to write to·

J.A.C.F speaker at the Congress of the Catholic Youth in Laval [Source]

J.A.C.F. postcard. [Source]

The Rev. Gabriel Hebert had told me to obtain a copy of Les Questions Liturgiques et Paroissiales, so I ordered a copy. After a week at Dinant the review and the lady arrived together. The former contained a valuable article by Dom Vonier of Buckfast Abbey on “Corpus Christi Mysticum,” many directions as to how to make the funeral service mean more to the people, and so forth. The lady was a Dinantaise, working among the country girls of the province of Namur, a “dirigeante” of Jeunesse Chrétienne Agricole Féminine. She told me of the different groups contained in “Catholic Action,” and in particular about her section, the J. A. C. F. She came back in the afternoon laden with pamphlets and magazines of all sorts, and offered to take me to visit a touring school of agriculture.

It was then that the miracle happened. I asked casually if she could tell me anything about the liturgical movement. It was immediately as if an official became a person, a friend. It was as if a bright light shone through those massed pages. From that moment I began to see how liturgy and life are one, how the liturgy is to be lived, how life is to grow out of the liturgy. I began to learn that in Belgium and in other Roman Catholic countries, the leaders of the liturgical movement are those keen on Catholic Action, and that the leaders of Catholic Action depend upon those who are teaching the people to understand and to use the liturgy.

So my friend carried me off to the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous in the Meuse valley, where we heard Vespers, explaining meanwhile how she and other young people have learnt to sing the Mass in their parish church, and how enormously difficult it is to make the rank and file take any part in the service. From time to time we met girls belonging to the J. A. C. F. Then she would tell me how this one worked in her father’s wayside café, and how she raised its tone, and made it a safe place for other girls; how that one had persuaded her father to cease giving short measure; how another, succeeding her father in authority, had raised the wages of the farm laborers.

From my friend and from the literature with which she provided me, also from the posters and notices in church porches, I learnt much about Catholic Action. It is said to have been born of the social conditions which have been induced by the de-Christianization of human relationships and institutions. It is realized that many keen Catholics are committing a kind of partial apostasy because their lives are not unified. That part of their existence which suffers the impact of society becomes infected by the social milieu, and to that extent they are living lives which are merely natural, secularized, even paganized. It is said that to reform society is a long job, but that it is possible to convert and to succor individuals immediately. Here, then, are the two objectives of Catholic Action.

There are organizations for young workmen, young working girls, young farm hands of each sex, and for students; working in the parishes, guided by the parish priest, but led by educated lay men and women. The young people are expected to attend study circles, to think things out, and to take every opportunity to better the conditions under which they and their fellows work, as well as to convert their fellows. They are taught that they can and should offer to God work that is good; i.e., work that is well done, and is at the same time of use for the good life. The town worker’s magazine is Joy in Work; and there is a delightful little picture of a country child offering her sheaves of corn at the foot of the crucifix, with the legend ‘Our homes and our fields for God.” Questionnaires are sent out—and filled in and returned— bearing upon the daily lives of the working boys and girls, and valuable information as to conditions of labor are gleaned therefrom.

In the J. A. C and the J. A. C. F.—the agricultural sections—there is growing up a conception of the earth, the land, as the primary gift of God. . . . The land is said to be a thing elemental in itself and a commodity basically necessary to the existence of man. It is pointed out that even in war no enemy can take away the earth; that men cannot lose land on the exchanges, as they lose money; that the land offers space, sunshine, fresh air and health to every human being who does not misuse it; that the first man was made of the earth, and that the earth receives men’s bodies when they die; that parents in the country can have as many children as they wish, because there a child is an asset.

There is a campaign for cleaner living at bathing resorts, and information is given as to the most healthy newspapers and wireless programs. Lectures, travel, and recreation are organized. Hostels, canteens, savings banks and such-like are run for the benefit of the young workers. The young town workers are organized, to some extent, economically, though the country workers are only growing towards this.

The elite realize that revolution has come because they as Christians have failed to put their precepts into practice; they are all the time consciously trying to make reparation; and they say that conditions of living for the workers have got to be very much improved if not entirely transformed. At first they were suspect, as being “socialistic,” but that attitude has passed away.

Through the kindness of my friend I was then received into the guest house of a Benedictine convent near Bruges. Nearby is the Abbey of St. André, Lophem, which is the headquarters for the teaching of the liturgy in schools, and to the less educated people. Dom Gaspar Lefebvre, O.S.B., is director. The review, Bulletin Paroissial Liturgique, is printed there every six weeks and sent out far and wide. Annotated and illustrated missals, pictures in color and in line, magic lantern slides, charts and diagrams, all are directed towards making the liturgy live.

One of the nuns made it her business to give me all the information necessary .. . ; supplied me with pamphlets and reviews; and answered my many questions (sometimes very frank), not only with patience and kindness, but with real understanding and a desire to be helpful. From these sources I gleaned the following facts. . . .

The Mass, from which hymns, etc., are excluded, is sung with a stately and rhythmic dignity, and the laity are invited to follow the introit, gradual, etc., for the day. Often the gospel and epistle are read to the people from pulpits on left and right, and the gospel is repeated in the vernacular before the sermon from the chancel steps. Leaflets are issued giving the propers in the vernacular, with explanatory and historical notes, and even with paraphrases. This applies also to Vespers. Readings from the Fathers in the vernacular are introduced as suitable for the day. . . .

Efforts are being made to encourage people to sing the Mass and the offices, and the young people are being taught to do so in class, and to understand what they are singing, and why. The center is the parish, and attendance at other than their own parish churches is discouraged. The Benedictines teach that everything of value in the faith is to be found in the liturgy, and that if what is taught there is lived out in Catholic Action in the parish first and then beyond, a live parish and a live Church must result. Below is a free translation of paragraphs written by Dom Gaspar Lefebvre himself.

If it is to be well directed and to give the best results, Catholic Action must not be separated from Liturgical Action. There could be nothing more fatal than failure to establish a vital relationship between these two sorts of activity. The separation, where it exists, is not only to be marveled at, but to be deplored, for it prevents the official worship of the Church (the primary and indispensable source of a truly Christian mind), from bringing religion to bear upon the secular plane, upon which plane Catholic Action functions.
Before society can be Christianized (or re-Christianized), it will be necessary to do away with the watertight compartments which exist too often between the life of worship (prayer, sacraments, Mass), and the life of work. To do away with them would be to cause the first to shine through and irradiate the second. That is to say, religion, of which the liturgy is the living synthesis, would suffuse all human activity, of which Catholic Action is a part.

I was introduced to an English nun, once an Anglican, of brilliant brain and ready wit. . . . She strove to make me understand the “work” involved in the singing of the divine office, and explained to me the essential relationship between plainsong and the liturgy. Plainsong is said to be the most suitable clothing for the august Latin words of the liturgy, following the phrasing, and enhancing their meaning and beauty. It directs eyes and hearts to the altar. It encourages the people to take part, and helps to form them into that living body which is to convert the world. It is advocated also because it is the purest form of musical art. It is said to be the only music which is devoid of “emotion” [“emotionalism”?] and as such is a fitting servant of the liturgy. It can be put to universal use and seems to have power to tame barbarian hearts and minds. . . .

In September, 1937, I spent a second week-end at the convent, and had the luck to meet there a school girl of sixteen fresh from a three days’ conference, as she is a member of the Jeunesse Estudiantine Chrétienne Féminine, the J.E.C.F. I was able to study her outline. The subject was “Effort.” One thing beyond all struck me, and I remembered that the retreat movement even among the young is very strong in Belgium. It was this: “You are not made for rest. You ought to tend towards action with all your strength. But don’t forget, the more one acts, the more one must pray.” That is to say, we should hardly dare to act without praying first about our coming action. To omit the prayer is to jeopardize our own souls, and those whom we strive to help.

Then I passed on again to the Ardennes, this time right down towards the French frontier. My lay friend of the year before joined me, and I was allowed to participate in what was going on in her district. On September 8 th I attended an early low Mass in the parish church of the little old country town, when the congregation, consisting of young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, made the necessary responses aloud, naturally and reverently. (I heard afterwards that the Curé had learnt at Lophem how to teach them.) On the following Sunday we assisted, in a tiny ancient village, at a ten o’clock Mass sung beautifully by the people themselves. In the afternoon we took part in the culmination of a year’s effort on the part of the J. A. C, the agricultural youths. They have undertaken, many of them, to restore those wayside calvaries which have fallen into disrepair and neglect. This particular parish is of very ancient origin. Lying off the main road and the tourist routes, it is purely agricultural and pastoral in character. These folk mostly own their houses and fields, work is a family affair, life is simple, there is no dire poverty. This wet afternoon everyone turned out to witness the rededication of the Calvary. Prayers were said, hymns were sung, photographs were taken, then a young man stepped forward and began to speak. His French was so perfect, his manner so assured, his thought so clear-cut, that I regretted that a “dirigeant” from the town had been imported, and compared him to a Peter Winckworth. He was in fact a youth of the village, aged eighteen, now at college. I subsequently saw his family, peasants like the rest. . . .

I left the Ardennes and went to the Benedictine Abbey of Mont-César at Louvain, armed with a letter of introduction from the convent. Dom Anselm, O.S.B., the editor of Les Questions Paroissiales et Liturgiques, came to see me. He goes out into the parishes, and holds liturgical missions there. Having been told that Mont-César is the intellectual center of the liturgical movement, as St. André is of the popular side, I was surprised at his dictum: “Intellectualism is exclusive,” as I was surprised at his practical experience in working in the “red” quarters of Belgian industrial cities. He told me that the communistic-inclined are being attracted by a more living representation of the faith, by services shown to be in touch with modern life. He was insistent that the awakening and education of the social conscience must begin in the parish. He stated quite simply that the task of the liturgical movement and of Catholic Action alike is just that of re-making the community, first the community of the parish, then the community beyond, represented by a man’s employees, by one’s fellow workers, by all those with whom one comes in touch. It is a matter of each one making a resolution to change what he is able to change, if only in some degree. Dom Anselm stated categorically that Catholics recently have had a direct influence on wage levels, both because they have resisted a fall, and because they have created a public opinion in favor of social justice. He put this sort of thing down to the study circles which have been going on over ten years, saying that they have simply created a new mind in the nation.

This monk went on to talk of various parishes which he knows where the parish priest is making vital touch with his people, entering into their lives so as to relate them to the worship of the Church. He spoke of one parish where the curé has the school children to breakfast in the sacristy, before their journey to the distant school; of another where the poorest children, of Catholic, communist, or “neutral” families alike, are entertained to breakfast there; of another where every poor child in the parish receives a Christmas present and an Easter present from the congregation. I asked him if Belgian Catholics were not afraid of “bribing” people to come to church in this way. He shook his head. It was obvious that the English fear of this did not enter in at all. He told of a country curé whose car, himself the chauffeur, was always at the beck and call of the sick and old: of others who run libraries for their people in the sacristy or in premises adjoining.

He went on to draw a delightful picture of “Le Bon Pasteur,” “The Good Shepherd,” who knows his sheep, and is known of them; of the priest who talks to his people, instead of preaching at them; who speaks of things familiar to them, as did our Lord in the parables, and not of things above their heads; a father, not an official. He spoke of the mystical body of Christ, made up of living parishes, the parishes compounded of groups, committees, bands of workers, each doing their own job for the good of the whole, including people of all classes, a naturally classless society.

There is surely consolation and hope in the midst of this distracted world, in the knowledge that these things, even now, are going forward in Belgium in the name of the Church. Deo gratias.

[Larke, Helen M. “The Liturgical Movement and Catholic Action in Belgium.” Orate Fratres, vol. 13, no. 2, Dec. 1938, pp. 59–65.]