Liturgical renewal, Specialised Catholic Action and social change in Quebec

In a highly significant article, “Doing It Rite: Specialized Catholic Action and Liturgical Renewal in Quebec, 1930s–1960s,” Indre Cuplinskas highlights the role of Specialised Catholic Action movements  (SCA) in the liturgical renewal movement as well pointing to the connection between that renewal and the far-reaching social changes that later developed.

“For five days in June, 1938 300,000 people gathered in Quebec City to participate in the first National Eucharistic Congress in Canada,” Cuplinsksas writes, noting that members of the JOC, JEC, JAC and JIC figures among the participants.

One highlight of the occasion was the performance of a play by French playwright Henri Ghéon, La Mystère de la Messe, a “pedagogical” event spotlighted the fact that “the Eucharistic liturgy was part of a larger drama between God and humanity,” she adds.

 A particular highlight of this was an offertory procession in which “representatives of various vocational groups such as traditional harvesters, grape-pickers, factory workers, sales clerks, and students offered up the fruits of their labors.” Once again SCA movements played a frontline role here.

Until now, however, Cuplinskas argues, historians have tended to overlook “the influence of the liturgical movement on SCA” which “has only been mentioned in passing.”

In contrast, many scholars have already noted the influence of “personalist” philosophy on those movements, she says. This involved “a shift from a post-Tridentine focus on the sinful condition of humanity, an immutable natural order, and a representation of the clergy as mediators of the spiritual to a Catholicism that privileges the engaged and authentic person, emphasizes historical change, and acknowledges and even encourages the engagement of the laity,” she explains.

In a similar vein, she notes that “scholars have studied these movements in Quebec from a sociological perspective: as organizations that facilitated the formation of youth as a social class active in the public sphere and as organizations that provided experience in leadership and organization to future political leaders of Quebec.

In this context Caplinskas recalls that many former SCA leaders of “the 1940s and 1950s became key figures in Quebec’s political and cultural life during and after the Quiet Revolution” and indeed the secularisation of Quebec society.

Yet, as Cuplinskas points out, in many Catholic Action documents of that period “author after author argued for the necessary connection” between the personalist and liturgical currents.

“They insisted that active, conscious, and efficacious liturgy vivified Catholic Action,” she continues.

It is therefore “important to include the influence of liturgical renewal so that the spirituality that shaped SCA in Quebec can be understood fully,” she argues, particularly since “liturgical renewal promoted ideals of the personalist ethos such as lay social engagement, while insisting on more traditional values such as sacrifice.”

This evolution led to significant changes that went well beyond the liturgy itself. For example, the greater involvement of lay people in liturgy also impacted upon “lay-clergy relations,” she says, and even had “implications for the Church’s vision of its place in society.”

Here, Cuplinskas also highlights two particular theological threads that emerged in parallel with these developments, namely the “theology of the Mystical Body of Christ” and a focus on the “royal priesthood” of believers, particularly lay people.

“Internally the images of the corpus mysticum and the royal priesthood, along with the invitation to participation in Christ’s own sacrifice, opened the door to the renegotiation of clergy-lay relations at the very core of Church life—the Mass,” Cuplinskas concludes. And this occurred despite the intentions of the hierarchy of the time.

“On the one hand, young laypeople were invited, both theologically and practically, into what had been clerical territory,” she observes, noting that the theology behind liturgical renewal also “questioned the subordination and clean delineation of roles.

“These shifts in liturgical roles would easily bolster the confident and later critical stance that SCA activists took toward some of their chaplains and episcopal directives starting in the late 1940s,” she observes, while “clergy, too, were forced to rethink their role, not only in the Mass but also in the way that priests directed the laity.”

This liturgical renewal promoted by the SCA movements was thus also an “important source” of the “hermeneutic of rupture” that emerged during the 1950s, Caplinskas continues.

“There is a clear parallel between the changing relationship of clergy and laity in the liturgy and the place of clergy in Quebec society,” she says.

“This theological shift accompanied the very real development that the Church’s most visible leaders—priests, in withdrawing from the secular sphere, logically were now limited to the religious and
cultic one. At the same time, laypeople, the “mini-hosts,” took a leadership role in the secular sphere that was more clearly defined.

This liturgical renewal also placed “a much greater responsibility on the laity” who “were no longer simply recipients of grace.”

“The Mystical Body both drew laity into the erstwhile clerical terrain at the center of the Christian mystery, but it also pointed them outward” and as a result “laypeople were positioned as mediators between the religious and secular worlds,” Cuplinskas concludes.

It is notable that many of Cuplinskas observations on the linkages between the SCA movements and liturgical renewal closely parallel those of Helen M. Clarke in relation to the SCA movements in Belgium in 1938.

Yet where Cuplinskas views the relationship as one of the liturgical movement’s influence on the SCA movements, Clarke shows that the relationship was much more symbiotic. For example, Cardijn’s own theology of work is very evident in the vocational offertory processions mentioned by Cuplinskas.

Similarly, regarding the theology of the Mystical Body, it needs to be remembered that the key figure in the development of this doctrine was Emile Mersch s.j., who was himself a JOC chaplain.

The same is also true in relation to the theology of the royal priesthood of believers, which formed a central plank in the theology of the JOC. Indeed, another JOC proponent, the future Bishop Emile De Smedt would later play a key role in transmitting this theology to the Second Vatican Council.

Stefan Gigacz


Doing It Rite: Specialized Catholic Action and Liturgical Renewal in Quebec, 1930s–1960s
Indre Cuplinskas

The Catholic Historical Review, Volume 101, Number 1, Winter 2015, pp.
122-146 (Article)

Published by The Catholic University of America Press