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Last week was one of the most liturgically rich of my priesthood. As part of the National Eucharistic Revival, the Marian pilgrimage passed through my diocese, ending in Indianapolis. We paraded with the Blessed Sacrament through the streets of Rochester, Minnesota, and then I celebrated a large, solemn Mass in the city’s Civic Center. A few days later, I said Mass in the city of La Crescent, which is on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi, and then marched with the Eucharist to La Crosse on the Wisconsin side, accompanied by about three thousand people. At the end of that procession, I handed the monstrance to my colleague Gerard Battersby, the Bishop of La Crosse, and then we celebrated Mass together for the assembled crowd in the La Crosse Civic Center. All of these prayer services and Eucharistic celebrations were marked by singing, bells ringing, incense wafting from swinging censers, magnificent vestments, and litanies galore. The day after the Mass in La Crosse, I had the honor of ordaining three young men to the priesthood for my Diocese of Winona-Rochester. The ordination liturgy, one of the most beautiful in the Church’s repertoire, included – in addition to everything just mentioned – the anointing of the hands of the newly ordained, a formal greeting by all the priests present, and an investiture ceremony.

It was all wonderful. I am sure it delighted the hearts and souls of those who experienced it. Yet in the minds of some, this kind of grand liturgical display raises a question, even criticism: What does this have to do with the work of the Church in caring for the sick and needy? What does this have to do with Jesus walking in simple clothing along the dusty streets of Galilee, reaching out to the poor? Is the preoccupation with music, vestments, processions, litanies, etc. a kind of fussy aesthetic, a fixation on liturgical frills? In fact, don’t we often hear this very criticism from older priests towards younger priests?

Allow me to say that this concern is, as far as it goes, legitimate, because the Church, as Joseph Ratzinger reminded us, does three things: it worships God, but it also evangelizes and serves the poor. And the Church’s special genius is revealed when it manages to keep these three tasks in balance, each correcting the others and each leading to the others. If I may focus in this article on the first and last of these essential responsibilities, worship of God must lead to caring for the poor, and caring for the poor must lead to worship of God—and for one simple reason. Worship is about focusing on God, about affirming through gestures, words, songs, processions, etc. that God is the central and ultimate concern of our lives. But the more we love God, the more we love those whom God loves; and the more we love those whom God loves, the more we love the one who made them lovable in the first place. This is why St. John tells us that he who says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar, and this is why the Lord himself insisted that there are two indispensable commandments: love of God and love of our brothers and sisters. I would like to express this as a principle: the higher one rises in the liturgy, the lower one should rise in service to the poor; and the lower one rises in service to the poor, the higher one should rise in the liturgy. The danger is in a one-sided emphasis on liturgy or a one-sided emphasis on service, the first leading to cumbersomeness and the second reducing the Church to an organization of social service.

There are so many great figures in the recent history of the Church who have embodied my principle in their lives and work. Consider, for example, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. There was no one in the 20th century Church more dedicated to serving the poor and hungry and to fighting social injustice than Dorothy Day – and yet her devotion to prayer, blessing, rosary, frequent spiritual retreats and, of course, the Blessed Sacrament was absolute. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was an icon of service during her long ministry among the poorest of the poor. No 20th century Catholic had a stronger devotion and identification with the suffering than Mother Teresa – and yet her love of prayer was boundless, her attention to the Eucharist unsurpassed. And turning the principle around, we might draw attention to Virgil Michel, Reynold Hillenbrand, and Romano Guardini, all pillars of the Liturgical Movement that was so influential at Vatican II. Each of these gentlemen argued that the splendor of the Mass must extend to the street as a sign of devotion to the suffering members of the Mystical Body of Christ. As older Chicago priests told me when I was newly ordained, Msgr. Hillenbrand invited Dorothy Day to Mundelein Seminary to emphasize precisely this relationship.

One of the sad developments in the years since Vatican II is the breaking up of what was once a unity. Today, the “liberals” tend to be those who care about the poor and the “conservatives” those who concern themselves with liturgy. But that is foolish – and dangerous for the Church. The more one is one, the more one should be the other, and vice versa. So let me repeat my saying again: the higher one rises liturgically, the lower one should sink in service to the poor; and the lower one sinks in service to the poor, the higher one should rise liturgically.

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