Liturgy and Justice

VRNs (09.08.2011) – Canada -

Movement of Lightning a candle for Justice and Peace needed?

The movement of lighting a candle for justice and peace has been heard in Viet Nam recently. It emerged in the complex context of a communist country where the Vietnamese communists has controlled the whole nation of Viet Nam for over 65 years. In reality, the communist regime has gradually changed this country into a terribly corrupted and unjust society. It is a sorrowful fact that a great number of the poor are losing their pieces of agricultural land because the communist government seizes them and sells them to foreign companies.

Fortunately, after taking his office in the Archdiocese of Ha Hoi in 2007, Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet immediately spoke for the oppressed by calling for a movement of lighting a candle for intercessory prayer. Responding to the Archbishop’s call for justice for the poor, thousands of Catholics in Hanoi have been organizing prayer vigils in their liturgical celebrations since 2008 to peacefully protest governmental policies. Reacting, however, to this Catholic movement, the communists have been harassing the Archbishop of Hanoi and the Catholic communities there. Consequently, a growing number of Catholic Vietnamese have been arrested and the church’s properties and holy cross destroyed.

Very much concerned about the severe persecution in Viet Nam, many Catholic leaders around the world have protested the Vietnamese communist government. For instance, in his official letter to the Ambassador of Viet Nam in Canada, Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, expressed his grave concern, stressing that “it is with increasing outrage that I am learning of the recent actions of the Vietnamese authorities against Archbishop Joseph Kiet Quang Ngo and the Catholic Community of Ha Noi. Be assured that this persecution is not unnoticed by the international Community and causes great harm to the position of Viet Nam in the family of nations.”[i] In another letter, he wrote: “I am deeply concerned about the increasing persecution of the Catholic citizens in your country…. The great nation of Viet Nam is dishonored in the eyes of the world when peaceful citizens are harassed and even violently attacked simply because of their faith…. Catholics are good citizens of countries around the world and their free practice of their faith and the use of the sign of the cross are no threat to any country or government. Indeed, the Catholic citizens of Viet Nam are a true source of strength and vitality in your wonderful country. It is a shame when they are not respected.”[ii]

Although the Catholic citizens of Viet Nam are now severely persecuted, they are still maintaining their meaningful prayer vigils, lighting the candle to seek justice for the poor; thus, this brings to mind the internal linkage between liturgy and justice. This paper will explore this linkage by analyzing its biblical, theological and historical backgrounds, and the different aspects of justice found in the liturgy of the Eucharist. Hopefully, by reflecting upon this intrinsic connection of liturgy to justice, a remarkable insight will emerge and be applied to the current Catholic movement of justice for the poor in Viet Nam.

Clarification of terms



When speaking of the Christian liturgy, some people usually think of text and ritual prescriptions or rubrics. In fact, “liturgy” means much more than that; it includes the whole event of a Christian community gathering to celebrate the Church’s rituals. Catherine Vincie explores the Christian liturgy, emphasizing that “[it] is ritual action that encompasses environment, images, sound, human movement in space, human actions with objects, interactions between persons with or without objects, words said or song, feeling created and shared and more besides, and above all is a human-divine encounter.”[iii] Similarly, Mark Searle explicates the Christian liturgy, noting that “the term is used here as referring to actions of a gathered community in hearing the Word of God, breaking bread, initiating new members, anointing the sick, celebrating conversion and renewal, marrying and giving in marriage, ordaining it leaders, or joining together in the praise and acknowledgement of God.”[iv] In short, liturgy is a primary way that the faithful express ritually their encounter with the divine mystery of salvation and authentic Christian discipleship.


Meanwhile, “justice” also comprises several levels of meaning. “Justice” may be understood simply as a just act of giving or receiving various goods in society so that each person has his or her appropriate share of all the wealth, material and human, of the society.[v] “Justice” in this sense means ethical or legal justice coming down to what the law defines as just or unjust; and “the struggle for justice means seeking legal redress or constitutional amendment for situations felt to be unjust.”[vi] Especially, “justice” is also understood in a biblical sense, that is, the justice of God as it is revealed in history, recorded in the Scriptures, and proclaimed in the assembly of the faithful. On one hand, the justice of God is revealed in creation by things being the way God made them and serving the purpose for which they were made; on the other hand, it is indeed manifest in people and events that embody and fulfill God’s will in history. In other words, the justice of God is to call his people to “have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10: 10). In St. Paul’s words, the justice of God is that “those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8: 30). Due to their sins, they should have deserved to be punished; but thanks to the justice of God, they have been saved from their miserable status and their mortal sins so that they now may have life and have it abundantly according to God’s will when he created them. In a word, Searle briefly expounds that “the justice of God is satisfied when things conform to the purpose for which he made them.”[vii] Moreover, he emphasizes that “the justice of God has been revealed among us in many and various ways throughout the course of human history, but above all it has been seen in all its dimensions in the person of Jesus. He is the Just One…. not because he kept the law, but because he lived according to the order and vocation of the One who predestines all things.”[viii] Hence, the justice of God includes ethical justice; both meanings (ethical and divine) will be mentioned in this paper.

Biblical and theological background and history

“The relationship of [liturgy] and justice,” Mark O’Keefe acknowledges, “is clearly presumed in the Scriptures.”[ix] The prophets in the Old Testament consistently reminded Israel of the relationship between religious observances and justice. Isaiah, for example, stressed justice as right worship: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isa 58:6-7). Moreover, Amos strongly warned Israel of a separation between worship and justice: “I hate, I despise your festival, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your song; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).

It is significant that the first account (1 Cor) in the New Testament deals with the connection of liturgy to justice. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul reproved the manifestation of factions which threatened the authenticity of the Eucharistic celebration. He heavily criticized the wealthy because of their unwillingness to wait for the poor before beginning the Lord’s Supper: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper that you eat. For in eating each other one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry… Or do you despise the Church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (1 Cor 11:20-22). “Paul’s,” Mark R. Francis notes, “is the first critique of Christian worship cut off from its connection to just living.”[x] Analyzing 1 Cor 11:17-33, Eugene LaVerdiere also asserts that “Paul called the Christians at Corinth to a way of life and a set of attitudes that were consistent with the Lord’s Supper. Apart from this way of life, there could be no Lord’s Supper…. Moral life that was not consistent with their worship made their worship worthless and even repugnant to God.”[xi]

Indeed, not only Paul’s letters refer to the connection between liturgy and justice, but the whole New Testament is also clearly involved in it. Agreeing with Hans Bernhard Meyer’s comment on the witness of the New Testament to the connection of liturgy and justice, O’Keef realizes that “many terms used by the early Christian community for social concern – diakonia, koinonia…oblatio, operari – also had a clearly religious and liturgical character…. [I]t was precisely the strong connection between worship and morality, worship and social commitment, that made the Christian faith so attractive to pagans….”[xii]

Historically, the New Testament’s insistence on the integral connection of community worship and justice was still found in the early century documents. Justine Martyr, for instance, urged his community, saying that “those of us who have resources come to the aid of all who are in need, and we are always assisting one another.”[xiii] Moreover, one of the most important statements relating to worship and justice was recognized in Didaskalia Apostolorum, exhorting bishops: “If the poor man or a poor woman, whether they are from your own parish or another, especially if they are advanced in years, and there should be no room for them, then make a place for them, O bishop, with all your heart, even if you yourself have to sit on the ground. You must not make distinctions between persons if you wish your ministry to be pleasing to God.”[xiv]

In the centuries that followed the social dimension of liturgy and its link to justice seemed to be obscured, thus James Dallen complains that “the primacy of persons over things…was forgotten. More attention was paid to what was on the table than to those stood around the table.”[xv] Nonetheless, the effort to focus on this link was not totally lost. The great Christian thinkers of many ages tirelessly continued to mention the internal linkage of liturgy to justice for the poor: St. Augustine, Pope Leo the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John and Charles Wesley….[xvi]

Paralleling the theologians’ efforts, the Magisterium also never ignored the Church’s concern for the social dimension of liturgy in its connection to justice. The great papal social encyclicals of the recent centuries are good examples of this concern. In Rerum Novavum, for instance, Pope Leo XIII mentioned liturgy in relation to the value of rest from labor and of such religious observances as worship on Sunday.[xvii] Moreover, Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno, stressing the importance of the liturgy as force for social vision and transformation.[xviii] Furthermore, Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Mater et Magistum made reference to the intrinsic link between liturgy and justice as he paralleled Christ’s gift of food to the multitudes with his gift of heavenly food at the Last Supper and mentioned liturgy in connection with the Sabbath rest.[xix] Other crucial documents which express the Church’s concern for this connection include: Pacem in Teris (John XXIII), Populorum Progressio, Octogesima Adveniens (Paul VI), and Loborem Exercens (John Paul II). “All these papal documents,” James Dallen affirms, “deal with aspects of the human labor which is also a central symbolic concern of the bread and wine of the Eucharist…. Mention of the Eucharistic bread and wine might be expected in considering agricultural work and the spirituality of work.”[xx]

Besides the papal documents, the modern concern for the linkage between liturgy and justice has been expressed through the liturgical movements prior to the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps Virgil Michel, the founder of Orate Fratres, was a vivid figure seeking the renewal of liturgy in connection to justice. He insisted that “the Church that celebrates itself as the ‘mystical body of Christ’ in the Eucharist is required to act as Christ’s members in the world, manifesting the concern of Jesus for others and especially for the worker and the poor.”[xxi] Another bright figure who was very much concerned about liturgy and justice was Dorothy Day. For her the Mass is the work and her spirituality inspired the early Catholic Worker movement prior to Vatican II.

The most important event in the history of the liturgy’s linkage to justice is the Second Vatican Council. Emphasizing the basis for linking liturgy and justice, the Council’s fathers note that “Christ left to his followers a pledge of this hope and food for the journey in the sacrament of faith, in which natural elements, the fruits of human cultivation, are changed into his glorious Body and Blood, as a supper of brotherly and sisterly communion and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet.”[xxii] Indeed, Vatican II, with its crucial documents such as Sacrosanctum Concilium, Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, has inspired Christian worshipers to be truly involved in various aspects of life, particularly social justice. One of the most brilliant witnesses of the Council’s spirit is Bishop Oscar Romero. He was assassinated during the celebration of a Mass because of his struggle for justice for the poor and the oppressed. His death reflected a strong connection between social justice and the liturgy of the Church. In other words, Romero is a vivid demonstration of the way in which the commitment of the Church to justice can be intricately related to its worship and sacramental life. His struggle for justice for the poor stems from and is realized the Christian liturgy.

Different aspects of justice in Eucharist celebration

We have concluded the background and history of liturgy and justice with an outstanding figure of authentic liturgy in connection to justice, Bishop Oscar Romero. Looking now more deeply at the intrinsic link between liturgy and justice, we explore two significant aspects of justice emerging in the Eucharist celebration.

First of all, the Eucharistic liturgy reveals and celebrates our relationship with God; therefore, “justice” in the sense of God’s justice is expressed. It is an essential fact that the Eucharistic celebration is our praise and thanks toward God. In the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer, we are instructed to pray that “all powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks and praise….”[xxiii] This reminds us of our faithfulness to God’s justice in our lives. Reflecting on this prayer, Walter J. Burghardt stresses that “to praise God and thank God always and everywhere ‘is a matter of justice.’ If [we] do not praise and thank God, [we] are unfaithful to [our] covenant with God cut in the blood of Christ; [we] are guilty of biblical injustice.”[xxiv] Moreover, explicating God’s justice revealed in the Eucharistic celebration, Burghardt also notes that “praise and thanks are a matter of justice, of fidelity, because it is God to whom we owe our being, our existence, our life at every moment; because it is God to whom we owe our salvation in Christ; because it is ‘God’s love’ that ‘has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’ (Rom 5:5); because it is God who is our last end, our hope, our destiny.”[xxv] In general, whenever we celebrate the Eucharist (praise and thanks to God), we are reminded of God’s justice. Our praise and thanks to God become authentic when we let God’s will be done in our lives. In other words, the Eucharistic celebration empowers us to fulfil the justice of God by making all things in our lives conform to God’s will. Our lives then become a true praise and thanks to God who is always faithful to his covenant with us.

The Eucharistic liturgy not only manifests our relationship with God, but it also reveals and celebrates our relationship with one another, thus empowering us to struggle for social justice in our daily lives. In fact, the Eucharistic liturgy does not tell us exactly what to do in term of justice for others. Instead, Burghardt indicates that “it generates insight, gives fresh perspective, invites [those who celebrate] to discover what God’s kingdom is all about – and leaves the rest to their graced freedom.”[xxvi]

It is a meaningful fact that gathering together for an Eucharistic celebration, we are equal with another; there is no discrimination among us; hence, “we stand to one another not as the rich to the poor, the wise to the ignorant, the strong to the needy, the clever to the simple; we stand rather as the poor to poor, the weak to the weak, the loved to the loved.”[xxvii] Similarly, Mary Collins stresses that “we cannot worship alone. Liturgy happens when a group of people gather – old and young, black yellow, white, brown, rich and poor, gay and straight, healthy and handicapped – to accomplish the work of the people of God.”[xxviii] Therefore, our Eucharistic equality compels us to struggle with others for an equal and just living.

Especially, our sharing in the same bread and drinking from the same cup in the Eucharistic liturgy inspires us to seek justice for those who suffer or are oppressed in an unjust society. Mary Collins points out that the Eucharistic cup that we share with one another has the potential for activating “the memory that suffering for the life of the world is a blessing for those who drink deeply.”[xxix] Mentioning the same meaning of the Eucharistic sharing, in her practical perspective, Leonard suggests that “we include our work – its creative, joyful elements and its painful drudgery – that it be united with Christ and transformed so that we, in our turn, can become the bread of life and the spiritual drink for our brothers and sisters.”[xxx] Normally we do not eat the same bread or drink from the same cup that someone else is eating or drinking from, unless we have an intimate relationship with that person. So we are becoming intimate with those who share in the Holy Communion. This exhorts us to share with others’ joy and suffering, especially to recognize their state of being oppressed and accompany them on their journey of struggling for justice. Briefly, the Eucharistic liturgy makes us aware of our relationship with God and with one another, thus compelling us to fulfil God’s justice in our lives.

A remarkable insight applied to the Church in Viet Nam

Going through the history and background of liturgy and justice and exploring significant aspects of justice emerging in the Eucharistic liturgy, we have discovered the intrinsic link between liturgy and justice. Liturgy does not cease in ritual prescriptions or rubrics, but it is a primary way in which the faithful express their living faith in just and ever-living God. The prophets in the Old Testament always warned God’s people of the separation of worship from justice. Meanwhile, there has been a strong reminder in the New Testament and throughout the Church’s history that liturgy will become meaningless if it is cut off from just living.

Moreover, reflecting on the importance of the authentic liturgy, Don E. Saliers emphasizes that “liturgy as cultus must bear within itself a prophetic self-awareness because how and what we pray is response to the world as the arena of moral ambiguity and agency.”[xxxi] This emphasis reminds me of the prayer vigils organized by the Catholics in Viet Nam to seek justice for the poor and the oppressed. Obviously, through the brotherly and sisterly gatherings in liturgical celebrations, the Vietnamese Catholics are aware of an unjust and corrupted society in which they are living and inspired to hear the cries of the poor surrounding them. Their movement thus demonstrates a strong connection between social justice and the liturgy of the Church. However, they are compelled to do more than that. They are exhorted to realize the authentic liturgy of the Church by living their just lives in their corrupted society. In other words, they are called to bear witness to the Church’s authentic liturgy that they celebrate weekly by their just living. Indeed, they are challenged to do what Burghardt mentions: “The Eucharistic signs and symbols do not of themselves change social, political, and economic structures, do not speak directly to complex issues of poverty and justice, of statecraft and technology; but they should change untold millions of hearts and minds, grace them to admit the oppression of which they are victims and for which they are responsible, inspire them to struggle with others for the coming of a kingdom characterized by peace and justice and love.”[xxxii]

Rev. Anthony Nguyễn Văn Dũng, C.Ss.R


[i] Thomas Collins, “Letter of Archbishop of Toronto to the Ambassador of Viet Nam in Canada,” (accessed August 2, 2011).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Catherine Vincie, “The Cry for Justice and the Eucharist,” Worship 68 no.3 (May 1994): 200.

[iv] Mark Searle, “Serving the Lord with Justice” in Liturgy and Social Justice, ed. Mark Searle (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1980), 15.

[v] Christopher Kiesling, “Liturgy and Social Justice,” Worship 51, no. 4 (July 1977): 352.

[vi] Searle, “Serving the Lord with Justice,” 15, quoted in D. Burrell, “Justice…What Is It All About?,” Occasion Papers on Catholic Higher Education 4, no. 2 (Winter 1978) 12-17.

[vii] Searle, ““Serving the Lord with Justice,” 16.

[viii] Ibid., 17.

[ix] Mark O’Keefe, Becoming Good, Becoming Holy: On the Relationship of Christian Ethics and Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), 105.

[x] Mark R. Francis, “Announcing God’s Reign: Liturgy, Life and Justice” in Finding Voice to Give God Praise: Essays in the Many Languages of the Liturgy, ed. Kathleen Hughes (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1998), 179.

[xi] Eugene LaVerdiere, “Worship and Ethical Responsibility” in To Do Justice and Right upon the Earth, ed. Mary E. Stamps (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1993), 20.

[xii] O’Keefe, Becoming Good, Becoming Holy: On the Relationship of Christian Ethics and Spirituality, 105.

[xiii] Lucien Deiss, Springtime of the Liturgy, trans. By M. J. O’Connell (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1979), 93.

[xiv] Ibid., 176.

[xv] James Dallen, “Liturgy and Justice for All,” Worship 65, no. 4 (July 1991): 293.

[xvi] Francis, “Announcing God’s Reign: Liturgy, Life and Justice,” 180.

[xviii] Marvin L. Krier Mich, Catholic Social Teaching and Movements (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publicatioins, 1998), 88.

[xix] Pope John XXIII, “Mater et Magistra,” 5, 249 & 258, (accessed August 2, 2011).

[xx] Dallen, “Liturgy and Justice for All,” 294.

[xxi] O’Keefe, Becoming Good, Becoming Holy: On the Relationship of Christian Ethics and Spirituality, 105.

[xxii] Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 38.

[xxiii] “Preface” in Eucharistic Prayer.

[xxiv] Walter J. Burghardt, “Just Word and Just Worship: Biblical Justice and Christian Liturgy,” Worship 73, no. 5 (Spring 1999): 392.

[xxv] Ibid., 393.

[xxvi] Burghardt, “Just Word and Just Worship: Biblical Justice and Christian Liturgy,” 393.

[xxvii] Searle, “Serving the Lord with Justice,” 23-24.

[xxviii] Maria Leonard, “After Sunday: The Work Week, the Marketplace” in Liturgy and Spirituality in Context: Perspectives on Prayer and Culture, ed. Eleanor Bernstein (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), 164.

[xxix] Mary Collins, Worship: Renewal to Practice (Washington, D.C.: Pastoral Press, 1987), 262.

[xxx] Leonard, “After Sunday: The Work Week, the Marketplace,” 163.

[xxxi] Don E. Saliers, “Liturgy and Ethics: Some New Beginnings” in Liturgy and the Moral Self: Humanity at Full Stretch before God, ed. E. Byron Anderson and Bruce T. Morrill (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998), 27-28.

[xxxii] Burghardt, “Just Word and Just Worship: Biblical Justice and Christian Liturgy,” 395.