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High Altar of Saint John the Evangelist, Indianapolis, IN

High Altar of Saint John the Evangelist, Indianapolis, IN

The essence and implementation of the participatio actuosa of the faithful in the celebration of the liturgy, has been a source of unfortunate division since its inclusion in the conciliar constitution on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. At almost every level of the Church’s life, the ‘active participation’ of the faithful has been understood less as the interior conformity of the self – the intellect and the heart of the person – with the chief protagonist of the liturgy, that is Jesus Christ, and more with the vocal or physical involvement of individuals (more often token individuals) in roles previously reserved to ordained ministers.

Far from a new concept at the time of the council, however, this renewed and positive effort to encourage the participation of the faithful in the liturgy, was already well known when it was include in the conciliar constitution in 1965. Inspired by the earlier work of the liturgical movement, in 1903 Pope Saint Pius X used these exact words in his Instruction on Sacred Music, Tra le Sollecitudini, whilst Pope Pius XI spoke in 1928 of the restoration of the Church’s chant tradition (already well under way in the monasteries) as a means for the faithful to “participate in divine worship more actively (actuosa)”. The Venerable Pope Pius XII, too, spoke of this participation in both Mystici Corporis (1943) and Mediator Dei (1947), in the latter clarifying that:

‘The conclusion that the people offer the sacrifice with the priest himself is not based on the fact that, being members of the Church no less than the priest himself, they perform a visible liturgical rite; for this is the privilege only of the minister who has been divinely appointed to this office: rather it is based on the fact that the people unite their hearts in praise, impetration, expiation and thanksgiving with prayers or intention of the priest, even of the High Priest himself, so that in the one and same offering of the victim and according to a visible sacerdotal rite, they may be presented to God the Father. It is obviously necessary that the external sacrificial rite should, of its very nature, signify the internal worship of the heart’.

Finally, in 1958 the Sacred Congregation of Rites expanded on this teaching in an Instruction on Sacred Music, De Musica Sacra. Again, speaking primarily of music as a means of inculcating the participatio actuosa of the faithful, the document articulates that ‘interior participation is the most important’, with exterior participation (by which is meant posture, ceremonial signs, and making the responses), adds further to the faithful’s engagement in the sacred action. In other words ‘doing’ is an important part of the full and conscious participation of the faithful in the sacred liturgy, but second to ‘being’.

In the light of all this it becomes very clear why a document such as Sacrosanctum Concilium was overwhelmingly agreed by the council fathers so early in the proceedings. In essence, because the sound principals of the early liturgical movement were what the fathers understood the conciliar constitution to be implementing, in clear continuity with the organic development of the magisterium outlined above. It is for this reason that Pope Benedict XVI stated ‘the text on the sacred liturgy seems to have been the least controversial. For this very reason it could serve as a sort of exercise in learning conciliar methodology’. Far from bringing about a new form or means of participation, then, the council seemingly sought to deepen the participation of the faithful along pre-existing principals, principals that had always been present in the liturgical life of the Church, even if they had been previously forgotten or even ignored.

In recent years a reassessment of the true meaning of participatio actuosa, in the light of a certain activism that seems contrary to this pre-conciliar and conciliar sense, has led a number of scholars to speak more of ‘actual participation’ than ‘active participation’, supported by the fact that Pius X’s initial use of the phrase, in Italian, was in fact ‘partecipazione attiva‘. Amongst these is Alcuin Reid, who tells us that ‘participatio actuosa is not first and foremost external activity, or performing a particular liturgical ministry. That, unfortunately, has been a common misconception of the Council’s desire’. In our genuine desire to implement the true wishes of the council with regard to the liturgy, then, there is a need to rediscover this interior participation – not to do away with every external expression of the individual or community in the sacred action, but rather to give a certain weight and primacy to the internal disposition over that of the external. In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (incidentally, a seriously undervalued document that deserves wider and closer reading), Pope Benedict XVI made this very point regarding participatio actuosa and its post-conciliar implementation:

We must not overlook the fact that some misunderstanding has occasionally arisen concerning the precise meaning of this participation. It should be made clear that the word “participation” does not refer to mere external activity during the celebration. In fact, the active participation called for by the Council must be understood in more substantial terms, on the basis of a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated and its relationship to daily life (SCa 52).

Last week’s CMAA colloquium, I think, provided a number of key ways to implement this sound principle in an authentic way. First, we know that liturgical paradigm articulated by the CMAA could be well described as ‘sing the Mass, not sing at Mass’. This is something that has been spoken of before by Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth regarding the revised English translation of the 2002 Missale Romanum, and it is a principle that we should take very seriously. In the chanting of the proper texts and, where possible, according to the proper chants, the faithful participate at a deeper and more profound level in the liturgy of the Church, than when the prescribed liturgical texts are supplanted by hymnody or, even, silence. I am yet to be convinced by any argument that prefers non-biblical texts at any point in the Mass, over those antiphons and psalms that flow from sacred scripture and which have been an integral part of the western liturgy for hundreds of years. Even when a schola, choir, or cantor chants these texts, the faithful are given an opportunity to watch the rich symbolism of the liturgical action – the ascent and incensation of the altar at the introit; the receiving and offering of the bread and wine at the offertory; the care and attention paid to the ablutions and cleansing of the Eucharistic vessels after Holy Communion. As Dr Mahrt said in his paper, ‘The faithful shouldn’t be deprived of witnessing the hierarchical beauty of the entrance procession by having their faces in music’. Quite so. And each of these liturgical moments offers a chance for the individual to unite themselves with the action of the Priest, and thus with the supreme worship of Christ, in that primary form of interior participation. We might add to ‘sing the Mass, not sing at Mass’ the adage, ‘pray the Mass, not pray at Mass’ as a means of articulating this.

Secondly, and with this first point in mind, the ars celebrandi of the Priest and the deportment of the other ministers in the sanctuary is a supremely important means of communicating the full nature of the liturgical action to the faithful, and enabling a greater level of real participation by them in the rites. The signs and symbols of the liturgy – making the sign of the cross on the abdomen, at the gospel, and over the gifts; bowing the head at the Holy Name; bowing and genuflecting with a true sense of adoration – each transmits to the participatory-faithful that the liturgical action is more than a simply human function. It also serves as a corrective to what Bishop Peter Elliott calls, ‘a rather Cartesian distinction between the visible “externals” (rites, rituals, ceremonies, music, symbols, and so forth) and the inner spirit of worship’ (Elliott, P. Ars Celebrandi in the Sacred Liturgy, in Sacred Liturgy [ed. Reid]). It reunites the action of the Priest, the ministers, and the faithful themselves, with the action of Christ in the eternal offering he makes to the Father, and to which the Church on earth gladly joins her voice and heart. It also draws the faithful to a deeper reverence of the sacred liturgy as a God-given gift, and moves beyond a merely physical or external response to that gift, toward an interior appreciation of what God, in Christ, has done for his people.

Finally, the proper participation of all requires that each has the opportunity to understand how the external signs relate and point to the interior disposition – how to reconnect those post-Cartesian strands, we might say. This is the role of good liturgical formation, perhaps the first and greatest desire of the original liturgical movement. We cannot say, however, in all honesty, that the introduction of vernacular liturgy and versus populum celebration alone has truly given the depth of comprehension that is required by the faithful, or that it has even improved the general level of liturgical understanding that was, at its best, the intention of its promoters. The explanatory hand missals and liturgical guides written by the Benedictines, Jesuits, and diocesan clergy of the 20th century have not been replaced except simply by vernacular texts for the faithful to follow, and so the rich texts of the liturgy have been left open to independent interpretation, without the mind of the Church and her treasury of liturgical tradition as guide. Some work has begun to reverse this trend with the Saint Edmund Campion missal for the Extraordinary Form and the new Saint Isaac Jogues missal for the Ordinary Form, containing photographs and some explanatory material, but much more is required. Yes, we must restore beauty and majesty to our liturgical celebrations, but we must also help the faithful to understand more fully how to enter more deeply into the liturgical action, through the door of external signs and into the profound reality of internal communion with Christ and his mystical bride, the Church. We must provide better guides to the liturgy – something that should be so much easier in these days of word processing and parish photocopiers – and the clergy must teach, explicitly in homilies and workshops, in order to bring about a better understanding and participation on behalf of all Christ’s faithful.

May we continue to strive toward this high ideal. May we be docile to Lord’s promptings in our faithful celebration of the liturgical rites, and may we seek to unite ourselves and our parishes ever more closely to the sacrifice of Christ, whose life-blood is poured out for us in the sacramental life of the Church; who feeds us and brings us home.


Read the first and second articles in this series here and here.

For more on this topic, I recommend the following articles and passages:

  • Benedict XVI, Actuosa Participatio in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, §§ 52 -63
  • Ranjith, Malcolm, Actuosa Participatio in ‘Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church’, in Sacred Liturgy (ed. Reid), 35-36
  • Schuler, Richard, ‘Participation‘ in Sacred Music (Winter 1987)