Sit down, shut up, and participate actively

Last week I received an interesting question from Hank, who is hoping to convert to Catholicism, edited for brevity here:

In older times the choir sang the introit. Nowadays, an entrance hymn is more popular. This to me sounds like a very extreme way of interpreting “participatio actuosa.” Everything must be familiar and all those difficult Gregorian songs of the past are abandoned since it’s not in the vernacular and people don’t understand its theological/biblical language. … Why would someone say no to this old tradition?

Hank asks about the introit, which is a chant sung while the priest goes to the altar at the beginning of Mass. It is sometimes called the “entrance antiphon.” These are short little prayers that the Church prescribes for Mass each day. Sadly, they are often replaced by an “entrance hymn,” which is a huge bummer because the antiphons are so beautiful and poetic!

I am not very knowledgeable about sacred music, so here are three very quick thoughts. I’d direct Hank, and other readers interested in sacred music, to the excellent Corpus Christi Watershed for deeper insights.

  • The Church gives us the option to sing a hymn, so I think it’s fine to use that option. We have to trust the Church. Sometimes the hymns are awful but that’s a different post.
  • It stinks that parishes don’t use the introit every week, because they rock. Music directors, you are denying us something beautiful which belongs to all of us. Please give it back. The antiphons are way better than I Am the Bread of Life.
  • Like many human endeavors, parishes often are ruled by people who cling to “the way things have always been done” without further study or reflection. Sometimes this is the pastor, but often it is a cadre of old folks who make life hard for him. They dictate their views (in this case, “we want to sing friendly songs from 1979 OR ELSE”) and call him names if the pot is stirred.

Today I want to focus on Hank’s mention of participatio actuosa, or in English, active participation.

This phrase is sort of a buzzword now in the world of liturgy nerds. It is often misapplied in the name of some goofy and distracting stuff, so let’s take a look and then harshly judge everyone that disagrees with us!

It comes from an extremely important document called Sacrosanctum Concilium. This is the Vatican’s constitution on the sacred liturgy that came directly from the Second Vatican Council. Everytime anybody talks about “the Mass after Vatican II” we should immediately be thinking of SacroCon, as everybody calls it.*

Here’s what it says:

14.  Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit . . .

img_0990As you know, the Mass before Vatican II was offered entirely in Latin. Furthermore, the rites called for many “secret” prayers, said in a low voice by the priest at the altar. The Eucharistic Prayer happened and everything was very quiet for a very long time, with minimal involvement from the assembly until it was time to go receive Communion (or not). As you can imagine, this would be a hard environment for the assembly to pay attention and be engaged with the Mass every week.

As a result, churchgoers might have said their own prayers or have done other private devotions during Mass, never really engaging with the action upon the altar. This is why you sometimes see old ladies saying the Rosary during Mass even today.

The Mass did not ever and does not now exist for us to “get something out of it,” but the Church in Her wisdom also realized that if the Liturgy is going to be the source and summit of Christian life, then it should be at least slightly more accessible to the laity. And so we have this key instruction that people should be able to have “full and active participation.”

By knowing this context, we easily understand what it really means (and what it does not mean).

In fact, SacroCon tells us:

11.  But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain. Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.

art-and-liturgy-hideous-church-people-raising-hands-active-participation
Are these people engaged in “full, conscious, active participation?” Who knows!

This is it! The true meaning of “full, active, conscious participation!” If we wanted, we could correctly just say “intelligent participation” in the Mass. We, the laity, can hear and know what’s happening and then choose to unite ourselves to it.

It does not mean:

  • that every person gets to be an altar boy, or a sacristan, or Extra-ordinary Minister of Holy Communion, or whatever other ministries are happening
  • a rowdy “Hug your neighbor” session before Mass
  • being able to see what’s happening on the altar
  • being able to understand every single thing happening at Mass without instruction
  • etc.

Finally, it’s worth noting how much attention SacroCon gives to the instruction of the faithful by the clergy. We can’t and shouldn’t be able to plumb the depths of the Mass ourselves — priests and deacons should be educating their flock about the Divine Liturgy so that our participation can always grow more full, more conscious, and more active.


* Nobody calls it SacroCon.

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