Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Active Participation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 19, 2010

The June issue of the Adoremus Bulletin carried an instructive interview with Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Cardinal Cañizares commented on several aspects of the liturgy and the new translation to be implemented next year. The Adoremus Bulletin is published by Adoremus, the Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, which in my judgment is the single most faithful, sensible and reliable group working on liturgical renewal today.

What I found most refreshing about Cardinal Cañizares’ comments was his response to the question: “What does active participation mean?” Readers will no doubt recall that the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) called for “full, conscious and active” participation in the liturgy (14), and one of the many battles for the meaning of Vatican II has been fought over this phrase. Too often, it was taken merely as a signal to make the laity “busier” at Mass, giving them more and more liturgical things to do, as if external activity were the key to active participation.

Now don’t get me wrong. In the years before the Second Vatican Council, the laity too often regarded themselves primarily as spectators at Mass, watching and listening to something that “the priest did”. This was by no means an inescapable outcome of what is now the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite; clearly, the understanding of the role of the laity has waxed and waned in different places and different times over the centuries. Nonetheless, the Council wished to emphasize that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, and that the Mass is to be offered by the whole body of the faithful, and not just the sacred ministers. (This takes nothing away from the fact that all the laity in the world cannot offer the Mass without a priest, whereas a priest can offer the Mass, as it were, single-handedly, since the priest alone acts in persona Christi.)

Clearly the Council Fathers clearly did not regard it as adequate (as at least one pope did in the preceding decades) that optimum participation should consist in the recommendation that lay people say the Rosary during Mass, to take just one example of what we might call the best the “old school” (if the early 20th century can be considered old) had to offer. One can certainly defend this advice after a fashion, by pointing out that the Rosary can be used to unite oneself to the mysteries of Christ which are unfolding in the Mass, but it does smack of the spectator mode of thought, and few would actually argue (either then or now) that praying the Rosary through the Mass is superior to a conscious engagement with and meditation upon the liturgical texts themselves. This of course touches also the question of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy.

I say these things not to start World War III, but to preface my relief and gratitude that Cardinal Cañizares has “active participation” exactly right:

The protagonist of the celebration is Jesus Christ, not us. For this reason, active participation means uniting ourselves to Christ; uniting ourselves to Christ, who offers Himself to the Father; uniting ourselves to Christ, who receives the gift of God; uniting ourselves to Christ, who loves the Father above all else; uniting ourselves to Christ in praise of the Father; uniting ourselves to Christ in thanksgiving; uniting ourselves to Christ in His very attitude before the Father and in favor of man. This is how there will be active and fruitful participation. And it will be truly fruitful because then it is Christ who acts in us; when we unite ourselves to him, He acts in us. And He effectively makes us worshippers.

This is what the Church means when it refers to the liturgy as opus Dei, the work of God. The Mass is the representation in an unbloody manner of Christ’s supreme act of obedience to glorify the Father. Our job is to unite ourselves—fully, consciously, actively—to that sacred action.

There are many other important things to be said about the liturgy, and Cardinal Cañizares touches on several of them. For example, he offers a brief exposition on the key role Tradition plays (or ought to play) in the liturgy, for this sacred action is always something received rather than invented; and he includes a brief statement of the manner in which unity in prayer leads to unity of belief, deftly explaining the meaning of the famous Latin phraseology, lex orandi, lex credendi. But it is enough today to answer the vexing question of “active participation” at Mass: The key is uniting ourselves with the saving action of Jesus Christ.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jtuturic3013 - Aug. 03, 2010 5:14 AM ET USA

    To wojo425627, and others with the same question, actual participation starts with an interior desire to want to enter into the Mass. From there, one must educate themselves on what the Mass is in order that they may more perfectly participate. There are a number of good starting points. If you haven't already read it, "The Lamb's Supper" by Scott Hahn is a good starting point.

  • Posted by: Mike in Toronto - Jul. 21, 2010 11:58 AM ET USA

    Pre-Vatican II, one "assisted" at Mass - still a good word for lay participation which fits well with Cdl. CaƱizares's thought. Re the Rosary, Pope Paul VI wtote that it "can be an excellent preparation for the celebration of those same mysteries in the liturgical action and can also become a continuing echo thereof. However, it is a mistake to recite the Rosary during the celebration of the liturgy, though unfortunately this practice still persists here and there" (Marialis Cultis, No. 48).

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Jul. 21, 2010 7:57 AM ET USA

    So, what are the ways that we can accomplish this uniting of ourselves to Christ in the Mass?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 19, 2010 11:34 PM ET USA

    This is refreshing news. Unfortunately, millions of laity and many among the clergy have a fundamentally different point of view. It will be a slow process to restore order. Thanks to Pope Benedict's courage and fortitude, the process has begun. Regarding the translations, I have a funny feeling the "new translations" are going to include quite a bit that is rather old. But, I'd still take a congregation of "Rosary-prayers" these days over that which plenty of church communities offer.