Do You Actually Participate at Mass?

As a parish Music Director, like Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir Private Eye, I find myself trying to find answers to one of life’s most persistent questions: How can I contribute to that “full, conscious and active participation in the ceremonies” that the fathers at the Second Vatican Council desired? Does the Church Musician have to consider this?

“Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious and active participation in the ceremonies which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Art 14 Sacrosanctum Consilium)

Its been fifty-one years now since the Council and I don’t really see full conscious and active participation anywhere … at least in the way that I think most people imagine it. Could it be that the Church is widely misunderstood when it calls for active participation? What does the Church mean?

Now when I was growing up I experienced, what I later thought was, the big break-through that the Church made in Vatican II. Vatican II had finally shaken off the cobwebs of sleepy passive Catholicism and ushered in a new and vibrant era of active singing, dancing, hand-clapping, music ministering, out-loud talking, hand shaking, praise and worshiping… spirituality that was 800 years long overdue!

Some of my earliest memories of going to Mass included singing The King of Glory with guitars and tambourines. Back in the seventies and eighties this song seemed so right!

And who can forget Stephen Colbert’s interpretive rendition ?!

But it turns out that Vatican II was not saying something new when it called for “full, conscious and active participation.” The Council was merely restating and reiterating what the Church has always taught, and doing so even with the same words that St Pius X had employed 100 years earlier.

Filled as We are with a most ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish in every respect and be preserved by all the faithful, We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church. (Tra Le Sollecitudine)

But what does “active participation” mean?

Well for me, the big break-through came when I had the pleasure of hearing this very phrase discussed by the late Msgr. Richard Schuler of St. Agnes in St. Paul, MN.

It was at the very first annual Sacred Music Colloquium  in 1990 which I attended with my first musical mentor and friend,  J.G. Phillips (who wrote the first musical Mass setting in English) and another excellent Church musician, Dr. Samuel Schmitt. There we heard Msgr. Schuler explain what “active participation” means.

Here is the crux of Msgr. Schuler’s excellent and incisive explanation. (you can find the whole article here):

The word “full” (plena) refers to the integrally human fashion in which the baptized faithful take part in the liturgy, i.e., internally and externally. The word “conscious” (conscia) demands a knowledge of what one is doing on the part of the faithful, excluding any superstition or false piety. But the word “active” (actuosa) requires some greater examination.

…The difference between participation in the liturgy that can be called activa and participation that can be labeled actuosa rests in the presence in the soul of the baptismal character, the seal that grants one the right to participate. Without the baptismal mark, all the actions of singing, walking, kneeling or anything else can be termed “active,” but they do not constitute participatio actuosa. Only the baptismal character can make any actions truly participatory. Let us use an example. Let us say that a pious Hindu attends Mass, takes part in the singing and even walks in a procession with great piety. In the same church is also a Catholic who is blind and deaf and who is unable to leave his chair; he can neither sing nor hear the readings nor walk in the procession. Which one has truly participated, the one who is very active, or the one who has confined himself solely to his thoughts of adoration? Obviously, it is the baptized Catholic who has exercised participatio actuosa despite his lack of external, physical movement. The Hindu even with his many actions has not been capable of it, since he lacks the baptismal character.

In other words, Schuler makes it clear that we should be aiming at actual participation in the Mass. The Latin word that the Council Fathers chose was “actuosa” for this reason and not “activa.” Now I know that Msgr. Schuler paints an extreme example, but the example makes his point crystal clear. Actual participation does not, strictly speaking, require anyone to move or sing or do anything externally.

We, of course, ought to engage actively in the physical movements- kneeling, sitting, standing, and responding and keeping silent-that the rubrics of the mass call for. But when we do so we ought to keep in mind that our participation at Mass is not measured by the volume of our voices and responses or the energy of our movements. That being said, it is reasonable to suppose that our external actions would encourage something internal – namely actual participation. That is to say our actions are only there to facilitate and dispose our interior participation which is our actual participation.

For me, Msgr. Schuler’s explanation was of critical importance. For the parish musician an understanding of Sacrosanctum Consilium, especially regarding the “active participation” of the faithful, is of enormous consequence. You see, if the parish musician thinks he has to achieve 100% active participation of the faithful as measured by full-throated singing by everyone in the pews, then he forgets to consider the true nature of sacred music which for the most part does not have congregational singing as its defining feature.

The council reiterated that Gregorian chant, not the ordinary four hymns that are commonplace at most parishes, should have “pride of place.”

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.

And what of the vast treasury of sacred organ music? Where did it go? All of it is essentially relegated to prelude and postlude music because of the misunderstanding of the phrase “active participation.” Preludes and Postludes are not even, strictly speaking, part of the sacred liturgy.

Could it be that Gregorian chant-with its beautiful Introits, Graduales, Offertories, Alleluias, Tracts, Sequences, Communions, and yes, even some Hymns-contains the secret? Could it be that Gregorian chant and the treasury of sacred polyphonic music that imitates this chant is far more conducive to actual participation even though perhaps less conducive to active participation? I think so.

How many parishes and Music Directors and liturgists continue to chase after the elusive chimera that is the false understanding of active participation? How many congregations will continue to feel guilty about their reluctance to sing loudly and engage more actively?

Actual participation, not active, is the point.


About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www., former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
This entry was posted in beauty, Music, Sacred Music, Sacrosanctum Consilium, The Mass and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Do You Actually Participate at Mass?

  1. Larry Sturm says:

    I actively participate in the Mass by praying the Mass. I pray the Mass using my missal to quietly recite in my heart every spoken word of the priest. In other words, I privately concelebrate the Mass with the priest. I cannot imagine attending Mass without my missal.

  2. From the past says:

    Your brothers James and Steve are great guys! And I had the honor of speaking with your dear mother once. She apparently was spending her later years reading the Church Fathers. What an amazing example of how to live the Good Life to the end! I still remember our brief meeting 23 years later!

    Thanks for clarifying “actual” and the erroneous “active”. It’s critically important as you mentioned told by the venerable Msgr. Richard Schuler.

  3. Fr. Joel says:

    Great article! I appreciate very much Monsignor Schuler’s distinctions. I believe that once we understand the theology of the body as taught by Saint John Paul II more clearly as a teaching on Christian anthropology ( not just sexuality,) this theology of the body will aid us in teaching and living the actual participation called for in the liturgy.

  4. The Constitution on the Liturgy itself makes the distinction between activity and participation – at least implicitly – in article 30, where it says: “To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes.” Note that singing and bodily gestures are means to promote active participation, not the the participation itself.

    And Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, in an article from June 2015, like Msgr. Schuler, goes deeper: “The true work of the Church consists in entering into the action of Christ, participating intimately in the mission he has received from the Father. . . .This is the ultimate meaning of the key concept of the conciliar Constitution, participatio actuosa. For the Church, this participation consists in becoming an instrument of Christ the Priest, so as to participate in his Trinitarian mission. The Church participates actively in the liturgical work of Christ insofar as she is his instrument.”

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