Go deep! Active Participation in the Sacred Liturgy

by Fr. Aaron Johanneck

In these articles we have spent the last several months exploring the nature of the sacred liturgy, attempting to answer the question, “What is it?”  We have discussed the liturgy as an exercise of the priestly office of Christ, as a participation and foretaste in the heavenly worship of the angels and saints, as the source and summit of our lives, and as the memorial and re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.

Hopefully, having a better understanding of what the liturgy is, we can now turn to another important question: what does it mean to participate in the sacred liturgy?  Or we could phrase the question, “How do I enter in?”

The question of participation in the liturgy was an important one taken up by the Second Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.  In the document the Fathers of the Council state, “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” (SC 14). 

The Fathers go on to say, “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” (SC 14).

While the term “active participation” is closely associated with Sacrosanctum Concilium and Vatican II, this term did not originate at the Council.  It was first used by Pope St. Pius X in a document he published in 1903.  The true, active participation of the faithful in the sacred liturgy is something that the Church has been working to promote for over a century.

What exactly does this “active participation” mean?  How do the faithful enter into that beautiful and mysterious reality upon which we have reflected these past months?

We often think of participation in terms of “doing something” at Mass.  Sacrosanctum Concilium does mention this when it talks about servers, lectors, commentators, and members of the choir, and their “genuine liturgical function” (cf. SC 29).  However, this certainly cannot be the only way in which the faithful participate.  If it were the case that in order to participate everyone had to be “doing” whatever it is that these roles require, then at any given Mass probably 98 to nearly100% of those present would not be participating!

In addition to carrying out ministries, the Council Fathers also write about the participation of the faithful by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs.  They also mention actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes (SC 30).  Certainly, all of these are ways in which everyone present can take part.

However, it would be a mistake to say that the active participation of the faithful at holy Mass only refers to these external elements.  These must foster and manifest a deeper way of entering in.  In future articles we will explore and attempt to explain what this deeper, interior participation might involve.  Until next month!