Go deep! Active Participation in the Sacred Liturgy, part II

By Fr. Aaron Johanneck

Last month we began our discussion of what it means to fully, consciously, and actively participate in the sacred liturgy.  The question we began attempting to answer is, “How do I enter in?”

We said that this active participation was the primary aim of the restoration of the liturgy called for by the Second Vatican Council.  We noted that the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, talks about participation in terms of the various roles that can be fulfilled in the liturgy, and that it mentions participation through acclamations, antiphons, songs, gestures, and bodily attitudes (cf. SC 30). 

Now we might ask the question, is this all there is to active participation?  Or is participation also, and perhaps especially, something more; something deeper?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI takes up the question of active participation in the liturgy in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, or “The Sacrament of Charity.”  In writing about what the Fathers of the Synod on the Eucharist discussed in the fall of 2005, Pope Benedict affirms that in the decades since Vatican II “considerable progress” has been made towards the full and active participation of the faithful in the sacred liturgy (SaCa 52). 

However, Benedict also insists that “we must not overlook the fact that some misunderstanding has occasionally arisen concerning the precise meaning of this participation.”  He continues, “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” (SaCa 52; emphasis mine). 

Pope Benedict then makes reference to the document of Vatican II, which states that when the faithful are present at the sacred liturgy, the Church desires that they be there not as “strangers or silent spectators” (SC 48).  Rather, “through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration” (SC 48; emphasis mine).

Just “doing something” at Mass is not necessarily real, active participation.  There must also be an interior dimension.  There must be an understanding of the nature of the liturgy and of what it is that we are participating in, so that we can enter in appropriately.  This is why the Council Fathers exhorted priests who have the care of souls to promote the active participation of the faithful in the liturgy “both internally and externally” (SC 19).  What is done exteriorly must foster and manifest a deep, interior entering into the reality being celebrated.

To conclude this article and to offer a good indication of what the interior (and most important aspect) of active participation might look like, we cite again the words of Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium.  The Council Fathers instruct that during the celebration of the sacred liturgy, especially the Holy Mass, the faithful,

“should be instructed by God’s word and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s Body; they should give thanks to God; by offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all” (SC 48).

Now we are starting to get to the heart of full, active, and conscious participation!  More to come!