Preparing the Way for the Roman Missal 3rd Edition, Part 4: Active Participation


The widespread misunderstanding of “active participation” in the sacred liturgy has undoubtedly been one of the most disruptive forces in Catholic life after Vatican II. It is no surprise, therefore, that this has often been the subject of recent papal instruction.

In his 2007 apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI said, “We must not overlook the fact that some misunderstanding has arisen concerning the precise meaning of participation. It should be made clear that the word ‘participation’ does not refer to mere external activity during the celebration.”

“In fact,” the Holy Father continued, “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.”

So, if assigning liturgical duties to laypeople, transposing sacred texts into everyday language or choreographing innovations like the “Folk Mass” isn’t the key to fostering active participation, what is?

The Council Fathers give us the answer in the very title to the section of Sacrosanctum Concilium that addresses the topic: “The Promotion of Liturgical Instruction and Active Participation.”

Liturgical instruction and the promotion of active participation simply go hand in hand! As we discussed in Part Three, in order to participate in the sacred liturgy in an authentic way, we must first be made aware of what is taking place. Liturgical instruction is the key.

Catechesis, in fact, is the vehicle that moves us in the liturgy “from the visible to the invisible, from the sign to the thing signified, from the sacraments to the mysteries” (cf CCC 1075).

To illustrate the importance of catechesis, consider for a moment how you experienced Holy Mass in your youth – whether your spiritual youth or your actual youth. How many of us can admit to once thinking of the Mass as largely mechanical and needlessly ritualistic? Stand up, sit down, kneel, recite this, recite that…

The missing ingredient? Catechesis. Without it our awareness is destined to remain trapped in the externals of the sacred liturgy, consigning us to a life of spiritual immaturity.

It is for this reason that the Council Fathers vigorously stressed the necessity of catechesis saying, “Pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve active participation by means of the necessary instruction of the faithful” (cf SC 14).

Consider these words carefully; this instruction is not just something that would be nice if we can find the time to do it. It is “necessary!” Pastors are told, therefore, that they “must strive” to carry it out. How? “Zealously!” This is deliberately strong language coming from the council.

In his ad limina address to the bishops of the United States in 1998, Pope John Paul II specifically referred to the misguided view that promoting “active participation” is synonymous with creating ever more diverse troupes of “lay ministers,” a term, incidentally, that the council never employed.

“Full participation does not mean that everyone does everything, since this would lead to a clericalizing of the laity and a laicizing of the priesthood; and this was not what the Council had in mind,” the Holy Father said. “The liturgy, like the Church, is intended to be hierarchical and polyphonic, respecting the different roles assigned by Christ and allowing all the different voices to blend in one great hymn of praise.”

Note well who assigned the liturgical roles in Holy Mass; it was Christ Himself!

Pope Benedict XVI made a similar point in Sacramentum Caritatis when he said, “Active participation is not equivalent to the exercise of a specific ministry. Fruitful participation in the liturgy requires that one be personally conformed to the mystery being celebrated.”

Personally conformed… The Holy Father is speaking about interior disposition, and he goes on to tell us that its development is greatly aided by “mystagogical catechesis;” i.e., the kind of liturgical instruction that illuminates for us – to the extent that it is possible – what Holy Mass truly is – a sacred mystery.

Mystery in the theological sense does not mean entirely unknowable; rather it refers to a truth that is so great and so profound that we can only refer to it by way of analogy and through signs. The word “mystery” comes from the Greek mysterion and it is often translated in the Latin as sacramentum (sacrament).

Some of you may recall the Baltimore Catechism definition: “A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.”

Holy Mass, instituted by Christ and containing many outward sings, is like the sacraments of which the council said, “Because they are signs they instruct” (cf SC 59).

Consider once again the instructive role played by sacred signs. Everything we encounter in Holy Mass – every word spoken or sung, every posture and gesture, every sign and symbol, every furnishing and vessel – all of it should serve the singular purpose of drawing the faithful ever more deeply into the mystical work of Christ who is truly present and active in the sacred liturgy.

When the things we introduce into the liturgy point more toward us than to sacred mystery – and let’s be honest, this has happened often over the last 40+ years – we cannot help but lose sight of what the Mass truly is. This naturally leads to a distorted view of what active participation truly means, thus paving the way for even more earthbound elements to be thrust upon the sacred liturgy. And so the vicious cycle continues until our sense of the sacred is all but destroyed.

How often we have equated our participation in Holy Mass with mere externals alone; getting caught up in things like reading at the lectern, singing in the choir, carrying up the gifts, serving as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, offering the sign of peace to 27 of our closest neighbors right in the middle of Mass…

If we confine our understanding of participation to these activities alone, it cannot be said that we are truly engaged in “fully conscious and active participation” as Holy Mother Church intends it. Why not? The answer is simple; because the sacred mystery into which Christ invites us cannot be so confined.

Now don’t get me wrong, you might be a perfectly wonderful cantor, a clear and articulate lector, a diligent and dignified usher, etc., and if you are, please don’t be offended. Just know this; in order to participate in Holy Mass in a meaningful way, everything we do must be carried out in harmony with the interior disposition necessary to remain ever aware that we are taking part in nothing less than God’s saving action mysteriously made present in our midst. Apart from this, our activities at Holy Mass are utterly meaningless.

Though many of us simply assume that “active participation” is the equivalent of “doing something,” it is not. Pope John Paul II corrected this error when he said, “Active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it.”

The active passivity of silence. What an excellent phrase! How often we resist silence and stillness these days because we assume that they are the enemy of active participation when in fact they are a necessary requirement of it.

Certainly more could be said on this important topic, but for now our foundation is sufficiently constructed and we are now prepared to examine the forthcoming changes in the English translation of the Roman Missal – 3rd Edition. We’ll begin next in Part Five where we’ll take a close look at the people’s response “And with your spirit” and the Introductory Rites.

* Excerpted from the book: And with Your Spirit – Recovering a sense of the sacred in the English translation of the Roman Missal – 3rd Edition. (© 2010 Salve Regina Publications – available at


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Catholic News Agency columnist, author and speaker w/ particular focus on applying the hermeneutic of continuity to Vatican Council II.