Actual Participation, a Call to Holiness


One of the main considerations in research for the new translation of the Roman Missal has been the subject of the participation of the faithful.  This is not a new subject to many, however, it is one that to this day remains misunderstood.  For this very reason, there has been much needed clarity, and likewise, more than sufficient catechesis has been promulgated. 


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."



To carry out this work as God’s faithful servants, the Church presupposes above all else, Holy Baptism and the worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist.  These external actions, such as kneeling, sitting, standing, walking, singing, etc., require an understanding as integral to the Liturgy, not above or apart from it. 


The term ‘activa’ was not used in the Council, as this term normally excludes the contemplative aspect, leaving us to think only of ourselves.  Again, we are reminded that the term “actuosa” incorporates both the contemplative and the active, focused always on God. 

Still, many of us assume that "active participation" is the equivalent of "doing something."  John Paul the Great 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. Let us remember this phrase!  A handicapped person or mother with “active” child, for instance, participate no less than someone carrying up the gifts at the Offertory.  JPII continues:


“Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily or following the prayers of the celebrant and the chants in music of the Liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way, profoundly active. In a culture that neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural.”


Often we resist silence and stillness these days.  Fervent prayer is not idle, and active listening is one of the most actual forms of participating at Mass.


Singing and the Choir


In our day, it is also a common notion that everyone can only truly participate if they are singing at Mass.  When one visits a foreign country, and the music is in an unknown language, does this mean that one participates less?  Certainly not, this quickly reveals the error at hand.  I still remember the exuberant smile of the Holy Father at the sound of the beautiful choir pieces during his visit to the United Kingdom.  He did not sing, as he knew it was not his proper role.  Upon his return to Rome, His Holiness said this about the Mass at Westminster Cathedral: " [a] liturgy evocative of the best of the English musical tradition in the celebration of the Roman rite."  


As a musician himself, Pope Benedict understands the role of the choir as an important source of participation, for the choir members, but also the congregation and clergy as a whole.  The choir is not meant to merely “perform” a nice selection as a concert ensemble.  As everything at Mass, it should edify and elevate the minds of the faithful, joining in the very ritual and text of the Mass.


For a final time we turn to the wisdom of our Holy Father, then Cardinal Ratzinger (1996, In the Presence of the Angels, I will Sing Your Praise):


“Wherever an exaggerated concept of "community" predominates, a concept which is completely unrealistic precisely in a highly mobile society such as ours, there only the priest and the congregation can be acknowledged as legitimate executors or performers of liturgical song.


“The fact that the schola and the choir can also contribute to the whole picture, is scarcely denied any more, even among those who erroneously interpret the council's phrase about "active participation" as meaning external activism.”


In conclusion


The postures and gestures for Mass will primarily remain the same, as we continue to study the new translation of the Roman Missal.  We are reminded that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), set into place in 2003, is already in practice within our Churches.  Active participation and music will remain as a cornerstone of our restoration of the Sacred.  As we continue to build on the beauty and goodness in liturgical ceremony, may we seek with utmost sincerity, the Truth which is Jesus.


Each of us has our own role, as children of God, called to adoration, praise, and thanksgiving, not only at Holy Mass, but throughout our daily lives.