Spirituality for Today – March 2011 – Volume 15, Issue 8

Full, Conscious, and Active Participation in the Liturgy

By The Most Reverend William E. Lori, S.T.D., Bishop Of Bridgeport

Some have expressed concern that the newly translated Roman Missal might impede that "full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy" which the Church called for at the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, over the past forty years the current translations have become familiar and they are written in plain, easily understandable English. So, why rock the boat? Even if the new translations capture more fully the original Latin text of the Mass prayers, why risk introducing new and somewhat more complex texts which both the clergy and the laity will have to learn?

A photo of two old bibles

It is a good question deserving of a thoughtful response. Key to that response begins with a careful reflection on what "full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy" really means. And a good place to start is by looking at what the Second Vatican Council actually said about participating in the liturgy:

"Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people... have a right and an obligation by reason of their baptism… In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy the 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…" (Constitution on the Liturgy, no. 14). In the same breath, the Council urges pastors to be steeped in "the spirit and power of the liturgy" so that they are can give instruction regarding it (ibid., no. 15).

In the years following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), many efforts were made to implement this challenging directive, especially by parish priests, who remain on the frontlines of ongoing liturgical renewal. In light of decades of experience, however, there is need to deepen our understanding of what active participation in the liturgy means. For example, when the liturgical changes were being made, a certain emphasis was placed on external participation, such as singing hymns, reciting Mass prayers, and the like. Some also believe they are fully participating in the liturgy only when they exercise a ministry such as reading the Scriptures or distributing Holy Communion. Yet, as Pope Benedict XVI has reminded us, "it should be clear that the word 'participation' does not refer to mere external activity during the celebration" (Sacramentum Caritatis, no. 52).

As a priest for some 34 years, I can tell you it is a joy when the congregation robustly raises its voice in praise of God and when all the ministers of the liturgy perform their roles reverently and joyfully. However, this isn't merely the result of training, or still less, some kind of regimentation or group dynamics. Rather, it indicates a deeper, more substantial participation in the Sacred Liturgy on the part of those assembled to pray. The outward beauty of the liturgy helps to lead them to the very heart of the liturgy, namely, what God the Father has said and done to save us in and through His Son Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. When we gather for the liturgy, we are not to be "strangers or silent spectators" but living members of a community of faith that actively enters into the saving death and resurrection of Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Mary. We do so by listening to the proclamation of His Word, by giving thanks to God not only with our lips but also with our mind, heart, and soul; we do so by "offering the immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him" (See, for example, Redemptionis Sacramentum, nos. 36-42) and that is how we learn to make an offering of ourselves to God and to others. As this happens, our song of praise wells up from within minds and hearts touched with grace and glory; and as our praise intensifies, we are drawn into the inner life of God's pure and unbounded love.

None of this happens automatically. For the beauty and power of the liturgy to impress itself upon us as individuals and as a community of faith, we need to be spiritually awake. Many years ago, Dietrich von Hildebrand described what it means to be spiritually awake: "[It is] the attitude in which the depth of things is open to the person, an inner readiness to fully receive and penetrate the essential beheld by our spiritual eyes" (Liturgy and Personality, p. 112).

Thus, there are personal conditions for active participation in the liturgy. First and foremost is continual conversion of mind and heart. We have to be utterly convinced that Christ truly can heal us of sin and its effects in our lives. We have to be convinced that our joy lies in opening our hearts to the Gospel and living the Commandments in the spirit of the Beatitudes. When we are willing to examine our lives in the light of the Gospel as taught by the Church and regularly make a good sacramental confession, then the truth, beauty, and power of the liturgy resonate more readily in the depths of our souls. As Pope Benedict has written, "A heart reconciled to God makes genuine participation possible" (op. cit., no. 55). Thus, we should never regard receiving Holy Communion as a "right" or still less as a routine practice. Should we discover that we are beset by serious sin or that we are otherwise not spiritually prepared, we ought to refrain from receiving Holy Communion and seek to be reconciled to God through the Sacrament of Penance as soon as possible. At all times, we are to enter into a spiritual communion with Christ through prayer. There should be opportunity before Mass for quiet prayer so that parishioners can prepare their minds and hearts to enter into Christ's saving action.

It is also a good practice to prayerfully read the Scripture readings before arriving at Mass. Active participation in the liturgy ought to be accompanied by efforts on our part to participate actively in the life of the Church, especially the Church's mission to proclaim the Gospel and to help shape a truly just and humane society in light of Christ's truth and love.

All of which brings us back to the newly translated Roman Missal. Translating, of course, is an art, not a science. No translation is perfect and you have probably seen criticisms of the new translations. It will take work on the part of both clergy and laity to become familiar with these changes but it's worth the effort. These translations really do reflect more fully how Christ acts on our behalf in and through the liturgy. They really do manifest more fully the richness of the Church's prayer. They truly can help us enter into the liturgy with all our mind, heart, and soul.