Active/Actual ParticipationPeople who take the time to sit down and study Sacrosanctum Concilium are often struck by how much of this document is unknown, ignored, or contradicted by contemporary Catholic practice. Often, there are phrases that are so rich, and yet the manner in which they have been turned into slogans has undermined their original nuance and depth.
The most notorious victim of this process of journalistic simplification has been the notion of “active participation” or participatio actuosa. The word actuosa itself is very interesting: it means fully or totally engaged in activity, like a dancer or an actor who is putting everything into the dancing or the acting; it might be considered "super-active." But what is the notion of activity here? It is actualizing one's full potential, entering into possession of a good rather than having an unrealized capacity for it. In contemporary English, "active" often means simply the contrary of passive or receptive, yet in a deeper perspective, we see that these are by no means contrary. I can be actively receptive to the Word of God; I can be fully actualizing my ability to be acted upon at Mass by the chants, prayers, and ceremonies, without my doing much of anything that would be styled “active” in contemporary English.[Note 1] As St. John Paul II explained in an address to U.S. bishops in 1998:
Active participation certainly means that, in gesture, word, song and service, all the members of the community take part in an act of worship, which is anything but inert or passive. Yet active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural. [link]If your choir or schola sings Proper chants or motets at Mass, or if you’d like to see this happen someday, make sure you have this text from John Paul II ready for the person who objects: “But the people need to be singing everything!” Dom Alcuin Reid explained the Council’s intention very succinctly in an interview last December:
The Council called for participatio actuosa, which is primarily our internal connection with the liturgical action—with what Jesus Christ is doing in his Church in the liturgical rites. This participation is about where my mind and heart are. Our external actions in the liturgy serve and facilitate this. But participatio actuosa is not first and foremost external activity, or performing a particular liturgical ministry. That, unfortunately, has been a common misconception of the Council’s desire. [link]Now, even with the common misunderstanding of “actual” cleared out of the way, it is an extremely curious fact that the full expression from Sacrosanctum Concilium 14 is rarely quoted: “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” (in the original: "Valde cupit Mater Ecclesia ut fideles universi ad plenam illam, consciam atque actuosam liturgicarum celebrationum participationem ducantur, quae ab ipsius Liturgiae natura postulatur"). Whatever happened to “full” and “conscious”?
Conscious ParticipationLet’s probe this matter further. After several decades of attending Mass in both the OF and the EF (both celebrated “by the books”), I’ve become convinced that there is paradoxically a far greater possibility of not consciously paying attention to the Mass in the vernacular, precisely because of its familiarity: it becomes like a reflex action, the words can go in and out while the mind is far away. The vernacular is our everyday comfort zone, and so it doesn’t grab our attention. This is why when we are in a busy place where lots of people are speaking, we tend not to notice that they are even talking—whereas when we hear a foreign language, something other than our mother tongue, suddenly our attention is caught by it.
Of course, this lack of attentiveness can happen in the sphere of any language: as someone once put it, I can be doing finances inside my head while chanting the Credo in Latin—if I have been chanting it every week for years. But it nevertheless seems evident that this danger is significantly less present with the usus antiquior, for two reasons:
First, its very foreignness demands of the worshiper some effort to enter into it; indeed, it demands of the worshiper a decision about whether he really wants to enter into it or not. It is almost pointless to sit there unless you are ready to do something to engage the Mass or at very least to begin to pray. The use of a daily missal, widespread in traditional communities, is a powerful means of assimilating the mind and heart of the Church at prayer—and for me personally, following the prayers in my missal has amounted to a decades-long formation of my own mind and heart, giving me a savor for things spiritual, exemplars of holiness, ascetical rules, aspirations and resolutions. When I attend the EF, I am always much more actively engaged in the Mass, because there is more to do (I’ll come back to this point) and it seems more natural to use a missal to help me do it.
Second, the traditional Latin Mass is so obviously focused on God, directed to the adoration of Him, that one who is mentally present to what is happening is ineluctably drawn into the sacred mysteries, even if only at the simplest and most fundamental level of acknowledging the reality of God and adoring our Blessed Lord in the most Holy Sacrament. I am afraid to say that it is not clear at all that most Catholics attending most vernacular OF liturgies are ever confronted unequivocally and irresistibly with the reality of God and the demand for adoration. Or, to put it differently, the old liturgy forms these attitudes in the soul, whereas the new liturgy presupposes them. If you don’t have the right understanding and frame of mind, the Novus Ordo will do very little to give it to you, whereas the EF is either going to give it to you or drive you away. When you attend the EF, you are either subtly attracted by something in it, or you are put off by the demands it makes. Either way, lukewarmness is not an option.
At a Low or High Mass, depending on the feast, one might make the sign of the Cross 8 times:
- In nomine Patris…
- Adjutorium nostrum…
- Cum Sancto Spiritu (end of the Gloria)
- Et vitam venturi (end of the Credo)
- Benedictus (in the Sanctus)
- if the Confiteor is repeated at communion;
- At the final blessing.
Moreover, one will end up striking the breast up to 15 times (!)
- 3x at the “mea culpa” of the servers’ Confiteor;
- 3x at the Agnus Dei;
- 3x at the second Confiteor;
- 3x at the Domine, non sum dignus;
- 3x at the Salve Regina (O clemens, O dulcis, O pia).
While the postures of the faithful at certain times in the Mass are not as regimented as in the Novus Ordo, a Low Mass will typically have the faithful kneeling for a long time (from the start all the way to the Gospel, and from the Sanctus all the way through the last Gospel), which is a demanding discipline and really keeps one’s mind aware that one is in a special sacred place, taking part in a sacrifice. At a Sunday High Mass, there will be quite a lot of standing, bowing, genuflecting, kneeling, and sitting, which, together with the signs of the cross, the beating of the breast, the bowing of the head, and the chanting of the responses, amounts to what educators call a TPR environment—Total Physical Response. You are thrown into the worship body and soul, and, at almost every moment, something is happening that puts your mind back on what you are doing. The OF has tended to drop a lot of these “muscular” elements in favor of merely aural comprehension and verbal response, which, by themselves, constitute a fairly impoverished form of participation, and surely not a full one.
Most distinctive of all, perhaps, is the immensely peaceful reservoir of silence at the very center of the traditional Latin Mass. When the priest isn’t reading the Eucharistic Prayer “at” you, as it were, but instead is offering the Canon silently to God, always ad orientem, it becomes much easier to pray the words of the Canon oneself in union with the ministerial priest, or, if one prefers, to give oneself up a wordless union with the sacrifice. This makes the Canon of the Mass a time of more intensely full, conscious, and actual participation than is facilitated by the constant stream of aural stimulation in the Novus Ordo.
A Culture of PrayerAn observation at the blog Sensible Bond fits in very well with the foregoing analysis:
One can still hold the new rite to be integrally Catholic, and yet consider that the culture of the extraordinary form, where the people are supposedly passive, tends to teach people to pray independently, while the culture of the ordinary form often tends to create a dynamic in which people just chat to each other in church unless they are being actively animated by a minister.What we have seen, therefore, is a conclusion that flies completely in the face of the conventional wisdom. “Active participation,” in the manner in which it is usually understood and implemented in the Novus Ordo sphere, actually fosters passivity, while the Catholic who receives in a seeming passivity all that the traditional Mass has to give is actualizing his potential for worship to a greater extent. Consequently, if you are looking to fulfill the Council’s call for full, conscious, and actual participation, look no further than your local traditional Latin Mass and you will find, with due time and effort, a richness of participation more comprehensive than the reformed liturgy allows.
Note 1. I have rewritten the preceding sentences in response to some excellent criticisms leveled against my treatment of the Latin word actuosus in the first version of this article. Readers who are interested in the details may find them in the comment thread below.
(First and third images courtesy of Joseph Shaw and the Latin Mass Society of England & Wales; second photo courtesy of Corpus Christi Watershed and the Campion Missal, used with permission.)