Monday, March 16, 2015

A Note on Participation: What Can We Learn from the Word Actuosa?

When discussing participatio actuosa back in December, I had made a claim (which others, too, have made before me) that actuosa meant “actual” more than “active.” Latinist friends of mine were quick to point out that my claim was linguistically dubious. Whitaker’s Words defines actuosus as “active, busy, energetic, full of life; acting with extravagant gesture.” Forcellini’s authoritative lexicon says that actuosus “properly is one who is totally engaged in the act or motion of the body…such as an actor and a dancer, who for this reason are called actuosi.

As a result, I rewrote the pertinent paragraph of the article as follows:
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.
I am glad to have been corrected and to have made this revision, because it seems to me that the semantic range of actuosus, as well as its context in the document, makes the case for a different translation than “active” not weaker but stronger.

In everyday speech, the word “active” tends to connote activism, in the sense in which the Americanists excoriated by Leo XIII in Testem Benevolentiae exalted the “active” virtues of secular engagement over what they called “passive” virtues, such as contemplation. In the liturgical sphere, “active” has been wielded like a sickle to cut down various modes of receptivity, the alert absorption of listening, the silence conducive to meditation.

What we need to recover, therefore, is that deeper sense of engagement that begins and ends with interior activity — faith leading to contemplation, contemplation feeding the flame of charity—for which the usus antiquior is so well suited. As Aristotle had shown long ago in the Nicomachean Ethics, the most intense human activity is contemplation.

Since Sacrosanctum Concilium establishes that participation is first and foremost interior and then is further expressed and solidified through external actions such as singing responses and adopting postures, it is clear that the Council Fathers did not intend to use actuosa to mean “hyper-external-activity.” They intended to underline what Pope Pius XI had already said decades earlier, namely, that the faithful should not be inert spectators at Mass, but should enter into it with mind, heart, and body. In a forthcoming Foreword to Fr. Samuel Weber’s Proper of the Mass, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone offers the following gloss:
Perhaps a better word to express this teaching of the Council (“actuosa” in the original Latin) is “engaged”: we are present to the liturgical action, allowing it to seep down into the depths of our consciousness. Thus, in speaking of the “restoration” of the sacred liturgy, the Council fathers articulated their vision of restoring the liturgy to what it was always meant to be: Catholics at Mass engaged in understanding and praying the liturgy with heart and mind, and this active engagement expressed in their reciting and singing the parts of the Mass proper to them, rather than sitting (or kneeling, as the case may be) as passive observers, saying their own private prayers. That is, personal devotion is to enhance one’s full, active and conscious participation at Mass, not substitute for it.
Actuosa bespeaks a profoundly (one might even say totally) active response that goes beyond superficial sayings or gestures, beyond the moving of the mouth or hands, to the motions of the heart. Participatio actuosa calls forth a total response, beginning from the mind, involving memory, imagination, and external senses, ending in the soul. People are to be fully engaged with all their faculties of body and soul, in this regard quite like a ballet dancer or a Shakespearian actor. Actuosa essentially says: Be as active as you can be in the activity of divine worship, which is first and foremost interior (after all, only intellectual beings can worship — brute animals, plants, minerals, are excluded from that noble activity) and becomes external when and as appropriate for each category of participant.[1]

Notice this wonderful truth: everyone can be doing everything in the Mass interiorly, even though external actions are notably and necessarily differentiated. For example, only the priest elevates the host, while only the laity come forward to receive communion. Externally we are differentiated, as is just and right for a hierarchical mystical body such as the Church that visibly mirrors the hierarchical order of the human body itself and of the cosmos. But interiorly we are united by the one font and apex of all that we are, all that we do, and all that we suffer. The external diversity is at the service of the interior unity, just as the difference of sexes is for the sake of the unity and fruitfulness of marriage.[2]

The great theologian whom I hope future generations of Catholics will matter-of-factly refer to as "the Doctor of the Liturgy," Joseph Ratzinger, calls to our attention a particularly modern problem:
That which is truly great grows unnoticed, and silence at the right moment is more fruitful than the constant activity that only too easily degenerates into spiritual idleness. In the present age, we are all possessed by a strange restlessness that suspects any silence of being a waste of time and any kind of repose as being negligence. We forget the real mystery of time, the real mystery present in growth and activity. That mystery involves silence and stillness. Even in the religious sphere we tend to expect and hope for everything from our own activity. We use all kinds of exercises and involvements to evade the real mystery of interior growth before God. And yet in the religious sphere receptivity is at least as important as activity.[3]
Louis Bouyer's definition is therefore perfectly on target: “Participation in the liturgy is the reception of sacramental grace through a living faith illumined and enflamed by the liturgy itself.” Note how this definition highlights grace, faith, receptivity, illumination, and ardor — the spiritual ingredients of holiness. As Ratzinger says:
The real “action” in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate is the action of God Himself. This is what is new and distinctive about Christian liturgy: God Himself acts and does what is essential.[4]
On which Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith's comment can fittingly serve as our conclusion:
This kind of participation in the very action of Christ, the High Priest, requires from us nothing less than an attitude of being totally absorbed in Him. … Active participation, thus, is not a giving way to any activism but an integral and total assimilation into the person of Christ who is truly the High Priest of that eternal and uninterrupted celebration of the heavenly liturgy.[5]


[1] For those who wish to read more about the authentic meaning of participatio actuosa, I highly recommend this classic article by Msgr. Richard Schuler.

[2] This reflection helps us to see, once again, the profound disharmony introduced by extraordinary ministers of holy communion, who are laity assuming a clerical function, which introduces a clash between the external action proper to the clergy, which is to come down from the altar to give the divine food and drink to the faithful, and the action proper to the laity, which is to come forward towards the altar to receive that food and drink. The actions are contrary and complementary.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1985), 78.

[4] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 173.

[5] Malcolm Ranjith, "Toward an Ars Celebrandi in Liturgy," Adoremus Online Edition, March 2009, vol. 15, n. 1, printing the transcript of his talk at the Gateway Conference in St. Louis, November 8, 2008.

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