The following paper was originally delivered at the CIEL conference in Paris in 2003; we here present it in a modified form with the permission of the author, Fr Peter Stravinskas. In it, he examines the question of how the famous words “actuosa participatio” in Sacrosanctum Concilium were originally meant to understood. The second part will appear on Friday, arguing that “actual” participation better expresses the mind of the Church and the Magisterium after the Council and the liturgical reform. We are grateful to Fr Stravinskas for allowing us to reprint the article here on NLM.
That said, I am still going to suggest a better translation of actuosa, at least for our moment in history. Perhaps “active” did not carry all the baggage it does today. At any rate, it seems to me that if Pius X or the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had wanted to say “active”, they could have used activa, but they didn’t; they used actuosa.
What, then, is the difference between actuosa and activa? The methodology of this paper will be to “back into” my suggestion for a more appropriate vernacular rendering of actuosa by reviewing the use of participatio actuosa over the past forty or so years, so as to come up with a picture of what the contemporary Magisterium has had in mind. Then, we can settle on a word that might more adequately capture the reality.
Monsignor Richard Schuler, an eminent student and promoter of the Sacred Liturgy as well as an accomplished musician, has traced out for us a good deal of the historical background to this important phrase, and I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness to him for this. (“Participation” Sacred Music, Winter 1987) As noted earlier, the first magisterial use of our expression occurs in Tra le Sollecitudini, wherein the Pope observes: “. . . the faithful assemble to draw that spirit from its primary and indispensable source, that is, from active participation in the sacred mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church” [emphasis added]. Twenty-five years later, Pope Pius XI in Divini Cultus opined that through the restoration of Gregorian chant to the people, “the faithful may participate in divine worship more actively” [emphasis added]. Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis  and in Mediator Dei  likewise used the term. In 1958, the Sacred Congregation of Rites in De Musica Sacra distinguished several levels of participation. We find the following: “The Mass of its nature requires that all those present participate in it, in the fashion proper to each.” First of all, this participation should be “interior”, that is, union with Christ the Priest. The participation becomes plenior if the interior participation is yoked to external participation [e.g., gestures, posture, responses, singing]. The highest degree of participation is achieved when sacramental participation is added to the other forms.
One might arguably say that the most-cited and perhaps the most-misunderstood text of the Second Vatican Council is the following from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: “Valde cupit Mater Ecclesia ut fideles universi ad plenam illam, consciam atque actuosam liturgicarum celebrationum participationem ducantur, quæ ab ipsius Liturgiæ natura postulatur. . . .” That has come into English as: “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” [n. 14].
The conciliar use of participatio actuosa takes for granted the understandings of the term as I have just outlined them. Oddly, though, Sacrosanctum Concilium employs our expression without providing a single reference as to its source or history – almost as if it were a novel concept.
The same article observes that such participation by the Christian people is their “right and duty by reason of their baptism.” The passage goes on to speak of this actuosa participatio as the primary goal of all liturgical renewal, which will endow the faithful “with the true Christian spirit.”
Lest we get too far afield, however, let us return to the vision set forth in article 14. A context is given for it three articles earlier, where we read: “But in order that the Liturgy may possess its full effectiveness, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds be attuned to their voices, and that they cooperate with divine grace, lest they receive it in vain.”
Most realistically, the Council Fathers note “pastors must therefore realize that when the Liturgy is celebrated something more is required than the mere observance of the laws governing valid and lawful celebration; it is also their duty to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects” [n. 11]. And how will this occur? The clergy “themselves must become imbued with the spirit and power of the Liturgy and capable of giving instruction about it” [n. 14]. And hasn’t that all too often been the very problem with our liturgical life in the post-conciliar era? Indeed, could we not even refer to this as a locus classicus of the trahison des clercs?
Subsequent articles flesh out just what is envisioned for this program of actuosa participatio. Thus, we read in article 30: “To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper time a reverent silence should be observed.” Eighteen articles later, this is spelled out in even greater detail:
The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators. On the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration. They should be instructed by God’s Word, and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s Body. They should give thanks to God. Offering the immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn to offer themselves. Through Christ, the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into an ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all.Clearly, no kind of shallow or superficial “participation” is being advocated. Nor is any type of frenetic activity anticipated or encouraged. Even the Consilium, in its document restoring the Universal Prayer or Prayer of the Faithful, on 13 January 1965, stresses the importance of “participation through silent prayer.”
A little more than a month after Sacrosanctum Concilium, Pope Paul VI promulgated Sacram Liturgiam [25 January 1964], wherein he pleaded with bishops “to set at once about teaching their people the power and the interior worth of the Sacred Liturgy, taking into account their age, condition in life, and standard of religious culture,” with the hoped-for result that “their shared knowledge will enable the faithful to take part in the religious services together, devoutly, body and soul.”
Pope Paul was quite exercised about ensuring the proper implementation of the Council’s liturgical document, never missing an opportunity to share its vision with clergy and laity alike. In an address to the pastors of Rome on 1 March 1965, he said: “You must be convinced that the objective is to reach the heart of today’s people through the Liturgy as the truest, most authoritative, sacred, and effective way and so to rekindle in them the flame of love for God and neighbor, the awesome, intoxicating power to commune with God – authentically, consolingly, redemptively.” Less than a week later [7 March 1965], he explained to a group of lay faithful that the Church had embarked on this liturgical reform, “so that you may be able to unite yourselves more closely to the Church’s prayer, pass over from being simply spectators to becoming active participants.” Inexplicably, he saw this goal necessitating, in his own words, the “sacrifice” of Latin!
A year later, during a homily at a Roman parish [27 March 1966], the Pontiff informed the congregation: “A second undertaking of the Council is the reform of the Liturgy, and in a most beautiful and fruitful direction. The Council has taken the fundamental position that the faithful have to understand what the priest is saying and to share in the Liturgy; to be not just passive spectators at Mass but souls alive; to be the People of God responsive to Him and forming a community gathered as one around the celebrant.” Within ten days, he took the occasion of his general audience during Holy Week [6 April 1966] to assert: “If there is any liturgy that should find us all drawn together, attentive, earnest, and united through a participation that is ever more full, worthy, devout, and loving, it is the Liturgy of Holy Week.”
Prescinding from some judgment calls Paul VI made, one can see a consistent trajectory of thought on his part: The participation of the faithful needs to be interior as well as exterior, arising from personal faith and knowledge and bringing about an ever deeper life of faith and holiness.
From this time forward, one also finds the Holy Father becoming much more cautious and reserved in his praise of liturgical developments. Thus, in an address to a national congress of liturgical commissions, on 4 January 1967, he warned that the primacy of the sacrament itself “does not in any way justify arbitrarily stripping Church-established worship of the sacral and aesthetic forms that surround it and present it to the People of God. Such a course would do more than cast aside the elements of art gracing divine worship; it would trivialize the meaning of the mystery celebrated, undermine the principles of community prayer, and could lead ultimately to doubt or even denial of the reality of the Sacrament of the Eucharist.”
Musicam Sacram, promulgated on 5 March 1967, offered a most balanced depiction of our topic:
The faithful carry out their proper liturgical function by offering their complete, conscious, and active participation. . . . This participation must be: a. internal, that is, the faithful make their thoughts match what they say and hear, and cooperate with divine grace; b. but also external, that is, they express their inner participation through their gestures, outward bearing, acclamations, responses, and song. [n. 15]Tres Abhinc Annos, issued by the Sacred Congregation for Rites on 4 May 1967, indicates that reports from bishops around the world attest to “increased, more aware, and intense participation.” One might have hoped that such an assessment was an accurate reflection of the reality; having been a boy in high school at that time, that is certainly not my recollection. Indeed, as catechesis began to fall on hard times, we were less aware than ever of the mysteries being celebrated.
It would seem officials in that dicastery may have been less impressed by episcopal assurances than first meets the eye, for within a month, Eucharisticum Mysterium makes its appearance. Article 5 addresses our area of concern by underscoring the Congregation’s notion of what is involved in participatio actuosa:
The active part of the faithful in the Eucharist consists in giving thanks to God as they are mindful of the Lord's Passion, Death, and Resurrection; offering the spotless Victim not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him; and, through the reception of the Body of the Lord, entering into the communion with God and with each other that participation is meant to lead to. . . . All these things should be explained to the faithful in such a way that in consequence they share actively in the celebration of the Mass by both their inner affections and the outward rites, in keeping with the principles laid down by the Constitution on the Liturgy.Do not miss the strong emphasis on a participation which springs from a clear understanding of a truly Catholic appreciation of the eucharistic mystery – the whole point of the document.
In yet another general audience address [19 November 1969], Pope Paul highlighted his hopes for the liturgical renewal: “The result anticipated – or better, longed for – is the more intelligent, more effective, more joyous, and more sanctifying participation by the people in the liturgical mystery” [emphasis added]. Again, the internal aspects occupy center stage.
Jean Cardinal Villot, as Secretary of State, in December 1969, sent a message to the 12th International Congress of Les Petits Chanteurs:
A few words may be said about the liturgical aspect. A more immediate and active participation in the Liturgy calls for and even demands a sense of the sacred, a knowledge of the significance of the feasts, liturgical seasons, and rites. . . . Preparation of this kind is a necessary prerequisite for the opening of the spirit to the knowledge of what singing as the service of God is meant to achieve. . . . The singing will become a true harmony to the degree that it is a blending of skilled technique and of a genuinely religious spirit that allows the voice to become the devout expression to the soul.While the Cardinal was addressing choristers, his insights apply across the board. Notice certain key phrases: “a sense of the sacred,” “knowledge of the significance,” “preparation,” “service of God,” “a genuinely religious spirit,” “devout expression to the soul.” Are these not the very elements whose loss is experienced and so lamentable in all too many post-conciliar liturgical events?
On 30 January 1969, L’Osservatore Romano took a rather unprecedented step in publishing an article by the Reverend Hubert Jedin, renowned scholar of the Reformation and the Council of Trent. Entitled, “Crises in the Church,” it delineates three crises: of the liturgy, of authority, of the Faith. Of course, these three are inextricably bound to one another. I wish to quote him in some detail because I think he really captured significant aspects of our question. Writing before the final liturgical reforms were enacted, he says, “Only with great circumspection would I wish to express my opinion about the liturgical crisis.” Not at all opposed to liturgical reform, he nonetheless warns:
A liturgical renewal which proceeds step by step with a deepening of our concept of the Church can be regarded as one of the most important processes in the history of the Church of our century, as the overcoming of formalism which for many years has prevented the development of the liturgical life. A famous liturgist said, when the new Easter Vigil was introduced: “Now the ice age is over.” But let us remember: Liturgy is a disciplined service of God, a common actio of the celebrant and the community. The previous or concomitant reading of the texts of the Mass by the community is not the only, nor the most important form, of active participation (actuosa participatio) in the carrying out of the Liturgy; the decisive form is the interior participation of the faithful in the sacrifice and in the eucharistic meal.He goes on: “Let us also remember this, that the Constitution of the Council on the Sacred Liturgy [nn. 22, 23] demands that all reforms take account of the sana traditio, the sound tradition, and that the venerable heritage of the tradition. . . should not be lightly jettisoned.” He sums up his analysis in this way: “The Catholic divine service is both mystery and catechesis. As mystery, it is and remains impenetrable to our reason, and this fact cannot be changed in the least by the translation into the vernacular.”
Why have I spent so much time citing a non-Magisterial source? Because I have a suspicion that his article’s publication in L’Osservatore Romano was anything but happenstance and, further, that Magisterial statements thereafter adopt his approach with much greater clarity and force, as should become evident as we proceed in our survey of texts.