Monday, September 12, 2005

Participation in the Current Magisterium

[Fr. Stravinskas asked if I could post a few of his writings that he was written in the past on the liturgy. Here is one of those pieces.]

A paper presented by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph. D., S.T.D., to the Centre International des Études Liturgiques, 21 November 2003, Paris.


Laudetur Jesus Christus. Loué soit Jésus-Christ. Sia lodato Gesù Cristo. Albado sea Jesucristo. Garbė Jėzui Kristui. Praised be Jesus Christ. Slava Isusu Christu.
Your response to that acclamation is the highest form of participation in Christian worship possible, particularly when the witness of your life supports the profession of your lips.

It is a great joy and privilege for me to be with you at this conference. I am grateful to Loic Merian for the invitation, which has given me a wonderful excuse to visit your beautiful city yet again. Allow me to share with you a little secret. I am asked to make dozens of presentations every year and because I find it hard to say “no”, I compensate by re-cycling previously given talks very often. Twice a year, however, I make a point of doing fresh research on a topic that interests me greatly and as a way of forcing me to do original research. Back in August, I produced a paper entitled, “Newman the Failure.” My second sally into serious and brand-new work is the present effort.

I said that I thought this was an important topic because so many of our problems in the contemporary Church can be laid at the doorstep of a mistaken notion of participation – liturgical and otherwise. Let me illustrate this by means of an anecdote. Somewhere around 1985, National Review, the publication of noted conservative columnist Bill Buckley, ran a cartoon. It depicted an aboriginal tribe gathered around an altar with a young woman tied to it and a pagan priest preparing to thrust a knife into her in sacrifice. Two tribesmen, standing on the periphery of the liturgical assembly, are observing the event and one comments to the other: “Serves her right. She was always whining about women not being allowed to participate in the services.” Now, questions of human sacrifice and sexism aside, I think you can see where an exaggerated sense of “participation” can get someone.

The Latin adage says, “Discimus docendo.” And that has surely proven true as I went about the preparation of this paper. I knew that the “participatio actuosa” of Vatican II had a long pedigree, indeed, all the way back to Pope St. Pius X. I thought, however, that rendering it as “active participation” was just a mischievous English translation, only to discover that at least all the Romance languages have the equivalent translation.1 My next suspicion was that using the equivalent of “active” in the various vernaculars was a modern attempt to create a new vision or reality through linguistic manipulation. Once more, an historical search revealed that “active” was the word of choice going back to translations of Pius X’s landmark document, Tra le Sollecitudini.

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.

When I was sharing the sum and substance of my paper with someone recently, he asked, “So what’s the big difference between actuosa and activa? They’re all just words – a petty squabble over words.” Well, I explained, words are important for they bear meaning. Think, for instance, of this situation: You are living in a house. Does it matter whether you are the tenant or the owner? I don’t know anyone who would respond in the negative. And if that little example from daily life holds true, how much more so in philosophy and theology. After all, the Nicene Creed we pray at every Sunday Mass was the direct result of an apparently “petty squabble” over not a word but a letter – homoousios versus homoioousios. The little letter “iota”, hence, our common expression, “It doesn’t make an iota of a difference.” Except that it did in 325 A.D. And words continue to make a difference seventeen centuries later.

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.

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