Monday, February 18, 2019

Is Passivity Mistaken for Piety? On the Perils and Pitfalls of Participation

This essay will have two contrasting parts. In the first part, I will defend being a “silent spectator” at Mass, one who looks and listens, or perhaps prays the Rosary. In the second part, I will suggest that there is, in postconciliar times, a danger of bending the stick so far in this direction that one risks cultivating a habit of liturgical passivity rather than true devotion. I am confident that each part will offend a different cohort of my beloved fellow traditionalists, and I only ask in return their prayers.

Part I: Pope Pius XII subtly corrects Pope Pius XI
A recent NLM article commemorated the 90th anniversary of Pope Pius XI’s Apostolic Constitution on Sacred Music Divini Cultus, promulgated on December 20, 1928. This document has many fine passages (as the quotations in the commemorative article demonstrate.) Nevertheless, there is one phrase in section 9 that should give us pause:
In order that the faithful may more actively participate in divine worship, let them be made once more to sing the Gregorian Chant, so far as it belongs to them to take part in it. It is most important that when the faithful assist at the sacred ceremonies, or when pious sodalities take part with the clergy in a procession, they should not be merely detached and silent spectators [non tamquam extranei vel muti spectatores], but, filled with a deep sense of the beauty of the Liturgy, they should sing alternately with the clergy or the choir, as it is prescribed.
The notion that laity who sit or kneel quietly at Mass and do not vocally participate are “disengaged and mute onlookers” is something of a caricature, and the mantra-like use made of this phrase in subsequent decades of the increasingly audacious Liturgical Movement culminated in a fascist enforcement of “active participation” that numbered among its casualities the interior participation that often thrives on silence and sacred music. The majority of the faithful, even those who may be utilizing paraliturgical devotions, are still participating in the mystery of the Holy Sacrifice; following a missal word-for-word, which seemed to be the ideal of the Liturgical Movement, is not only not required, but can even be an impediment to offering up the holy oblation in peace. [1]

Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei contains the best treatment of participation — and of the related topics of the priesthood of the faithful and how they offer the sacrifice of the Mass in union with the priest — to be found in any magisterial document. [2] In paragraph 80 he writes:
It is, therefore, desirable, Venerable Brethren, that all the faithful should be aware that to participate in the Eucharistic Sacrifice is their chief duty and supreme dignity, and that not in an inert and negligent fashion, giving way to distractions and day-dreaming, but with such earnestness and concentration that they may be united as closely as possible with the High Priest, according to the Apostle, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2, 5). And together with Him and through Him let them make their oblation, and in union with Him let them offer up themselves.
Pius XII explains in paragraph 106 the purpose of any actions by which the faithful join in more directly with the liturgy taking place, such as following a daily missal or chanting the responses and the Ordinary — “their chief aim is to foster and promote the people’s piety and intimate union with Christ and His visible minister and to arouse those internal sentiments and dispositions which should make our hearts become like to that of the High Priest of the New Testament” — but then cautions against those who, “led away by false opinions, make so much of these accidentals as to presume to assert that without them the Mass cannot fulfill its appointed end”:
Many of the faithful are unable to use the Roman Missal even when it is written in the vernacular; nor are all capable of understanding correctly the liturgical rites and formulas. So varied and diverse are men’s talents and characters that it is impossible for all to be moved and attracted to the same extent by community prayers, hymns, and liturgical services. Moreover, the needs and inclinations of all are not the same, nor are they always constant in the same individual. Who, then, would say, on account of such a prejudice, that all these Christians cannot participate in the Mass nor share its fruits? On the contrary, they can adopt some other method which proves easier for certain people; for instance, they can lovingly meditate on the mysteries of Jesus Christ or perform other exercises of piety or recite prayers which, though they differ from the sacred rites, are still essentially in harmony with them.
This was Pius XII’s typically nuanced response to a complex situation. On the one hand, he applauded efforts made to inform and involve the laity in the actual liturgical rites — in this regard no different at all from Dom Guéranger’s purpose in writing The Liturgical Year and Explanation of the Prayers and Ceremonies of Holy Mass. [3] On the other hand, he rebuked the haughty proponents of “objective piety” who considered it wrong for Catholics to “tell their beads” during the Mass. It is as if the Pope is saying to each Catholic who assists at Mass: Pursue whatever it is that will most unite you in mind and heart to the mysteries of Christ and especially to His Sacrifice. For different people, this will take different forms; and even for the same person it will take different forms at different times.

Medieval manuscript showing layfolk at Mass.
When my son Julian interviewed Bishop Athanasius Schneider in June 2018 at the Sacred Liturgy Conference in Oregon, he asked him how the Rosary and the Mass complement one another, how they might “work together.” I was delighted to read the good bishop’s profound answer:
The Rosary is a beautiful synthesis of the entire mystery of the Incarnation, redemption, and work of salvation. And the Holy Mass is the recapitulation of the work of salvation. Christ became incarnate for what reason? To offer Himself as the Lamb of God and to offer Himself on the Cross for the salvation of humankind, and to glorify the Father. This is what it means. When we pray the Rosary, which we can pray even during Mass, we do participate very actively in the Joyful Mysteries, centered around the Incarnation — and the holy Mass is a continuation of the coming of Christ in the Incarnation, under the veils of the sacred species of bread and wine. And then the Sorrowful Mysteries, of course, they are the specific meditation of the holy Mass: they help us to contemplate the real presence of Golgotha under the sacramental veil. And then the Glorious: Christ present in the holy Host is the Risen One, the Glorified One, with His luminous wounds.
          So we have in the prayer of the Rosary a really beautiful synthesis of the entire Mass. And therefore in ancient times, those who could not read, I mean the peasants and farmers, did participate in the Mass with the Rosary. Often times after the Council, priests ridiculed these people, and humiliated them for praying the Rosary. But this is bad; it is unjust. They participated more deeply with praying the Rosary because they are meditating on what is now going on at the altar with the Rosary, the prayer of the Gospel, because the words of this prayer are of the holy Gospel.
          And so, of course, I do not want to say that we should only pray the Rosary during holy Mass, but it is a possible way of participating — not the only one, maybe not the main one, but it is legitimate. This I would say for people who have a special affinity for this.
As Pius XII said, and as Bishop Schneider beautifully explained, we should have no objection to people praying the Rosary during the traditional Latin Mass. I remember when I used to parrot the fashionable objections against such “private devotions” and “subjective piety.” But sooner or later, I learned a different lesson, thanks to my encounters with priests who say the old Mass especially slowly. This was a new phenomenon: I had so much time on my hands that I could read the propers of the Mass five times and still be left wondering what to do with myself. So I tried praying the Rosary and was surprised as how well it worked. (These “peasants and farmers” knew a thing or two! — a tough lesson for a kid who grew up in suburban New Jersey.) Or I will pray the preparatory Psalms printed in my St Andrew’s Daily Missal of 1945 — Psalms 83, 84, 85, 115, and 129 — or a Litany during the Offertory and the Canon, and often the prayer of St Ambrose or St Thomas while the priest is reciting his prayers immediately before communion. So far from detaching me as a silent spectator, all of these practices have enriched my offering of the prayer of the Mass, the prayer of Christ.

Part II: Liturgical Quietism and the Deactivation of the Laity
All this being said, however, I have noticed in some pockets of the Catholic traditionalist world a pendulum swing to an extreme opposite to outward participation and intelligent assimilation of the liturgy. I will call it a refusal to engage the liturgy at a bodily level, be this in the manner of gestures, reading, or singing; almost a taking pride in saying or singing nothing, and making as few motions as possible. There are many examples of the phenomenon; I will offer a few for consideration.

If you are literate and can follow the orations (collect, secret, postcommunion), or ponder the Epistle and Gospel, why would you not do it — at least sometimes? Why sit there and let the foreign words float over your head while you think about something else than what the liturgy is presenting to God on your behalf and with you (at least partly) in mind? Yes, it’s efficacious ex opere operato, but you can also make it your own prayer and your own meditation. It seems a perfect occasion for having the Church’s words in your soul, illuminating your mind and warming your heart. [4]

If the priest makes the sign of the cross at the start of his homily, and doesn’t himself say “Amen,” as if expecting the people to say it, why should they not say “Amen”? Yet I have seen congregations sit there, silent as stone, and never say “Amen.” Are we worried that it would be Protestant to hear the sound of our voices?

If you know the melody of Credo III and can sing it, why would you not sing it? The profession of faith is yours, too, and there’s no reason to consider it exclusively the property of the choir or schola. Congregational singing of the Ordinary is something the 20th century popes spoke consistently in favor of, and for good reason.

If you know that it’s a custom to strike your breast three times with the servers at the Confiteor, or during the Agnus Dei and the “Domine, non sum dignus,” why wouldn’t you do it? And if the faithful don’t know it, why couldn’t the priest tell them about it in a sermon? The same could be said of the many times when the priest makes the sign of the cross (“Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini…”; “Indulgentiam, absolutionem, et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum…”; “in gloria Dei Patri”; “vitam venturi saeculi”; etc.). Admittedly, many of the faithful do cross themselves at these moments, which is a beautiful custom; why should it not be universal? What about the slight bowing of the priest’s head at certain points in the Gloria and in the Creed? Such actions, for me at any rate, remind me all the more forcibly of what is being prayed and why. When bowing the head at “simul adoratur et conglorificatur,” one is aware in one’s very muscles as well as in one’s intellect that the Holy Spirit is God, deserving of latria.

When the priest turns towards us with the Blessed Sacrament, why shouldn’t we say together: “Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea”? Of all the moments in the Mass, this one seems the most appropriate for a corporate exclamation before the corporate action of processing forward for Communion.

Now, I am not suggesting (quod absit!) that rubrics be imposed on the faithful to that effect, for we have seen how harmful such regimentation has been in the sphere of the Novus Ordo. I am merely pointing out a kind of passivity among the faithful that inhibits a fuller response to the texts and motions of the liturgy. [5] For, as Hilary White insightfully put it, liturgy is “theology in motion,” and this means our motion, to the extent that it pertains to us. [6]

A friend of mine once quipped that traditional Catholics too often “dress like Amish and pray like Quakers.”

At this point many readers may be itching to accuse me in the comments of being in cahoots with the tumid Liturgical Movement, of trying to sacerdotalize the laity, of importing Novus Ordo expectations into a classical context where they do not belong, of confusing participatio actuosa with activism, etc. But all of this I have argued against elsewhere repeatedly and at great length, and nothing I am saying need be construed as implying or promoting those errors.

What I object to is a situation where there is nothing in common between the two parts of the church — the nave and the sanctuary — except that the people in each part happen to be in the same building at the same time with the same generic intention. This strikes me as a low-water mark in the practice of liturgy, and a fruitful cause of the evils of liturgical reform. The solution isn’t to change the liturgy, or to force laity to do something; the solution is that clergy and laity alike learn to know and love the liturgy as it stands, and to insert ourselves into it with our powers of soul and body. Unlike the “pastoral priests” who are bent on repeating the errors of the past, we must be intelligent supporters and sustainers of the liturgical tradition as it comes down to us.

This does require some preaching specifically on the liturgy; it requires catechesis and ongoing education. The family of St Thérèse of Lisieux read aloud Dom Guéranger’s The Liturgical Year, which formed the souls of the Martins. Lest it be thought that no one today could read such a book within the family, I happen to know of a family that did it — with about a dozen children, ranging from infants at the breast to young adults. More is possible than we tend to think possible.

I am convinced that it is too trite and simplistic to say “well, all that the priest says at the altar belongs to him, it’s his business; all the stuff the schola sings is their business; and the laity should just do their own thing.” No. The liturgy belongs to everyone in the church, because it belongs to Christ our Head. It is our common inheritance and activity. We have different offices and roles within it, but the liturgy is not like a pie divided up into different pieces that are served up to different people. It is a common good, like a philosophical truth or a theological mystery that can be equally and fully possessed by everyone at the same time. What the priest is doing and saying is also mine, albeit in a different mode. [7] When the schola sings the propers, they are my prayer, too, sung on my behalf — words that the Church places before me and within me.

It is also trite and simplistic to say “participation is interior.” Yes, it is principally interior and spiritual; as we all know, without this inner component, any amount of physical activity is useless or worse. But “principal” implies a comparison with something else that is secondary. The soul of man is primary and his body is secondary, yet you cannot have a man without both. The liturgy is a physical action and the man who participates in it is a physical being who engages with it through his bodily senses. Thus the body should be engaged as much as is consistent with the role a given person has in the liturgy. To my mind, that means not only kneeling, but also beating the breast, making the sign of the cross, bowing the head, singing the responses, and singing the Ordinary.

Ultimately the right disposition is not passivity, where we sit or kneel and otherwise keep still as if we were schoolchildren in the 1950s, afraid to call down on our heads the displeasure of the sister in charge. The right disposition is receptivity — and this means receiving not simply invisible graces but the particular goods the liturgy itself, in all its human richness, offers us.

The inscription reads: "Joseph, rising from sleep..."

[1] In Yves Chiron’s biography of Annibale Bugnini, we learn about the latter’s radical liturgical experiments in the 1940s, where he began manipulating the liturgy for the sake of “participation.” In Bugnini’s own words: “I suddenly wondered: how could I have this people, with their elementary religious instruction, participate in the Mass? Above all, how could I make the children participate? I started out by painting big signboards with the easier responses for the people to say in Latin… Then I did the same with signposts in Italian… I knew that I had found the formula: the people willingly followed the Mass. The ‘inert and mute’ assembly had been transformed into a living and prayerful assembly” (p. 25). Note how Bugnini himself reverts to the formula of Pius XI.

[2] See sections 76 to 111. As to the common priesthood, there is no question that the traditional liturgy accentuates the one who is sacramentally configured to Christ in Holy Orders and who represents the Head of the Church within the assembly, the ekklesia. However, this would seem to cancel out the priesthood of the faithful only if one had an activistic notion of what it means to exercise this universal baptismal priesthood, which, in reality, is one of consent and self-offering.

[3] For the latter, I recommend this new edition from Angelico.

[4] I do not take into account the relatively rare situation of a layman who is so capable in Latin that he can perfectly understand what the priest is saying or singing. But a missal is still useful because often, perhaps even more often than not, issues of church architecture, acoustics, idiosyncratic pronunciation, or the speed of delivery make it difficult to follow the Latin of the priest even when it is spoken aloud.

[5] For the record: I am not a proponent of the so-called “dialogue Mass.” The kind of responses I have in mind are those that are sung during a High Mass (“Et cum spiritu tuo,” “Gloria tibi, Domine,” “Amen,” etc.) and the Ordinary of the Mass (from the “Asperges” through the final “Deo gratias”).

[6] For many examples of bodily participation in the usus antiquior, see my article “How the Traditional Latin Mass Fosters More Active Participation than the Ordinary Form,” which became the center of chapter 8 in my book Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017).

[7] As mentioned above, Pius XII’s explication of this point in Mediator Dei remains unsurpassed, whatever the flaws of that encyclical may be in regard to the axiom of Prosper of Aquitaine.

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