A blurb on “active participation”

I found a nice piece on "active participation" in Denis Crouan’s The History and the Future of the Roman Liturgy (2001, in English from Ignatius Press, 2005, p. 279 – my emphasis):


Does Gregorian chat prevent the active participation of the faithful?

The expression used in the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium is "participatio actuosa" and not "participatio activa". Vatican II called for an "effective" participation in the liturgy, that is to say, a participation that is in contrast to a "passive participation" as well as to an "activist participation".

The true and only participation that the Church wants is the kind that results from an interior attitude that places us in a state of receptivity for the liturgy.

In this, too, it is obvious that the virtues of Gregorian chant shield us against a sort of participation in the liturgy that is too dependent upon contemporary mindsets and would end up being no more than a sterile activism.

Gregorian chant safeguards us against that ceaseless agitation that seems to have taken over a great number of contemporary Mass and that ends up making the liturgical space a sort of experimental laboratory run exclusively by those who mistake the Church for an "international volunteer association" [This is an expression used by a bishop during the Synod of the Bishops of Europe that was held at the Vatican in 1999.].

Back in August, in Camden, NJ, I put forward this same (correct) vision. Here is a snippet:

It is a hard fact of our fallen human state that we can be either deluded activists or passive spectators at any Mass, “Tridentine” Mass or Novus Ordo, in English or in Latin, no matter how diverting or engaging it is made. When I hear the claim that if people aren’t allowed to sing everything and move things around, they are being turned into passive spectators, I respond that it is entirely possible to sing and be busy doing things and have your mind be a thousand miles away. Have you ever caught yourself singing, whistling, humming, doing things like gardening, driving, or even reading when you suddenly realize that you have turned several shovels full, street corners or pages, and have not the slightest recollection of what you just did? You can sing every verse of every hymn and all along be thinking about the groceries you have to buy. You can carry things, stand up and kneel down, and really be participating far less than someone who is sitting still in the pew, who cannot stand or kneel, cannot see the sanctuary clearly or very easily hear the prayers or sermon. And yet, and yet, with every breath and heartbeat, he knows why he is there; that person senses the Real Presence, and longs to be a part of what is taking place. Active participation is made possible by baptism and by our willed, conscious, active interior union with the action of the Mass and the true Actor, Jesus Christ. Attentive watching and careful listening are not easy, friends. Effort and practice are needed to get past the distractions.

… there are those moments in Mass when we are called upon to participate actively by receiving and then, on the foundation of our full, conscious and active interior receptivity, we use our voice and gestures in a way that is far more beneficial by the fact we have first received.


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  1. Amen, Fr. Z! There is nothing in Gregorian chant (or other non-congregational music) which prevents the laity’s active participation, for there is much more involved in “participation” than merely words and gestures.

    But what would you say to those of us who do find greater heights of prayer and attentiveness when we are singing ourselves, but who cannot participate in the schola? For while I can listen to the chants resounding around the church, watch the movements of those around the altar, and thus be attentive and receptive to the liturgy, it is never as effective as when I may lift my voice in the songs of the Church during the Mass. To hear the ordinary and propers and receive them into one’s soul is to sense the heartbeat of the Church. To sing them is to be united with that heartbeat. The words and melodies mean more to me when my heart and soul can resound them as well as receive them.

  2. Jordan Potter says:

    What’s really funny here is that, as Adoremus explained a few years ago, when the Pope came up with the term “active participation of the faithful” about 100 years ago, he was talking about getting the laity to learn and participate in Gregorian chant. But after Vatican II the term has been completely redefined to mean “everybody needs to be doing something, especially doing a lot of lip-flapping, during Mass.”

  3. Jordan: Right. So many people misunderstand what “active participation” really means. It begins with interior participation, through active receptivity. It comes to be expressed outwardly and physically. Its most perfect form is reception of Holy Communion in the state of grace.

  4. I would argue against the proliferation of “ministries” in the Mass, by looking at how it is not really the laity’s proper roll to be ministering in the liturgy. Even with the suppression of the minor orders, there is still retained an institution of “lector” and “acolyte,” (which can only be men) even though when those are not present, a lay person may perform that ministry as a reader or server.
    I would think that this shows the proper order of participation. Certainly the priest and deacon (and obviously bishop) are the proper “ministers” at Mass. In the past this would also have included the minor orders, but with the suppression of the minor orders, the Church still has “lector” and “acolyte,” and while they are not technically clerics, they are properly instituted for that ministry and therefore have the right to perform that ministry over and above any lay person who just gets up and does the readings or helps serve at the altar. I also clarify that this institution is different from what usually occurs in the average parish where they “institute” a group of readers and servers and extra-ordinary Eucharistic ministers. Lectors and acolytes would like the ordinary readers of the word or ordinary servers of the altar, while readers and servers would be like extra-ordinary readers of the word or extra-ordinary servers of the altar.
    If I am correct, the proper institution of a lector or acolyte is done by the bishop. Although these are open to lay men, in practice 99.9% of the time it is only given to seminarians and deacon candidates.
    However, I bring this up to show that it has never (even now) been the proper roll of the laity to “minister” in the sanctuary (with the exception of the tradition of allowing boys to be altar servers, and even then they were dressed like priests, ie cassock and surplice).
    Cantoring and “music ministry” would be the only other “ministries” but these are just to help the congregation either listen to the music or sing along their proper parts.
    I am still trying to find out more about these institutions, but there is not much on it since it was only recent that the minor orders were supressed.

  5. Qunatitative Met.: I would respond that, in the context of Holy Mass, there is room for both and that both help to reinforce the other. Remember that the concept of interiorly receptive active participation and exterior physical active participation are distinctions. Both can and ought to happen simultaneously, but the interior always has logical (and often diachronical) priority. Each, however, feeds and strengthens the other.

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