Thursday, January 10, 2013

What is Full and Active Participation in the Liturgy?

Dear Theophilus,

Lately I’ve come to enjoy reading The Eye of the Tiber. This light-hearted blog takes a look at some of the more un-Catholic activities that seem to bubble to the surface from time to time in the Catholic Church. Some might find The Eye of the Tiber to be a bit churlish, and others a bit childish, but I find it’s in putting things into the silly extreme that we can put them into their proper perspective.

In a recent post The Eye of the Tiber, tongue firmly planted in cheek, told of how a congregation rushed forward to the bewilderment of a visiting priest to participate in the consecration of the Eucharist. Apparently, to be able to participate fully and actively in the liturgy, members of this fictional parish encircle the altar during the Eucharistic prayer, stretching out their hands over the bread and wine at the moment of consecration as though they are concelebrating with the priest.

Unfortunately, many people perceive this as the only way to participate fully and actively in the Mass – by being directly involved in every moment. I’ve heard people complain that only the priest and a few of his favourites “do everything” at Mass while everybody else just sits there and watches. This is often accompanied with head scratching and the puzzled query: Wasn’t Vatican II supposed to change all of this?

In short, Yes – The Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) does call the faithful to become full and active participants in the liturgy by stating:

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.
In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work. (SC 14)

With zeal and patience, pastors of souls must promote the liturgical instruction of the faithful, and also their active participation in the liturgy both internally and externally, taking into account their age and condition, their way of life, and standard of religious culture. By so doing, pastors will be fulfilling one of the chief duties of a faithful dispenser of the mysteries of God; and in this matter they must lead their flock not only in word but also by example. (SC 19)

And this did open the door to more lay participation in the Mass, most notably in the roles of lector and extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. The problem, however, is that many people seemed to have stopped reading the document at this point, interpreting Sacrosanctum Concilium to mean that the laity would be welcome to take over the roles reserved by sacred scripture and tradition for the clergy.

Reading a little further we recall that, as the Church, we are called to be the body of Christ on earth, and that, in the same way that our temporal bodies are made of many parts, each with its unique function, it is the same with the spiritual body of Christ – the Catholic Church. We are all unique, individual parts of the body of Christ – each with our own special function (vocation) within the Church. Just as our toes cannot perform the same function as our mouths, nor our lungs as our stomachs or brains; a lector is not called to perform the role of a cantor; nor an usher that of a priest, bishop or pope. Everybody has an indispensible role to play in the proper functioning of the Church, and each needs to participate fully and actively in their role for the Catholic Church to fulfill its mission of bringing God’s Word to the world.

The bishops of Vatican II recognized this when they continued to state in Sacrosanctum Concilium:
Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the "sacrament of unity," namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops.
Therefore liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their differing rank, office, and actual participation. (SC 26)
Followed more importantly by:

In liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy. (SC 28)

I think this second paragraph from Sacrosanctum Concilium is probably the most important (and the most looked over). It distinctly states that everyone must participate as far as their office (role) in the liturgy calls for. In other words, it’s perfectly fine to be a simple member of the congregation, as long as we participate fully and actively as a member of the congregation, engaging ourselves by listening attentively to the Word of God, responding to the common prayers and allowing God to engage in us through his Son, Jesus Christ, in the Eucharist.

It’s when we worry too much about fulfilling the offices of others in the Mass as opposed to those that pertain to our office or rank that the wheels seem to fall off and the Mass and its participants no longer resemble themselves.


  1. Thank you very much - I've been looking for ways to make this point clear to people, and your post is just what I needed!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Caroline. It's hard to change the misconception out there, but I always find the Body of Christ analogy really helps. Every part plays a vital role in the life of the whole. May God bless.