Actual Activity


This is old ground covered here before, but my liturgical colleague Shawn Tribe questions the post-conciliar approach to “active participation” in the liturgy.

First he says something with which I can completely agree:

Now it should be noted that, understood correctly, this is a very laudable and important principle. We should indeed desire that all fully take part in the liturgy; we should desire that we are engaged in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, joining our hearts, our minds and our voices to the mystical action occuring before us.

But then he messes up a perfectly good statement with word games:

Some have proposed that the translation of “actuosa” from whence “active” has been derived in our translation, would be better translated “actual”. In this sense of being engaged in the sacred liturgy, this re-translation as “actual participation” perhaps makes a great deal more sense and helps clarify the fuller intent of the Council and of participation in the liturgy itself.

This is a tendency to revisionist theology. It’s a needless thing, too, for Sacrosanctum Concilium actually goes on to describe and expand upon this principle:

Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects. (SC 11)

“Actual” or “active” participation indeed means something, and we don’t need to consult a Latin dictionary to get a better sense of what the Council bishops intended:

1. Full awareness
2. Active engagement
3. An experience of enrichment

One comment from NLM:

“The way these words (active participation) are understood in modern life comes down to this: everyone must sing, sing, sing, as much as possible. But what if people don’t want to sing? They must be browbeat and harangued and prodded and pushed, coerced even, by a song ‘leader’ who is paid to tell people what they should do for their own good.”

By some understanding, this is true. But by the principle of caritas et amor, we know this is dead, dead, dead wrong. This corrupted authoritarianism was a hallmark of the pre-conciliar Church many Catholics experienced. (It’s still with us today in the episcopal response to clergy sex abuse.) And certainly, authority-minded leaders (not just clergy, to be sure) carried over a tradition which should have been discarded with other liturgical accretions and the protection of predators.

I’ve never thought that the people must “sing, sing, sing.” Do people still need formation in good liturgy? Sure they do, but there are ways expressive of caritas et amor we can apply to get parishes going in a better direction.

The council suggested that the laity should have a full awareness of what’s going on. That’s why, in part, just about every bishop in the world embraced the use of the vernacular in the period 1963-70, until it became a near-universal practice. The council desired that people experience an active engagement in liturgy–something the bishops weren’t seeing in the everyday parish celebrations of the Tridentine Rite. And the Mass should be a source of spiritual enrichment.

There’s no denying the Mass before Vatican II wasn’t much of this for some Catholics. But the overall situation of the Church led almost each one of 2,000 bishops to state that the liturgy of 1960 was inadequate. Changes came, and in some places, they were done thoughtlessly and ruthlessly. But select parishes, as they did fifty years ago, still work with the Roman Rite to produce something of what the Council wished to see–those three principles of ideal liturgy.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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