Last week, I was present with most priests of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati for a three-day convocation, which is held every five years. The idea is that we will discuss some topic that is pertinent to the life of the Church or to our ministry as priests. Some of these convocations have focused on parish management or on dealing with a shortage of priests; some have been of a more theological focus, as was the case last week: our topic was the seven sacraments. Our speaker was Father Paul Turner, who is a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri. If you click on his name, you'll see his qualifications, as well as have access to his writings on his website.
After I returned to the parish, folks asked me how the session was. I have to be honest: while catching up my brother priests, and having Mass and prayer with them, with Archbishop Dennis Schnurr and Bishop Joseph Binzer, were all very worthwhile, I was disappointed with the discussion of the sacraments.
Let me illustrate the problem by drilling into one of the issues that came up in several of the talks, as well as in the questions Father Turner fielded from those listening. It is the question of "active participation" in the liturgy. At one point, Father Turner was asked -- what about what Pope Benedict said, that "active participation" is essentially internal? In his response, Father Turner acknowledged the interior dimension, but said something along the lines of, he didn't see how you could have one without the other.
Not a terrible answer, but I think he was still missing the point.
This is a subject much discussed by experts in matters liturgical, and the term has certainly penetrated the awareness of many ordinary Catholics. The reason is because one of the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1963-65), the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), said this on the subject:
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 (Paragraph 14).
Indeed, if you click on the excerpted text above, you can go read the entirety of Sacrosanctum Concilium; and you will discover emphasis on "participation," frequently "active," in many places.
In the years immediately following the Council, there was a tremendous focus on this idea, to the point that it became a kind of "mantra" for a whole generation of clergy and laity whose understanding of the liturgy and the sacraments was formed in this period. Even 30 years later, when I entered the seminary, this was a point being pounded very strongly.
But there is an obvious question: what, exactly, is "fully conscious and active participation"? To state it differently, is it essentially external or internal?
In the years right after the Council, the great focus was on externals. Indeed, some of the language of the Council encouraged this:
To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence (Sacrosanctum Concilium 30).
That is, lots of people focused on "acclamations," "responses" and "gestures" -- but notice what else was highlighted: "reverent silence."
Others have delved deeply into this subject; you can do an Internet search and find lots to read if you wish. One notable contribution came from Pope Benedict XVI, who gave emphasis in Sacramentum Caritatis to "constant conversion," "inner disposition," and a "heart reconciled to God [that] makes genuine participation possible" (paragraph 55).
So why am I dissatisfied with Father Turner's answer? It's not that I disagree, exactly, so much as that I think he does not seem to get the problem with the emphasis on external participation. Let me illustrate with some real life examples:
- Several years ago, in another parish, I had a catechist propose some ideas for increasing the "active participation" of her students in Mass. Specifically, she wanted them write the words of the responsorial psalm on individual cards -- and then have students stand in front of church, and while the psalm was sung, they would hold up the placards for the assembly. I wasn't enamored of this idea, but I wanted to approach it diplomatically, so I approached the catechist with this question: "what is the concern or need you are trying to address with this idea?" Guess what she said? "So they participate more." My followup: "do you think the children in your class are praying during Mass?" She thought about it, and said, "yes." My response to her was, "that's the participation we most want."
- In my first parish assignment as a priest, the pastor gave me the task of arranging some training sessions with our volunteers who assist at Mass in various liturgical roles; we were going to be implementing some changes asked for by the Archbishop. One change in particular was as follows: instead of the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion coming to the altar and taking chalices with the Precious Blood off the altar themselves, they would, instead, have the chalices presented to them by a priest or deacon. At one of these sessions where I explained this change and its rationale, one volunteer huffed: "this takes away from my active participation!"
- Over the years, I've read any number of articles in the National Catholic Reporter, discussing matters liturgical. And whether the question was the priest facing the same way as the people when he offers the sacrifice at the altar, or whether it had to do with music choices, or even the church's sound system, I noticed the same refrain: if the priest isn't facing me -- or if it is the wrong sort of music -- or if someone cannot be heard in the church . . . then "I can't participate."
Surely you can see the problems here?
Is it really true that if I can't see what's happening at Mass, I can't participate? If that's true, then I guess that means visually impaired people do not participate in Mass.
Similarly, if not hearing means no participation, then no participation for those who are deaf.
If movement is necessary, that leaves out any number of people with mobility problems.
If you attend a Mass not in your own language, are you unable to participate? That has not been my experience -- why should it be anyones? Of course the language barrier created difficulties, but nothing I couldn't overcome. And that is obviously true for anyone.
Let me illustrate the flaw in this thinking with a hypothetical, which I posed to some other priests, and now pose to you: Does a babe in arms "participate" in Mass?
If you subscribe to the participation must be external theory, then the answer must be no. And guess what? Lots of people will say, about their children, that they see no reason to bring them to Mass "because they don't get anything out of it." But what about grace, I answer?
The answer is "yes." Even a newborn truly participates in the liturgy. Even a comatose person does. People participate as they are able.
Let's take it another step.
Who is the primary actor in the liturgy? Per Vatican II, the answer is Jesus Christ:
Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.
From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree (paragraph 7b).
But take note of the words I bolded: it is the action of Christ in his "Head and His members." That includes everyone, even a newly baptized infant, who is, after all, a member of the Body of Christ.
Now, I'm not against encouraging people to participate in external ways; nor am I encouraging a minimalism that sets the bar at where an infant is. Rather, what I am insisting is that given the true nature of the liturgy -- as described by the Council above -- what we are talking about is first and foremost a spiritual reality; we respond to this reality, above all with our interior disposition, which is assisted by, and often manifested by, exterior dispositions.
In short, we're talking about grace. I have no idea what sort of experience the Mass is for a newborn, or for a very young child, or for that matter, for those with varying degrees of physical and mental disabilities. But I insist that there is a true and real experience of the Mass -- of the sacraments -- for them. When a baby is baptized, does anything "happen" to the baby? When a priest anoints or absolves -- or baptizes -- a comatose person, what happens? Does the recipient of these sacraments "participate"?
The answer has to be yes.
P.S. I found an article I liked, but I never found a way to work it into this article, so I'll just link it here. It drills into what the Latin text behind "active participation" actually says. The whole article is good, but I am thinking particularly of what appears at the end from Monsignor Richard Shuler.