Greetings to all of you, my good readers!
I’m going to begin with a dichotomy, one you’ve probably heard quite a bit if you’ve gone to Mass within the past 50 years. Here it is, with its mixture of truth and untruth:
Before Vatican II in the 1960s, Catholics didn’t participate in the Mass. It was in Latin, so they couldn’t even understand it, the priest was up there talking quietly toward the wall, and the people didn’t even get to say anything during Mass.
After Vatican II, the people have a much greater role in the Church’s liturgy: the Mass is in the local language, the people make the responses and read the readings and perform ministries during Mass, the priest was turned around—it’s all much more inclusive now.
Fair enough. It’s a huge oversimplification, but most people can hardly be blamed if that’s their perception, or worse yet, if that was their experience with the Mass in the Church before the Second Vatican Council. Still, an oversimplification it is, which is in desperate need of a deeper look. And so, my friends, take a deeper look we shall.
I’d like to let you all know right now that this post won’t be saying anything about the old or new Mass forms, or any of the specific practices in either one. So you can breathe easily in that respect; the controversy level will be pretty low for liturgy devotees. Instead, I want to help you unpack the meaning of a commonly thrown-around phrase from the Second Vatican Council which declared that the peoples’ participation in the Sacred Liturgy should be “fully conscious and active” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14). Most people (quite understandably) take this to mean that the people need to make the responses and perform ministries and whatnot, since the phrase was from Vatican II and since the Mass that came out of Vatican II seems to put so much stock into people doing things.
But then we get to the question: is that indeed what full, conscious, and active participation is, or is it something deeper than that?
As with most questions that run like that, you’re probably able to guess that this active participation is indeed more than just external activity. At the risk of surprising some of you, I’m going to go out on a limb and say the following: fully conscious and active participation can be accomplished whether a person makes every response devotedly or whether he never opens his mouth during Mass. In fact, fully conscious participation can be accomplished even when one does not receive Holy Communion! The quiet Irishman sitting in his pew who keeps his eyes shut and hands folded during the entirety of the Mass can technically achieve the same level of participation in Mass as the reader who reads and makes all the responses with attentiveness and devotion.
So what, then, is active participation in the Sacred Liturgy? It is when you crucify yourself along with Our Good Lord and give your life, yourself, to Him in four ways: 1) adoration; 2) contrition; 3) thanksgiving; and 4) supplication.
Those are the four ends of the Mass, the four reasons the priest stands at the altar and offers the Eucharist to God. Our participation in the Mass, therefore, is nothing more than an extension of those four things.
Firstly, Christ offers Himself (through the priest) to the Heavenly Father as an act of adoration. “To adore God is to acknowledge him as God, as the Creator and Savior, the Lord and Master of everything that exists, as infinite and merciful Love” (CCC 2096). We must adore God simply because God is God, because God is the sustainer of all that is, because God has all perfection, because God is the source of good and love, the One Who creates all that is good and lovable.
Secondly, Our Blessed Lord offers Himself to the Father as an act of contrition. Not for Himself, since He is without sin, but for us, that we may obtain forgiveness for our sins. He said on the Cross concerning His killers, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Douay-Rheims Bible, Luke 23:34).
Thirdly, Christ offers Himself to the Father in thanksgiving, because of the greatness of the Father’s love, His mercy shown toward sinners, and for His very self, which can only be loved when known.
And finally, Our Lord offers Himself in supplication, mediating for us to the Father, praying with His human nature for us and our needs, using His Crucified Self as a prism through which the Father looks at creation and grants all its prayers. “Holy Father, keep them in thy name . . . that they may be one, as we also are . . . I pray that thou wouldst keep them from evil and sanctify them in truth” (John 17).
My good readers, this is what you must do in Mass: offer yourself in adoration of God, with all your fears and imperfections and worries. Offer yourself in contrition, repenting of sin and asking for the Divine Mercy; offer yourself as an act of thanksgiving for all God has done for you, in good times and in bad; and offer yourself in supplication, asking the Lord to grant those prayers compatible with His will. And be mindful of that fact that you don’t do this alone, disconnected from others, but rather, you do it with Christ, placing your “little” cross next to His Cross on the altar during and after the Consecration. He said that in the Scriptures that anyone who would be His disciple must take up a cross (Mt. 19:24) and, further, that anything asked of God the Father in His name would be granted (Jn. 16:23). Our participation in the Mass takes up these two passages of Scripture and turns them into reality: we crucify ourselves with Jesus Christ, offering ourselves to God through Him, in His name, in virtue of His status as God, Man, Lord, and Redeemer.
It is not enough merely to say the responses of the Mass carefully or to focus on the text of what’s being said or to perform some special liturgical function, which are all very commendable things. Rather, in the words of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “In order to take a part in [the Mass], you have to bring little crosses” (Fulton Sheen, “The Meaning of the Mass”). The Baltimore Catechism was very insistent on this point as well, and although I don’t remember the exact words it used, it was speaking about the phrase “assist at Mass” and said something along the lines of, “One never merely attends Mass. One must consciously unite himself with the Sacrifice of Christ, and thus it is said that he assists at Mass”. That has always stuck with me. One never merely attends Mass. It’s not like a lecture where we’re passive spectators, contrary to the perceptions of many in the pre-Vatican II Church, and perhaps more importantly to be driven home is the point that it’s not just about doing things, saying things, or having a role to play. It’s about making a sacrifice of oneself so as to be united with Christ, Our Lord, the Head of His Mystical Body, whose members we are.
At this point I hope it’s evident that one can participate just as well in the pre-Vatican II liturgical form as in the one prevalent now, and that such dichotomies as commonly heard lack a certain degree of substance. Participation in the Holy Mass has always been essentially the same, the offering of the self with the offering of Jesus the Christ.
Now, because the current form of the Mass desires the vocal participation of the faithful, it is good to be an obedient son or daughter of the Church and participate vocally. But it is not essential, and it’s no skin off my back if the person two pews away never opens his mouth. For all I know, he’s more concretely focused on his ultimate liturgical mission than 90% of the congregation present. In the end, disregarding the goodness—or not—of external participation, the thing to be remembered as essential is that liturgical participation is about self-offering with the Crucified Savior. If you have that down, then you’re doing your job correctly.