To look back over what has been done in the field of liturgical renewal in the years since the Council is, first, to see many reasons for giving heartfelt thanks and praise to the Most Holy Trinity for the marvelous awareness which has developed among the faithful of their role and responsibility in this priestly work of Christ and his Church. It is also to realize that not all changes have always and everywhere been accompanied by the necessary explanation and catechesis; as a result, in some cases there has been a misunderstanding of the very nature of the liturgy, leading to abuses, polarization, and sometimes even grave scandal. After the experience of more than thirty years of liturgical renewal, we are well placed to assess both the strengths and weaknesses of what has been done, in order more confidently to plot our course into the future which God has in mind for his cherished People.
- Ad Limina Address of Pope John Paul II to Bishops of the United States On Active Participation in the Liturgy- October 1998
These words, from Pope John Paul II’s address to the Bishops of the United States in the Fall of 1998, marked the beginning of a process of re-examining how one of the most influential aspects of the liturgical reform had been carried out up to that time, and more importantly aspired to “plot our course” into the future by drawing on the experiences of the previous thirty years of liturgical practice and adopting an understanding of the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical directives, specifically the directives regarding the “full, conscious and active participation” of the faithful in the liturgy.
Most remarkable about this particular address was the admission that there was a misunderstanding of the nature of the liturgy in some cases. Of course, many critics of this statement would say that there was obviously a misunderstanding by Pope John Paul II of the scope of the problem if he actually thought that this was only true in some cases. A more accurate assessment might perhaps have said that there was a “misunderstanding of the nature of the liturgy” in many cases, perhaps even in most cases! But his statement was at least a starting point for the gradual change in how this particular facet of liturgical reform is regarded.
In advent of 2011, we will undertake the implementation of a new translation of the Roman Missal, a project that will greatly affect the liturgy of every parish in the English speaking world. This implementation will be preceded (hopefully!) by a period of catechesis and preparation, not only on the changes in the text, but also more generally on the topic of liturgical practice. The USCCB Committee on Divine Worship has asked that this period of catechesis be used to encourage a “renewal” of our liturgical worship, with an emphasis on “greater reverence and solemnity” in the rites. Such a renewal calls us to a vision of the liturgy that is often at conflict with the common practice at many parishes, a practice that has been guided to a large extent by the popular notion of “full, active and conscious participation”. And so as we enter into this period of catechesis and renewal, it may be a good point to seriously examine the question:
Are we still misunderstanding the concept of full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy?
Let’s consider a few things for the sake of discussion. First would be the context and history of the call for greater participation in the liturgy, a subject that is too broad to treat here with any real detail. It is maybe enough to consider that the call for such participation was not a new or radical concept by the time of the council – it had appeared already in detail long prior to the council, first in the Motu Proprio Tra le Sollecitudini (1903) of Pope Pius X, and most notably in Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei (1947), the document from which much of the language in Sacrosanctum Concilium regarding participation was taken. One finds in the statements of Mediator Dei and continuing in Sacrosanctum Concilium, a common theme:
6. You are surely well aware that this Apostolic See has always made careful provision for the schooling of the people committed to its charge in the correct spirit and practice of the liturgy; and that it has been no less careful to insist that the sacred rites should be performed with due external dignity. In this connection We ourselves, in the course of our traditional address to the Lenten preachers of this gracious city of Rome in 1943, urged them warmly to exhort their respective hearers to more faithful participation in the eucharistic sacrifice. (MD #6)
8. Indeed, though we are sorely grieved to note, on the one hand, that there are places where the spirit, understanding or practice of the sacred liturgy is defective, or all but inexistent, We observe with considerable anxiety and some misgiving, that elsewhere certain enthusiasts, over-eager in their search for novelty, are straying beyond the path of sound doctrine and prudence…(MD #8)
80. It is, therefore, desirable, Venerable Brethren, that all the faithful should be aware that to participate in the eucharistic sacrifice is their chief duty and supreme dignity, and that not in an inert and negligent fashion, giving way to distractions and day-dreaming, but with such earnestness and concentration that they may be united as closely as possible with the High Priest, according to the Apostle, "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus." And together with Him and through Him let them make their oblation, and in union with Him let them offer up themselves. (MD #80)
82. The fact, however, that the faithful participate in the eucharistic sacrifice does not mean that they also are endowed with priestly power. It is very necessary that you make this quite clear to your flocks.(MD #82)
105. Therefore, they are to be praised who, with the idea of getting the Christian people to take part more easily and more fruitfully in the Mass, strive to make them familiar with the "Roman Missal," so that the faithful, united with the priest, may pray together in the very words and sentiments of the Church. They also are to be commended who strive to make the liturgy even in an external way a sacred act in which all who are present may share.(MD #105)
108. Many of the faithful are unable to use the Roman missal even though it is written in the vernacular; nor are all capable of understanding correctly the liturgical rites and formulas. So varied and diverse are men's talents and characters that it is impossible for all to be moved and attracted to the same extent by community prayers, hymns and liturgical services… (MD #108)
186. We earnestly exhort you, Venerable Brethren, that after errors and falsehoods have been removed, and anything that is contrary to truth or moderation has been condemned, you promote a deeper knowledge among the people of the sacred liturgy so that they more readily and easily follow the sacred rites and take part in them with true Christian dispositions (MD #186)
201. Above all, try with your constant zeal to have all the faithful attend the eucharistic sacrifice from which they may obtain abundant and salutary fruit; and carefully instruct them in all the legitimate ways we have described above so that they may devoutly participate in it. (MD #201)
202. By means of suitable sermons and particularly by periodic conferences and lectures, by special study weeks and the like, teach the Christian people carefully about the treasures of piety contained in the sacred liturgy so that they may be able to profit more abundantly by these supernatural gifts. (MD #202)
206. We cherish the hope that these Our exhortations will not only arouse the sluggish and recalcitrant to a deeper and more correct study of the liturgy, but also instill into their daily lives its supernatural spirit according to the words of the Apostle, "extinguish not the spirit." (MD #206)
11. But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain  . 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)
14. 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.
Yet it would be futile to entertain any hopes of realizing this unless the pastors themselves, in the first place, become thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy, and undertake to give instruction about it. A prime need, therefore, is that attention be directed, first of all, to the liturgical instruction of the clergy (SC # 14)
19. 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)
Coming from Mediator Dei, although most certainly from earlier times as well, and then more clearly elucidated in SC is the connection between the education and instruction of the faithful and their full and active participation. The connection is such that one cannot exist without the other, and in fact, it is emphasized throughout both documents that the participation of the faithful in the liturgy without proper instruction leads to a misunderstanding of the nature of the liturgy. It is the reality of this connection that urged Pope John Paul II to then say
“It is also important to realize that not all changes have always and everywhere been accompanied by the necessary explanation and catechesis; as a result, in some cases there has been a misunderstanding of the very nature of the liturgy, leading to abuses, polarization, and sometimes even grave scandal.”
This is a central point to understand when considering the complete picture of FCAP – the primary and perhaps most important aspect of it is the education of the faithful in liturgy so that they can be properly disposed to participate interiorly. As was observed by Pope John Paul II, this aspect was often overlooked and as such, the result had been a failure of the project as a whole.
A second consideration, and perhaps one that is more argumentative than the first, is whether full, conscious and active participation as it has come to be understood is a goal that is realistically possible within the constraints of the liturgical form. Even Pius XII went so far as to say “So varied and diverse are men's talents and characters that it is impossible for all to be moved and attracted to the same extent by community prayers, hymns and liturgical services”. In other words, given the diversity in education, disposition and interest of the faithful, is it realistic to expect that everyone participate fully and enthusiastically?
A related question is whether the intention had been to change the faithful through education so that they could come to understand and participate in the liturgy, or to change the liturgy to the extent that it could come to be understood within the limits of the possible education of the faithful. These are two very different approaches with very different and meaningful consequences. While the actual reforms of the council seemed to be proposing the former concept, the practice adopted since the council has been to begrudgingly adopt the latter as a replacement for inadequate catechesis. As the emphasis on catechesis continued to wane, the adaptation of the liturgy to an ever lower level seemed to have prevailed with the ultimate consequence being the replacement of the concept of interior participation through understanding with an almost exclusive prevalence of exterior participation through physical action.
As such, full, conscious and active participation came to be exclusively understood as the faithful processing, singing, serving, reading, distributing, or speaking rather than understanding why the Priest processes, why the choir sings, why the deacon serves, why the Priest distributes, or why the lector speaks. It came to be seen as less important that the faithful be disposed to receive the Word of God than it was that everyone be offered the opportunity to physically take part in reading the Word of God. And in most cases, the all important task of educating the faithful, specifically indicated as the primary duty of the clergy, had been handed off to the laity as yet another form of “participation”.
And so this was the understanding of full conscious and active participation when Pope John Paul II spoke to the Bishops of the United States in October of 1998. The goal of instructing the faithful in the proper understanding of the texts and actions of the liturgy to lead them to that “full, active and conscious” interior participation had been abandoned, replaced by a sort of reversal in which it is hoped that greater physical involvement by the laity, exterior participation, would somehow lead to a greater understanding of the liturgical texts and actions on an intellectual level. Clearly, Pope John Paul II believed that such an understanding of participation in the liturgy had not only failed in achieving such a goal, but had actually led to “abuses, polarization, and sometimes even grave scandal”. Is it any wonder that he thought it time to “assess both the strengths and weaknesses of what has been done, in order more confidently to plot our course into the future which God has in mind for his cherished People.”?
And so now, as we approach the implementation of the new translation of the Roman Missal this next Advent, there may be no better time to undertake such an assessment. The introduction of the new texts offers an opportunity for teaching…not only the words of the new texts, but also the liturgical context in which they are set. It is a singular opportunity to re-introduce the distinct roles of the Priest, the Faithful (assembly) and the Choir in the liturgy – encouraging each to exercise those parts proper to them. It is an opportunity to instruct the faithful in the distinction between interior and exterior participation and how the liturgy requires each at different times. It is an opportunity to teach the faithful about the proper role of Sacred music in the liturgy, challenging the popular-music mentality that has dominated liturgical music practice for more than 50 years. It is an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between liturgical art and worship, encouraging that re-birth of artistic endeavor that Pope John Paul II called for in his 2000 Letter to Artists and which was echoed by Pope Benedict XVI in his address to artists in November of 2009.
Are we still misunderstanding full, conscious and active participation? It seems that in many cases the answer is “yes”. And yet, with the introduction of the new translation we are being given the opportunity to “plot our course into the future” and work towards an authentic realization of participation in the liturgy. It will be hard work no doubt, and it would certainly be easier to just continue along the path of physical “busy-ness” in the liturgy, avoiding the deeper understanding of the relationship between God and ourselves that the liturgy requires and constantly calls us to experience. In many places, that easier path will probably be chosen and the opportunity to grow in faith and knowledge will be squandered. But other places will take the opportunity to do the hard work and in doing so will become models for the Church going forward.
And so, returning to the words of Pope John Paul II in 1998:
After the experience of more than thirty years of liturgical renewal, we are well placed to assess both the strengths and weaknesses of what has been done, in order more confidently to plot our course into the future which God has in mind for his cherished People.
We are most definitely well placed… but are we willing to plot that course into the future that God has in mind, or will we continue along a path of our own making?