Back in January, I wrote a little bit about what it means to actively participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (An Unexpected Moment of Privileged Grace). I based my post on my own particular experience. Since then, the question has come up again many times down here in the South Texas hinterland about what the Church means by "actuosa participatio".
Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, calls for the full, conscious and active participation of the faithful during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. That is not to say that such "actuosa participatio" did not exist prior to the Second Vatican Council. Even though there were instances during the Mass where the faithful were engaged in some other devotional prayer or exercise while the priest was celebrating Mass, I believe that the laity did have, for the most part, a very good idea of what was happening at the altar and why they were there. Furthermore, the hand missals with both the Latin and the vernacular translations of the Mass were widely available to aid the faithful in praying along with the priest and joining their sacrifice to his offering.
Unfortunately, in the 40 or so years since the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, we seem to have lost the meaning behind authentic "actuosa participatio." In 2008, I was privileged to hear then-Archbishop Malcolm Ranjinth (now Cardinal Ranjinth) who was, at the time, Secretary to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, talk about just what active participation really means.
In Sacramentum Caritatis No. 38, Pope Benedict XVI pays special attention to what it means to participate actively in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and how ars celebrandi fits into this:
38. In the course of the Synod, there was frequent insistence on the need to avoid any antithesis between the ars celebrandi, the art of proper celebration, and the full, active and fruitful participation of all the faithful. The primary way to foster the participation of the People of God in the sacred rite is the proper celebration of the rite itself. The ars celebrandi is the best way to ensure their actuosa participatio. (114) The ars celebrandi is the fruit of faithful adherence to the liturgical norms in all their richness; indeed, for two thousand years this way of celebrating has sustained the faith life of all believers, called to take part in the celebration as the People of God, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (cf. 1 Pet 2:4-5, 9) (115).
Cardinal Ranjinth takes this section as his launching point, explaining just what the Holy Father means in this particular section:
The Holy Father thus seemed, in the first instance, to indicate the need to adopt an ars celebrandi in order to celebrate well the liturgy, while at the same time insisting on the fact that “full, active and fruitful participation of all the faithful” cannot be realized without that. In other words he seemed to indicate that actuosa participatio [actual participation in the liturgy] could not really happen unless the harmonious, beautiful and orderly celebration of the liturgy was insured. Without a properly understood and effected ars celebrandi, liturgy would probably end up being merely a series of meaningless, chaotic and insipid actions. He affirms this emphatically, when he states that “the primary way to foster the participation of the people of God in the sacred rite is the proper celebration of the rite itself. The ars celebrandi is the best way to ensure their actuosa participatio” (ibid).
I used to think that in order for me to actively participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass I had to be engaged in some sort of activity, whether serving as a lector or as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. But, that is not the case at all. I am reminded of a line that John Malkovich uttered in the film "Shadow of the Vampire". Malkovich plays filmaker F. W. Murneau in this pseudo-documentary of the making of Nosteratu. Murneau and his crew are in what we now know as the Czech republic filming the picture. The camera man asks where the extras are. Murneau points to the villagers eating across the dining room them. The harried script writer moans, "These people are peasants. They cannot act." Murneau replies, "They do not have to act; they have to be."
During the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass we are in the presence of God and his Divine Majesty. We are being. Actuosa participatio does not mean that we are doing every thing at all times. Yes, we join in on the prayers and, if possible, the singing; however, sometimes, words are not enough. Our hearts, our souls and our minds must simply be with God, interiorly uniting our prayers and sacrifices with that of the priest.
Unfortunately, this is not always what people understand active participation to mean, as Cardinal Ranjinth noted in his address:
The pope, in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, defines actuosa participatio as a call to a total assimilation in the very action of Christ the High Priest. It is in no way a call to activism, a misunderstanding that spread widely in the aftermath of Sacrosanctum Concilium. Stated Cardinal Ratzinger: “what does it [active participation] mean...? Unfortunately the word was very quickly misunderstood to mean something external, entailing a need for general activity, as if as many people as possible, as often as possible, should be visibly engaged in action” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, p. 171).
We know that in many places this led to the amalgamation of the sanctuary with the assembly, the clericalization of the laity and the filling up of the sanctuary with the noisy and distracting presence of a large number of people. One could say that virtually Wall Street moved into the sanctuary. But was that really what the Council Fathers advocated?
Obviously, the answer is a resounding "No", from both Popeo Benedict XVI and Cardinal Ranjinth:
Cardinal Ratzinger does not think so. For him, “the real ‘action’ in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate is the action of God Himself. This is what is new and distinctive about Christian liturgy: God Himself acts and does what is essential” (ibid, p. 173).
This kind of participation in the very action of Christ, the High Priest, requires from us nothing less than an attitude of being totally absorbed in Him. Says the cardinal “the point is that, ultimately, the difference between the actio Christi and our own action is done away with. There is only one action, which is at the same time His and ours — ours because we have become ‘one body and one spirit ‘with Him” (ibid p. 174).
Active participation, thus, is not a giving way to any activism but an integral and total assimilation into the person of Christ who is truly the High Priest of that eternal and uninterrupted celebration of the heavenly liturgy.
The Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, too, as we know, spoke of this when it defined liturgy further as a foretaste of the “heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem towards which we journey as pilgrims, and in which Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the sanctuary and of the true Tabernacle” (cf. Rev. 21:2; Col. 3:1; Heb. 8:2)-(SC 8).
Hence, everything we do should help us to achieve that and that alone is the true meaning of the “participatio”: a taking part in a bigger actio. Participatio itself is, I would say, in this sense, an ars [art] where we ourselves are not the artists; neither do we follow an art taught or handed down to us by others, but allow the Lord to be the artist through us, becoming part of what He does. As far as we are concerned, it is participatio in the order of “esse” — being. All that we do in liturgy makes us achieve that union with the eternal high priest, Christ and His sanctifying offering. The more we become part of the oratio of Christ, His eternal self-offering to God as the expiatory Sacrificial Lamb (Rev. 14:1-5), so much more would it be able to transform us into the Logos and make us experience the redeeming effects of such a transformation.
We need to remember that the real actor in all of this is Christ, the High Priest, as both the Holy Father and the cardinal have eloquently stated. During the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the veil between heaven and earth is lifted and we stand in the very presence of the Triune God. We are given a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy.
In my own experience with authentic "actuosa participatio" I found that I was just as much actively participating in the Mass in the Extraordinary Form even moreso than I had been in the Mass in the Ordinary Form. Even though I did not quite understand what Father was saying, I united my feeble prayers to his, engaging my heart into the liturgy. Just because I did not recite all of the prayers, that did not mean that I was participating any less in the Mass.
Since that January evening, I have looked at active participation through a new set of eyes. Yes, I do enjoy proclaiming the readings and leading in the chanting of the Gospel acclamation, but, I am learning to be just as content with remaining in the pew. I admit that there are times when I do not sing at Mass (especially when some of the songs have questionable theology or just do not seem to fall under what the Church, through Sacramentum Caritatis No. 42, notes as proper); however, I close my eyes and pray until the music is over. I am not being a snob; it's just a matter of conscience. In this case, the particicipation is interior, something that Cardinal Ranjinth notes that is needed:
This sequence requires, as a sine qua non on the part both of the priest and of the faithful, a profoundly reverent, totally concentrated and self-abasing attitude of faith and prayerfulness, as well as a sense of stupor before the great divine mysteries celebrated in the liturgy. The question today is whether we do possess within ourselves such interior dispositions, or whether everything has become a matter of mere intellectualism, routine and a carrying out of a series of ritualistic acts or habits.Thus, interior disposition is important, for both the celebrant and the faithful alike. It is something that we have to foster so that our participation in the Mass becomes more authentic.
I do believe that the coming revised translation of the Roman Missal will help a great deal in fostering authentic "actuosa participatio." We will have to re-learn the Ordinary of the Mass. Instead of reciting the prayers from memory, we will have to read them and, hopefully, ponder the words that we are praying, thinking about their meaning as we say them. Even though, at some point, we will probably commit them to memory, it would also be good to engrave them into our hearts. As the Lord said in the Gospel, the mouth speaks what is in the heart.
"Actuosa participatio" should do just that.