Getting Active Participation Right


One of the obstacles to a wider acceptance of the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, as well as a more reverent celebration of the ordinary form, is an enduring misunderstanding of the concept of active participation. Earlier this summer, Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa, criticized Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI for their “restorationist” vision after watching a grandly successful Pontifical Solemn High Mass in the old rite celebrated at the National Shrine in Washington, D.C., on April 24. After describing the horror of 3,000 people who “sat passively” as they listened to the music of Palestrina and Tallis (O the humanity!), the bishop came to a profound conclusion: “By that point I had come to realise that this Tridentine liturgy was an elaborate ritual manifestation of ecclesiastical rank, not a Mass in conformity with the fundamental Vatican II mandate for full, active participation by the faithful.”

But Bishop Dowling’s dismissiveness of the extraordinary form pales in comparison to Roger Cardinal Mahony’s 1997 pastoral letter, “Gather Faithfully Together,” the arguable high watermark of dubious doctrine concerning active participation by a Church prelate. In that letter, active participation is portrayed not as a means of partaking in the very life and mystery of God, but as a call “to attend to others.” Cardinal Mahony goes on to praise his new, disorienting cathedral because it enables “most members of the assembly . . . to participate more fully with the other members of the assembly.” Cardinal Mahony’s idea of the “assembly” participating with itself rather than the Godhead is rather like (per Chesterton’s observation) thinking a baby gets his best food by sucking his thumb — and that a group of babies gets their best food by sucking each other’s thumbs.

It is deceptively easy to slip into a misconception of active participation. Even the stalwartly orthodox Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, Colorado, recently explained his preference for the Novus Ordo, or new Mass, over the older Tridentine rite on the grounds that the former encourages “active, creative participation by all the faithful — not only in the liturgy but in every aspect of the Church’s mission.” Archbishop Chaput’s phraseology, which occurs in an otherwise brilliant and recommended lecture titled “Glorify God by Your Life: Evangelization and the Renewal of the Liturgy,” goes beyond Vatican II’s call for “fully conscious and active” participation by its inclusion of the word “creative.” How is a person in the pews supposed to be “creative” during the liturgy without destroying the very notion of liturgy itself? I’d wager that most of the problems encountered by the Congregation for Divine Worship in the last generation come from folks getting creative with the received rites.

The Real Meaning of Active Participation

So let’s review the basics. Pope St. Pius X first coined the expression partecipazione attiva in his 1903 motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini as part of his goal to restore Gregorian chant to the mainstream of the Church (according to the musically sensitive pontiff, chant is marvelously ordered “to the understanding of the faithful” by the way it “clothes” the text with suitable melodies). Pope Pius XI extended this principle in his 1928 apostolic constitution Divini Cultus to the verbal responses of the congregation as well. The faithful should not be, he tells us, “merely detached and silent spectators, but filled with a deep sense of the beauty of the Liturgy.”

Note the wording carefully: Pius XI contrasts being “detached and silent” not with loudness or some other externally quantifiable sign, but with being filled with the liturgy’s splendor. The opposite of liturgical inactivity is not, as some might expect, the external activity of voice or movement, but the internal wonder born of experiencing beauty; and if the externals are to be encouraged, it is for the sake of vivifying the internal. Pace Bishop Dowling, you can be filled with a deep sense of the beauty of the liturgy and thus be fully and active participating without uttering a word.

Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei (1947) articulates a similar understanding. Pius XII commends “active and individual participation” through which “the members of the Mystical Body . . . become daily more like to their divine Head” (78). He too warns the faithful not to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice “in an inert and negligent fashion, giving way to distractions and day-dreaming, but with . . . earnestness and concentration” (80). Note again the emphasis on mental presence.

But Pius XII was also aware of unsavory trends in the Liturgical Movement at the time (8), and so he warns against a forced external uniformity in participation and even recommends other prayers and “exercises of piety” (such as the rosary) for those who do not benefit from audibly responding or singing (108). Implicit in Pius’ flexibility is again the ultimate goal of ruminating on, and thus entering into, the deeper mysteries of the Divine, which he holds superior to what Francis Cardinal Arinze would later refer to in “Active Participation in the Sacred Liturgy” as an “over-regimentation” of external actions bereft of contemplative activity.

Moreover, Pius XII’s encyclical is the first to give us the full Latin term for active participation: actuosa participatio. Again, note the wording: When translating the Italian partecipazione attiva into Latin, the normative language of the universal Church, the pope could have chosen activa as the adjective — but he did not. He speaks instead of actuosa participatio, which is better translated into English as “actual participation” (and here I must express my profound gratitude to Dr. Daniel Van Slyke for this insight). This phrase more clearly mirrors the profile of ideal liturgical participation as outlined by the supreme pontiffs than “active participation,” which can give the impression that the focus is on mere outer activity. In his essay “Active Participation and Pastoral Adaptation,” Alcuin Reid is quite right to describe true “active participation,” even that which involves complete bodily or vocal activity, as “essentially contemplative.”

Therefore, when the Second Vatican Council speaks of “fully conscious and active [actuosa] participation” in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (14; cf. 19, 21, 27, 30), it is not inventing a new idea but simply reaffirming the teaching of the popes. Indeed, adding the word “conscious” more directly highlights the centrality of deliberate, alert, and engaged attention, or what the ancients called contemplation. True, Vatican II wanted to see the congregation involved in the responses and singing (see no. 30), but it did so for the sake of this internal, actual participation, not as an end unto itself. Vatican II did not abolish papal teachings on actual participation; it presupposed them.

Old vs. New Forms of the Mass

Back, then, to the common accusation that one form of the Roman rite has more “active participation” than the other. Based on the Church’s operative definition of actuosa participatio, the only way we could substantiate such a claim would be to measure the degree to which the hearts — rather than the limbs or vocal chords — of the congregation are fully involved in the sacred action of the altar (a difficult task, to be sure). If, on the other hand, we were to measure mere externals, we would make a startling discovery: The Tridentine Mass actually has more responses and actions for the congregation to make than the Novus Ordo.

Some might object at this point that people at a Tridentine Mass do not usually take advantage of the opportunity for greater exterior participation. Assuming this is true (in some places it is, while in others it is not), we must still reply: So what? An allergic reaction to giving the responses is no more a reflection of the mind of the preconciliar Church than are the affected hand gestures and exaggerated shouts of “And also with you!” a reflection of the mind of the postconciliar Church.

The simple fact of the matter is that, when it comes to the nature of active participation, the mind of the Church — which is found in the most authoritative teachings of the Magisterium — has not changed significantly in the last 100 years, even though you could never tell from the wild divergences in actual celebration. Thoughtful devotees of both the 1962 and the 1970 missals can agree that the two extremes of the pendulum have missed the mark.

The bottom line, then, is that we should stop counting articulated syllables and ritual gesticulations and instead acknowledge that a true and actual participation in the august mysteries of the Eucharistic cult, regardless of the form of the rite, has more to do with a soul in devotion than a body in motion. It would be nice if some of our bishops knew that, too.

Michael P. Foley


Michael P. Foley teaches in the Great Texts Program at Baylor University. He is the author of Drinking with Your Patron Saints (Regnery, 2020) and the Politically Incorrect Guide to Christianity (Regnery, 2017), among others.

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)