Open Discussion: The new translation and encouraging participation

A colleague of mine works as director of music in a large Roman Catholic parish. She is one of many who has been working tirelessly to prepare parishioners for the new missal translation. She wrote me this week to share her frustrations, and with her permission, I share her words with you:

So there is a definite segment of the congregation at my parish that does not participate in the liturgy. I can best compare them to an appliance with an on/off button that corresponds to when they sit and stand. They do not use any resources or hymnals. You know the type…they could almost just be a part of the furniture.

Well, with the new translation stuff coming, I have put a lot of stuff into play: we have started the new music and I continue to review the Gloria before all masses; we have supplements in the back of hymnals with the revised texts and music and I have the worship aids which contain information as well… People have also had the opportunity to get pew cards with changes though attending workshops and we offered the hymnal supplements for sale for those that want their own personal copy. I’ve run bulletin announcements and made pulpit announcements about joining the choir and coming to rehearsal to learn the mass parts for anyone that is interested.

The “furniture people” are a bit of a concern as this approaches. I feel like we have a large variety of resources available to suit different “types.” The trick is getting them to use them.

Any ideas on what I can do to get people to participate more actively?

I imagine many of us can relate to the situation she describes. I would love to get the collective wisdom of the Pray Tell readership on a couple of questions she brings up.

One, with can my colleague do to reach those people who seem completely uninterested? Does she need to do anything?

Two, what can we do for such congregation members in general?


  1. Once, in a parish in France, a priest in a rush, burdened by the simultaneous care of many parishes, arrived just in time for Mass, and, at the time of the readings, asked for volunteers to do the readings. No one came forward. He asked again, insistently. Still no volunteer. Then he said: “Well, since no one will make any effort to help with the liturgy, there is no point in my continuing with the Mass” – and he left.

    That woke them up. The following week, he had no trouble finding lectors.

    Maybe some drastic action is needed.

    1. The priest didn’t get what he wanted at a moment’s notice, so he walked out. He sent a very clear message – do as I say or no Mass for you.

    2. That’s one interpretation, that puts all the blame on the pastor and none on the parishioners. But in dysfunctional relationships, isn’t there usually enough blame to spread around on both sides?

    3. I suppose I don’t know both sides of the story, but a few things struck me that would put more blame on the pastor. It’s not the laity’s obligation to read the scripture, as far as I know. However, it is the priest’s obligation to celebrate Mass for his people. Most people don’t feel comfortable being thrown into a public speaking role at a moment’s notice, so I wouldn’t assume the congregation was indifferent or unwilling to help (as if attending Mass isn’t helping enough).

      I’ve been overworked too – for a while I was working 75 hours a week (not counting commute time). At that time, I made a serious effort to attend Mass even though I was exhausted. If the priest had just walked out because he didn’t think I was helping enough, it would likely be the last time I bothered going to that parish. Perhaps in France they are more desperate.

  2. I have been rehearsing the new acclamations before all Masses for several weeks now. Started with “I’ll sing a line, then we’ll sing it together” with generous doses of me, cantor, and choir on the mics filling the church with sound. That got things started. The next step is me asking the congregation to sing it on their own, sort of like taking off the training wheels.

    So often, in wanting the church to be full of sound we feel compelled to make that sound: loud organ or instruments, big microphone-voiced cantor, choirs, presider belting it out into his mic. This sends the message that the music belongs to the musicians and the congregation can “join in” if they like. It does not foster any sense of the congregation’s ownership of the music.

    I’ve been successful at encouraging singing by giving -less- musical leadership. Celtic Alleluia? I intone it nice and strong, then on the repeat I step back from the mic and sing along quietly so the people have space to participate. Either they sing that refrain or no one does! Then I step up for the verse, nice and strong, then step back for the final refrain. This approach has worked for me, though it seems counterintuitive.

    1. So there is a definite segment of the congregation at my parish that does not participate in the liturgy.

      James, it sounds to me like they’re people who already aren’t very responsive during the liturgy, and that the new translation is added onto that.

    2. ‘Perhaps they’re not responding because they don’t want to use the “new translation stuff”.’

      That will be me, soon enough.

  3. Perhaps some are so numb and have not felt anything with the previous translation so they really just don’t know how or what to expect or do. I know I never sang some of the horrible hymns that my childhood parish offered. Many Catholics prefer the internal type of prayer, especially in this day and age of “personal relationships” with GOD that they just don’t like speaking out loud. That would explain the Dialogue Mass being such a failure. The common joke is Catholics don’t sing. Internal participation may be the thing that the majority of Catholics want if so many parishes have “inactive members”. They are there, perhaps participating in the way that suits them best. So stop worrying about them and encourage their spirituality whatever way it takes, external or internal.

    1. especially in this day and age of “personal relationships” with GOD

      I’m just wondering what other sort of relationship with GOD you want, and who is going to be standing there with you, before the throne of grace, when GOD says “who the hell are you?”

  4. It might helpt to not define them as “furniture people”. One of the reasons I kind of dreaded going to church was the pretty judgemental attitude that some of the people there had about some of the others, from where they sat to how often they came to what they wore … for all I know they were rating people’s responses as well. Maybe the quiet people are just doing as Mitch mentioned, internalizing the prayers.

  5. Every parish has different levels of perceived participation. I do think it is unfair to label the lower end of the partipation scale as ‘furniture people’. It also seems to me unnecessarily judgmental.

    I can sympathize with her when she puts a lot of effort into her preparation, and then gets…’crickets.’ But I also think that many music directors push for the grand and the complicated when the simple and the reverent are equally appropriate, and more well received by the congregation.

    I am not a big fan of much of the ‘new’ translation, but you should know by now iam a big fan of

  6. Sorry, for some reason I could not finish the edit above.

    …I am a big fan of the stressed emphasis on chant. It is easy for people to learn and well within the vocal range of almost everyone. It is also reverent.

    So, my advice to her would be don’t try so hard. Try using the chants available freely from ICEL, for example. See what happens. She may be surprised.

  7. I think that the Mass has become meaningless for many — to refresh our relationship to the Mass we should embed it in a broader culture of spirituality, prayer and ritual. Celebrating the Eucharist once a month, for a while, might be a good schedule. The other Sundays would then be free for a spiritual quest and a renewal of our culture of bible, prayer and worship.

  8. The question is posed to the wrong audience.

    I think what one can change is one’s attitude about the “furniture people”. They are not a problem that needs fixing, and they don’t need you to get them to do something – unless they tell you what they need and you fail to do it.

    In other words, the first step is to fix your attitude. Then to engage in curious listening (that means asking open-ended non-rhetorical questions (typically beginning with the word What, rather than Why or How) that don’t invite binary or pre-selected answers – these are the kind of questions that invite paragraphs in response, not Survey Monkey crap), and be prepared that they may not have univocal needs or desires – they are not necessarily a They. You have to listen to them before you listen to us.

    1. Having been “theologized” in the 1970’s in the school of “forcing” people to participate, especially those right after Vatican II who had no intention of changing the way they had participated prior to the Council, I do think that there is an attitude brought on by this corrupt theology that we have to be preoccupied by the congregation’s participation and our blood pressure should rise when they don’t and we should get angry and we should hammer it home that they should participate. What other reason do we have song leaders at the front waving their hands in a frenzy to get people to sing and have rehearsals that go over things until people are forced to sing. I’ve heard song leaders chastising people during rehearsals right before Mass. That’s a great way to get people into the mood of prayer! I can remember some priests bragging about the fact that as they stood at the entrance of the nave to get ready for the procession, and when they noticed that people in the back didn’t even bother to open their hymnals for the “entrance chant” that they would go to the pew, get the hymnal out of the rack and shove it in their hands with the hymnal at the right page and tell them “sing!”
      The recovery of the EF Mass, facing ad orientem and the like has liberated so many of us from being preoccupied by what the congregation is doing or not doing. It’s their business and if they want to sing great and if they don’t, so what? I’m just glad they’re there and don’t have to be like the “liturgical gestapo” by threatening the “furniture” into doing what they don’t feel called to do naturally.

      1. “The recovery of the EF Mass, facing ad orientem and the like has liberated so many of us from being preoccupied by what the congregation is doing or not doing. It’s their business and if they want to sing great and if they don’t, so what?”

        That might be an overstatement, and an overreaction.

        Certainly, the Church cares about the participation of the faithful. A great deal. And not merely interiorly. So, being concerned about the participation of the faithful is part of being faithful on our part.

        That said, it’s easy to get trapped into a dynamic of either ignoring or fixing. (It is proverbial that the devil sends evils in pairs, so that we may flee from one to embrace the other.) I think the issue is to engage in the painstaking and time-consuming work of engagement and genuinely curious listening to individual people; it’s the work of years, not a few weeks or even months. Be open to being surprised, and ask for more. “What else?” can be asked again and again, and after a while, things come up that might never come up unless you’ve demonstrated that you are a trustworthy and curious listener. (At this point, Jack R. could give more professional pointers than I.)

      2. Karl, the truth of ad orientem at least for me is trust! I have to tell you that the first few times I celebrated Mass this way (and it is extraordinary, not my “normal” or “ordinary” way of celebrating Mass), I worried about what was going on behind me? Would someone sneak up on me, hit me over the head? Were people still there? Were they laughing at me, (not that I’m paranoid or anything like that)? Ad orientem is a position of vulnerability for the priest and trust in the congregation and what is going on behind you is essential or you’d keep looking back over your shoulder which is not pretty. It’s turning yourself over to them in trust, not fear of what they are doing wrong. Hopefully the Catholics back there are properly formed through faith formation and liturgical awareness and no one is perched to jump up and push the priest down when he least expects it.

  9. We had a “post implementation” “mystygogic” faith formation in two separate sessions for about 200 people this past Sunday and Wednesday (within the context of a meal–we call it GIFT, Generations In Faith Together). We asked for discussion on the various aspects of the corrected English translation. The consensus at both sessions is that the implementation has made the individual more conscious of participating in the Mass and the need to be more intentional about the responses and their singing, not relying on rote memory or reflex. The consensus about the Credo is that it is much better and they prefer the “I believe.” Adult words have made them look them up for clarification, such as consubstantial, incarnate, prevenient and gibbet. Children were at the event too and while not knowing prevenient or gibbet, do know consubstantial and incarnate (I’m speaking of second graders whom we really encouraged with their parents to be at the meeting since the topic was Mass and Holy Communion and they’re preparing for the Sacraments). But even for second graders understanding these adult words is within their grasp. The leader of the discussion asked why we are now saying “And with your spirit.” A second grader raised his hand and responded because it is what the Latin says. She asked him what does the Latin say, he responded, et cum spiritu tuo! In fact our entire parish from young childhood to old age knows that! 🙂 We have a very high number of parishioners who have strong Protestant backgrounds and participate very well with the spoken but most especially sung parts of the Mass–they are continuing this fine tradition with the new translation of the parts of the Mass–there’s been absolutely no problem there and we’ve never rehearsed anything before Mass–we simply implemented it the first Sunday of September and made sure they had worship aids with notes to help them follow and its gotten better every week, even “and with your spirit!” You’d think we’ve been doing this new stuff for over 40 years, but its only be two and half months. I can only imagine what it will be like in 40 years.

    1. In his retirement, the late and much loved Cardinal Lawrence Shehan of Baltimore was physically attacked while he was saying a weekday Mass in the old cathedral (the Basilica of the Assumption). Cardinal Shehan was celebrating Mass facing the people. Perhaps your point is just a bit overdrawn.

      1. Actually I prefer to see who is coming. I sleep with my bedroom door locked in downtown Macon, so that when the intruder enters the room at least I’ll be awake when he kills me or she, not to be sexist.

  10. Karl’s points are well-taken. American (and Catholic) rationalism would suggest the solution is knowledge for the ignorant. Fr Allan’s testimony strikes as aligned with that. Yet the Church teaches that faith is more than a school–it is an apprenticeship in a lifestyle. Not a classroom in which one receives prepared answers.

    Ultimately, participation is modeled. It’s more about the writer’s motto: show, don’t tell. The parish priest participates in the life of the community. Musicians likewise, but also the interior praying of the Mass.

    While I have no doubt about the veracity of Fr Allan’s witness to his remaining parishioners, developing authentic and deep participation from zero over a period of months is wishful thinking. In my experience, it takes years. And leadership must provide substantial personal example.

    1. Todd you are correct, especially your last paragraph. We should have been spending years preparing people for the corrected missal, developing a standard repertoire of singing from a permanent hymnal and using maybe no more than four settings of the Mass proper. Most parishes are constantly throwing new music, new Mass parts and contemporary stuff that simply is plain unsingable (if I can’t sing it, I know my parishioners for the most part won’t.). Our Mystogogic experience this past week was a culmination of about eight years of preparing for what we implemented on the first Sunday of September. And of course the priest needs to be positive about his parishioners, join them in singing and perhaps modeling that for them and on and on.

  11. So there is a definite segment of the congregation at my parish that does not participate in the liturgy. I can best compare them to an appliance with an on/off button that corresponds to when they sit and stand.

    The furniture people are responding very reasonably and rationally to their situation. Give them the respect they deserve as human beings.

    They are treated as furniture almost all of the time. They have no say in the choice of the pastor or the music director; no say in the homilies or the choice of music. They had no say in the new Missal, either its contents, or when and how it will be implemented. They have no say in whether they stand or sit.

    So why begrudge them their human freedom. The freedom not pick up a hymnal or missal aid. The freedom not to sing. The freedom not to be excited about all the things that pastoral staff are excited about. The freedom to come to Mass late, and leave early. Hey, all these things are ways of saying that they are not furniture.

    The real complaint seems to be that pastoral staff have set up a series of hoops, and are saying that if you are going to be a “good catholic” you should jump through the hoops, better yet eagerly and correctly! Why should they want to be trained dogs when they have more freedom and dignity by being furniture?

    The missal implementation is another version of the ‘dog and pony” show that takes place in most organizations. The leadership puts on an event that celebrates how important they and their roles and concerns are. Everybody else that does the work of the organization rolls their eyes, and wonders if the management will ever take their lives seriously.

    In servant leadership, one listens and then one tries to provide people with help and choices, not dictates. If they don’t respond, listen more closely. They may be speaking loudly with their silence and inaction.

    1. +1.

      I knew you’d come through on this one….

      PS: Another thing is for the questioner to question his or her own assumptions and beliefs about what Good Liturgy and Active Participation Should Look and Sound Like. Assumptions and beliefs are not facts. They can be changed, so we need to cultivate awareness of them so that we can detach from them when they don’t suit the needs of them we serve. Of course, this is *huge* work to undertake, a there’s a significant aspect of Catholic culture that impedes it (but not all – Catholic culture offers better models, if we but take the example of the Benedictine abbot, or the Dominican prior who realizes not to impose anything on anyone as a matter of obedience that he or she is not really suited to, et cet.) The work of a lifetime. In the meantime, it’s messy. For some reason, God seems to love messy more than we do….

    2. #18 by Jack Rakowsky is a magnificent answer. Since the 1950’s “dialog” Masses and the gradual switch to English, I have been enthusiastic about our participation. However, the onslaught of balderdash from the USCCB and the diocese that the new translation will help us to become more pious leads me again to cynicism. Alfredo Ottaviani is dancing a jig.

  12. Todd says developing authentic and deep participation from zero over a period of months is wishful thinking. In my experience, it takes years.

    Doing anything well takes years. When implementing something, usually the first year is just to do it, the second year to get it right, and the third year to do it well.

    As I planner I thought in terms of where the organization should be in ten years. We did five year plans because they are easier for people to think about. It would generally take a year to do the listening and discussion to get a really good five year plan, and several years to actually change things. However if you take time and do things well, I found you don’t really need to do a second five year plan, you can usually coast on the momentum in the directions in which you are going.

    What I see in so many parish programs is that they are announced amid much fanfare by the pastoral staff, people flock to them for a few months or maybe a year or two if they are lucky and then they die back to very modest programs with a core group of 20 or so people.

    Unfortunately these flashy programs tend to draw people from existing programs into them. From what I can see some of the Conservative Protestant mega-Churches run their congregations this way. The say they reinvent themselves every 6 months. It is one flashy program after another usually run by a core group of the congregation. They might be successful businesses, but is this what Christian life is about?

    In regard to the implementation locally so far, the parish with a very strong long term liturgical orientation (for at least 20 years) is taking the implementation in stride in bits and pieces without much fanfare. A couple of other parishes with lesser liturgical orientations are treating it like a new program with a lot of publicity but not a lot of substance. I don’t think the implementation will allow them to catch up with the first parish any time soon.

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