Moderator’s note: Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, was promulgated on December 4, 1963. In commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of this revolutionary document, Pray Tell is running a series of daily posts this week. The first post in the series, on the liturgical movement by Katherine Harmon, was yesterday.
Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people, ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people’ (1 Pet. 2:9, 4-5) have a right and obligation by reason of their baptism.
In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy the 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 (SC 14).
What is “active participation,” and do we have it? It may be startling that we need to ask this question now, fifty years after the promulgation of Sacrosanctum concilium, especially given that this is the key term in what may be the most programmatic and widely approved article of the constitution. In fact, it’s really quite apt to begin with the question, and it might be necessary to end with it as well.
In the discussion that follows I will make reference to several talks given at this year’s Leuven Encounters in Systematic Theology, whose theme was “Mediating Mysteries, Understanding Liturgies.” It was a delightful international crowd with a great deal of excellent scholarship, much of which examined the concept of liturgical participation explicitly.
First, a note on the translation of this phrase in article 14. The translation on the Vatican website translates the desired participation as “fully conscious, and active participation,” but I have used Austin Flannery’s translation above, because it preserves the structure of the Latin, with three adjectives all modifying “participation”: “full, conscious, and active participation” (ad plenam illam, consciam atque actuosam liturgicarum celebrationum participationem). This translation gives plenam participationem the weight it deserves. Actuosam participationem also deserves a second glance; as Martin Stuflesser reminded us in a lecture entitled “The Many Meanings of ‘Active Participation’”, actuosus, -a, -um suggests a participation filled with act, a more robust meaning than the English word “active” might suggest.
The early Liturgical Movement was convinced that all that was needed for the liturgy to become the structure of a renewed and vibrant Christian body was a return to the primitive and pristine liturgies of the past. Historical research was often motivated by a desire to turn up the model liturgy of the golden age, but as the evidence of the past was examined more critically, that golden age appeared to evaporate. For example, Maxwell Johnson entertainingly and accurately summarizes the participation John Chrysostom describes in the fourth century, one star candidate for the Christian ideal period:
Although, like most preachers, John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407 CE) may have been inclined to exaggerate the extent of their irreverent conduct, there was surely some basis in reality when he accused members of the congregation in Constantinople of roaming around during the services (In Matt. hom. 19.7-9); of either ignoring the preacher (ibid., 32/33.6) or pushing and shoving to get nearer to hear him (In Joh. hom. 3.1), when not bored or downright exasperated with him (De sacerdotio 5.8); of talking, especially during readings, and of leaving before the liturgy was over. The women caused distractions by the way they decked themselves in finery, makeup, and jewelry (In Matt. hom. 73/74.3); young people spent their time laughing, joking, and talking (In Act. hom. 24.4); and the behavior between the sexes was apparently so bad that Chrysostom claimed that a wall was needed to keep men and women apart (In Matt. hom. 73/74.3) (Maxwell Johnson, Eucharistic Liturgies, p 63).
Even in the “golden age,” liturgical participation may not have been all it was cracked up to be. More than that, by the time the Second Vatican Council began, it was widely recognized that liturgical participation would require not only recovering living liturgy “in the books,” but also a living relationship between the liturgy and the assembly that celebrates it. Romano Guardini had already recognized that this provided a new paradigm for liturgy in his 1918 The Spirit of the Liturgy, where he wrote: “It is of paramount importance that the whole gathering should take an active share in the proceedings” (30, emphasis mine). In this he was following Pius X’s lead, but whereas Tra le Sollecitudini (1903) envisioned the laity’s role as singing along with the (recovered) chant and receiving communion more frequently, Guardini envisioned participating in the liturgy as a discipline that adopted certain modern habits of mind and counteracted others. The ensuing development of liturgical theology up to the council built up this understanding of liturgy, until in article 14, it coalesces in “full, conscious, and active participation.”
If we attempt to evaluate whether, 50 years after the promulgation of the Constitution, Catholic assemblies are fulfilling the promise of article 14, we may miss the point. Liturgical participation is a task never fully accomplished, as Stuflesser pointed out, and this fact was well known to the bishops at the council. Sacrosanctum concilium makes room for and acknowledges varying degrees and modes of participation for lay people, including the use of singing, listening to homily and readings, silence, and processions. The reform of the liturgical year and the lectionary clarified the structure so that the engagement of Catholics in these acts was more enabled to be “full, conscious, and active.” Yet we wish for better participation — across the ideological spectrum(s) we wish it. And we should! Liturgical participation is, in mystery, living in the crucified and risen Christ, and this is something we would expect to be subject to continued development in the lives of individuals and of communities.
Thomas Quartier, a Benedictine oblate from Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, another presenter at LEST IX, pointed out that within the monastic context that marked much of the early Liturgical Movement, increased participation over time would have seemed most natural. After all, The Rule of Benedict connects interior and exterior modes of prayer almost breezily in its treatment of the omnipresence of God and the importance of the Liturgy of the Hours: “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere . . . . Let us therefore consider how we ought to conduct ourselves in sight of the Godhead and of His Angels, and let us take part in the psalmody in such a way that our mind may be in harmony with our voice” (RB 19).
Quartier did a study of visitors to a Benedictine monastery in Germany, surveying them and classifying their modes of participation in the monastic liturgy as “passive,” “attentive,” and “active” according to their responses to survey questions. To his surprise, he found a spectrum with a decided preference for “active” and “attentive” styles of participation, even in a distant, Latin monastic liturgy attended by many irregular churchgoers. This preference was even more notable among older worshippers and regular worshippers than among younger and less frequent worshippers. It is hard to escape the conclusion that “full, active, and conscious participation” is the result of an iterative and lifelong embrace of liturgical experience, much of which may seem — at the moment — mundane. It does not describe a continuous state of peak emotional engagement, but an ongoing challenge.
How can we envision this challenge and imagine greater participation in the future? David Stosur of Cardinal Stritch University (LEST IX: “Narrative Signification and the Paschal Mystery: Liturgy, Participation, and Hermeneutics”) suggested understanding liturgical participation as an immersion into a narrative, which little by little comes to change our vision of the world. Using Paul Ricoeur, Stosur suggests that we come into each liturgical experience with a particular vision of the world, which we can call our liturgical prefiguration. The prefiguration will shape how a participant interprets the liturgical action. On the other hand, by entering into the liturgical action, by imitating, reading, and taking part in the narrative of the sacred story, the participant plays out the plot of the story. Stosur calls this configuration. When we follow it together, no matter how familiar it may seem, the sacred story unsettles some of our presuppositions, confirms others, and changes our world view. Because of this, participants come to identify thier own experience of time with the time of the sacred narrative, reading salvation history within their own lives. This is called refiguration, where the world is reshaped by the story, and it includes the ethical dimension of Christian life as well as spirituality. Significantly, each iteration of prefiguration, configuration, and refiguration constitutes a small change in the worldview of the participant, but over time, the fit between the Gospel and ordinary life becomes tighter and tighter.
The crucial idea that all these understandings of “full, conscious, and active participation” share is the notion that it is eschatological. In some respect, Christians have always lived in the crucified and risen Christ through the liturgy; in others, we have not yet attained the golden age of liturgical participation. To some extent, liturgical participation demands a certain amount of preparation; on the other hand, the liturgy itself teaches. Rather than asking whether we have full, conscious, and active participation, we should be asking, as Quartier does, what modes of participation in the liturgy we do see in the churches, and how we can enhance and deepen them. We should be asking what prefigurations are needed for participants to interpret our liturgies, and be asking them how they understand the liturgies they participate in. Most of all, perhaps, we should seek liturgical practices that encourage people to enter in, deeper and deeper, rather than being satisfied to accomplish the minimum. For such practices are “the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit.”