Degrees of Active Participation in the Liturgy

My flight arrived in Kyiv early on the afternoon of Friday, September 20, 2019. After hotel check-in and a brief rest, I made my way up and around a long, steep hill to St. Michael’s Cathedral. I had not visited Kyiv for three years, so I forgot the shortcut that would have saved me three minutes. I consoled myself by imagining that I had followed a route to Church taken by faithful of several generations.

My powers of observation finally booted up after a momentary emotional delay. I arrived at church a bit late, and walked in as the choir was singing the evening hymn, phos ilaron (Gladsome Light). They sang the setting composed by Kyrylo Stetsenko, who adapted a folk motif for the pattern melody.

The moment overwhelmed me. I heard a song composed for liturgy that I learned from immigrants who preserved a living tradition that was at risk during the Soviet era. This cathedral was full with urban worshipers for the Vigil service on the feast of Mary’s birth – on a Friday evening!

Once I came to my senses, I began to observe. The service seemed like the community had been frozen in time, from the 19th century. Women, old and young, moved about quietly, heads covered with scarves, lighting candles. Men and children stood at attention. The 21st century interrupted the time freeze when people wandered in, taking photos with their phones.

A bishop anointing the people during vigil at St. Michael’s Cathedral, September 20, 2019. Photo by author.

As a lifelong student of Liturgy, I wondered: would this community select music that the people themselves could sing? Would the presiders recite some of the prayers aloud? Would the choir director use visible gestures, inviting the people to join in?

Music from “on high”

Sophisticated choral music coming from an invisible gallery high in the nave dominated the service. Even the litanies were sung by the choir to wide harmonies with melismas the ordinary Svitlana and Volodya would struggle to sing.

I searched for obvious signs of active participation in vain. At no point were the people invited to sing. Throughout the service, they wandered somewhat randomly throughout the nave, forming a tight circle around the bishop when he came to the middle of the nave to sing the megalynarion.

Wanderers and “unofficial” liturgies

The next day, on the day of the feast itself, I returned to St. Michael’s for the festal liturgy. I left early, and walked a few miles to St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral where I spent most of the Liturgy. The liturgical aesthetic at St. Volodymyr’s was similar to the one at St. Michael’s, with one significant difference. The Cathedral is home for the relics of St. Barbara the Great Martyr and St. Makarios of Kyiv, so many of the people present were celebrating a secondary, unofficial liturgy during the Eucharistic offering. They lit candles and stood in chaotic lines to venerate the holy relics, bumping into one another (with no harm done). Many of the wanderers gazed at the icons hanging on the walls, venerating them and offering their prayers.

The tight, inner circle surrounding the presiding bishops. St. Volodymyr Cathedral, Kyiv, September 21, 2019. Photo by author.

Participants in the unofficial liturgy came and went, sometimes leaving the Church only to return. Participants in the Divine Liturgy formed a tight circle around the presiding bishop. I noticed that this inner circle of liturgical participants remained stationary for the entirety of the Liturgy. St. Volodymyr Cathedral had two choirs: an invisible one in a high gallery (they sounded professional), and an amateur choir gathered on a kliros near the front of the Church. The amateur choir sang simply melodies in responding to the litanies – not once did I notice the people singing along.

In the evening, I ventured into a parish near my hotel, St. Illia Church, a smaller structure. I couldn’t see the choir because they were assembled around a corner to my right out of my line of sight. They, too, were amateur, but sang competently and clearly, using easily “singable” melodies. Nevertheless, no one sang along.

Vigil at St. Illia Church, Podil region, Kyiv, September 21, 2019. Photo by author.

(I started to sing along, but stopped since I was sure other participants were glaring at me – I was worried that my singing was disrupting their prayer!).

The clergy sang the customary Hymn of the Resurrection (“Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ”) with the choir (quite beautifully!), but the people were quiet – even when the protodeacon with an impressive basso profundo faced them while intoning the prokeimena (responsorial psalmody, at Vespers and Matins). Anyone could sing the melody he intoned – only the choir responded.

The presiders intoned the ekphoneses of the prayers – the last line of each prayer, an exclamation, usually in praise of the Holy Trinity. The bulk of each prayer was recited sotto voce.

Assemblies that don’t sing

In summary: the liturgical-architectural setting of three of the four churches I visited separated the main choir from the people. The people did not sing the acclammations and responses appointed to them. The only time I noticed the people singing was during the Creed at the Divine Liturgy – one of the deacons led the singing from the ambo, facing the people. They wandered around the Church, and in one case, many of them observed their own unofficial liturgy of venerating icons and holy relics.

My story would seem to present a classical case of urban liturgy ripe for reform for the people’s active participation. But there was one element that united the diverse Churches I visited.

Non-vocalized bodily responses

In each Church, for every litanic petition intoned by the deacon, the people made the sign of the cross and bowed at the waist. The people responded to each intoned prayer with bodily gestures. In other words, the people actively participated in the call-and-response liturgical component through their bodies. They performed this gesture of response during the exclamations of the prayers, as well.

This kind of active liturgical participation is dialogical. The deacon intones the prayer, completing it with “let us pray to the Lord,” or some similar bidding. The people hear the cue in the bidding: “let us pray”; “bow your heads”; “let us ask,” and so on. The communal response of bodily gestures amount to their responses and acclammations. Participation is quite active – it is simply non-vocalized in these instances.

What do we make of the absence of the people’s singing the responses appointed to them? The people sing the parts of the Liturgy according the the established custom. In these Kyivan Churches, they sing the Creed, and join in the singing of “Many Years” and in special hymns of the liturgical year. This feature of Kyivan urban liturgy does not apply everywhere. It is much more common for the people to join in the singing of acclamations, litanies, and other responses in rural and village parish life (a topic for another post on the power of chant for those who’d like to bury it forever).


A few final observations from my brief immersion into the urban liturgy of Kyiv.

  1. Communal bodily gestures are significant, constituting the people’s response to invitations to pray, and representing active and conscious participation in the liturgy;
  2. The absence of communal singing does not necessarily mean that the deacon’s intonation or the musical selection was not compatible with the assembly’s ability to sing;
  3. The parallel performance of unofficial liturgies of venerating relics and icons while wandering throughout the interior space of the Church is significant.

Concluding Hypothesis

And to conclude, a hypothesis for further discussion:

  1. Unofficial popular liturgies of wandering and veneration are permanent fixtures of Christian urban liturgy. No amount of catechesis and liturgical law can eliminate the unofficial liturgies of veneration. Furthermore, these unofficial liturgies neither threaten the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, nor diminish it. Unofficial popular liturgies are problematic only when they blatantly interfere with the appointed rite.




  1. As a Latin-rite traditionalist, I find this very relate-able. One won’t usually see people get up and wander around to venerate images or light candles during Mass itself, but the comfort of allowing people to participate in a myriad of ways is ever-present. It’s something I used to feel a little ashamed of since I was using the modern concept of lock-step conformity as my measure of good liturgy and real participation, but have found myself letting go of that as an ideal lately.

    I sort of think of what happens in many Eastern churches, as well as many traditional Catholic Masses, as being kind of like a large family meal. There are times when everyone comes together to do one thing (like pray before the meal, or sing Happy Birthday if it is a birthday party), and the person hosting will offer direction for what everyone should do, but otherwise people branch off and do many things. Some might step in to help in the kitchen, or branch off to have side conversation and catch-up with each other. As formal and ritualized as these older liturgies may seem, they are to me actually much less formal and more relaxed – which actually makes deep participation easier.

  2. degrees of active participation in the Liturgy
    Source and Summit

    Monday – Corporal Works of Mercy
    Tuesday – Spiritual Works of Mercy
    Wednesday – Theological and Cardinal Virtues
    Thursday – Alph/Omega of Our Faith – 4 Last Things
    Friday – Remorse Repentance Contrition
    Saturday – For Those who Wait
    Preparation for the Sabbath
    Commentaries for the Sunday of the Liturgical Year – Days of the Lord
    Liturgy of the Word plus Cantalamessa supplemental reading
    Preface and Commentary Eucharistic Prayer and Commentary-
    The Order of the Mass A Roman Missal Study Edition and Workbook

    I do what I can do and leave others to do what they can do
    Sometimes my hip or my knees make getting unstuck from kneeling so hard that I don’t kneel.
    Sometimes my hearing loss selects what I hear and what passes by
    Sometimes I sing out even if the pew choir doesn’t know the lyrics, can’t find the page, or are not spot on for pitch or key.
    Sometimes I remember my Latin and sometimes I don’t
    Sometimes the weave of all of the elements of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist is so whole, so seamless that
    Then sings my soul my Savior God to Thee – How Great Thou Art

  3. Pierre Hegy has authored “Worship as Community Drama: an Introduction to Liturgy Evaluation” with the foreword by Bruce Morrill. The author says his work is “a first step in the empirical study of worship.” He offers a template with which to evaluate liturgy which, I believe, will become a very helpful tool/lens through which liturgy can be viewed.

  4. Our culture is word centred, so obviously the liturgical reformers of the ’60’s wanted or assumed verbal participation as the norm. Listen to the readings. say the prayers, etc.

    Whether that does justice to the idea of ‘attiva’ or even ‘actuosa’ is debatable.

    This article raises really profound questions as to how people engage with the Liturgical action.

    Our churches don’t allow much movement, either, what with rows of pews (Aidan Kavanagh’s image of pews aligned like lines on the printed page is particuarly telling) regimenting us and inviting us either to sit or kneel, but not to stand or move around.

    It’s particuarly hard for children!


  5. I have little to add and nothing to subtract from your hypothesis. As for the rubrics, if the clergy vary greatly from them, or omit them, there used to be you-know-what to pay, but maybe that’s softened up in the last seven years. The influence of the Temple Police seems to be waning. When the baptized don’t follow the rubrics, nobody in management has ever seemed particularly concerned. I’ve known some American sticklers who insist everything-must-be-right and will browbeat unresponsive worshipers. That approach holds no water with me.

    As much as people would like to think MR3 or SC or Trent settled it all, we still live in a transitional era. It is a good time to watch and listen. And sing when we have the stomach for it.

    1. I find the references to the “Temple Police” some here make confusing and maybe insulting – perhaps you could elaborate what makes one a member of this group? It seems always to be made towards those who don’t like severe “liturgical abuses” where clergy take it upon themselves to force their own theology and idiosyncrasies on the congregation (often driving people away – I remember as a teenager seeing an influx of people at my church because the new pastor nearby banned all kneeling at Mass to the point of removing all the kneelers during the week and would not talk reasonably about it with anyone – and this at what was known as the more “progressive” church).

      1. Jack, I myself don’t use this term, but I understand it to refer to those who have elevated rubrics to a level higher than the liturgical principles they are meant to serve. These folk spend their time slamming what they preceive as rubrical and even doctrinal infringements instead of looking for the positive pastoral rationale underlying a decision that they may find strange or even objectionable.

        This isn’t saying that it’s OK for liturgists to be fuzzy, but it is an appeal for a less blinkered vision, laced with a dose of charity, on the part of those who criticise. If they were always to assume the best motives in people, rather than knee-jerkily condemning them as heretics, not true Catholics, faith-diluters, etc, then that would be a good start. Getting behind or underneath the surface perception to see what values are in play is always preferable to angry single-issue sniping, it seems to me.

      2. I agree there are some clergy and liturgical leaders who do stupid and counterproductive things. They are of all ideological stripes. As for the Temple Police, they came into play, for example, with a priest friend of mine who suffered from bad knees. He did not genuflect at the institution narrative, but made profound bows, so he was reported to our bishop. None of that is an ideal situation: the knees, the bows, the reporting. He shared with me he explained himself to his hard-core parishioners, but they would have none of it. They weren’t “progressive,” mind you.

        I have encountered people who thought they had uncovered a liturgical abuse, but it was a reasonable and approved adaptation. Many such folks are earnest, but sometimes they know what they know and they don’t trust anybody outside their focus group. Again, none of that is ideal. For my part, I will talk to people. Sometimes we have fine conversations. Sometimes they decline to talk.

        Another example: a parishioner couple once attended a workshop on the Liturgy of the Hours. They returned to the Liturgy Committee all fired up. They thought the committee and all parish groups needed to implement this right away: before meetings, on odd weekdays, etc.. They were a bit brusque with it, as people told me. When I was hired the next year, the Hours came up again, and I was able to make a more persuasive case for it. My friends were upset they failed to budge people where the progressive liturgist was able to get people thinking, at least.

        I think it’s time to set aside badges and work together.

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