How to Misunderstand Active Participation: A User’s Guide

by Andrea Grillo

As often happens in matters theological, chance counts more than necessity. By pure chance, in fact,  in order to complete an article for a magazine yesterday, I checked the official Italian translation of one of the best known and most important texts of the liturgical Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium – the definition of actuosa participatio in  SC 48: “per ritus et preces id bene intelligendum.” After having ascertained the substantially correct translation of the Italian version, I became intrigued. The site offers, in the upper right, all the other 12 official versions. I clicked on the EN (English) version and discovered the first mistake! Then I clicked FR and ES: everything okay. But then I clicked PT (Portuguese) and once again, a mistake. Since the matter deserves a full discourse, I start from the beginning and recount the story as it began for me.

“Active Participation” as the Key to the Liturgical Reform

I have never forgotten the moment, 18 years ago, when for the first time I began to understand what was at stake in the central sentence of SC 48. It was 2003, the 40th anniversary of SC, and the Archdiocese of Turin had organized the presentation of a “sociological survey” – edited by Domenico Cravero and the results can be read here. On that occasion I was asked to present the change in the concept of “participation in the liturgy” that took place with Vatican II. That was the occasion when I made, for the first time, a “synoptic reading” of “participation of the faithful” found in the encyclical  Mediator Dei of Pius XII with the “actuosa participatio” of SC. And the light bulb went on. As Aristotle says, things are understood in two ways: by analogy and by difference. I then understood that the model of “participation” proposed by SC is not understood if the differences with respect to the previous concept and practice are not carefully noted. In a word, the “participation of the faithful” is understood by MD as “actus animae,” as an act of the soul, aimed at “having the same sentiments as the crucified Lord.” It is a purely interior participation, which takes place “in front of” the rite, not “through the rite” or “in the rite” or “thanks to the rite.” The novelty of SC lies precisely in departing from this idea and this practice, which generates “silent spectators,” and in seeing the liturgical rite as “mediation,” as “common language,” as “common action.” It then became clear to me that of the three adverbs used to qualify participation (conscie, pie, actuosa), the first two stand in a certain continuity with MD, while the third is the real novelty.

 The Importance of “Actuosa /Active” as an Attribute of Participation in the Liturgy

I want to pause a bit longer on this adjective which is easily misunderstood. Participation is called “actuosa” because it consists of a common action. It is not only a representation for the sake of learning and making one’s own, or upon which to feel emotion and devotion (the descriptors “conscious” and “pious” lead to this), but it is an “action to be shared.” This is a very important aspect, especially for the function that SC 48 performs with respect to what follows in the document. In fact, it is because of this “redefinition of participation” that the following articles (49-58) set out the liturgical reform of the Order of Mass. The rites – first of all the eucharistic rites and then all the others following – are reformed because participation implies action. If it had simply been a matter of bringing “consciousness” or a “piety” to greater maturity, the reform would not have really been necessary. If it were simply a question of “understanding” and “being pious,” new rites and old rites would be substantially equivalent. If, on the other hand, the “common action” of Christ and the Church is at stake, then the decision to reform the Orders is justified and supported by nothing other than the acquired evidence of this need for “participation in common action”. Here, then, is the relevance of the question I came across almost by chance.

An Uncomfortable Witness: Girardi’s Comment on SC

To the premises presented so far I must add an extremely important fact. I draw it from the most recent of the commentaries on the conciliar text, i.e., from the first volume of the  Commentario ai Documenti del Vaticano II (ed. S. Noceti and R. Repole, Bologna, EDB, 2014), where Luigi Girardi offers a precise set of notices that opens us to the deeper meaning of SC and also to an elaboration of its texts. With regard to n0. 48 he notes the following:

”The text presented in the aula was written as follows: ‘Ut ritus et preces bene intelligentes, ea actuose, conscie et pie participent”. The verbs intelligere and participere had as their object rites and prayers. Taking up a proposal by Cardinal Bea, … the text was changed… The rites and prayers are not merely an external reality, they are the mediation by which one accesses the mystery celebrated. This type of understanding does not stop at the rites, nor does it reach the mystery of faith without them; on the contrary, the mystery of faith is understood precisely through the rites and prayers with which it is celebrated. The final state of the text is decisive for a renewed understanding of the symbolic mediation of rites … and for the proper emphasis to be given to the ritual form of the Eucharist “(179)

This historical and systematic fact is absolutely decisive. It allows us to discover even better that the change made to the text leaves behind a “ceremonial” reading of the rites and prayers and allows the liturgical reform to find its true justification. Rites and prayers are not primarily “objects” of an interior intelligence, but “mediations,” “languages,” and “codes,” thanks to which and through which we can have an understanding of the mystery. Considering this historical reconstruction, it is surprising that today, 60 years after the official text of SC, there are several vernacular languages ​​in which, according to the official tradition published on the website, the text approved by the Council is not translated, but rather the earlier draft. And no one has made a stink about this blunder.

 Translations Without Textual Basis

Without having been able to do a complete examination of the 12 languages, but limiting myself to the main European languages, I observe that:

  1. German, Hungarian and Spanish (and also the Polish version, which does not appear on the site) literally translate the Latin, transmitting the “means / mediation” value of the Latin “for” into the target languages; understanding occurs “through” or “by means of” rites and prayers.
  2. Italian and French translate with greater freedom, transforming the complement of “medium” into a “state in a figurative place”: understanding occurs “in rites” and “in prayers”;
  3. English and Portuguese translate a different text, the one before it was amended, and thus reduce the rites and prayers to “objects” of intelligence. This is completely illegitimate and gravely false.

What Is at Stake in All This?

The difference in the concept of active participation consists, as we have seen, in a different relationship between the liturgy, Christ and the Church. The inner and intellectualist, sentiment-based and ceremonial model, which corresponds to the definition of MD of 1947, would consider it normal – and even advisable – that during Mass the people “participate” without participating, i.e., by doing something else. This was quite possible in that system, and it would be possible even after the Second Vatican Council if we thought of rites and prayers as “objects of intelligence.” When, on the other hand, they are rediscovered as “mediations,” as “languages,” as “codes,” the rites and prayers require not only an act of reform, but a reception of the reform so that participation becomes truly “active” – i.e., to put rites and prayers into the common experience of the whole Church. Already Romano Guardini, 100 years ago, said that the liturgy was not primarily a form of knowledge, but “a doing, an order, a being” (Liturgical Formation,  18). If we read the concept of “active participation” in a reductive way, we misunderstand the reform and its reception. The reform was a necessary step, but not a sufficient one. Both those who consider it unnecessary and those who consider it sufficient are wrong. The former fight it head-on, the latter empty it from within. One of the ways of emptying the liturgical reform of meaning is to misunderstand the purpose for which it was made, i.e., for the liturgy to be a common action of the whole church. In the moment in which rites and prayers are reduced to “objects of intelligence,” the perception of this necessary and further step forward with respect to the liturgical reform is lost.

 What Can We Draw from this Discovery?

All that remains is to draw three small recommendations from this surprising discovery.

  1. It would be advisable for a translation of the text approved by the Council to be offered as soon as possible, at least on the official Vatican website, in all 12 languages, and not a provisional, unofficial, and highly problematic text.
  2. Alongside this “technical” remedy, which is however very urgent, the structural link between “active participation” as an end and a “liturgical reform” as an instrument must be rediscovered.
  3. Just when it is understood that Latin is no longer a living language, and perhaps only if this is understood, one must take care to provide versions in living languages ​​which are not “more myopic” than Latin, nor which falsify what the Latin says in an understandable way for only a few initiates.

Andrea Grillo teaches liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome.
Reprinted with permission from Munera. Translation awr.


  1. This is a great article. Such a shame that the council fathers didn’t explicitly repudiate the false notion of participation taught by Pius XII and Mediator Dei despite this being their obvious intention. It would have saved us from so much fighting and confusion after the council.

    1. Come on, Alex, it’s not about “false” and “repudiation” and you know it. It’s a step forward which builds upon the past. And to be clear – the Council fathers DID approve the amendment of Cardinal Bea to make clear that they DID support the notion of participation Grillo is explaining.

      1. Sacrosanctum Concilium can’t be a paradigm shift from Mediator Dei if it simply builds upon it and takes the next step.

        You can’t build upon something if you negate it. Pius XII believed that the Tridentine liturgy could be celebrated as a unified act of both priest and assembly and Grillo does not. One of them is right, one of them is wrong.

      2. Alex,

        Well the distinction is between Pius XII and Vatican II – Grillo is just unpacking what Vatican II said.

        I find it helpful to look at the whole *trajectory* of papal documents from 1903 on, and to trace the developments, changes, tweakings, contradictions, and steps forward. (I wrote a chapter on this with respect to sacred music in my big book, Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform, if you’re looking for a Lenten penance.) Pius X absolutely banned stringed instruments because they are ‘secular.’ Pius XII allowed them. Is this a black/white right/wrong issue, so if Pius X was right then Pius X is in error? One could list several such issues.

        Pius XII is not the bad guy in Grillo’s exposition. He advanced the liturgical movement a lot, and pushed active participation in the rites more strongly than his papal predecessors. He allowed more vernacular hymn singing and promoted it more strongly. But he wasn’t the end point or high point. Vatican II was, and it opened up doors for progress to continue. Pius XII believed in the Tridentine rite of his time, but didn’t see it as untouchable. His massive ritual changes to Holy Week anticipate what Vatican II did to all the rites.


      3. Pius XII believed that the Tridentine liturgy could be celebrated as a unified act of both priest and assembly and Grillo does not.

        I see absolutely no basis for this assertion. Grillo clearly understands that the entire worshipping community, the Body of Christ made incarnate in this particular time and place, is who is actively celebrating, united with each other, with the Church, and through, with and in Christ himself. That’s why he bothered to write this article.

      4. Grillo doesn’t believe that active participation is at all possible in the Tridentine liturgy. He has been very clear about this, if you don’t believe me, I can provide you with links to posts he has made on his blog about this. This is a far deeper issue than what kind of musical instruments are appropriate for liturgical use, it’s whether the Pius V missal expresses the true nature of the liturgy and the true nature of the church. Pius XII taught that the missal of Pius V did this, and if Grillo is correct, a mere 15 years later, the council taught that it did not. The council fathers decreed that no one had ever in their lifetime participated in an authentic eucharistic liturgy before.

      5. Alex, what are you after? Do you want us to agree with your last sentence because you think there was no authentic liturgy before Vatican II? Or are you suggesting to us that Pius XII was correct and Vatican II was wrong? I mean it respectfully and I honestly can’t tell what your position is.

        It just seems so much easier to accept Vatican II, and to accept gratefully all the ways that Pius X and Pius XII gradually prepared the way for it, and to forget about all this binary right/wrong stuff. Pius XII was good. Vatican II was even better. And if that involves some pushback or gentle correction of Grillo, go for it. He could handle that.


      6. Maybe you should talk to Grillo, I doubt he would take me seriously.
        He’s the one using binary language. Frankly, if Vatican II effected a paradigm shift from clerical sacred drama to communal act, then I don’t see how this cannot be binary. (I.e. before we had only clerical drama(Pius V missal), now we have communal act(Paul VI missal). How can it be otherwise?(I’m honestly curious to see how you would respond) Believe it or not, I actually admire Grillo’s candor as much as I am in awe of its implications.

      7. Hi Alex,

        To be honest, I think there *is* a great shift of that sort with Vatican II, and I think Benedict’s introduction of the continuity/rupture categories has not served us well. But I don’t think it’s “only” one or the other. The two views are two circles, and they are not an inch apart from each other with a line between them. They are overlapping for maybe 1/3 of their area.

        I find it helpful to think of the Tridentine liturgy as something that had been made problematic already by Pius X, and the priorities gradually shifted in proportion from one view to the other under his successors. This process picked up steam after World War II, and had really snowballed by the late 1950s. Many of the Roman authorities had come to see that the Tridentine liturgy had been stretched as far as it could be to accommodate the second view, and the breaking point had been reached and the readiness to reform it from top to bottom was present. This point had been reached before the Council – see the papers at the liturgical congresses in the 1950s at which Roman authorities were present and at times spoke.

        It’s helpful to keep in mind that Vatican II did not intend for there to be two forms of the Roman rite, and it did not intend that the 1962 missal would ever be used again. (Paul VI made rare exceptions and made it clear they were exceptions). SC from beginning to end lays out the vision for a reformed liturgy that will *replace* the one then in use. I know that what I just wrote is controversial. But it is also so obvious that I find it amazing anyone would not acknowledge it.


      8. Grillo phrases it in much starker terms: there’s participation 1 (laity as prayerful spectators) and participation 2 (action of full community). The former he says is impossible in the Pius V missal but possible only in the Paul VI missal. Do you agree?

        As for Paul VI, idk. It’s true that he didn’t approve of the Pius V missal being used except in very limited circumstances but at the same time he did say that the two missals agreed in substance and even goes so far as to say that “Finally, if we look at the matter properly, we shall see that the fundamental outline of the Mass is still the traditional one, not only theologically but also spiritually. ” (Nov. 26, 1969 general audience). That seems hard to square with Grillo’s claims about the nature of the reform.

      9. Well I can’t speak for Paul VI but I get the impression that he, as a strong believer in the reformed liturgy, was attempting to convince people accustomed to the old rite that they should really like and accept the new rite as legitimate. Also, he said so many things that I think you could find other places where he said something else with a different emphasis.

      10. Maybe, I feel that I know Paul VI’s comments on the reform pretty well though, and the sense that I get is that he would agree with Ratzinger concerning how the missals are related even if he’d disagree with Ratzinger’s decision to liberalize the old missal. I do grant that I could be wrong. You wouldn’t happen to know if anyone has done a scholarly study on Paul VI’s remarks (both private and public) concerning liturgical reform by any chance?
        Lastly, thank you for clarifying your views a little. I really do appreciate it.

      11. Hi Alex – I honestly don’t know of any study on his views. And that’s surprising, if there is not such a study.
        I’ve enjoyed this discussion too, Alex.

  2. This is v. good: thanks to Andrea for marking this available and to Anthony for translating it. But I wonder if it is SC’s teaching on active participation that is new, or Pius XII’s in Mediator Dei. In Tra le sollecitudini the expression was “partecipazione attiva” and concerned singing. Pius X wanted people to sing, not to listen while “participating spiritually”. The same in Pius XI’s Divini cultus (9), where the faithful are urged to participate actively (actuosius) and not to remain “silent spectators” (muti spectatores). So was Pius XII attempting to impose a minimalist reading on his predecessors, an attempt that was overturned by Vatican II that renewed the continuity of the magisterium on this point?

    1. Yes, I think there was already in Pius X and the succeeding magisterium a notion of participating in the rite, I suppose alongside a lingering notion that the people should better understand the rite which is something more apart from them. The amendment process outlined by Grillo shows a moment where the magisterium became aware of the issue and achieved greater clarity.

  3. A number of years ago, Andrew Cameron-Mowat wrote an article unpacking the Latin adjective actuosa, which some have tried to claim means “actual” and not “active”. He pointed out that in Pius X’s motu proprio, originally written in Italian, the word used was attiva, so there can be no argument about what meaning was intended. The Latin version of the motu proprio translated attiva as actuosa, not activa.

  4. Just to add – you state: “Sacrosanctum Concilium can’t be a paradigm shift from Mediator Dei if it simply builds upon it and takes the next step.” Suggest that there are different, multiple, and various ways to define/use *paradigm shift*. It does not have to mean that the former is wiped away, deleted, etc. – most paradigm shifts are not one time, dramatic events but happen over decades – one step at a time. All in how you define *paradigm shift*.

    1. Contrary to many reports, the official AAS Latin version of the 1903 TLS did not translate ‘attiva’ with ‘actuosa’. It omitted the word altogether. Instead, it rendered ‘partecipazione attiva ai santi misteri’ as ‘participatio divinorum mysteriorum’ – a strong objective genitive, so not ‘active participation at the sacred mysteries’ but ‘a share of the divine mysteries’. Perhaps a Latin grammarian might like to comment.

      ‘Actuosus’ entered the liturgical vocabulary in Pius XI’s 1928 ‘Divini cultus’, where he plays around with Pius X’s wording and comes up with ‘veneranda Ecclesiae mysteria… actuose participando’.

      Pius XII uses the adjective a dozen times in ‘Mediator Dei’ in a number of contexts. One of them suggests that each person should take part ‘actuose’ in such a way that we can repeat the words of St Paul “I have been crucified with Christ…” (Gal 2:19-20). An 18th century Latin lexicon describes ‘actuosus’ as ‘one totally engaged in the act or motion of the body’, such as an actor or dancer – thus, one totally involved and committed to what they are doing.

      Here are more mistranslations of SC. We read at SC 21 that ‘the Christian people… should be enabled to understand them’. But the Latin says ‘percipere’ – perceive them. discern their spiritual content, intuit, grasp or (even better) be grasped by them. And in SC 34, the Latin says nothing about ‘powers of comprehension’, but the ability of the faithful to ‘grasp’ them.

      More on this and on Guardini’s thinking on participation in my recent book, ‘Beyond the Altar’.

      1. ‘Actuosus’ entered the liturgical vocabulary in Pius XI’s 1928 ‘Divini cultus’, where he plays around with Pius X’s wording and comes up with ‘veneranda Ecclesiae mysteria… actuose participando’.

        Also in Divini Cultus:

        IX. Quo autem actuosius fideles divinum cultum participent, cantus gregorianus, in iis quae ad populum spectant, in usum populi restituatur.

        IX. Affinché i fedeli partecipino più attivamente al culto divino, il canto gregoriano — per quanto spetta al popolo — sia restituito all’uso del popolo.

        However, this document is not the first use of the word actuosus. A much earlier use is found in Benedict XV’s Incruentum altaris (10 August 1915):

        Lo testimonia la storia della Chiesa che, quando le virtù della fede e della carità elevavano le anime, re e popoli si adoperavano più attivamente ovunque si estendeva il nome cattolico, onde ottenere la purificazione delle anime del Purgatorio.

        ac testis Ecclesiae historia est, cum fidei caritatisque virtutes altius insiderent animis, actuosiorem tunc operam et reges et populos, ubicumque patebat catholicum nomen, in eluendas Purgatorii animas contulisse.

        H/T: research by Andrew Cameron-Mowat SJ.

  5. There seems to be a problem not only with the translation, as Prof Grillo points out, but with the Latin text itself.

    In the opening paragraph of this article, and in his Italian original he cites SC §48 as, per ritus et preces id bene intelligendum. But the text, at least on the Vatican site, reads per ritus et preces id bene intelligentes. And I am struggling to understand how intelligendum could work syntactically.

    In my contribution to a Pray Tell post from 2013, I provided a “slavishly literal” rendering of §48:

    Therefore, the Church exerts anxious pains to this end, lest the Christian faithful be present in this mystery of faith as strangers or as mute spectators; [she seeks] rather that, thoroughly understanding the rites and prayers, they should participate in the sacred action, aware of what they are doing, devotedly and actively

    The Vatican English translation is similar. But I now think that both are incorrect. I had worked quickly and leaned too heavily on the Vatican translation. That little word id has to refer back to mysterio fidei:

    Therefore, the Church exerts anxious pains to this end, lest the Christian faithful be present in this mystery of faith as strangers or as mute spectators; [she seeks] rather that, thoroughly understanding [the mystery] through the rites and prayers, they should participate in the sacred action, aware of what they are doing, devotedly and actively.

    This corrected rendering is in line with Prof Grillo’s view, even once intelligendum is restored to intelligentes.

    We could have an interesting discussion of the best rendering of intelligentes — here, “understanding” — my sense is that it is something like “perceiving” or “experiencing”. An important but different topic.

    1. Your last translation brings to mind an answer by Aquinas that while it would be good if the faithful understood the words of the liturgy it is sufficient that they should know what is being done. (I can’t give chapter and verse)

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