Pope Francis and the ever new amazement of active participation

This morning the Pope met with the students and teachers of the Pontifical Liturgy Institute.  So far the text of his discourse is only available in Italian.

Unsurprisingly the early coverage (for example here and here) is on the Holy Father’s comments on how liturgical renewal “scandalized closed-minded people,” where he compares the rejection in some quarters of the liturgical renewal of Vatican II with the liturgical renewal of Pius XII in his youth.

However, I do not think we need to reflect again on the controversies over the use of earlier forms of the Roman Rite. Here I propose that liturgists would be better served by reflecting on the first part of his discourse where he talks about active participation.  While we are still waiting for an official translation, here is my poor translation:

[The first dimension that I want to underline that comes from the Council’s drive for the renewal of liturgical life is]formation to live and promote active participation in liturgical life. The in-depth and scientific study of the Liturgy must propel you to foster, as the Council wanted, this fundamental dimension of Christian life. The key here is to educate people to enter the spirit of the liturgy. And to know how to do it you need to be imbued with this spirit. I want to say that this should happen at Sant’Anselmo: every one should be imbued with the spirit of the liturgy, so that each can feel its mystery, with ever new amazement. The liturgy is not owned, no, it is not a profession: the liturgy is learned, the liturgy is celebrated. Let us reach this attitude of celebrating the liturgy. And you only actively participate to the extent that you enter this spirit of celebration. It is not a matter of rites, it is the mystery of Christ, who once and for all revealed and fulfilled the sacred, the sacrifice and the priesthood. Worship in spirit and truth. In your Institute all this, must be meditated on, assimilated, I would say “breathed”. To the school of Scripture, of the Fathers, of Tradition, of the Saints. Only in this way can participation translate into a greater sense of the Church, which makes us live evangelically in every time and in every circumstance. And this attitude of celebrating is also tempted.

The answer to most of our liturgical problems is to foster active participation.  This is particularly the case today.  The last 50 years have been spent renewing rites and reordering churches.  There is still some work to be done there.  But our real work is to renew the holy people of God by promoting “full and active participation by all the people” as this “is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit” (SC 14).


Cover Image: Pontificio Sant’Anselmo from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. “But our real work is to renew the holy people of God …”

    This is spot-on. I might quibble with the notion of “educating” people. It’s not a matter of education, but apprenticeship. So often over the years I hear from parishioners about fine-tuning procedures, about a dress code, about teaching them more about the Triduum, the importance of Communion from the Cup, etc., and as often, there is frustration that the parish doesn’t seem to be moving forward.

    I have to look at my own actions and attitude. Do I communicate the spirit of a liturgy I do not own, a worship for which I’m at best a temporary caretaker? When I feel the most tired and discouraged, is that the moment when eyes are on me and taking their cues? Mass in just an hour, and I’d best be watchful on that, eh?

    1. ‘apprenticeship’ YES – We should be getting a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

  2. Educare has a wider meaning than “educate”. It is followed by ” a entrare nello spirito della liturgia” It has more the meaning “bring up ” as in children. The whole thing needs to be translated ASAP. It will ruffle many traditionalist feathers

  3. I question why the author views “renewing rites and reordering churches” as the means of “foster[ing] active participation.” Given mass attendance numbers, there is little evidence that pulling the altar away from the wall or making the asperges part an option in the mass instead of a ritual before it or giving us a dozen more approved eucharistic prayers has fostered active participation. While well intentioned, it strikes more as an effort to rearrange the Titanic’s deck chairs.

    1. Charles
      Thanks for the comment. I don’t want to start a huge argument here (it has been fought a million times on this blog already). But the disagreement we probably have is that I think that if anybody at all is left in the Catholic Church it is thanks to the renewal of Vatican II (and especially the liturgical renewal). I reject the argument that Vatican II caused the problems in today’s Church as a post hoc, ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. We simply had the cure before the sickness was visible to most.

      1. And some of the reasons that some have felt so out of place in the church as to need to leave have included among my friends – irregular relationships, their own sexuality, overbearing and bullying clericalism, clerical sex abuse, church wealth, cliquish parishes, the churches apparent obsession with certain issues and it’s unwillingness to campaign on a broad range of social Justice issues etc.
        Next to these the shape and language of the liturgy seem small beer.

      2. In terms of Mass attendance, the only reform I would wager that kept people in the pews from the 60s onwards would have been the substantial use of the vernacular. Had Latin remained, the Mass attendance drop off would have been steeper. I doubt though that any other liturgical change impacted attendance in a substantive way. I doubt that continuing ad orientem worship, sole use of the Roman Canon, and a 1 yr cycle of readings would have drove people away, especially since they would have had no experience to the contrary in a Catholic setting. That, in of itself, is not a criticism of the other reforms. The post V2 reformers also had intentions other than simply keeping people in the pews. They wished for a greater Christian formation and participation among those who did show up. The merits of those other reforms have been debated ad nauseam.

      3. Vatican II at the time of its implementation was a top-down imposition of the Council and in a kind of pre-Vatican II authoritarian way. I doubt that many laity saw the kinds of liturgical changes that were coming and most thought the Church couldn’t change. But once they experienced the fact that the changes imposed could and did happen, this polarized the clergy and laity into those who wanted brakes put on it and those who wanted anything goes. Yes, people loved the vernacular that was allowed. But if the status quo of the pre-Vatican II Church, meaning no Council or no changes happened, no one really knows what might be today although the Eastern Orthodox might give us a clue as it concerns their Churches in the 2020’s?

      4. I am sorry but I see no “cure.”

        The Council Fathers enthused about the modern age. Those who implemented its decrees even more enthusiastically peeled away layers of tradition. Yet, the fathers and their successors failed to reflect that modernity enabled Auschwitz and Hiroshima within their lifetimes. Even Benedict XVI during his papacy enthused about the marvels of modern communication. And yet 35% of the internet’s bandwidth is consumed by pornography. And what kind of place is Twitter or Facebook these days?

        When the Council was implemented in the United States, we had a rich treasury of music from the Anglican tradition to draw on. It was ready made for worship in the vernacular. And yet we turned to David Haas.

        The “cure” in our age would be to keep the enchantment. The “cure” would be to show how when we are at mass, we actually join with all the company of angels and saints. The mass may be a meal, but it is not a pop it in the microwave and “ping” thing. The meal is the wedding supper of the Lamb and his bride the church. It is of cosmic significance.

        As a final point, look at the church. Today, where are the vocations coming from? To which parishes are the families with young children going? Where is the human future of the church going and voting with its feet?

    2. For my part the only problem with the “liturgy” of today is the music…why oh why can’t there be a low mass…where the faithful say the prayers and respond to the celebrant. If we had the organist & choir from the Basilica, I’m sure it would be beautiful…at my parish we do not…sometimes the music portion of the liturgy just ruins the MASS for me…I am not a musical person…I would much rather have a quiet, prayful Mass.

  4. I think there is some traditional nuggets here.

    “To the school of Scripture, of the Fathers, of Tradition, of the Saints. Only in this way can participation translate into a greater sense of the Church, which makes us live evangelically in every time and in every circumstance.”

    Amen to that.

  5. How can te decisions of an ecumenical council tht lasted for four years and during which the participants spent a considerable amount of time at home interacting with what was happening in their own dioceses be described in a negative way as a “top down” authoritarian way of making decisions? As for what the laity expected, we had lived through the Pain reforms of Holy Week the decade before–reforms that were quite popular, so we knew that things could change. It frankly mazes me the alternative historical narratives that have been created in this area.

    1. “Top down”: the decisions reached and the new form of Mass were decided at the top, Rome, to be implemented locally. Parishes and dioceses were not free to ignore that. Contrast that with the choice given to dioceses with well established rites to adopt the post Trent missal or to retain their existing rite.

      1. This comment ignores the role that the bishops’ conferences played on the reform. Rome produced an editio typice, the conferences the actual approved texts. Both the Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites are in use after a reform based on the principles of Vatican 2.

      2. Bishops Conferences have no say at all in the Latin originals of the Missal editions, only in the translations. So the structure, the rubrics, and the texts in Latin are all centrally dictated. There is an obstructive power, since if they fail to approve a translation, the previous Missal remains in force locally, some conferences seem to have used this to get their preferred translations of pro multis.

  6. An overstatement. For example, the American RCIA came out in final form Yeats after the editio typica because of all the adaptations. And it took Franco’s motion proprio to safeguard the authority of the conferences in regard to translations.

    1. Isn’t autocorrect a pain, Michael!

      Even though Magnum Principium has returned authority for translations to episcopal conferences, there is still an ongoing struggle around the issue of whether translations produced by conferences can include variations and adaptations that are not present in the Roman Rite.

      The official Roman position had always been that nothing can appear in a vernacular translation that isn’t in the Latin editio typica. That can cause problems, as for example in England in the Rite of Marriage, where the requirements for civil validity did not conform to what was in the Latin original. The Congregation couldn’t understand why anyone would not want to use the text of the Roman Rite in this instance, nor that anyone who did use it would not be legally married in the eyes of the State. It took a lot of negotiations and an Act of Parliament to sort all that out.

      Fortunately the Congregation is more relaxed about this kind of thing today, but negotiations are still required.

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