You may recall a recent post where I lamented a bulletin entry on the upcoming, more accurate translation of the English language Ordinary Form Mass.  Reread it at the link above, I’ll wait.

Back?  Good.

All analogies about something as transcendent as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass are going to be imperfect, but the director-actor-audience one seemed especially limited.  In any event, the idea that the faithful are the “actors”, to the exclusion of the priest, who is confined to the role of “director”, while God is the popcorn-munching “audience”, is flat-out wrong, no matter which pre- or post-conciliar lens one uses to view it.

In the combox for that post, a savvy reader pointed out that this insert was not written by the priest or staff of that particular parish, but instead came from the Archdiocesan Office of Sacred Worship.  That didn’t make me feel any better, somehow.

This week the St. Louis Review has published the following letter regarding this particular insert, and the response was penned by the Director of the Office of Sacred Worship, Monsignor William McCumber.  I will reprint the entire letter and response below, followed by my comments:

We attend Mass to participate, not merely observe

Q: I was surprised by a recent note in our Church bulletin that suggested that, during Mass, the priest is the director, the people are actors and God is the audience. It seemed odd that the sacred liturgy of the Mass was compared to the theater of a play.

A: Over the years the liturgy has been compared to a play, a musical and even sports simply as a way to make the point that the laity are not spectators as if attending one of these events, but the laity are to be involved by full, active and conscious participation. The laity are not spectators, they are participants, or “actors.” Even in their silence the laity are assenting to what the liturgy is about in their hearts.

The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word “leitourgia,” which means “the work of the people.” The work of the people to do what? To bless God and for our salvation. As stated in the document “Sacrosanctum Concilium” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Dec. 4, 1963) [2], the liturgy is to bless God, and to bring about our redemption.

As pope, Blessed John Paul II echoed this teaching in his address on the 40th anniversary of “Sacrosanctum Concilium” when he said that sacred music, being an integral part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general purpose of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful (“Spiritus et Sponsa [3],” 2003).

The Church is always concerned that the faithful understand the liturgy is not something they get but give. Pope Pius X, as far back as 1903, wrote in “Tra le Sollecitudini”: “Sacred music is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.” This was written at a time in the Church when more operatic style music was being introduced into the Mass and the faithful were sitting back to enjoy it as if it were spending a night at the Muny.

The 1947 encyclical “Mediator Dei” (Mediator of God) [4] by Pope Pius XII reminds us: “That all the faithful should be aware that to participate in the eucharistic sacrifice is their chief duty and supreme dignity, and that not in an inert and negligent fashion, giving way to distractions and daydreaming, but with such earnestness and concentration that they may be united as closely as possible with the High Priest, according to the Apostle, ‘Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.’ And together with Him and through Him let them make their oblation, and in union with Him let them offer up themselves.”

Again, in “Sacramentum Concilium,” we are instructed that “… the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.”

But even now this tension continues when we see people arriving after the Gospel and just before Holy Communion. These people may be there to get communion, yet the Church teaches us that the high point of the liturgy is the Eucharistic Prayer, in which we offer to God, our Father, the sacrifice of ourselves with the perfect sacrifice of Christ. The “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” states: “Now the center and summit of the entire celebration begins: namely, the Eucharistic Prayer, that is, the prayer of thanksgiving and sanctification.”

Rather than standing on the sidelines, the Mass, like a cool pool on a hot summer’s day in St. Louis, invites us to jump in with both feet and swim for our lives, because our lives do depend on it.
First, I think there is much to like in the response– the mere fact that the Monsignor cites to Papal documents issued before Vatican II is a victory of sorts.  So often when discussing the liturgical malaise of the Church, as is the case in discussing many other real problems, the Catholic of today has no sense of the unchanging and timeless teaching of the Church that Christ founded.  It is as if one could imagine that the Church was born in 1962, as a new entity untrammeled by the past 1900+ years.  I think this actually is the position, stated or assumed, of the modern progressive.  But, let’s stick to talking to Catholics.

Even though the pre-conciliar documents merit citation in this response, I don’t think that the import of them is adequately expressed by the author.  First the concept of “active participation” is capable of a misunderstanding sufficient to kill the very notion of what that should mean to a Catholic assisting at Mass.  
Why?  Speaking of translations, the more accurate translation of the phrase used in Sacrosanctum Concilium is “actual participation”, not “active participation”.  Consider the Latin in SC, Part II, para 14:  

II. De liturgica institutione et de actuosa participatione prosequendis

14. Valde cupit Mater Ecclesia ut fideles universi ad plenam illam, consciam atque actuosam liturgicarum celebrationum participationem ducantur, quae ab ipsius Liturgiae natura postulatur

This is rather curiously and incorrectly translated at the English language page as follows:
II. The Promotion of Liturgical Instruction and Active Participation 

14. Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.

Now, the notion of actually participating in Mass without talking all the time may be foreign to many of us.  Yet, in the Liturgy as it was handed down from apostolic times until 1969, the notion of participation took in concepts of comprehension, yes, but focused primarily on a deep interior participation.  If you are interested in this idea, check out the work of a good Catholic blogger who is not a so-called “traditionalist”, Phil Blosser, here and here.  

Worship, silence, meditation and contemplation (inherent in the EF, yet nearly impossible to find in the OF as it is commonly celebrated) work in harmony as a total, actual, participatory effort.  This participation is not the role of a passive spectator, and it is a great disservice to Catholics to insinuate that it is.  This actual participation in no way blurs the line between the action of the priest and that of the faithful, which is of necessity secondary.  The priest doesn’t need us to celebrate Mass, but we sure need him.  This is as true, whether the participants acknowledge it or not, in the most sacrilegious “clown Mass” as it is in a Pontifical Solemn High Mass in the Extraordinary Form.

The documents of Pius XII and St. Pius X, cited by the Monsignor, were written of actual participation by Catholics in the pews in the Mass we now call the Extraordinary Form.  The idea of actual participation did not arise in 1962.

[At this point, some may point to the emergence of the so-called “dialogue Mass”, which brings some of the vocal responses and prayers of the High Mass (where most are sung) to the Low Mass.  You may have a preference for it, or against it, but this vocalization is not the essence of “actual participation”.  I don’t want to turn this post into the “I like/I despise the dialogue Mass” debate, so end of digression.]

Monsignor goes on to state that the high point of the liturgy occurs at the “Eucharistic prayer” (I would further narrow this down to the moment of consecration).  And this insight gives rise to a question I have asked my OF-attendee friends for years now when they talk about “active participation”– “At what point of the Mass (i.e., their parish Ordinary Form Mass) are you most intensely participating?”  Ninety-five percent of them say, “At the consecration.”  To which I respond, “And what are you saying at that time?”  


Even those five percent who answer “When I receive Communion,” are forced to admit that they are “passively” (to use the modern parlance) receiving Christ from the hands of another (we can only hope it is a priest) while merely saying “Amen.”  To me, one of the great flaws in the typical parish Mass is that the silence of the consecration and reception of communion give one a total of maybe two minutes of silence in which to contemplate and worship in peace without enduring the cacophony of noise that is omnipresent in most parish Masses.

Finally, I wish that anyone responsible for parish music would really, really read Sacrosanctum Concilium and Tra le Sollecitudini and tell me that there is any hope for actual participation while the faithful endure Gather Us In and its ilk.

This post is already too long, so I’ll end.  I am glad that the bulletin insert struck someone else as deficient, and I pray that the priests of our parishes will read the documents that Monsignor McCumber cites and implement this new translation according to the mind of the Church.