Nov 15, 1995

Active Participation in the Church’s Liturgy

Online EditionVol. I, No. 1: November 1995

Active Participation in the Church’s Liturgy

A Commentary on the Rightful Place of Gregorian Chant

by Father Joseph Fessio, S.J.

One of the fundamental principles of the liturgical reform called for by the Second Vatican Council was "active participation" of the faithful in the Church’s public worship. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy expresses this in s. 14: "Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation [participatio actuosa] in liturgical celebration which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy."

Since the application of this principle has led to such results as the virtually complete disappearance of any use of Latin and of any singing of Gregorian Chant, one may at least be allowed to ask whether these results are consistent with what the Council Fathers intended in making this expression a central part of the principles of liturgical reform.

It may be useful in answering this question and understanding the meaning of "active participation" to examine with some care its origin, which I propose to do in the following paragraphs.

The expression "active participation" first appears in Saint Pius X’s Motu Proprio Tra le sollicitudini. Saint Pius X was unexpectedly elevated to the papacy on August 9, 1903. (The leading candidate, Leo XIII’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, was vetoed in the first conclave by Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austriaa veto communicated, incidentally, by the Cardinal Archbishop of Cracow!) This Motu Proprio, issued only three months later on November 22 of the same year, was one of the first of Saint Pius X’s papal decrees and was devoted to the restoration of sacred music. This was followed only week later by a letter to Cardinal Respighi of December 8, 1903, Il desiderio, on the necessity of musical reform.

That Saint Pius X intended to make liturgical reform one of the highest priorities of his papacy is demonstrated not only by his well-known encouragement of frequent Communion (in the decree Sacra Tridentina of December 20, 1905) and his lowering of the minimum age for First Communion (in the decree Quam Singulari of August 8, 1910) but also in a call for a more general liturgical reform in the October 23, 1913, Motu Proprio Abhinc duos annos.

It’s in the fifth paragraph of Tra le sollicitudini that we first encounter the expression "active participation":

Being moved with the most ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish again in every way among all the faithful, the first thing to which We must turn our attention is the holiness and dignity of the temple. There Our people assemble for the purpose of acquiring the Christian spirit from its first and indispensable source, namely the active participation [attiva partecipazione] in the most sacred mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church. It is vain to hope for such copious blessings from Heaven if our worship of the Most High, rather than ascending with an odor of sweetness, again puts into our Lord’s hands the scourges with which the unworthy profaners were once driven out of the temple by the Divine Redeemer.

It is instructive to note that the immediate context for encouraging "active participation" is concern for "the holiness and dignity of the temple", and that what is being participated in is "the most sacred mysteries" and "the public and solemn prayer of the Church". Whatever form of participation Saint Pius X has in mind clearly must be consistent with "holiness," "dignity," "sacred mysteries," and "solemn prayer."

That this is Saint Pius X’s intention is further made clear by the opening paragraph of his Motu Proprio, which shows that among the concerns he has (Tra le sollicitudini = among the concerns), the paramount one is "promoting the beauty of the house of God":

There is one pastoral care paramount not only for this Holy See … but also for individual churches: maintaining and promoting the beauty of the house of God. Here the august mysteries of religion are celebrated, here the faithful gather to receive the grace of the sacraments, to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the altar, to adore the most Blessed Sacrament and to be united at the Church’s common prayer in her public and solemn liturgy.

Saint Pius X goes on to draw the practical consequences which follow upon this concern. But as we shall see, this Motu Proprio is not about liturgical worship in general, but about the restoration of sacred music. This is the more specific context for the encouragement of "active participation". The following paragraphs need little commentary, but are worth prayerful consideration even today and lead to a surprising conclusion:

Therefore, there must be nothing in this sacred building that might be a reasonable cause for disgust or scandal; above all, nothing directly offensive to the decorum and holiness of the sacred rites and thus unworthy of the house of prayer and the majesty of God. (s. 2)

We do not here propose to treat individually each of the abuses that may occur. Rather, we devote our attention today to one of the most common abuses, one most difficult to uproot. This must be condemned, even where everything else deserves the highest praise, where there is beauty and grandeur of building, splendor and exactness of ceremonies, full attendance of the clergy, gravity and piety of the officiating ministers. We speak of the abuse in singing and in sacred music. This may have resulted from the changeable and varied nature of the art itself, or from the successive alterations of taste and custom through the ages. It may also be due to the disastrous influence of secular and theatric music on that of the Church, or to the pleasure excited by the music itselfa pleasure not easily contained within its proper limits. Lastly, it may be the result of the many prejudices on this subject which so easily begin and so obstinately remain, even among persons of piety and authority. Still the fact remains: there certainly is a continual tendency to deviate from the right norm for sacred music, a norm established in admitting this art to the service of public worship, expressed very clearly in the ecclesiastical canons, in the decrees of general and provincial councils, and in the repeated prescription of the Sacred Roman Congregations and of the Supreme Pontiffs, Our predecessors. (s. 3)

Paragraph 4, quoted in full above, follows. Obviously, the "active participation" which will appear for the first time in a pontifical document is meant to refer specifically to sacred music. How Saint Pius X intends for this active participation to take place will become apparent in what will now be said about music in the liturgy.

Saint Pius X treats the subject with such extreme importance that he writes that he intends, through his statements, to give "force of law" to a "juridical code of sacred music".

Sacred music, because it is an integral part of the liturgy [la musica sacra, come parte integrante della solenne Liturgia], participates in the same general purpose of this solemn liturgy, that is: the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It enhances the beauty and splendor of the ceremonies of the Church. Since its chief function is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text presented for the understanding of the faithful, its own proper end is to make the text more meaningful for them. Through this means they can more easily be moved to devotion and better disposed to receive the fruits of grace coming from the celebration of the holy mysteries. (s. 6)

A number of things are to be noted here:
1) It is the liturgical texts themselves which are to be "clothe[d] with suitable melody"; consequently the "chief function" of sacred music could be said to be "singing the Mass" rather than "singing at Mass". 2) Since the purpose of the music is to make the text "more meaningful" so the faithful can be "moved to devotion" and "better disposed" we not only begin to see what Saint Pius X means by "active participation", but already have the germ of what the Second Vatican Council will refer to as "full, conscious, and active participation."

Sacred music must, therefore, possess in the highest degree the qualities which characterize the liturgy. In particular it must possess holiness and beauty of form: from these two qualities a third will spontaneously ariseuniversality.

Sacred music must be holy, and therefore exclude everything that is secular, both in itself and its rendition.

It must be true art. In no other way can it affect the minds of the hearers in the manner which the Church intends in admitting into her liturgy the art of sound.

It must also be universal in this sense, that, although individual countries may admit into their ecclesiastical compositions proper forms native to each, still these forms must remain so subordinate to the general character of sacred music that no hearer of another nation might be disturbed thereby. (s. 7)

Here we have not only a criterion for judging all liturgical music, but alsowell in advance of recent concernsa very practical one for judging its proper "inculturation." Will Saint Pius X draw any other practical conclusions from these traditional principles?

These qualities are found most perfectly in Gregorian Chant, which is the proper chant of the Roman Church ­ the only chant inherited from the ancient Fathers. Jealously guarding it these many centuries in her liturgical books, the Church directly proposes it to the faithful as her own music and prescribes it exclusively for some parts of her liturgy. Happily, recent studies have restored this chant to its original purity and integrity.

For these reasons Gregorian Chant has always been considered the supreme model of sacred music. Hence with every reason we lay down the following rule: "the more closely a Church composition approaches Gregorian Chant in movement, inspiration, and feeling, the more holy and liturgical it becomes; and the more it deviates from this supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple."

This traditional Gregorian Chant must be fully restored to functions of divine worship. It must be accepted with certainty that the sacred liturgy loses nothing of its solemnity when the chant alone is used.

This paragraph then concludes with a striking sentence which reveals exactly what Saint Pius X intended when he introduced the expression "active participation" into a document whose unique purpose is the restoration of sacred music:

Gregorian Chant must be restored to the people so that they may again take a more active part in the sacred liturgy, as was the case in ancient times. (s. 8)

The conclusion is inevitable: According to the mind of Saint Pius X, not only does "active participation" not exclude Gregorian Chant; it is precisely in the singing of the parts of the Mass in Gregorian Chant, by the people, that this active participation consists!

Nor did Saint Pius X perceive Latin to be a hindrance to this active participation that he was seeking to promote: Latin is the language of the Roman Church. Therefore, any vernacular singing during solemn liturgical functions is forbidden. This holds even more especially for the proper and common parts of the Mass and the Office. (s. 14)

Father Fessio is Editor of Ignatius Press.



Father Joseph Fessio, SJ