Oct 15, 1996

Active Participation" in the Church’s Liturgy

Online Edition – Vol. II, No. 6: October 1996

"Active Participation" in the Church’s Liturgy:
What Did the Second Vatican Council Mean?

by Monsignor Richard J. Schuler

Monsignor Richard J. Schuler, a member of the board of directors of Adoremus, has been pastor of St. Agnes Church in Minneapolis since 1969. A renowned musician and choir director, he has been president of the Church Music Association of America and editor of the CMAA’s journal, Sacred Music, since 1975. Monsignor Schuler has a doctorate in music from the University of Minnesota, and was active for many years in the International Papal Church Music Society (CIMS) established by Pope Paul VI in 1963. He was general chairman of the CIMS Fifth International Music Congress held in 1966, the first such gathering after the Second Vatican Council. The plans of the church musicians at that gathering, however, were never implemented. Monsignor Schuler has said of the Council’s intended reform of the liturgy, "The Council has not failed. It has never been tried."

The following essay appeared in a recent issue of Sacred Music, and is reprinted with permission.

At the recent meeting of the American bishops in Washington, D.C., one of the bishops made an observation on the quality of liturgy in this country. He told how he watched a video of a Mass with a stopwatch in hand and clocked the "active participation" of the laity. He registered 88 seconds of what he called "active participation" in a 59 minute Mass.

He said that participation at Mass is supposed to be full, active and conscious, but it is not working that way. The chairman replied that the bishop had made a valid observation.

What a blatant example of misunderstanding of what actuosa participatio truly is!

First, it must be interior. A stopwatch is hardly its measure. There are several elements that allow the faithful to participate in the liturgy: some are spiritual and internal; others are external and sensorial. But it is faith and charity that are essential, uniting the Christian with the priest who is offering the Sacrifice.

Father Colman E. O’Neill, O.P., says this: "That participatio actuosa required by the council may be defined as that form of devout involvement … which best promotes the exercise of the common priesthood of the baptized: their power to offer the sacrifice of the Mass and to receive the sacraments. They take part in it by bodily movements, standing, kneeling or sitting as the occasion may demand; they join vocally in the parts which are intended for them. It also requires that they listen to, and understand, the liturgy of the word. It requires, too, that there be moments of silence when the import of the whole ceremonial may be absorbed and deeply personalized…. It certainly does not imply uninterrupted observable activity."

Father O’Neill says that the precise form that participation takes in various circumstance varies. A parish church is different from a cathedral or a seminary. He says that on occasion a "silent Mass" is in order for a religious community, and participation of the whole Church, through the mysterious being of the Mystical Body, justifies Masses celebrated without a congregation.

Listening is a truly active participation. Listening both to the proclaimed word and the performed music can be full, conscious and active participation. The same can be said for watching the ceremonial as it is enacted. (Sacred Music and Liturgy Reform after Vatican II. Rome: Consociatio Internationalis Musicae Sacrae, l969)

Only the baptized person can participate in the liturgy, and that is done through the grace of the sacrament. External activity may enhance that participation, but to attempt to measure it or assess it with a stopwatch shows that its essence is totally misunderstood.

(Address inquiries about membership in CMAA and subscription to Sacred Music to: 548 Lafond Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55103-1672.)



Monsignor Richard J. Schuler