Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Liturgy Reflections
Full participation: making souls alive

by Father Jan Larson

(From the Aug. 3, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Jan Larson Over the years I have been writing this column, a few readers have commented on how I seem to constantly talk about the “full, conscious and active participation” demanded in the liturgy today. This seems to bother some who apparently think I am thereby belittling or, as one writer, recently put it, “denigrating” the way people used to worship before the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. This is simply not the case. I remember being at Mass in the 1940s and believing that I was participating fully and actively, but it was only as fully and as actively as the liturgical rules would allow in those days. In addition, much of my participation was involved in non-liturgical actions during Mass, such as reciting the rosary or various litanies to myself, or reading the lives of the saints.

Understanding the implications of full, conscious and active participation requires that we have some general idea of how our liturgy has developed throughout history. In early centuries, people participated fully and actively in the ritual, but by the beginning of the Middle Ages the liturgy became more and more remote from people. The congregation became silent spectators, while the roles formerly shared by members of the assembly were gradually taken over by clergy who narrated the words of the liturgy in a language that most people could not understand. People in those days could participate in the rites only as fully as the liturgical rules and regulations would allow. In other words, participation was restricted, even though people may have prayed with their whole hearts.

An analogy might be helpful. Try to imagine the Last Supper, celebrated in such a way that the disciples at table were not allowed any dialogue with Jesus, where they were not allowed to drink from the holy cup, where the language used at the meal was not understood, so that they had to use translation pamphlets to grasp what was being said, and where women disciples who might have been present were forbidden to be near the table. We might be able to prayerfully enter into this sacred meal, but our participation would certainly be seriously limited.

The world’s bishops at Vatican II realized that this is the point to which the liturgy had evolved by the early 1960s, and this is why they solemnly taught that full, conscious and active participation by all is “the aim to be considered before all else.” In fact, such participation is a constitutional issue. Just as the U.S. Constitution intends to assure a more perfect union of people marked by justice and the blessings of liberty, so the Constitution on the Liturgy intends to secure for people that full participation in the liturgy which “is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.”

In 1966, just three years after the Constitution on the Liturgy was enacted, a bishop drove across town to visit Mary Immaculate parish, one of the many parishes under his care. There he told the people in the homily, “… the faithful have to understand what the priest is saying and to share in the liturgy; to be not just passive spectators at Mass but souls alive. Look at the altar, placed now for dialogue with the assembly; consider the remarkable sacrifice of Latin, the priceless repository of the church’s treasure. The repository has been opened up, as the people’s own spoken language now becomes part of their prayer. Lips that have often been still sealed, as it were, now at least begin to move, as the whole assembly can speak its part in the dialogue with the priest.”

The visitor was the bishop of Rome, Pope Paul VI.

(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)

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