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Participation in the Liturgy

June 26th, 2012by Emily Besl

2012 marks fifty years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council.  When thinking of Vatican II, most people think of the changes in liturgy that it brought about, and when people think of Vatican II’s changes in liturgy, they usually think of the shift in language from Latin to the vernacular, and the priest turning around to face the people.

These changes, while obvious and easy to see, are only a hint of what Vatican Council II intended for the reform of the liturgy.  As many remember, the key to the liturgical reform was the promotion of full, conscious, and active participation by the whole assembly.  This, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy says, was the “aim to be considered before all else” in the liturgical renewal (n. 14). The purpose of all the changes in the liturgy following Vatican II and the subsequent  revision of all the sacramental rites was to promote participation by the faithful.

“Participation,” however, has often been misunderstood.  For many, in the years immediately following the conciliar reforms and even now, “participation” has meant having the congregation say their responses and sing the hymns.  It has been understood primarily, it seems to me, as a verbal undertaking.  You can tell if the congregation is participating if the vocal responses are strong and the singing is loud.

Besides the verbal aspect, though, participation also involves our physical bodies, our postures and gestures.  Standing or sitting or kneeling together is a form of participation in the rite.  Walking in procession to receive Holy Communion or making the sign of the cross are also ways to participate.  Even silence at the proper times, which might appear more like an absence of active participation, can be a powerful way to engage in the liturgy fully, consciously, actively.

But widening the scope from verbal to non-verbal forms still hasn’t gotten to the point of participation.  The things mentioned so far (responses, singing, postures, gestures, keeping silence) are only the beginning of what the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy means by active participation in the liturgy.  These external forms of participation in the liturgy are the means to a deeper level, to an internal participation.

Put simply, this internal participation is a participation in Christ, in his paschal mystery, and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the very life of God.  Clearly, this understanding of participation is much deeper than merely reciting your given lines or standing up at the appropriate time.  But the external means of participation are not unimportant.  While not the end, the external level of participation is the “indispensable means” of entering into the mystery of Christ; the external forms of participation are the necessary path or entry into internal participation.

My hope is that this anniversary of Vatican II prompts us to reconsider and deepen our understanding of what it means to participate in the liturgy.

Why did the Council fathers choose active participation as the overall goal of the liturgical reforms? I’ll look into that next time.

Emily Besl

Emily Besl has been teaching and writing about liturgy for almost thirty years. She is married and has two daughters, and is a member of St. Mary Church, Hyde Park