The study of the participation of the faithful in the liturgical life of the Church

jayantHistorical Background

The early centuries were decisive for the study of the participation of the faithful in the liturgical life of the Church. Many patristic writings of these times reveal to us that the faithful have always had a very active part in liturgical celebrations. From the patristic writ­ings it is certain that in the ancient Church the faithful participated with great attention and devotion in the liturgy of the Word (Chromatius of Aquileia, Sermo XXXIII1-3, Augustine, Sermo CCXLIII. 9) The fact that the faithful have sung during liturgical celebrations ever since antiquity is demonstrated historically by a non-Christian writer, Pliny the Younger (cf.also Justin, Apologia.) To help the faithful participate in Liturgy of the Eucharist with the greatest attention and devotion the preface begins with the word of the celebrant addressed to the faithful, inviting them to lift up their hearts to the Lord, thus freeing their spirit from material thoughts and stimulating their attention to what is said in the Eucharistic Prayer. When the time comes for Communion, the faithful communicate under both species. (Cyril of Jerusalem, Eusebius of Caesarea.)

Unfortunately, over the course of time this living and conscious participation of the faithful in the liturgy diminished even to its total disappearance. The faithful were participating ever less attentively in liturgical celebrations. They shifted from the role of active protago­nists, as we have seen in the early Church, to that of totally silent and passive spectators in a solely clerical liturgy, such as the one being celebrated before Vatican II. Certainly many factors contributed to the emergence of this situation: political and socio-cultural factors, theological currents and notions of every epoch, and so on. Having as its chief purpose the overcoming of erroneous doctrines and the chaotic state of the liturgy of those times, the Council of Trent set itself in the tendency of unity and control. As a conse­quence, it was unable to deal with the part regarding the participa­tion of the faithful.

From 1939, the year in which Pius XII was elected successor to Pius XI, until 1943, some pressing theological-liturgical problems that were awaiting responses by the new pontiff became research topics. The request was widely made for thoroughly studying and explain­ing the doctrine of the Mystical Body regarding the relations between liturgical piety and extra-liturgical devotions or practices, regarding the necessity to introduce the common language in ritual celebra­tions, and so on. It was in this climate of expectation that the encycli­cal Mediator Dei (November 20, 1947) was issued, the most important document about the liturgy before Vatican II.

Above all, the encyclical describes the liturgy as the public worship of the whole body of Christ, head and members. This worship has as its special effect the sanctification of the faithful. It then speaks of the nature of active participation in the rites by virtue of the priesthood common to all believers. The principal contribution of this encyclical consists in having provided a clear explanation of the concept of liturgy. It is seen as “summit and source” (culmen et fons). It is the summit because all of the Church’s life, whether liturgical or extra­-liturgical, tends toward it; it is the source because all grace derives from it. Therefore the liturgy is the privileged place of the encounter between God and humans in Christ the Mediator. The liturgical reform under Pius XII especially stimulated the pastoral sector, which aimed at making the liturgy more intelligible at the level of the faithful.

Mediator Dei was followed by numerous other reforms desired by Pius XII, such as the use of local languages in liturgical functions, granted to several countries of Europe and Latin America; the per­mission to celebrate afternoon Masses under certain specific condi­tions; the mitigation of the laws concerning Eucharistic fast; and the directives for a renewal of sacred music for the purpose of assuring a more active and conscious participation of the faithful in the liturgy, especially at Mass. As scholars note, after Mediator Dei the liturgy fol­lowed the definitive path of pastoral concerns, and the reforms that followed from 1951 to 1960 always aimed principally at this aspect.

Sacrosanctum Concilium

John XXIII thus sowed the seed for the birth of the most important liturgical document: the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (SC). In the history of the liturgy the reform of Vatican II stands out from all other reforms by its pastoral character. The ulti­mate purpose of the council is the conscious participation and active insertion of the people of God in the worship life of the Church (SC 10-12,19,21,30-31,36,38,40,54,63,78-79,101,104). Indeed, both during and after the council, the active participation of the faithful was always the dominant idea in the area of the liturgy and was studied always under the pastoral aspect.

SC elaborated a whole series of articles to illustrate the public, social, integral, and communitarian character of the liturgy (SC 26-32). “Liturgical actions are not private actions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the ‘sacrament of unity,’ that is, the holy people gathered and ordered under the leadership of the bishops. Therefore these actions belong to the whole Body of the Church, manifest it and point towards it; individual members are involved in different ways, according to the diversity of their states, their duties and their effec­tive participation” (26). Christ makes himself present in a special way in the liturgical gestures associating the Church with himself.

While it is true that the liturgy is the public worship of the Church, it is a worship collectively performed in the name of its totality. The Church’s rule of prayer (lex orandi) corresponds to her perennial rule of belief (lex credendi).  In order to be this, it requires the active participation of the faithful. Those who have received the grace of baptism are not saved as individuals alone, but as members of the Mystical Body, having become part of the People of God. It is important therefore that they come together to express fully the very identity of the Church, the ekklesia, the assembly called together by the Risen Lord who offered his life “to reunite the scattered children of God” (Jn 11:52).Aware of this fact, SC dwells several times on this theme both at the level of generic formulation and at the level of concrete application in the various parts of the liturgy (SC 11,19, 21, 26-31,48, 50,114,124). No. 14 shows “that it is the ardent desire of Mother Church that all the faithful should be formed in the full, conscious, active participa­tion in liturgical celebrations, which is required by the very nature of the liturgy, and for which the Christian people, ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people’ (1 Pet 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), has the right and duty by the power of baptism.” Such a participation is not only advantageous but also “demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.” The concept of the active partici­pation of the faithful was not new to the council, but as discussed above had been developing since the beginning of the twentieth century within both magisterial documents and the theological discourse of the liturgical movement.

There are four theological metaphors that help us understand the concept of participation revolving around four distinct spheres: metaphysical (in the order of nature/being), soteriological (in the order of grace), ecclesiological (in the order of communion), and ritual-liturgical (in the order of activity). Metaphysical participation implies both a difference and a similarity between the reality and the thing in which it participates. St.Thomas Aquinas clarifies that in the order of being one participates in God as an effect participates in its cause. In a soteriological framework Aquinas defines grace as a participation in the di­vine nature. Grace is viewed as the self-communication of God to the human person with the intent to transform that person: grace building on nature. In the soteriological arena participation goes beyond the level of being and centers now on the deification of the human person, who becomes more like God by participating or sharing in the divine nature. A third understanding of participation can also be linked to the ecclesial reality of an individual or group of individuals connected in communion to Christ and to one another. Participation within the order of communion implies an eccclesiological belonging: it goes be­yond the sense of simply partaking in a certain group or becoming a member within a distinct club. Ecclesiological participation points to the unity of believers in Christ that is eternal and divinely formed. The communion that is established with Christ encompasses the whole of his life—one with his suffer­ing, one with his ministry, one with his Spirit. Thus the participation established in Christ has an ecclesial reality; it binds the members of the church together through the power of the Spirit. Council saw in the Liturgy an epiphany of the Church: it is the Church at prayer. In celebrating Divine Worship the Church gives expression to what she is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.The Church manifests herself as one, with that unity which comes to her from the Trinity.The syndesmos, or bond of unity, that unites the whole is only broken by human sin. The ecclesiological sense of participation not only brings the individual out of isolation to realize his or her place within the church and salvation history but also provides an intimate link to the inner-Trinitarian dy­namic expressed in the unity between Son and Spirit in the church.

Finally, we must look at participation in a ritual-liturgical sense. It is too easy to oversimplify liturgical participation and see it in a minimalistic sense as how one behaves or acts in the context of the litur­gical celebration: the priest presides, the lector reads, the cantor sings, etc. But liturgical participation cannot be envisioned as simply role ful­fillment. Rather, liturgical participation roots itself in the sacramental life of the church and specifically in what the sacraments are meant to achieve in the lives of the faithful. In this sense liturgical participation is centered on the transformation of the human person through grace by the medium of the church in order to bring the individual back to his or her Creator, the source of being. Thus liturgical participation presupposes the first three senses of participation we have discussed already. Through the sacramental life (liturgical) of the gathered church (ecclesiological) one participates in the divine life of God who created us (metaphysical) and is thus transformed in grace for beati­tude (soteriological).

Special care for the liturgy, however, is necessary to make such participation possible. It is thus the duty of pastors to secure this fruitful participation of the faithful in liturgical actions (SC 11 and 19). SC insists further that the active participation of the faithful must be the principle that guides the reform of the Mass and the revision of its ritual ordering (SC 48 and 50), the revision of the sacraments (SC 79), the singing of the whole assembly in liturgical actions (SC 114), and the construction of sacred buildings (SC 124). Liturgical actions themselves look toward the mystery being celebrated. The liturgical texts themselves are the locus for understanding how participation must be both outward and inward: outward by the dialogical nature of the texts and inward from the ob­vious supplication and offering of the words of the texts. Active participation of all the faithful means therefore that each one of us must come to the Mass not merely as passive recipients but as active givers, offering in union with our Lord the homage and devotion and service of our daily life, all our purposes and efforts, our endurances and abnegations. These we bring to the altar, represented outwardly by our gifts of bread and wine, so that as bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ we ourselves may be embraced as victims in His great sacrifice. Such is the teaching of the official Mass-prayers if we will read them attentively and study and meditate them. Such is the main thought that runs all through the prayers of the Offertory and Canon of the Mass.

Another point is the reaffirmation of the primacy of the Word of God in the liturgy (SC 24). This primacy is founded especially on the didactic character of the Word of God (SC 33). Therefore SC requires that this close tie between the liturgy and the Word of God be evi­dent (SC 35). The document insists that in the celebration of the Word of God, it be prepared for the faithful with greater abun­dance: that within a set number of years the greater part of sacred Scripture be read to the people (SC 35 and 51). The new lectionaries, for example, offer a broad choice of passages from Scripture which constitute an inexhaustible source from which the People of God can and must draw. Indeed, we cannot forget that “in listening to the Word of God the Church grows and is built, and the wonderful works God once wrought in many different ways in the history of salvation are represented in their mystical truth through the signs of the liturgical celebration”. In this celebration, the Word of God expresses the fullness of their meaning, inciting Christian life to continuous renewal, so that “what is heard at the liturgical celebration may also be put into practice in life. The homily is highly recommended, which is a part of the liturgical action in Sunday Masses and on feast days with the participation of the faithful (SC 52).

The other new feature of SC is the use of the vernacular. Among the questions of liturgical reform, that of language has always been consid­ered the most important. Indeed, it plays an absolute role in assuring the active participation of the faithful in the liturgy. Besides giving a basic guideline for the use of the vernacular in ritual celebrations (SC 36), SC provides other “fixed norms” to regulate individual cases. Within the liturgical sphere, moreover, a distinction necessarily arises between languages and dialects. In particular, dialects that do not support common academic and cultural formation cannot be taken into full liturgical use, since they lack that stability and breadth that would be required for their being liturgical languages on a broader scale. In any event, the number of individual liturgical languages is not to be increased too greatly. This latter is necessary so that a certain unity of language may be fostered within the boundaries of one and the same nation.

If the liturgy is truly the worship of the People of God, there should be nothing in it that hampers the active participation of believers who stem from different cultures. Therefore SC affirms that in the liturgy, while preserving the substantial unity of the Roman Rite, allowance should be made for legitimate diversity and legitimate adaptations for various ethnic groups, regions, and peoples, espe­cially in the missions (SC 37). There are in the first place those countries which do not have a Christian tradition or where the Gospel has been proclaimed in modern times by missionaries who brought the Roman rite with them. It is now more evident that “coming into contact with different cultures, the church must welcome all that can be reconciled with the Gospel in the tradition of a people to bring to it the riches of Christ and to be enriched in turn by the many different forms of wisdom of the nations of the earth.

Stemming from an increased understanding of the Mystical Body of Christ and its proper connection to the priesthood of Christ, a grow­ing theology of the accurate role, function, and ministry of the laity became intertwined with the concept of participation. The constitutions of the council go far beyond any sense of juridical or legal formulations in order to deal with every aspect of social living—in this sense “constituent of faith. Reit­erating the themes of Mystici Corporis and Mediator Dei that preceded it, the constitution speaks of the liturgical action as the “chief means through which the faithful may express in their lives and demonstrate to others the mystery which is Christ and the real nature of the true Church” (SC 2). Liturgy is seen as an activity that is both constitutive of the believing assembly and also creedal: it defines who the gathered assembly is and helps articulate the assembly’s beliefs in and before the world. In this sense the council begins by depicting the liturgy as a uniquely communal act of faith and kerygma. It charges pastors to realize that the celebration of the liturgy is not simply about following rubrics. By asserting that the mandate for participation is a character resulting from baptism, the council fathers prevented such participation from ever being relegated to the status of an accidental element within the liturgy. If baptism is viewed as the fundamental initiation sacrament, culminating in the celebration of the Eucharist, then participation in the sacramental action comes “in virtue of their baptism.” The baptismal mandate is also rooted in the nature of the church itself. By virtue of baptism, every member of the faithful becomes a true and responsible member of the Mystical Body, acquiring thereby rights and duties which are the heritage of all, becoming a participant in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and of the same grace which constitutes the vivifying principle for all—a grace which comes from the liturgy as its primary font.

According to the eminent French theologian Yves Congar, the local Churches are active participants in the work of liturgical reform. Recep­tion of the reform involves local judgment that what has been offered to a local Church through its communion with the bishop of Rome and all other bishops in communion with him is good for the life of faith of the people living in this place.In a previous era, after the Council of Trent, those who exercised the teaching office of the Church had made the judgment that the good of the Church would best be served by leaving nothing to pas­toral choice in the celebration of the liturgy. Priests understood it to be their responsibility to read the Latin liturgy as printed and to move and gesture precisely as the books prescribed. Appropriate reception of the sixteenth-century liturgical reform of the Council of Trent re­quired no more and no less than absolute conformity to the Tridentine liturgy as it was printed in the Missal and the sacramental ritual books of Pope Pius V. Those official books were modified only in the slightest ways during the next four hundred years. The liturgical reform of Vatican II proceeded from a different premise. The postconciliar Roman liturgical books have been so com­posed that they require judgment, decision, and choice. One ex­periences the impact of those judgments, decisions, choices, when one note the differences in the liturgy across various communities which characterises themselves by appropriately varied behaviours of the clergy and laity to ensure the fullest participation of everyone.

The forms of the liturgical celebration are not “indifferent” to the world in which the contemporary Church lives. The liturgical celebration gained, thanks to the council, a new centrality in the proclamation of the Gospel in the world. Vatican II was a great event of rapprochement within the Church, a Church that had become bigger and more diverse between the Council of Trent and the twentieth century. This establishes a link between forms of personal prayer and the whole human community and to grasp the basic idea that private prayer is also “public theology.” For this we must take into account the “course” of the liturgy as a political “action of the people,” public expression of prayer as a human act. The liturgical constitution of Vatican II, which stated in the introduction that the Church is a “sign lifted up among the nations” (SC 2), was aware of this “public-political” character of the liturgy. Although the constitution does not mention the council’s “political culture,” it does build a discourse on the Eucharist for the Church that lives on earth. The relationship between revelation, tradition, history, and ecumenism has a “political” meaning because it starts from an acceptance of the basic ideas of theological movements that are fed into Vatican II—the biblical, patristic, liturgical, and ecumenical movements —and accepts history as a “theological” source in framing liturgy as “source and summit” of the Church.

An indispensable condition for a human group to be able above all to survive and then to attain its own full identity is that it be able to live a faith and thus induce it in others. There is no society that does not realize the urgency of transmitting its own ideals to the following generations and that does not put in motion processes of socialization through which it communicates the reasons of life and the values that emerge from its own tradition. Certain practical guidelines can be supplied to facilitate the social deepening of our liturgical life. A good liturgy results when:

•     Vigorous popular participation is encouraged and enhanced by presiders whose style is strong, lov­ing, and wise rather than tentative, domineering, or disengaged.

•     Worshipers can see, hear, and join in the liturgical action, since at Mass the people not only offer the sacri­fice through the priests’ hands; they offer it together with him, and include themselves in the offering.

•     The community’s diversity (cultural, racial, linguistic, generational, etc.) is joyfully acknowledged rather than painfully sidestepped or ignored.

•     Ritual spaces are so situated in neighbourhoods that their symbolic presence as the house of God is obvious, that they can accommodate the movement of people during the liturgy (e.g., at Communion), and that the essential relation between liturgy and justice, ethics and Eucharist, is clear.

•     Christians remember that the Eucharist commits us to the poor and that we cannot truly receive Christ’s body and blood unless we come to recognize Christ in the poorest among us.

Thus, with Vatican II the long process of restoring the liturgy to the people was finished. After many centuries the faithful have returned to being active protagonists of the Church’s liturgical life.


Vatican Documents

Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani

Liturgiam Authenticam, Fifth Instruction from CDWDS

Liturgicae Instaurationes, Third Instruction from CDWDS

Sacrosanctum Concilium, Constitution on Sacred Liturgy

Spiritus Et Sponsa, Apostolic Letter, John Paul II

Tres Abhinc Annos, Second Instruction from CDWDS

Varietates Legitimae, Fourth Instruction from CDWDS

Vicesimus Quintus Annus, Apostolic Letter, John Paul II


Chicago, Archdoicese of, The Liturgy Documents: Volume I.

Chupungco, Anscar J., ed., Handbook for Liturgical Studies.

Collins, Mary, Contemplative Participation: Sacrosanctum Concilium 25 Years Later.

Faggioli, Massimo, True Reform:Liturgy and Ecclesiology in Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Martin, James, ed., Celebrating Good Liturgy: A Guide to the Ministries of Mass.

Pivarnik, Gabriel, Towards a Trinitarian Theology of Participation.

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