February 02, 2020 – Liturgical Participation

Liturgical Series 2020, Part 4


Preached on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord at Assumption Parish in Bellingham, WA

[I had to cut down the length, so a section with some additional detail is included at the end.]


In the last three weeks, we have spoken about the Baptismal Liturgy and the Liturgy of the Word, and Deacon Larry has expertly traced for us the history of the Pascal Mystery in the Scriptures. Today we arrive, finally, at the homilies I have really, really been looking forward to. So strap in, because this is going to be fun for me.

Without going into much detail here, suffice it to say that one of the great scandals of the Roman Rite over the centuries has been its progressive disconnect from the people. Slowly over time, partly from a desire to preserve Latin as the language of worship, partly due to increased complexity and dramatic elements introduced by Frankish liturgists, and partly due to historical factors I will not rehearse here, the Mass became a purely clerical affair. The priests and other ministers would be gathered around the altar saying the Mass, and the people would be observing, almost like they were attending a play. By the end of the 19th century, the core of the Mass was said silently by the priest to himself or to the servers, with the empty silence was filled by the choir singing complex Baroque compositions, or the people singing hymns or praying their private devotions. The Mass was schizophrenic, with the head separated from the body.

Given all of this, it should come as no surprise that when the Second Vatican Council set out to reform the liturgy, it would issue a call “that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.” And that, “Such participation by the Christian people […] is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else[.]” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14)

In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.

This was a bombshell.

Why do you think the last 57 years have been liturgically so chaotic? Because the Church is suddenly trying to focus on something that she has not deeply considered for more than a millennium. The Church is trying to answer the question of how to include the people in the liturgical action of the Mass.

In this question, we are stuck between two extremes, and it has caused a lot of fighting over the last half-century. On one extreme, we see people who believe nothing structural needs to change. The Mass is perfect as it was; and, yes, maybe we need to do more education for the laity about the Mass, but inaudible Masses and Latin readings are not in need of reform. These are the folks who reject the liturgical changes following the Council and who worship exclusively using the old Rites. On the other extreme, we see people who believe that laity will only ever be fully participating in the liturgy when there is no longer a distinction between priest and people, between sanctuary and nave, between ordained and baptized. These were the origins of a lot of crazy liturgical experiments that many of you likely lived through, and which still have some negative effects today.

In general, the liturgical reforms following the Council did a fairly decent job avoiding these extremes and increasing the proper participation of the laity. The restoration of the dialogues between priest and people (which had previously only been carried out by the servers or the choir) was an essential move in restoring lay participation. The wider use of the vernacular language was something that had already been considered all the way back in the 16th century and for which the Church finally seemed ready in the 20th century. And the reintroduction of the offertory procession and the general intercessions were also helpful restorations of ancient practices which involved the laity but had fallen out of use.

One fun fact that most people do not realize: neither the Second Vatican Council nor any of its clarifying documents every required or even recommended that the priest celebrate Mass facing the people. Only one document even mentioned the possibility, and was published by a Roman committee, not the Council itself. Even the instructions for Mass today are notoriously neutral on the question of which direction the priest is facing while celebrating. Facing the people became the norm only as an informal but widely adopted experiment, which was thought to serve the greater participation of the people. And yet today, some priests and even bishops are returning to celebrating Mass facing the same direction as the people, as a sign of a common action and common sacrifice, and this is a discussion we will see increase and intensify in our lifetimes.

The question about which direction to face is just one of many significant debates we continue to have about the implementation of the Second Vatican Council and how to bring about lay participation. And these debates rage on because we cannot agree on the definition of “participation.”

But now I am going to let you in on a little secret. The Church actually tells us what participation means. She told us in 1967, two years after the close of the Council, but there was a lot going on then, and no one seemed to be paying attention.

In the document Musicam Sacram, implementing the Second Vatican Council’s teachings on Sacred Music, the Church first repeated the Council’s statement: “The faithful fulfill their liturgical role by making that full, conscious and active participation which is demanded by the nature of the liturgy itself and which is, by reason of baptism, the right and duty of the Christian people.”

Okay, we’ve heard that part already. But then there is this: “This participation (a) Should be above all internal, in the sense that by it the faithful join their mind to what they pronounce or hear, and cooperate with heavenly grace, (b) Must be, on the other hand, external also, that is, such as to show the internal participation by gestures and bodily attitudes, by the acclamations, responses and singing.

The faithful should also be taught to unite themselves interiorly to what the ministers or choir sing, so that by listening to them they may raise their minds to God.” (Musicam Sacram, 15)

I cannot emphasize enough how important these words are for implementing the Second Vatican Council. In the mind of the Church, the participation of the laity should above all be internal, in the sense that participation means uniting oneself to the liturgical action. This unity is sometimes externalized, through gestures, bodily attitudes, acclamations, responses, and singing. But note well: the measure of our participation is not, and never has been, the extent of our external activity. The participation of the laity has never depended on how much they act like or replace the priest.

My friends, the Second Vatican Council was an incredible gift to the Church, and the rediscovery of the dignity and role of the laity in both the liturgies and the mission of the Church is something we can never, ever, allow ourselves to lose sight of or back away from. But it is essential that we pay attention to the actual theology given to us by the Council Fathers. I don’t know about you, but I have been at so many Masses where the priest says that I am not participating unless I am singing. I have been at so many parishes where the underlying assumption is that the liturgical ministers are somehow participating more in the Mass than the rest of the people. But this is not what the Council or the Church tells us! Our participation is NOT judged by our external action, like singing or serving, but by our internal unity to the liturgy and the prayers. Our external actions merely serve to express this internal unity and participation.

The importance of deepening our understanding of liturgical participation is why I feel so strongly about this homily series. Over the next two months, I am going to be talking about the liturgical actions taking place, specifically so that we can unite ourselves more fully to these actions. I am going to talk about how the Mass is a sacrifice, so that we can unite ourselves to its sacrificial nature. I am going to explain how the Mass is a communion, so that we know how to enter into communion through it. I am going to talk about liturgical music, and the role it plays in helping us unite our hearts and minds to what is going on in the liturgy. And I am sure other topics will come up along the way.

Sometimes the topic we are addressing will be accompanied by a slight tweak or change in the way we celebrate Mass at Assumption. Starting today, for example, I have asked our cantors to stop announcing the hymn numbers. This is not to say that people should not sing, of course. The Council itself mentions the importance of singing. We have a hymn board, and I encourage you to use it. But the hymns are an accompaniment to a deeper liturgical action, specifically, the entrance, offertory, and communion processions. Our focus should be on these processions and their meanings, and our goal should be to unite our hearts and minds to the meaning of these processions. Some people unite themselves by singing and some unite themselves by silent reflection, and both are wonderful. I simply do not want to interrupt the liturgical action here with an announcement or give the impression that the external expression is more important or more required than the internal participation.

Ultimately, what matters most, above all things, is that we enter deeply into every part of the Mass. We live in a unique and blessed time, where the Church has turned her immense theological energies specifically toward the rediscovery of lay participation in the Mass. We have realized once again that the Mass belongs to us all, and it is in uniting our hearts and minds to the actions of the Mass that we will unite ourselves to Jesus and our salvation. Let’s enter fully into this blessed time. Let’s ask what it means to worship God and how we do so here in the Holy Sacrifice. I look forward to journeying with you more deeply into these questions in the coming weeks. In the meantime, let us continue to engage with the liturgy, which is our right and duty as baptized Christians.


En las últimas tres semanas, hemos hablado sobre la Liturgia Bautismal y la Liturgia de la Palabra, y el Diácono Larry nos ha rastreado expertamente la historia del Misterio Pascal en las Escrituras. Hoy llegamos, finalmente, a las homilías que realmente tenía muchas ganas.

Sin entrar en muchos detalles aquí, basta decir que uno de los grandes escándalos del Rito Romano a lo largo de los siglos ha sido su desconexión progresiva de la gente. Lentamente con el tiempo, en parte por el deseo de preservar el latín como idioma de adoración, en parte debido a la mayor complejidad y elementos dramáticos introducidos por los liturgistas francos, y en parte debido a factores históricos que no ensayaré aquí, la misa se convirtió en un asunto puramente clerical. Los sacerdotes y otros ministros se reunirían alrededor del altar para celebrar la misa, y la gente estaría observando, casi como si asistieran a una obra de teatro. A fines del siglo diecinueve, el núcleo de la misa fue dicho en silencio por el sacerdote para sí mismo o para los servidores, con el silencio vacío lleno por el coro cantando composiciones barrocas complejas, o la gente cantando himnos o rezando sus devociones privadas. La Misa era esquizofrénica, con la cabeza separada del cuerpo.

Dado todo esto, no debería sorprendernos que cuando el Concilio Vaticano Segundo se propusiera reformar la liturgia, emitiría un llamado “que se lleve a todos los fieles a aquella participación plena, consciente y activa en las celebraciones litúrgicas que exige la naturaleza de la Liturgia misma y a la cual tiene derecho y obligación, en virtud del bautismo, el pueblo cristiano.” El concilio continuó, “Al reformar y fomentar la sagrada Liturgia hay que tener muy en cuenta esta plena y activa participación de todo el pueblo.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14)

Esta fue una bomba de mil novecientos sesenta y tres.

¿Por qué crees que los últimos cincuenta y siete años han sido litúrgicamente tan caóticos? Porque la Iglesia de repente está tratando de concentrarse en algo que no ha considerado profundamente por más de un milenio. La Iglesia está tratando de responder la pregunta de cómo incluir a las personas en la acción litúrgica de la Misa.

En esta pregunta, estamos atrapados entre dos extremos, y ha provocado muchos combates durante el último medio siglo. En un extremo, vemos personas que creen que nada estructural necesita cambiar. “La Misa es perfecta como era,” ellos dicen, “y, sí, tal vez necesitamos educar más a los laicos sobre la misa, pero las misas inaudibles y las lecturas en latín no necesitan reformas.” Estas son las personas que generalmente rechazan los cambios litúrgicos que siguen al Concilio y que adoran exclusivamente usando los viejos Ritos. En el otro extremo, vemos personas que creen que los laicos solo participarán plenamente en la liturgia cuando ya no haya una distinción entre sacerdote y gente, entre santuario y nave, entre ordenado y bautizado. Estos fueron los orígenes de muchos experimentos litúrgicos locos que muchos de ustedes probablemente vivieron y que todavía tienen algunos efectos negativos en la actualidad.

En general, las reformas litúrgicas que siguieron al Consejo hicieron un trabajo bastante decente evitando estos extremos y aumentando la participación adecuada de los laicos. La restauración de los diálogos entre el sacerdote y las personas (que anteriormente solo habían sido llevados a cabo por los servidores o el coro) fue un movimiento esencial para restaurar la participación de los laicos. El uso más amplio del lenguaje vernáculo era algo que ya se había considerado en el Concilio de Trento durante el siglo dieciséis y para el cual la Iglesia finalmente parecía estar preparada en el siglo veinte. Y la reintroducción de la procesión del ofertorio y las intercesiones generales también fueron útiles restauraciones de prácticas antiguas que involucraban a los laicos pero que habían quedado fuera de uso.

Un hecho divertido que la mayoría de la gente no se da cuenta: ni el Concilio Vaticano Segundo ni ninguno de sus documentos aclaratorios exigieron o incluso recomendaron que el sacerdote celebrara la Misa frente a la gente. Solo un documento mencionó la posibilidad, y fue publicado por un comité romano, no el propio Consejo. Incluso las instrucciones para la misa de hoy son notoriamente neutrales en cuanto a la dirección del sacerdote al celebrar. Enfrentarse a la gente se convirtió en la norma solo como un experimento informal pero ampliamente adoptado, que se pensaba que servía a una mayor participación de la gente. Y, sin embargo, hoy en día, algunos sacerdotes e incluso obispos están volviendo a celebrar la Misa en la misma dirección que la gente, como un signo de una acción común y un sacrificio común, y esta es una discusión que veremos aumentar e intensificarse en nuestras vidas.

La pregunta sobre qué dirección enfrentar es solo uno de los muchos debates importantes que seguimos teniendo sobre la implementación del Concilio Vaticano Segundo y cómo lograr la participación de los laicos. Y estos debates continúan porque no podemos estar de acuerdo con la definición de “participación”.

Pero ahora te voy a contar un pequeño secreto. La Iglesia en realidad nos dice qué significa participación. Nos lo contó en mil novecientos sesenta y siete, dos años después del cierre del Consejo.

En el documento Musicam Sacram, que implementa las enseñanzas del Concilio Vaticano Segundo sobre música sacra, la Iglesia repitió primero la declaración del Concilio: “Los fieles cumplen su función litúrgica mediante la participación plena, consciente y activa que requiere la naturaleza de la misma liturgia; esta participación es un derecho y una obligación para el pueblo cristiano, en virtud de su bautismo.”

Bien, ya hemos escuchado esa parte. Pero luego está esto:

“Esta participación: a) Debe ser ante todo interior; es decir, que por medio de ella los fieles se unen en espíritu a lo que pronuncian o escuchan, y cooperan a la divina gracia. b) Pero la participación debe ser también exterior; es decir, que la participación interior se exprese por medio de los gestos y las actitudes corporales, por medio de las aclamaciones, las respuestas y el canto.

Se debe educar también a los fieles a unirse interiormente a lo que cantan los ministros o el coro, para que eleven su espíritu a Dios al escucharles.” (Musicam Sacram, 15)

No puedo enfatizar lo suficiente lo importantes que son estas palabras para implementar el Concilio Vaticano Segundo. En la mente de la Iglesia, la participación de los laicos debe ser sobre todo interna, en el sentido de que la participación significa unirse a la acción litúrgica. Esta unidad a veces se externaliza, por medio de los gestos y las actitudes corporales, por medio de las aclamaciones, las respuestas y el canto. Pero tenga en cuenta bien: la medida de nuestra participación no es, y nunca ha sido, el alcance de nuestra actividad externa. La participación de los laicos nunca ha dependido de cuánto actúan o reemplazan al sacerdote.

Amigos míos, el Concilio Vaticano Segundo fue un regalo increíble para la Iglesia, y el redescubrimiento de la dignidad y el papel de los laicos tanto en la liturgia como en la misión de la Iglesia es algo que nunca podemos permitirnos perder de vista o alejarse de. Pero es esencial que prestemos atención a la teología real que nos dan los Padres del Concilio. No sé sobre ti, pero he estado en tantas misas donde el sacerdote dice que no estoy participando a menos que esté cantando. He estado en muchas parroquias donde la suposición subyacente es que los ministros litúrgicos de alguna manera participan más en la Misa que el resto de la gente. ¡Pero esto no es lo que nos dice el Concilio o la Iglesia! Nuestra participación NO es juzgada por nuestra acción externa, como cantar o servir, sino por nuestra unidad interna con la liturgia y las oraciones. Nuestras acciones externas simplemente sirven para expresar esta unidad y participación internas.

La importancia de profundizar nuestra comprensión de la participación litúrgica es la razón por la que me siento tan fuertemente acerca de esta serie de homilías. Durante los próximos dos meses, voy a hablar sobre las acciones litúrgicas que tienen lugar, específicamente para que podamos unirnos más plenamente a estas acciones. Voy a hablar sobre cómo la Misa es un sacrificio, para que podamos unirnos a su naturaleza sacrificial. Voy a explicar cómo la Misa es una comunión, para que sepamos cómo entrar en comunión a través de ella. Voy a hablar sobre la música litúrgica y el papel que sirva en ayudarnos a unir nuestros corazones y nuestras mentes a lo que está sucediendo en la liturgia. Y estoy seguro de que surgirán otros temas en el camino.

A veces, el tema que estamos abordando irá acompañado de un ligero cambio en la forma en que celebramos la Misa en Asunción. A partir de hoy, por ejemplo, he pedido a nuestros cantores que dejen de anunciar los números de himnos. Esto no quiere decir que la gente no deba cantar, por supuesto. El propio Concilio menciona la importancia del canto. Tenemos un tablero de himnos, y te animo a que lo uses. Pero los himnos son un acompañamiento para una acción litúrgica más profunda, específicamente, las procesiones de entrada, ofertorio y comunión. Nuestro enfoque debe estar en estas procesiones y sus significados, y nuestro objetivo debe ser unir nuestros corazones y nuestras mentes al significado de estas procesiones. Algunas personas se unen cantando y otras se unen por reflexión silenciosa, y ambas son maravillosas. Simplemente no quiero interrumpir la acción litúrgica aquí con un anuncio o dar la impresión de que la expresión externa es más importante o más necesaria que la participación interna.

En última instancia, lo que más importa, sobre todo, es que entremos profundamente en cada parte de la Misa. Vivimos en un tiempo único y bendecido, donde la Iglesia ha dirigido sus inmensas energías teológicas específicamente hacia el redescubrimiento de la participación de los laicos en la Misa. Una vez más, nos hemos dado cuenta de que la Misa nos pertenece a todos, y es al unir nuestros corazones y nuestras mentes a las acciones de la Misa que nos uniremos a Jesús y nuestra salvación. Entremos completamente en este tiempo bendito. Preguntemos qué significa adorar a Dios y cómo lo hacemos aquí en el Santo Sacrificio. Espero poder viajar con usted más profundamente en estas preguntas en las próximas semanas. Mientras tanto, continuemos comprometiéndonos con la liturgia, que es nuestro derecho y deber como cristianos bautizados.

Cut Section:

When discussing liturgy, we have to be careful not to fall into antiquarianism, that is, the belief that the oldest form is the best form. St. John Henry Newman talks about Catholic theology like a river, which picks up tributaries of other cultures and eras along the way and so is stronger and more robust at the end than it is at the beginning. The Last Supper is the primordial Mass, to be sure, but we cannot say that the best Mass is one celebrated around a kitchen table using the Passover prayers. The developments of the Mass over time are important, wise, and guided by the Holy Spirit.

However, we also have to consider that not every development is a healthy development, that sometimes abuses can creep in. It is, ultimately, the responsibility of the hierarchy of the Church to protect us from such unhealthy theological developments, but because theological developments often occur over centuries, sometimes it takes centuries for the hierarchy to realize that we have gone too far in one direction or another and to take corrective action. And sometimes that corrective action itself only occurs in fits and starts and does not take hold for half a millennium or more.

This is the case with the Mass. The great abuse of the central Christian liturgy is that, over the centuries, the liturgical action has moved further and further away from the people. From my rudimentary research into the history of the Mass, it seems that through about the 8th century, the Roman Rite still involved a fairly robust interaction between the actions of the altar and the people present. But, for complicated yet understandable reasons, this interaction progressively broke down until, on the eve of the Reformation in the late 15th century, the actions of the altar were occurring completely separately, almost like a play that the people had come to observe. The Council of Trent took some very small steps to remedy this abuse, but Trent had bigger issues to deal with, and so the disconnect between altar and people remained a problem until well into the 20th century.


Let me explain what I mean in more detail. We will discuss this more in future homilies, but the Mass is Christ himself, assembled in his Body the Church, continually offering himself to his Father in Heaven. The priest, rightly, stands at the head of the Body, in place of Christ who is the head of the Church. At the head of the Body, the priest offers, as part of and on behalf of that Body, the sacrifice of the Mass. It is not wrong that there should be a distinction between priest and people, nor is it wrong that the actions of the altar should occur in the sanctuary while the people stand in the nave.

However, due partly to the desire to retain the Latin language and partly to increasingly dramatic and complicated elements introduced by Frankish liturgists, the laity present at Mass became less and less able to understand and engage with what was going on in the Mass, and the priests began to rely more and more on other trained clerics to fulfill the roles of the people. Eventually, the entire Mass was said only to the nearby clerics and servers, and significant portions of the Mass were said almost silently by the presider.

People, of course, continued to attend Mass, and their interaction with the liturgy took on many forms over the centuries. For almost a millennium, the people approached Mass by developing complicated analogical interpretations of the Mass and how it pointed to the life of Christ. If the priest made three signs of the Cross, for example, that might be interpreted as pointing to the three times Christ fell while carrying his Cross. These explanations were not rooted in the actual words of the priest or the historical development of these actions, but only incidentally related based on shallow resemblances. In other centuries, up to an including our own, the people primarily interacted with the Mass by signing hymns, which may or may not be related to the liturgical action and, for much of the history of the Mass, often even occurred independently of whatever was happening at the altar. And, of course, we have all heard the stories of people attending Mass but filling the time with unrelated devotions like the Rosary.


Now enter a theological effort called the Liturgical Movement. For the first few decades of the 20th century, massive theological energies were poured into the question of how to reconnect people with the Mass. Though discussions about the use of the vernacular languages and the elimination of certain vestigial parts of the Mass were common, the Liturgical Movement believes that much of the necessary reengagement could occur without major structural changes to the Mass. If you remember the old Latin Mass, you probably also remember your hand missals, which helped you follow along with what was happening up front. This is a prime example of a Liturgical Movement strategy, which focused a lot on education. It was partly in response to the Liturgical Movement that the Second Vatican Council was called, and it is absolutely due to the Liturgical Movement that the first document from the Council dealt with liturgy.

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Vatican 2a

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