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Participatio Actuosa in the Current Magisterium: Guest Article by Fr Peter Stravinskas (Part 2)

Friday, September 30, 2016 5:42
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(Before It's News)

We continue with the second part of a paper by Fr Peter Stravinskas, originally delivered at the CIEL conference in Paris in 2003. The first part examined the question of how the famous words “actuosa participatio” in Sacrosanctum Concilium were originally meant to understood; this second part continues with its treatment after the liturgical reform, and particularly, the continued emphasis on interior disposition.  Our thanks once again to Fr Stravinskas for allowing us to reprint the article here on NLM.

Taking on the rearing of iconoclasm’s ugly head in modern guise, Paul VI addressed the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Art on 17 December 1969. Therein, he rehearsed Church teaching on sacred art, revisiting Nicaea II, Trent and Vatican II:
Their (sacred images’) purpose is to raise the spirit beyond the figure to what the figure stands for. . . . The Church entrusts art with a mediating role, analogous, we might say, to the role of the priest or, perhaps better, to that of Jacob’s ladder descending and ascending. . . . The Liturgy superbly fulfills this (artistic) vocation in both beauty of form and profundity of content. . . . The alliance between art and the life of religion will also succeed in giving again to the Church, the Bride of Christ, a voice that love inspires and that inspires love. . . . As always, we must begin with the education of the person.

The Holy Father reflects a strong incarnational sense here, seeing beauty as bearing a meaning beyond its own objective value. Once more, he connects liturgical significance to “the education of the person.”

Cardinal Villot picked up that theme in comments made to the Italian bishops’ committee on the liturgy for the 21st Italian Liturgical Week (4 September 1970): “There is cause for comfort in the increased measures to bring about a deeper knowledge of the Liturgy and an ever more intelligent, active, and personal participation by the faithful in the rites of the Church.” Was this his honest appraisal of the situation or wishful thinking? It is hard to tell, but there is no mistaking the linking of proper catechesis to any true actuosa participatio.

The Sacred Congregation for the Clergy presented the Church with the landmark General Catechetical Directory on 11 April 1971. In tackling our theme, we find that catechists ought to be engaged in “forming the minds of the faithful for prayers, for thanksgiving, for repentance, for prayers with confidence, for a community spirit, and for understanding correctly the meaning of the creeds. All these things are necessary for a true liturgical life.”

In a general audience on 22 August 1973, Paul VI spoke about the preservation of “Latin, Gregorian chant,” and prayed, “May that be God’s will.” He linked this intention up to full liturgical participation.

The ill-advised Directory for Masses with Children made its début on 1 November 1973, but even there we find this salutary reminder: “In all this, it should be kept in mind that external activities will be fruitless and even harmful if they do not serve the internal participation of the children. Thus religious silence has its importance even in Masses with children. The children should not be allowed to forget that all the forms of participation reach their high point in eucharistic communion, when the Body and Blood of Christ are received as spiritual nourishment” (n. 22). Then quoting the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, n. 23, it repeats: “Even in Masses with children, ‘silence should be observed at the designated times as part of the celebration,’ lest too great a place be given to external action. In their own way, children are genuinely capable of reflection” (n. 37).

Iubilate Deo, which provided a basic repertoire of Latin chants and hymns deemed essential for every parish community, was promulgated on 11 April 1974; this document was presented to the whole Church as a way of implementing Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 54, “that the voice of the faithful be heard in both Gregorian chant and vernacular singing.” The musical dimension was hit upon again by Cardinal Villot in an address to the 21st National Congress on Sacred Music (13 September 1974): “All the parts of the Mass are in themselves already a form of evangelization, because they revivify faith and transform into adoration. But in singing and music, the parts of the Mass can find a powerful and expressive way to foster the participation of the faithful.” Noteworthy, too, are the references to evangelization and adoration.

In a general audience on 26 March 1975, Pope Paul returns to our theme, this time relying on both Scripture and St. Thomas Aquinas:

But there is an essential difference in the liturgical drama. . . . In contrast, the liturgical drama not only brings to mind again Christ’s deeds but reactualizes His salvific action (see ST 3a , 56.1 and 3); . . . as He is the always active source of our salvation. . . . In any believer who participates in the Liturgy there is no sense of remoteness or of being on the outside. Consequently, in celebrating the Paschal Mystery, the believer is taken into and overcome by the dramatic power of the “hour” of Christ, “my hour” as he called it.

Later that year (6 August 1975), exactly three years before his death, the Holy Father gave a very fully developed appreciation of what is entailed in liturgical participation:

The Liturgy is a communion of minds, prayers, voices, agape or charity. Passive presence is not enough; participation is required. The people must see in the Liturgy a school for listening and learning, a sacred celebration presented and guided by the priest, but in which, as a gathering of hearts and voices, they join by their response, their offerings, their prayers. . . . Remember that Liturgy is believing, praising in song, alive to earthly experience, on pilgrimage toward the celebration of the eternal revelation.

Finally, on 6 June 1976, Paul VI sent a message to the bishops of the United States, commemorating the bicentennial of the nation. He urged the bishops to bring their people “to a deeper realization of the centrality of the Eucharist in their lives and of their need to participate therein,” and “to a profound sense of reverence for the eucharistic mystery.” He recalled for priests “their special duty: sancta sancte tractanda.” This dimension of worship, he said, is connected to “the very holiness of God, of Jesus Christ, (which) demands reverence and profound respect.”

Three years later (4 October 1979), Pope St John Paul II, during his first pastoral visit to the United States, reminded priests in Philadelphia that “all our pastoral endeavors are incomplete until our people are led to the full and active participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. . . .” Throughout his pontificate, the Holy Father underscored numerous elements of what he understands by “full and active participation.” To cite them individually would be nearly impossible and would overload the circuit unnecessarily, especially since they reiterate the very elements presented by the Magisterium of the 20th century.

What is interesting, however, is to look up the topic of participation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The references deal with how we participate in the Lord’s Paschal Mystery (e.g., nn. 618, 654, 668, 1006). The Catechism links our participation in a definitive manner to the Sacred Liturgy, especially the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Eucharist. We are taught that “grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ” (n. 1997, emphasis in the original). This grace likewise brings about our “participation. . . in Christ’s mission as Priest, Prophet and King,” particularly through Baptism and Confirmation (n. 1546). We also learn that Baptism confers “the sacramental character that consecrates (us) for Christian religious worship.” It goes on to speak of how this “enables and commits Christians to serve God by a vital participation in the holy Liturgy of the Church and to exercise their baptismal priesthood by the witness of holy lives and practical charity” (n. 1273). All this is brought to its culmination in the Eucharistic Sacrifice: “This ‘how’ exceeds our imagination and understanding; it is accessible only to faith. Yet our participation in the Eucharist already gives us a foretaste of Christ’s transfiguration of our bodies” (n. 1000). How is this so? Because “the Liturgy is also a participation in Christ’s own prayer addressed to the Father in the Holy Spirit. In the Liturgy, all Christian prayer finds its source and goal. Through the Liturgy the inner man is rooted and grounded in ‘the great love with which (the Father) loved us’ in His beloved Son” (n. 1073). An awareness of Christ’s unique presence in the Eucharist “moves us to an ever more complete participation in our Redeemer’s sacrifice which we celebrate in the Eucharist” (n. 1372).

We should notice, therefore, how all our attention is focused on interior dispositions, rather than merely external postures, gestures and other such activities (as important as these are for body-soul unities to worship). Why might this emphasis be given? I venture to say that the experience of two decades of liturgical confusion and frenzy caused the editors of the Catechism to attempt to balance the matter in favor of fundamental truths that had been lost in the post-conciliar shuffle – at least at the practical level or lived experience of the average person in the pew.

For several years, Angelo Cardinal Sodano sent letters to the annual liturgical conferences in Italy, which in later years took a decided cautionary turn. And so, we read the following sent on 2 August 2001:

. . . it is necessary to keep in mind the particular nature of the Sacred Liturgy. As the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium of the Second Vatican Council explained, “every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the Priest and of His Body, which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree” (n. 7).

He continues:

According to the famous statement, used for the first time by the Magisterium in the motu proprio, Tra le Sollecitudini (22 November 1903) of Pope St. Pius X, the Constitution on the Liturgy desires: “that all the faithful be guided to that full, conscious and active participation in the liturgical celebrations, which is required by the very nature of the Liturgy” (n. 14). Today this participatio actuosa (active participation) of the faithful is sometimes reduced to their performing some liturgical ministry. However, the Council wishes to invite all believers to take part, consciously and actively, in the liturgical prayer itself, by offering to God the sacrifice of praise and adoring Him “in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:23).

Once more, the interior dimension is highlighted.

Surely we cannot ignore Holy Thursday of 2003, when Pope John Paul II promulgated Ecclesia de Eucharistia on the silver jubilee of his accession to the Chair of Peter. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the entire encyclical can be viewed as an essay on the meaning of genuine participatio actuosa. He mentions three serious obstacles to full, conscious and active participation: liturgical abuses (n. 10); lack of full ecclesial communion, both visible and invisible (n. 35f); the presence of grave sin in a participant (n. 37). All of Chapter Five is devoted to “the dignity of the eucharistic celebration” as he considers how the interior and external aspects of Christian worship should interact, including art, music, architecture and liturgical discipline. It was in reference to that last item – liturgical discipline – that the Holy Father took the occasion to announce the preparation of a “juridical” document confront the abuses which have marred the life of the post-conciliar Church. In a powerful line, he declares: “No one is permitted to undervalue the mystery entrusted to our hands. It is too great for anyone to feel free to treat it lightly and with disregard for its sacredness and universality” (n. 52).

At the end of his encyclical, we hear echoes of the words he spoke to the priests in Philadelphia at the beginning of his pontificate:

Every commitment to holiness, every activity aimed at carrying out the Church’s mission, every work of pastoral planning, must draw the strength it needs from the eucharistic mystery and in turn be directed to that mystery as its culmination. In the Eucharist, we have Jesus, we have His redemptive Sacrifice, we have His Resurrection, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have adoration, obedience and love of the Father. Were we to disregard the Eucharist, how could we overcome our own deficiency? (n. 60)

And then comes the clarion call to live the mystery of the Eucharist in all its fullness:

The mystery of the Eucharist – sacrifice, presence, banquet – does not allow for reduction or exploitation; it must be experienced and lived in its integrity, both in its celebration and in the intimate converse with Jesus which takes place after receiving Communion or in a prayerful moment of eucharistic adoration apart from Mass. These are times when the Church is firmly built up and it becomes clear what she truly is: one, holy, catholic and apostolic; the people, temple and family of God; the Body and Bride of Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit; the universal sacrament of salvation and a hierarchically structured communion. (n. 61, emphasis in original)

Finally, he takes on the pernicious dichotomy between the head and the heart introduced by the Enlightenment (1), following Blaise Pascal’s trenchant observation, “The heart has reason that reason knows not.” “If, in the presence of this mystery,” he says, “reason experiences its limits, the heart, enlivened by the grace of the Holy Spirit, clearly sees the response that is demanded, and bows low in adoration and unbounded love.” He then turns to St. Thomas Aquinas, whom he describes as “an eminent theologian and an impassioned poet of Christ in the Eucharist,” urging us to “turn in hope to the contemplation of that goal to which our hearts aspire in their thirst for joy and peace” (n. 62).

Participatio Actuosa: A Synthesis and a Re-direction

On October 8, 2033, Francis Cardinal Arinze, in his capacity as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, addressed the national meeting of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions in San Antonio, Texas. I think he admirably summarized the picture I have been trying to sketch when he asserted, “It is important that the internal aspect of participation is indispensable as a basis, a requirement and the aim of all external participation. That is why personal prayer, scriptural meditation and moments of silence are necessary.” And even more to the point: “A sense of reverence and devotion is conducive to interiorized active participation.”

The Reverend Michael R. Carey, O.P., offers a succinct explanation of the terms of the debate and excoriates what he calls “liturgical activism.” He maintains that our participation “is conscious in that it engages the rational part of our soul – mind and heart. It is active in that it also engages our body. But the main point is that it must not be merely active, but full.” Good Dominican that he is, he expands on the question, relying on the Angelic Doctor:

So, a first principle of active participation is that whatever we do bodily should be a sign of what ought to be happening in our souls. For this, we have to look to what we are doing and to the words we are praying. Are we listening to the Word of God? Then it is appropriate to sit. Are we humbly beseeching God? Then it is appropriate to kneel. Are we contemplating after Holy Communion the Lord we have just received? Then it is appropriate that we close our eyes and bow our heads in silent prayer.

He seals his argument in this fashion: “External acts which inhibit or contradict the natural movements of the soul in prayer are simply wrong, and will instinctively be felt to be wrong.” (2)

As I read that last line, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a Sister who informed me she had just finished preparing her second-graders for their First Holy Communion. I said she must be thrilled and proud. She replied, with great sadness in her face and in her voice: “Father, I have taught them everything the Church wants them to know and believe about the Holy Eucharist, but I just have the impression that they do not believe what I believed at their age.” I then asked her about eucharistic practices in her parish. Like most parishes in the West, just about anyone distributes Holy Communion to anyone in any position and in any degree of disposition. Until those situations are dealt with, I told the nun, her children will never be able to believe what she believed and, hopefully, still does believe. Why? Because our praxis is under-cutting our theology. The interior participation is not allowed to flower because of external modes of participation which are problematic.

What, then, is the image of participatio actuosa with which to conclude? That of another Dominican, Colman E. O’Neill. More than three decades ago, he offered the following definition:

(It is) that form of devout involvement in the liturgical action which, in the present conditions of the Church, best promotes the exercise of the common priesthood of the baptized; that is, their power to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass with Christ and to receive the sacraments. It is clear that, concretely, this requires that the faithful understand the liturgical ceremonial; that they take part in it by bodily movements, standing, kneeling or sitting as the occasion may demand; that 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 impact of the whole ceremonial may be absorbed and deeply personalized. (3)

What has been suggested by Father O’Neill is no more and no less than what Aristotle would have referred to as a “catharsis,” namely, that a would-be spectator so enters into the dramatic action that he becomes a participant. And I think the word we have been searching for is not “active” but “actual.” To illustrate the validity of this suggestion, let me finish with this scenario.

You have decided to go to the opera for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. You have paid your hundred dollars or euros and have a superb seat. The orchestra is outstanding. The sets are splendid. The performances are stellar. You are so drawn into the action that you completely identify with the protagonist, experiencing all the emotions the composer envisioned. In short, by the end of the work, you have run out of handkerchiefs and tissues. The only drawback, however, is that you did not get up on the stage and sing the final, heart-tugging aria yourself. I ask you: Did you have a genuine experience of catharsis in the Aristotelian sense? Was it an example of participatio actuosa? I believe it was. Was it “active” participation? I think not. What was it, then? I submit it was that form of real participation which we should call “actual.” And that, I further submit, is the kind of participation the post-conciliar Magisterium has had in mind. May it become a reality in our day.

(1) For a fine discussion of this problem and for some healthy remedies, see: Stratford Caldecott, “The Heart’s Language: Toward a Liturgical Anthropology, Antiphon, 2001 [Number Two].
(2) “Active Participation Again,” The Priest, July 2003, 32.
(3) “The Theological Meaning of Actuosa Participatio in the Liturgy,” in Sacred Music and Liturgy Reform after Vatican II. Rome: Consociatio Internationalis Musicæ Sacræ, 1969, 105.


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