How to Actively Participate at Any Mass
I am blessed to be in a parish that always has very reverent and beautiful liturgies, whether they are the Ordinary Form or the Extraordinary Form. We try to wake up for the early 7:30 am EF most Sunday’s, but this last week due to a late night for the kids we decided to “sleep in” and go to the 8:30 am OF. The one year old managed to last in the pew until the homily and then I was pacing in the back with her and other parents and young tots. I noticed that I paid much worse attention to the sung OF Mass than I do when I am in back for the quiet low EF Mass. I imagine that it was largely my own fault. I did not exert myself towards the liturgy, and I realized that it was because I could hear what was going on. When I am only paying attention with my ears, if I am not careful, my mind and my heart tend to wander. I need to visually follow to really have conscious participation. Ideally I will have a missal (at both forms) and follow word for word everything that is prayed, but holding a missal is not an option in my state in life. And maybe that is why the quiet low Mass is more prayerful for me, because I have to follow with my eyes in order to follow with my heart.
Since the Church is so universal, each person has his or her own strengths when it comes to active participation in the liturgy. God has gifted us all differently and calls us all to different things. Gifted musicians, for example, tend to be in the choir wherever they are parishioners. It is where they can participate in the liturgy, where they are called to be. Others are called to be ushers, altar servers, deacons, or priests. Most of us are called to be the people in the pews. But in the pews we all pray differently. We are all different and all have different relationships with God. There are certain unifying actions we all do, but our participation in the heart is unique to ourselves.
When the Second Vatican Council discussed the liturgy and produced the document Sacrosanctum Concilium, the active participation of the faithful was something they were strongly considering. It has always been a concern with the Church. Even after the Council of Trent when Catholicism was such a part of everyday life, lay catechization on the liturgy was considered to be important. By the early 19th century, secularism had spread across Europe, and the liturgical movement began. It was from the fruits of that movement that the council fathers sought to help the laity understand the liturgy. Here is what they said about our participation:
Mother Church earnestly desires 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. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), 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; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work[...] (SC 14)
With zeal and patience, pastors of souls must promote the liturgical instruction of the faithful, and also their active participation in the liturgy both internally and externally, taking into account their age and condition, their way of life, and standard of religious culture. (SC 19)
I really appreciate how considerate the Church is in knowing that not everyone can participate in the same way. When I see statements about taking into account age, condition, and way of life, in addition to the sick, the Church is keeping in mind the parent of little ones. This is where pacing in back counts; it is very active and still counts as participation.
We are called by God and by the Church to have a “fully conscious, and active participation,” but this cannot come about without “necessary instruction.” It all makes sense when I see my children in the pew at either form of the Mass. They have had instruction according to their mental abilities. The four year old mostly looks forward and whispers occasionally to her father. She listens to the readings when she chooses to or when she recognizes a story. The three year old has a picture board book, which has the main parts of Mass, and lately she has been trying very hard to stay on the right page. She stares at the book and whispers loudly asking “are we here?” and then will grin at her baby sister. The one year old will climb on the kneeler, look at books, and when she is really paying attention shriek as loud as she can and then quickly put her finger in front of her lips and shush.
For an adult, it is quiet different. We should know what each part of the Mass is and follow it with out hearts and bodies. Hopefully, we have all been given the appropriate instruction through our religious education or through RCIA. But it seems that the priest is called to continue to catechize us all on the liturgy, in homilies and in other parish events. Understanding liturgical action, adds to our ability to participate. Even the least catechized person can still pick up a “worship aid” and follow the Mass.
Most parishes are very good at promoting active participation:
The people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence. (SC 30)
Sometimes, however, the best intentions of liturgical planners backfire, and all of the external “participation” turns into a distraction. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it this way a book he wrote as Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy:
It is not now a matter of looking toward the priest, but of looking together toward the Lord and going out to meet him. The almost theatrical entrance of different players into the liturgy, which is so common today, especially during the Preparation of the Gifts, quite simply misses the point. If the various external actions (…) become essential in the liturgy, if the liturgy degenerates into general activity, then we have radically misunderstood the “theo-drama” of the liturgy and lapsed almost into parody[...] One must be led toward the essential action that makes the liturgy what it is, toward the transforming power of God, who wants, through what happens in the liturgy to transform us and the world. (The Spirit of the Liturgy 175)
As laity, we have little say in what happens in the liturgies we attend, and thus we have to find a way to participate in the liturgy, which is centered around God’s action. Ratzinger explained:
The real “action” in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate is the action of God himself. This is what is new and distinctive about the Christian liturgy: God himself acts and does what is essential[...]
The uniqueness of the Eucharistic Liturgy lies precisely in the fact that God himself is acting and that we are drawn into that action of God. Everything else is, therefore, secondary. (The Spirit of the Liturgy 173-174)
If you have come this far with me, then you are finally arriving at my point. How can we learn to participate better at any Mass, no matter what is going on? How did I learn to pray at any liturgy, despite my more traditional leanings? I give you my:
Six Ways to Internally Participate in God’s Action in the Liturgy:
1. Prepare as much as you can, especially for Sunday Mass. Read the readings before the liturgy, so when you here them again, your heart can be open more fully to God’s Word.
2. Focus your attention on the unchanging parts of the Mass. The basics will always be there, no matter what else is added in or not. The OF and the EF have the same basic parts, especially the Eucharist, and that is where unity can be found between them.
3. Follow in a missal or missalette, if you can. I have found that even when I have heard a Eucharistic Prayer hundreds of times, I pay so much more attention to God’s actions when I read along.
4. If you can’t read along, exert yourself to listen, watch, and pray. The action at the altar is where God acts. You can join your heart with the sacrifice on the altar; the sacrifice is ours to take part in.
5. Memorize or have with you a devotional prayer for before receiving the Eucharist and another for after. This helps greatly with remembering that the liturgy is for our salvation. My favorite before and after where written by St. Thomas Aquinas.
6. If something is distracting for you, offer it up, and focus on the real action, which is God’s. This was the hardest thing for me when I discovered the richness of the Church’s liturgical tradition. But when I was able to get over my nit-pickiness, I learned to move beyond what I wished was different, and seek God in the liturgy.
Even when we find ourselves at the “story hour like” liturgies discussed by Rachel Lu in her essay Love For the Latin Liturgy More Than a Fashion and it seems like none of the Church’s ancient traditions are preserved in the new Masses most of us attend, God’s actions are still there and we can participate in them with our whole selves.