Have you ever participated in civil ceremonies? The patriotic kind, where people feel happy just to be born here or there, sometimes without even knowing why? Ok, in this ceremony, there is a certain program to follow: a rite indeed.
Some people qualified for it will make a speech, other qualified people will play the music. Now, imagine that on your way back home from one of these ceremonies, your best friend tells you that you did not truly participate in this gathering because you were just standing (or seated) there and applauding, without saying or doing anything else. You would give him a weird look.
Participating, means being part of something; it is possible on many different levels, and listening is as important as anything else. In fact it is our ability to make sense of information that makes us what we are. But for some people it is not important being someone, but doing something.
This is what happens in many of our liturgies here and there around the world. There are priests who, with the best intentions, think that they fulfill their duties in front of Our Lord if each and every one seated in the church is doing something that can be verified on the spot (without having to resort to MRIs to ensure that the people are really listening). Father Silvano Maggiani, a renowned Italian liturgist from the congregation of the Servant of Mary, calls this “participationism”: The strange idea that everyone has to do something tangible.
I remember a first communion not many years ago, when every one of the innocent kids had to read an intention, when the responsorial psalm was lacerated in many tiny pieces to allow more kids to offer their inspired reading, and when the acknowledgments had to include half the universe to be sure that everyone could read something. Was this the concept of participation that the Council Fathers had in mind? I don’t think so.
In an interesting book, writer Carol Byrne had some things to say about the connection between participation and saint Pius X’s motu proprio on sacred music from 1903. Let us read what she had to say: “In the wider context, Pius X never mentioned “actuosa” in connection with lay participation in the liturgy in any document he had written on Sacred Music before he became Pope – nor, for that matter, did his predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, during his Papacy. Indeed, such a concept was never mentioned in any previous papal document going back in history to the earliest centuries. (…) It is only in the Italian version (which lacks the authoritative status of the Latin version) that the expression partecipazione attiva made its sudden and unexpected irruption. One theory of how the Italian phrase “partecipazione attiva” (“active participation”) found its way into TLS is that it could have been inserted by the person who actually drew up the text, the Vatican musicologist Fr Angelo de Santi SJ who had been closely associated with the Pope’s musical reforms when the latter was Bishop of Mantua and Patriarch of Venice. This is a distinct possibility, considering that Fr de Santi was known to have used this expression in articles he had written on Sacred Music even before the 1903 motu proprio” (Born of revolution). One thing is the right meaning of participation, another is participation as revolution. On the encyclical Mediator Dei published on November 20, 1947, Pius XII has said: “But the chief element of divine worship must be interior. For we must always live in Christ and give ourselves to Him completely, so that in Him, with Him and through Him the heavenly Father may be duly glorified. The sacred liturgy requires, however, that both of these elements be intimately linked with each another. This recommendation the liturgy itself is careful to repeat, as often as it prescribes an exterior act of worship. Thus we are urged, when there is question of fasting, for example, “to give interior effect to our outward observance."Otherwise religion clearly amounts to mere formalism, without meaning and without content. You recall, Venerable Brethren, how the divine Master expels from the sacred temple, as unworthily to worship there, people who pretend to honor God with nothing but neat and wellturned phrases, like actors in a theater, and think themselves perfectly capable of working out their eternal salvation without plucking their inveterate vices from their hearts. It is, therefore, the keen desire of the Church that all of the faithful kneel at the feet of the Redeemer to tell Him how much they venerate and love Him. She wants them present in crowds - like the children whose joyous cries accompanied His entry into Jerusalem - to sing their hymns and chant their song of praise and thanksgiving to Him who is King of Kings and Source of every blessing. She would have them move their lips in prayer, sometimes in petition, sometimes in joy and gratitude, and in this way experience His merciful aid and power like the apostles at the lakeside of Tiberias, or abandon themselves totally, like Peter on Mount Tabor, to mystic union with the eternal God in contemplation. It is an error, consequently, and a mistake to think of the sacred liturgy as merely the outward or visible part of divine worship or as an ornamental ceremonial. No less erroneous is the notion that it consists solely in a list of laws and prescriptions according to which the ecclesiastical hierarchy orders the sacred rites to be performed. It should be clear to all, then, that God cannot be honored worthily unless the mind and heart turn to Him in quest of the perfect life, and that the worship rendered to God by the Church in union with her divine Head is the most efficacious means of achieving sanctity.”. Doing or being? The answer should be easy, but for many modern liturgists, it’s not. Participation means “being part” not “taking over”. And we should not “sacrifice” the rite on the altar of participation. The people is not in charge of the liturgy. Liturgy is a gift from God. In the address of pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops of Switzerland (2006) among other things was said: “I believe that subsequent to all this it will slowly become clear that the Liturgy is not a "self-manifestation” of the community through which, as people say, it makes its entrance onto the scene; rather, it is the exit of the community from merely “being-its-self”, its access to the great banquet of the poor and its entry into the vast living community in which God himself nourishes us. This universal character of the Liturgy must once again penetrate the awareness of one and all. In the Eucharist we receive something that we cannot do, but instead enter something greater that becomes our own, precisely when we give ourselves to this thing that is greater, truly seeking to celebrate the Liturgy as the Church’s Liturgy.”.
The rite is not centered on the congregation, but on God. This has never to be forgotten.