July 20, 2007

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Active participation at Mass goes much deeper than external actions

(Tenth in a series)

Pope Benedict XVI’s reflections on active participation in the Eucharist mirrors the various considerations raised by the bishops in the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist.

The Second Vatican Council had emphasized the active, full and fruitful participation of the entire people of God in the eucharistic celebration (cf. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14-20). The Latin words used by the Council and in the pope’s apostolic exhortation are actuosa participatio.

The pope says it should be made clear that the word “participation” does not refer to mere external activity during the celebration.

“In fact, the active participation called for by the Council must be understood in more substantial terms, on the basis of a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated and in relationship to daily life” (n. 52).

The Council document on the liturgy “encouraged the faithful to take part in the eucharistic liturgy ‘not as strangers or silent spectators,’ but as participants ‘in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing, actively and devoutly.’ This exhortation has lost none of its force” (n. 52).

The Holy Father asks us to go deeper in our understanding of participation.

After the Council, “active participation” was often interpreted as exterior action. External participation is a matter of actively listening to the word of God, responding with the proposed acclamations, in speech and in song.

Active participation was narrowly interpreted by some to mean being a reader, a cantor, an altar server or some ministerial function. It includes those functions, but participation is also a matter of spiritual attitude and offering of self.

Of itself, active participation is not the equivalent of a specific ministry.

The pope says that “the active participation of the laity does not benefit from the confusion arising from an inability to distinguish, within the Church’s communion, the different functions proper to each one. There is a particular need for clarity with regard to the specific functions of the priest. He alone, and no other, as the tradition of the Church attests, presides over the entire Eucharistic celebration, from the initial greeting to the final blessing.

“In virtue of his reception of Holy Orders, he represents Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, and in a specific way, also the Church herself. Every celebration of the Eucharist, in fact, is led by the bishop, ‘either in person or though priests who are his helpers’ ” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 92).

The deacon has specific duties during the celebration.

“He prepares the altar, assists the priest, proclaims the Gospel, preaches the homily from time to time, reads the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful and distributes the Eucharist to the faithful. Associated with these ministries linked to the sacrament of Holy Orders, there are also other ministries of liturgical service which can be carried out in a praiseworthy manner by religious and properly trained laity” (GIRM, 94).

The exhortation makes the point that adaptations to different contexts and cultures are appropriate to meet the needs of the Church in a variety of cultural situations. These adaptations, of course, are to be made in accord with the possibilities provided in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

Pope Benedict writes: “To this end, I encourage Episcopal Conferences to strive to maintain a proper balance between the criteria and directives already issued and new adaptations, always in accord with the Apostolic See” (n. 54).

The Holy Father notes another dimension of participation, the inner disposition. “This inner disposition can be fostered, for example, by recollection and silence for at least a few moments before the beginning of the liturgy, by fasting and, when necessary, by sacramental confession” (n. 55).

He also addresses “the intrinsic link between the Eucharist and the Church’s unity,” which makes it “generally impossible for non-Catholic Christians to receive the former without enjoying the latter” (n. 56).

The pope writes: “I wish to call the attention of the whole Church community to the pastoral importance of providing spiritual assistance to the sick, both those living at home and those in the hospital” (n. 58). Everything possible should be done to facilitate participation of the physically disabled person at Mass, including the retrofitting of Church buildings. Participation of migrants and refugees, especially those from the Eastern Churches, must be fostered (n. 60).

The word participation takes on a broader meaning when Mass is broadcast by various media, which is commendable for the sick, prisoners and others who cannot come to church. Yet, the pope notes that visual images can represent reality, but they do not actually reproduce it (n. 57).

The pope encourages large-scale concelebrations to be well prepared and “not lose their proper focus” (n. 61). He also encourages the use of Latin to more clearly express “the unity and universality of the Church” (n. 62). †

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