Appearances can be deceiving: Active Participation

There has been a lot of ink spilled on the Latin phrase actuosa participatio, or as we translate it into English, “active participation.”  I think it’s a good thing that the ink has been spilled – it’s a phrase that we find in the writings of the Second Vatican Council and which have obviously impacted our worship for the last forty years.

I’ve been teaching about the liturgy for several years and led a five-week study on the Council, including a week concentrating on Sacrosanctam concilium, so it’s a topic that’s been on my mind and in my study for some time.  What does it mean to actively participate?  If it means that I’m exteriorly active during the Mass, reading and singing and responding and making the sign of the cross… well, what if I can’t sing?  What if I don’t know the language?  Can I actively participate if the people around me don’t know I’m participating?

Let me set the scene. Several months ago I went to a Saturday night vigil Mass after a long day working.  Our office had hosted my friend Matt Leonard from the St Paul Center for Biblical Theology to do a Bible study Presenter Training for their awesome parish-based Bible study program, Journey Through Scripture.  I had the honor of presenting with Matt, too, which was a great experience.  It was fun to be quasi-working for the St Paul Center again, while also working for Aquinas College at the same time.

It was a full day — I was expecting 60 people to register for the training, and we had an even 100.  A pretty fantastic problem to have.  Participant evaluations told us that had been a great day, but we all knew it had also been a full day.  It’s not easy to do an entire seven-week Bible study in a day!  By the end of it, Matt was wiped from teaching all day, and I was feeling the effects of essentially trying to be two people – a host for the event and a presenter for the event.  I could never have done it without the incredible help of my friends Laura, Alan, Rafael, Ana, and my boss, Sr Mary Rose.

Did I mention that I had also chosen that day to not drink coffee?  Partly because Matt is an expert at protecting vocal chords and had warned me to stay away from caffeine, and I know these days my vocal chords are my best asset. (Oh, and stay away from alcohol, too.  I told him he was basically telling me, “And no more happiness!”) It was also partly because I never had time to stop and drink a cup in the morning.  So at the end of the day, I had a pounding headache that was quickly moving into my eyes.  Lovely.

Due to a mixup about Matt’s plane being delayed, we bolted out of the training at the end of the day to make a vigil Mass at the Cathedral.  So we slid into one of the back pews as the opening song was being sung and watched our time the whole way through Mass.

It was then I realized I can never judge someone else’s participation at Mass. The “active participation” that the Council called for did include a more vocal participation in the liturgy, but at its root it was about understanding the rites and entering into them more deeply — not just by saying prayers out loud, but by entering into the mystery by prayer, offering sacrifice with the priest with a full and conscious mind and heart.   I knew this, I’ve taught this, but now I was experiencing it first hand.

There Matt and I were in the back of the church at a Saturday vigil Mass.  We slid in as the opening song was being sung and we slipped out as the closing song started.  Matt had no voice left, I had a raging headache, and so our singing and vocal participation was at a minimum.  We probably kept looking at our watches to make sure we weren’t going to miss his plane.  It probably seemed to everyone around us that we were punching our time cards and that our minds were a million miles away.

And yet we were actively participating.  We were both engaged in the rites.  I was offering my headache up, trying to imagine what Mary would have done if she had a raging headache when she was cooking Jesus’ dinner, or trying to meditate on the crowning of thorns.  While I can’t speak for Matt, I’d imagine he was participating in a similar way.  I specifically prayed that our time crunch and the long day didn’t impact the way I was entering into the liturgy.

So appearances can be deceiving.  Was it the most mystical liturgy I’ve ever entered into?  No.  I’m not going to say that Matt and I were about to levitate or anything, and you can hold our canonization processes for the time being.  But it was a good reminder to me that you can’t judge a book by its cover.  Two schmucks in the back row, probably looking like they were run over by a bus. But we were trying.  And we were actively participating.

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