Catholic Update

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How to Participate More Actively in the Mass

by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D.

What does "active participation" at Sunday Mass mean for space-age Catholics—especially those who, on a particular Sunday, do not have a special ministry to perform? It is easy to see what "active participation" means for an usher, reader, server, choir member or special minister of the Eucharist. But what is the "activity" of the ordinary Christian in the pew? What does active participation mean for me when I am simply "going to Mass" like everyone else?

The question needs to be answered by every Catholic. Why? Because participation is fundamental to all the changes we have experienced in Sunday Mass over the 20 years since the Second Vatican Council. At the outset of the Council the bishops made this a pivotal point of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. They declared that the "restoration and promotion of the full and active participation in the liturgy by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else" (#14).

From Spectator to Participant

Baptism gives us a share in the priesthood of Christ. All of us pewholders—male and female, school kids and adults—exercise that priesthood in the liturgy, which is "the full, public worship of the Father performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ: the Head and his members" (#7). That's quite a challenge! If we are the Body of Christ, we can be mere spectators at the Eucharist no more than Christ himself could be a passive spectator at his holy sacrifice. The Council teaches that active participation is not only our right but also our obligation by reason of our baptism (#14).

For 20 years "active participation" has been the aim of liturgical reform. Yet many educators, pastors and parishioners sadly admit that it is the hardest of all reforms to bring about. Changing languages, using a different style of music, changing the position of the altar—these were easy reforms when compared to the task of changing our posture at Mass from one of watching to doing. Doing not only requires more effort on our part than watching, doing also requires more understanding of what it is that we are supposed to do.

The following suggestions for fuller participation in the liturgy will focus on the three major actions of our Sunday Mass:
1) We come together
2) to hear the Word of God,
3) and to share our Eucharistic bread and wine in obedience to the Lord's command: "Do this in memory of me."

We Come Together

1) Being there. The first action required of us is being present. We need to be there because of the importance of our presence as a sign of our faith to the other members of the congregation. The catechism taught that the sacraments were "outward signs," and we often thought of Eucharist in terms of the bread and wine as the signs of the sacrament. The Council has made us aware that the sign is larger: Christ is present in the Sacrifice of the Mass not only in the consecrated bread and wine but in the Word and in the assembly (#7).

When we are present at Sunday Mass, you and I are part of the outward sign of the Eucharist. In recent years we have seen efforts to improve the signs of sharing the bread and the cup; we must also make an effort to improve the most basic symbol of all: the assembly.

At Sunday Mass we "make visible and manifest to others the mystery of Christ's Body" (#2). The Council tells us that our coming together for liturgy is something like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The picture is there even when the pieces are not put together, but when the puzzle is assembled the picture is easily seen. So we, the Body of Christ, make the Church visible when we "put ourselves together" to form God's Holy People.

Your presence makes a difference. Your presence is needed if the picture is to be complete. Your presence is needed not just to fulfill a moral obligation but to witness to the community that you care enough to get out of bed and come to church. Your presence says that you believe enough to plan your weekend so that you can be here with us to proclaim the death and resurrection of the Lord. This sign, this witness, strengthens the faith of those who see it.

2) Being prompt. Being present on time and ahead of time says that we consider what we are going to do to be important to us—more important than the things that would keep us at home.

3) Being friendly. Taking time before Mass to say hello, to greet others (not just our friends but especially visitors and people we do not know), to offer a handshake of welcome and a friendly glance—these acts are an essential part of our participation. When we assemble we make visible the Body of Christ, and we must make visible that Christ who welcomed all who came to him—even sinners.

The ministry of hospitality can no longer be left to the priest greeting people at the door or to the appointed ushers. There are so many among us on Sunday who feel isolated and alienated, so many hungry for a sign of welcome. You and I know that when we pray God listens, God has time for us. Not all of our brothers and sisters believe this; they need signs in order to believe. We, the assembly, must be the sign and sacrament of God's hospitality. A friendly smile, a handshake can show our appreciation to others that they have come to give witness of their faith to us. "Mrs. Weston, how happy I am that you could come this morning...and with your husband being so ill...." We must not let our hello wait until the Sign of Peace.

4) Being well located. Where do we sit? Do we find a place which facilitates our singing and our interaction with the other members of the community? Do we make it easy for those who come late to find a place?

5) Being a singing believer. Singing gives witness to our faith. At most Sunday Masses one of the first things we hear is the invitation to join in the singing. We are not asked merely to sing as though taking part in an off-Broadway musical. We are being asked to give witness to our faith, to express that faith with the other believers around us by joining with them in the same rhythms and melodies. It is perhaps more important how we look when singing in church than how we sound. By our body language and by our voice we give witness to what we believe.

Even if we feel that we cannot sing and our voice would hurt more than help, we must not let our not singing look like not believing. Picking up the book is a witness in itself. We should not put our attention on how we sound but upon the meaning of the text we are singing. We can make the thoughts and feelings of the hymn our own. More and more the faith content of the text and its relation to the Liturgy of the Word are becoming the criteria for the selection of the music we use at Mass. This will facilitate the participation of a large proportion of the faithful in the singing.

We Hear the Word of God

Hearing the Word of God is an essential part of "doing" Eucharist. Our stance before the Word is not passive but an active, attentive listening. When God speaks we have an obligation to receive his message; we must prepare ourselves by knowing the language in which God speaks, that is, we must become familiar with the Bible and its expressions and symbols.

1) Preparing to hear. Many Catholics never had the oppurtunity to learn how to read the Bible. However, since a recent Gallup poll indicated that one out of every four Catholics would join a Bible study group if one existed in their parish, more and more parishes are offering opportunities to learn about the Word of God and to pray together using the Scriptures.

Even if such a group is not available in your parish, there are other ways in which you can prepare yourself for the Sunday readings. St. Anthony Messenger Press publishes Homily Helps, which gives an easy, one-page background and commentary on each of the Sunday readings. Share the Word, published free of charge by the Paulist Catholic Evangelization Center, gives not only commentary on each of the readings but includes materials to enable anyone to share their reflections with a group of friends or with the members of the family. In order to really hear the Word when it is read in church, we must have already read and studied and prayed with the Word at home. Many parishes print the readings for the following Sunday in the parish bulletin. We do well to take the time to look up the readings for next Sunday in the Bible and use these texts for our prayer during the week. What homily or sermon would we give on these texts? We might compare our homily with that we hear in Church and experience the various, multiple ways in which the Spirit speaks to us through the Scriptures.

2) Receiving the Word respectfully, silently. During the reading we need an atmosphere of quiet, free from distracting movement. Silence doesn't just happen in church—it must be created. Before the reading starts we must prepare ourselves to be quiet, putting away things that are going to make noise. The sound of 700 missalette pages turning at once can drown out the Word of God. If someone has a tickle in the throat and feels a cough coming on, he or she can take a cough drop or a mint before the readings start. (This does not break our Communion fast, for our concern for the presence of Christ in the reading of the Scriptures and our concern for the ability of others to contact that presence balances our concern for the presence of Christ in Holy Communion.)

Some members of the parish community may not be old enough to actively help create this silence, and the prish must provide ways for them to hear the Word according to their capacity, and also provide ways which enable their parents to hear the Word and be moved by it.

If we come late, we ought to wait until the reading is over to be seated. This is another way in which we show our concern for the presence of Christ both in his Word and in the assembly.

3) Being and looking attentive. There is a relationship between the effectiveness of the speaker and the attention of the listeners. A good listener makes the speaker want to do better. I can still remember the first time I was in a parish where the people really looked at me during my homily and told me by the look on their faces that they were hungry for the Word of God and wanted to be nourished by it. It is so much easier to really put myself into my preparation and delivery when there are people who show me that they want me to prepare and to really give them something to nourish their lives.

We Share Our Bread and Wine

Even before the Eucharistic Prayer itself, we should see ourselves as being actively involved in the preparation of the gifts:

1) Identifying ourselves with the bread and wine. When we see these gifts being brought from the assembly to the altar, we see our food and drink—our very lives—being placed on the altar to be offered to God.

2) Making the collection part of the action. Giving our hard-earned money in the collection is a very real element of our sacrifice—especially in those parishes where the collection, or a proportion of it, is given to needs outside the parish. Often priests, who do not put of their salary into the collection, do not realize how powerful a symbol this is for those in the pew.

3) Participation in the Eucharistic Prayer. How to be active while the priest leading the celebration recites the Eucharistic Prayer is an especially important question. The Eucharistic Prayer is our central Christian prayer, the fullest statement of our belief. It is also a time when we can find our minds wandering.

Our participation in the Eucharistic Prayer is not just a "listening" and "watching" but a "doing." Jesus told us: "Do this is memory of me."

The first thing we do is to remember. The prayer begins by recalling the great saving acts of our God which culminate in Jeses. We must each recall God's activity in our lives. The test we can use to see if we are actively participating in this remembrance is a simple one. When participating well we should begin to feel gratitude, we should feel the need to give thanks. This is what Jesus did: He took the bread and wine and "gave thanks." It is this action that names our sacrifice: Eucharist comes from the Greek verb "to give thanks."

We give external expression to these feelings when we join with the angels and saints and exclaim: Wow! What a God we have! Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory!

We continue to gratefully remember the saving acts of our God. We recall how Jesus received everything from the hand of his loving Father. Even on the night before he died for us, he took bread and gave thanks. As we hear these words, we can place ourselves with the apostles at the table with Jesus. What were his attitudes and feelings and desires? Are they our attitudes and desires? In the second chapter of the Letter to the Philippians Paul tells us, "Your attitude must be that of Christ." What is the mind, the attitude of Christ?

Jesus gave thanks even with his death imminent. He knew that whatever was to happen came from the hand of his loving Father. In placing ourselves at that table with Jesus we are led to the heart of the mystery of our faith: Remembering God's love for us, we can give ourselves to God confident that no matter what happens, we are loved. We offer ourselves to the Father with Jesus in his Spirit.

4) Seeking the larger unity. I have learned from families who have taken me into their homes how it grieves parents when their children fight, when one refuses to share a toy, when kids refuse to compromise on which TV program to watch. From these human parents I can learn how God, who loves each of us with a parent's love, wants us to act as children of one family: not bullying the weaker ones, those not as smart, as powerful, as industrialized, as rich, as sophisticated.

If we are to have the attitude of Christ we must pray the prayer of Christ: "May they all be one, even as you and I, Father, are one" (see John 17:21). The Eucharist challenges us to look beyond our human family and circle of friends to see the entire human family. The limited horizons of our love and concern must be broken even as the bread is broken. This is our petition at every Eucharist: "Gather all who share this one bread and one cup into the one Body of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise."

5) Giving ourselves through the responses. The enthusiasm with whch we join in the responses and acclamations is an essential part of our active participation. Even though on a particular Sunday we may not feel like proclaiming, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Chris will come again!" we know that we are not prisoners of our feelings. In order for an action to be authentic, it does not have to flow only from our feelings. We know that the feelings often follow the action rather than precede it. We know that a child bored on a summer afternoon will feel differently when the child begins to play at something he or she enjoys. The feeling will come when the behavior is changed.

Our participation in the acclamations is made easier for us when they are sung in true acclamatory fashion. Many ministers of music are aware of this and are providing acclamations that are "rhythmically strong, melodically appealing, and affirmative" (Music in Catholic Worship, #5).

6) Sharing the Eucharistic bread and cup. Our active participation culminates in our reception of Holy Communion. We get up, go to the altar and share the bread and the cup. The importance we give these actions, and the devotion and reverence with which we perform them, speaks not only to ourselves and fosters our own feelings of reverence and awe, but also speaks to those around us. We are all concerned about passing on the faith to the generations that come after us. Whether we can explain to our friends and our children what the Eucharist means in our lives or whether we find it very difficult to put this meaning into words, the faith and reverence expressed in our reception of Communion speaks louder than any mere verbal explanation.

Out Into the World

The ultimate in active participation is the renewed resolve at each Eucharist to go out into the world challenged by the Word that we have heard to share our lives, even as we have shared our bread and wine. The broken bread is the sign of how our lives are going to have to be poured out and "wasted" for the good of all men and women.

This is the ultimate participation, because only if we are breaking and pouring out our lives for the good of others Monday through Saturday will the breaking and pouring out we do in church on Sunday be real for us. And when we have tried, really tried to express love for our families, to be honest at work, to break through our narrow-mindedness, to share our gifts, and when we bring that brokenness to the altar, we will experience what "active participation" really means. And we will never go away empty.

Full Participation From the Pews

The Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people, "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people" (1 Peter 2:9) have a right and obligation by reason of their baptism.

In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy the 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.

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (#14)

Taking Part in the Action

The Church earnestly desires that Christ's faithful, when present at this mystery of faith [the Eucharist], should not be there as strangers or silent spectators. On the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration. They should be instructed by God's Word, and be nourished at the table of the Lord's Body. They should give thanks to God. Offering the immaculate victim, not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him, they should learn to offer themselves. Through Christ, the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and each other, so that finally God may be all in all.

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (#48)

Rising Above Our Feelings

Celebrations need not fail, even on a particular Sunday when our feelings do not match the invitation of Christ and his Church to worship. Faith does not always permeate our feelings. But the sign and symbols of worship can give bodily expression to faith as we celebrate. Our own faith is stimulated. We become one with others whose faith is similarly expressed. We rise above our own feelings to respond to God in prayer.

Music in Catholic Worship (#5)
U.S. Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy

Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., has a doctorate in liturgy and sacramental theology from the Institute Catholique de Paris. A popular writer and lecturer, Father Richstatter teaches courses on the sacraments at St. Meinrad (Indiana) School of Theology.

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