Each issue carries an imprimatur
from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting
How to Participate More Actively
in the Mass
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).
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
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
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
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 churchit
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
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 drinkour very livesbeing
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 sacrificeespecially 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.
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)
Constitution on the Sacred
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.