Bishop Thomas John Paprocki

When it comes to liturgy, “active participation” is a commonly tossed about phrase that is all-too-often used as justification to blur the line between the clergy and laity. If you were to ask any number of Catholics about the meaning of active participation in the liturgy, you would probably hear something along the lines of being seen, front and center in the sanctuary, doing something, quite often duties traditionally reserved to the clergy. Good intentions aside, this understanding has created a lot of confusion among the rank and file.

I remember a young priest (not in WI) once urging me and several friends to get involved in parish life. How? Of course, become so-called “Eucharistic Ministers.” He was a great priest, very pious and kind, and yet he was clearly formed in his seminary days by a false understanding of what actuosa participatio means. (I’m not saying it’s bad to be an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, but there certainly has been an over-reliance on them at nearly all parishes, stemming from and contributing to a false understanding of “active participation.” For more on this topic, read this.)

But can we realize active participation in the true sense if we don’t first understand liturgy? In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was very clear when he explained that “active participation” is not so much about activity and doing as it is about an interior disposition of communion with the liturgical act, which is God’s gift to us.

Unfortunately, the word [participation] was very quickly misunderstood to mean something external, entailing a need for general activity, as if as many people as possible, as often as possible, should be visibly engaged in action. … The real ‘action’ in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate is the action of God himself.

And on the proper relationship between active participation and correct formation, the Second Vatican Council’s document on Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, states clearly,

It would be futile to entertain any hopes of realizing this [actuosa participatio] unless the pastors themselves, in the first place, become thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the Liturgy, and undertake to give instruction about it. A prime need, therefore, is that attention be directed, first of all, to the liturgical instruction of the clergy. (Emphasis added.)

Nemo dat quod non habet. You cannot give what you do not have. If priests themselves are not properly formed in liturgy, how can the laity be expected to get it? When liturgical formation in the seminaries is so sorely lacking, we know from in-the-pew experience, what the result is. What we see now is a relationship, or one could even call a tension, between the priest and the laity, where one is competing with the other over who can be seen doing the most of something. “Anything you can do, I can do better.” A narrative has taken hold that participation in liturgy on the part of the laity is gauged solely by degree of activity.

Along these lines, Bishop Paprocki has issued an exceptional Pastoral Letter, “On the Art of Celebrating the Eucharistic Liturgy Properly” (Ars celebrandi et adorandi) to the priests and faithful of his diocese of Springfield. Take some time to read through it. Following the Second Vatican Council and Pope Benedict XVI, he correctly starts with the assertion that authentic active participation can only occur after proper worship, the ars celebrandi, is followed. All of this requires proper formation in liturgy.

1. The art of celebrating the liturgy properly and adoring the Lord in the Eucharist devoutly (ars celebrandi et adorandi) is the key to fostering the active participation of the People of God in divine worship. Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2007 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission, Sacramentum Caritatis, wrote, “For two thousand years, faithful adherence to the liturgical norms in all their richness has sustained the faith life of all believers, called to take part in the celebration as the People of God, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (cf. 1 Pet 2:4-5, 9).”1 As “the chief steward of the mysteries of God in the particular Church” entrusted to my care as Diocesan Bishop,2 I wish in my first pastoral letter to the faithful of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois to address this “principal duty” of bishops, priests, and deacons in which the Christian faithful actively participate and carry out the Lord’s command.3

Being involved in parish life is an essential and beautiful thing. But that doesn’t mean storming the sanctuary.