Although active participation may have dissipated as a liturgical rallying call, it remains an unusually revealing and concise way to track how the Church has evolved over recent decades. This was a new concept in regards to liturgy, and its importance is paramount, as it is a frequently cited justification for the 20th-century liturgical reforms.
The beginning of the history of active participation was detailed by Father Joseph Fessio:
The first papal usage was in 1903 by Pope St. Pius X[.] … In it, the Holy Father states, “In order that the faithful may more actively participate in the sacred liturgy, let them be once again made to sing Gregorian Chant as a congregation.” … [T]he first use of actuosa participatio, i.e., active participation, referred explicitly and exclusively to the restoration of the congregational singing of Gregorian Chant.
The peak of active participation was in Sacrosanctum Concilium, released by the Second Vatican Council in late 1963:
To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes.
And as a papal bookend, Pope Paul VI said in 1969:
What will be the results of this innovation? The results expected, or rather desired, are that the faithful will participate in the liturgical mystery with more understanding, in a more practical, a more enjoyable and a more sanctifying way.
All three usages connect active participation to catechesis, or understanding of the Faith. (Catechesis of the average church-goer has been an ongoing lament since at least St. Bernard in the 11th century and St. Cyprian in the third.) More specifically, the first two usages almost exclusively mention music. Paul’s address did not, save for an opaque reference later in the text to the “choral character of the Church’s prayer.” Instead, he focused on practicality and enjoyment. To place such importance on music and Gregorian Chant may be strange to modern readers, but even a quick reading of Church or Western history will show how unsurprising this is.
What is the purpose of the Mass? The worship of God.
What is the best way to worship God? With lifted voices.
The timelessness and unique artistic treasure of Gregorian Chant, the cyclic propers, and the unchanging ordinaries provide what Laszlo Dobszay called “universality,” ”stability,” and “reverence.” There is a great psychological consolation in hearing the same Gloria melody from Sunday to Sunday, in knowing that the Rorate coeli has been and will always be chanted at the beginning of the fourth Sunday in Advent.
Why, then, a shift in meaning in such an important phrase? Looking solely at Catholic newspaper articles — a common recourse for 20th-century American Catholics — how was the phrase “active participation” used and understood? What can that tell us about our Church?
Below is a timeline of all occurrences (about 2,000) of the phrase “active participation” in the Catholic News Archive.
Many mentions of active participation during these decades concerned political engagement and Catholic Action. This timeline will look only at mentions connected to the liturgy and reforms. The first significant mention of active participation was in 1921, about the Interdiocesan School of Sacred Music, Mechelen, Belgium (now known as the Lemmens Institute): “Here, the younger generation of priests has shown keen interest in the study of Gregorian and liturgical music and the training of Christian artists who can build up choirs and encourage the faithful in active participation in the musical services of the Church.”
In 1930, the first International Liturgical Conference in Antwerp, Belgium reported “objections” to active participation that “rained thick and fast.”
The St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois held a “summer school for priests” in 1941. It was the first time (at least in these results) that certain liturgical topics were associated explicitly with active participation: “the sacramental liturgy, dialogue Mass, chant, parish participation and doctrinal background.” It was also one of the first times — but far from the last — that “active” was coupled with “intelligent.” (Mundelein Seminary’s then-current rector, Monsignor Reynold Henry Hillenbrand, invited the first female speakers to the seminary, including Dorothy Day in 1938.)
Typically, “intelligent” referred to the desire of the Church for the faithful to understand what happens in the Mass, why it happens, and when to respond to the priest. However, in 1949, Cardinal Bernard Griffin of Westminster interpreted that word differently:
This was an unusual statement for several reasons. Cardinal Griffin spoke confidently of vernacular in the liturgy in 1949 and linked active participation, vernacular in the liturgy, and the saving of souls. Griffin interpreted “intelligent” much more literally, relying on the assumption that lay people could not understand Latin.
Archbishop Karl J. Alter of Cincinnati, Ohio made a curious reference in 1955 to improving active participation by increasing male choral participation in dialogue Masses — a phrase which, at this point, could include sung responses, or could simply mean any audible response from the laity:
In the following decade, Archbishop Alter would permit a Catholic bride to write her own Catholic-Quaker wedding rite and would make parish councils mandatory in his diocese. In later decades, Alter’s diocese would become the first to be criminally charged for failing to report clerical sexual abuse of children.
To dispel the idea that perhaps female choral participation was implied, two archbishops in 1958 said so: Alter again and Archbishop Edward D. Howard of Portland, Oregon:
(Howard had many reforming “firsts” to his diocese, including being the first American bishop to receive permission to celebrate Easter Vigil at sunrise, which was a tradition among Protestants at the time. Portland was also the first diocese to file for bankruptcy.)
The prioritization of male singing will be an unusual contrast with active participation’s association with women’s rights in the Church just a few years later.
The confidence shown by Cardinal Griffin in 1949 regarding active participation and vernacular in the liturgy came roaring back in late 1956, when Bishop Willem van Bekkum of Ruteng, Indonesia, categorically stated that “active participation in a service devoted to the Word of God is only possible when the vernacular can be used”:
Bekkum can be credited for a substantial number of ritual changes that came out of the Council, and for his support of his diocese’s “water buffalo Mass” (see page 44).
Participants in the 1956 Liturgical Week in Ontario said, “The people in the pews ought to take part actively by singing hymns and answering the priest, as Pope Pius XII suggested in his encyclical on the liturgy.” In point of fact, While Pius XII may have suggested that, Pius X did not. Pius X wrote that the laity participate in Gregorian Chant, not hymns, and he made no mention of responses to the priest.
A key note here is that, up until the late ’50s, talk of vernacular in the liturgy typically meant only the “lessons” — i.e., the Epistle and the Gospel readings. Cautioned Father John B. Sheerin, editor of the magazine Catholic World: “The most to expect is permission to have the Collects, Epistle and Gospel in English,” and many articles assured readers that the Canon of the Mass would always remain in Latin.
Shortly before his death in 1958, Pope Pius XII issued a directive on the liturgy, promoting active participation in several specific ways that we have not seen yet: a layperson reading aloud the Epistle and the Gospel in the vernacular while the priest reads them in Latin quietly, and the laity joining in the priest in the recitation of the Gloria and the Credo.
In the twilight of the 1950s, the final occurrences encapsulate the rapid growth that active participation will soon undergo. Columnist Father David Q. Liptak offered this puzzling commentary on the vernacular and “the social nature of the liturgy” that runs counter to what we have seen in print so far:
(There is also a tantalizing reference to the advantages of hand missals — an essential but as yet unwritten facet in the history of modern Catholicism.)
The ideas, definitions, and implementations of active participation continued to multiply. Holy Trinity in 1959 in Passaic, New Jersey held a dialogue Mass with heavy participation from children, English hymns, and parallel English-Latin prayers. (Holy Trinity’s director of CCD, Father Walter Pruschowitz, was one of over 180 New Jersey priests credibly accused of sexual abuse.)
Now we reach the 1960s, the decade that saw more than triple the usages of “active participation.” While active participation does continue to be associated with music and with liturgical catechesis of the laity (Father Louis Bouyer, who would later write his memoirs about the Council, still spoke in 1960 as if active participation could only mean singing), numerous other associations appear practically overnight.
Its chief association, in the early 1960s, was the dialogue Mass — a term mentioned earlier, and possibly unfamiliar to younger Catholics. “Dialogue Mass” captured the desire for more lay responses in the Mass at the appropriate times (et cum spiritu tuo, for example), more lay singing, and more vernacular in the Mass of the Catechumens.
As excitement and chatter about the upcoming Council increased, active participation became inextricably caught up with the vernacular, guesses about the type and quantity of liturgical changes, and concerns about minority (both gender and racial) participation in the liturgy and the Church writ large.
The Vernacular Society of Great Britain (whose chairman, Father Ronald Pilkington, was appointed by Cardinal Griffin, discussed above) declared that active participation could not exist without the vernacular:
Two years after its dedication, and a year before the closing of the Second Vatican Council, Our Lady of the Valley in Wayne, N.J. undertook extensive renovations. Complete with pictures and an astonishing case of liturgical archaeologism, active participation was cited as the desired fruit of separating the altar from the wall and having the priest face the people:
Caption: “An ancient way of celebrating Mass — facing the people — is being revived in some churches and chapels in the Paterson Diocese. One reason is to enable the people to see the actions of the Mass better (above, Father Rento breaks the host — note processional cross facing congregation); another is to demonstrate that the priest is the representative of the people as he offers the sacrifice.”
Currently, Our Lady of the Valley’s school has closed after fewer than 50 years in operation, and its parish has been combined with Holy Cross.
By the mid-’60s, active participation’s associations have circled back to the musical — this time, music meaning hymns, not Gregorian Chant or the parts of the Mass. The language surrounding these debates was increasingly uncompromising, like a Columbia University musicology professor who insisted that chant and vernacular are incompatible.
As active participation’s occurrences diversified, its actual overall use declined rapidly. Active participation peaked in usage in 1964 and, after some lively usage in 1965–7, plummeted into near obscurity. A new political undercurrent was evident, as Father Placid Jordan, OSB (in secular life, the celebrated radio journality Max Jordan) wrote that active participation would assist in the combat against clericalism, and Thomas Merton moved the goalposts entirely:
St. Gregory Church in Zelienople, Pa. replaced its 61-year-old building with one that would “promote more active participation.” Otherwise, the only other significant mention of active participation in the late 1960s came from an extensive article by Father James M. O’Brien of Rockford, Ill. as he in detail describes a post-prom Mass, home Masses, and how “vernacular language and active participation (singing and praying together) do not necessarily create the community experience.”
In the later years of the 1960s, active participation was seen through the lens of external participation of laypeople. Their verbal participation was encouraged through vernacular and more responses to the priest; artistic participation, through the composition of hymns; physical participation, through positions of lector, parish council, and committee members; and extraordinary ministers.
The combined occurrences of active participation in the 1970s and ’80s do not equal even a third of those of the ’60s. Occurrences after 1969 were generally about either women or declining numbers in the Church. There were calls for women to participate in canon law revision, seminaries, and — just to cover all theological bases — “all levels of society.” (Participation of children in the liturgy was also strongly encouraged in some corners of the country during the 1970s.)
Mass attendance (as well as the number of priests) had dropped precipitously by 1971. Father Richard P. McBrien (a prominent theologian whose classic work Catholicism was denied an imprimatur) blamed, among other things, insufficient adherence to Vatican II.
A 1973 Liptak column spoke as if active participation were still de rigueur — despite being mentioned only 24 times that year (as opposed to 216 times in 1964):
If one considers active participation not only as an important idea in itself, but also as a means to measure modern changes within the Church, then the last significant usage of active participation in the Catholic News Archive could not be more fitting.
A Jesuit composer, Father Joseph Gelineau, made a plea in 1979 for active participation “that includes reflective silence.” He also drew attention to the “overcrowded” nature of the liturgy, especially with regard to music and gestures. This may come as a surprise to students of the liturgy, for the new Mass, promulgated a decade before Gelineau’s address, was proclaimed as a simpler Mass, with elimination of what was deemed superfluous, redundant, or wrong. To see this same complaint of overcomplexity, of noise, of needless gestures, made in 1979 — when the old Mass was nearly wiped out! — is perplexing, indeed.
This perplexity is easily resolved by recalling two facts:
- Until the 1960s, active participation’s most common association was music, specifically Gregorian Chant.
- Active participation’s peak was in 1964, in the middle of the Council and closer to the surge in the vernacular, not the Novus Ordo.
It is possible that active participation’s meaning had to change, because its original and longstanding meaning of music, specifically Gregorian Chant, could not find a place in the new Mass. Chant and the sung parts of the Mass were supplanted with vernacular modern melodies and hymns, with “alius cantus aptus” (see p. 86).
So, where does active participation stand now? A Google Trends search for “active participation” from 2004–2014 shows that occurrences never rose above 50, except for a brief spike in 2004. A search of more recent occurrences (“active participation” after:2017 in Google, for those curious) shows that active participation is only barely on the Catholic radar. Its usual use is on parish websites, for sacrament preparation, faith formation, and the all-pervasive ministries. A closer look at some articles can result in Bernardian despondency over the apparently still lackluster catechesis, such as EpicPew insisting that the choir is not there to sing for you. What is rarely present in the results, unless you are bold enough to go to page 5, perhaps even page 10, of Google results is any significant mention of Gregorian Chant.
What is the purpose of the Mass? The worship of God.
What is the best way to worship God? With lifted voices.
Active participation through greater awareness of the Mass, and greater participation in the parts of the Mass as appropriate, was badly needed — as it is in every generation. A mid–twentieth century laity with increasing levels of education and social awareness would have been a perfect opportunity to encourage the timelessness and beauty of chant in the Mass. Instead, regrettably, active participation veered from chant to vernacular to a catch-all for a wide array of musical, liturgical, and religious novelties.
Sharon Kabel is a librarian who loves the liturgy, Catholic history, and metadata. She currently resides with her husband in North Carolina, researching the history of Latin Mass weddings and compiling data from newspaper archives.
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