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Active Participation: ‘Actuosa’ and Subverting the Law of Prayer

Let us consider an intriguing dilemma that has occupied the minds of all involved in the Liturgical Movement since its beginning: the novel principle of active participation (participatio actuosa), which Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy promoted as “the aim to be achieved before all else.” It all started with Dom Lambert Beauduin’s accusation that the faithful were “dumb and idle spectators” who needed to be aroused from their “torpor” and made to engage actively in the liturgy. That was the first false assumption on which the requirement for active participation was based. But Catholics had for centuries already been participating fully in the Mass with great spiritual benefit through silent prayer and meditation on the Holy Sacrifice. It was a method that produced countless saints and bore fruit in plentiful vocations to the priesthood.

All that changed when a new “virtue” — active participation — was promoted and made incumbent on all.  The priorities of the Liturgical Movement were to clear the decks of all elements that would hinder the active participation of the assembly, so no quarter would be given to the devotional life of the faithful that obstructed this aim. But these approved devotions, too, were an indispensable part of Catholic spirituality and could not be dismissed or undermined without denying the laity their natural freedom to practice them silently during the Mass.

The second false assumption is that the expression actuosa (active) came from Pope Pius X. But where is the document that contains it? All apocryphal data and fanciful claims aside, if we examine the major documents on the liturgy issued by Pius X anterior to his pontificate — and these are set out in my book — one fact imposes itself: “active participation” by the laity was never part of his lexicon. This is not surprising, since the pope was following the prescriptions of the Council of Trent, which did not mention it, either — nor, for that matter, had any other pope before him.

When Pius X issued his 1903 motu proprio on sacred music, it was published in Italian [1] and Latin [2]. (Incidentally, there is no official English version.) The Latin is straightforward: the pope mentions that the faithful acquire the Christian spirit from its primary source “quae est participatio divinorum mysteriorum” (which is their participation in the Divine Mysteries). So far, so traditional. But the Italian version says this can be achieved only through their “partecipazione attiva” (active participation), emphasizing that this is “indispensabile” (indispensable).

As the Latin document is the only version that has the authoritative status to convey with certainty the pope’s meaning, we can see that Pius X purposely did not use any equivalent of attiva, for instance the expression actuosa, which is commonly attributed to him. Why not? The reason for its omission is obvious, but only to those who know the meaning of actuosa.

What does actuosa really mean?

The first thing that strikes us is the inability of liturgists to agree on what actuosa means in the context of lay participation in the liturgy. Even in the 21st century, the search is ongoing, and the true meaning of the word has still eluded their grasp. We can conclude, therefore, that those who enacted the reforms did not, in the most literal sense of the word, know what they were talking about. That, however, did not stop them from putting their own interpretations on it.

In order to find the true meaning of actuosa, the only reliable method to settle all disputes is to check its etymology. This will show us how we arrived at its present usage, which is the best indicator of what it means today. True to form, the Latin word has not changed meaning since its use in classical antiquity. It meant the same for Seneca and Cicero as it did for St. Augustine and others. Etymologically, actuosa encompasses all forms of activity of the most energetic kind, including specifically dancing and theatrical performances. Moreover, it was always used in direct contrast to its antonym otiosus, which indicates a state of calm conducive to contemplation — which is the appropriate form of lay participation in the liturgy.

Progressivists 1, Conservatives 0

This brings us to a curious anomaly that can be observed among the more “conservative” (but definitely not traditional) leaders of the modern Church who reject vaudeville performances in the liturgy as an example of true participatio actuosa. But, on the contrary, that is a logical outcome consistent with the meaning of actuosa. The real absurdity lies in objecting to such pantomimes while encouraging Vatican II’s call for an “inculturated” liturgy based on participatio actuosa.

How ironic, then, that those who have introduced into the liturgy elements of the entertainment world such as clowns, jokes, puppets, and dancing girls cavorting around the sanctuary are in line with the true meaning of participatio actuosa, while those who criticize these activities as “abuses” have misunderstood it and are, therefore, mistaken!

Nevertheless, the more conservative liturgical leaders and their followers are still desperately trying to square the epistemological circle by maintaining that actuosa means “actual” rather than “active,” while others claim that it means “sincere, from the heart.” It is obvious that they are trying to reconcile their bogus claim with the semantic evidence that contradicts it. Whichever way you slice it, the authentic meaning of actuosa will always indicate constant vigorous activity and admits of no other interpretation.

Rather than admit that the liturgical reform was a mistake, and that the concept of active participation is fundamentally flawed, successive popes and heads of the Congregation for Divine Worship claim that “abuses” have ruined the principles on which it was originally based. In other words, having set this wild hare running, the Holy See then tries to pretend it is not responsible for the consequences.

The central paradox

So they are well and truly stuck in a dilemma of their own making: how can a distinction be made between active participation and “liturgical abuse” when active participation itself is the key means by which the “liturgical abuses” are put into operation? This may seem a moot point, a mere hypothesis of no practical importance, until we realize that the reformers have made active participation the battleground on which another of Vatican II’s slogans — “the common priesthood of the faithful” — is pursued. Its rationale was to confer on the congregation the right to perform parts of the Mass that were the purview of the true active ministers of the liturgy — i.e., the clergy alone. It follows that, by negating in practice the strict separation that necessarily exists between priests and laity, active participation undermines the unique nature of the ordained priesthood.

An impossible conundrum

Wherever the Novus Ordo is celebrated, the confusion caused by the novelty of “active participation” has left the Church in turmoil. If everything is the wrong way round and upside-down (the priest facing the people, the congregation saying or singing the Mass, lay readers and Eucharistic ministers in the sanctuary, Communion in the hand, the sacred vessels handled by anyone, etc.), that is because lay “active participation” reverses the established order of things, upsetting traditional law and logic, to the detriment of the Faith.

Even the popes cannot solve the conundrum because they themselves promote the basic premise of the reforms. They pay lip service to the Church’s teaching that the two “priesthoods” (ordained and lay) are neither synonymous nor on an equal footing. But they also promote active participation in the liturgy, which effectively conflates the two and even raises the profile of the laity above that of the clergy, in accordance with the reformers’ wishes.

This conundrum cannot be solved because active participation is a neologism. So we have the absurd spectacle of liturgists running around trying to sort out the why and how of an artificially created catchphrase that does not reflect the essence of lay spirituality and will, consequently, always be incompatible with it.

We know from one of the progressive Fathers of Vatican II, Cardinal Danneels of Belgium, who was involved in drafting the Constitution on the Liturgy, that the aim of active participation was to democratize the liturgy by blurring the distinction between priestly and lay roles:

From its very beginnings, the aim of the Liturgical Movement, which originated in Belgium in 1909 [with Beauduin], was to close the gap between the official liturgy of the priest and that of the people. The term ‘active participation’ was born out of this movement and has since become part of our common usage. [3]

Its usage has become so common that hardly anyone now stands aghast at the suggestion that lay people can be “empowered” to exercise a role in the official liturgy through their active participation. Not many realized at the time that the expression “active participation” was driven by its own internal logic to focus attention on the people and give them an inflated sense of their own activities in the liturgy. It would be used to justify the destruction of centuries of Catholic liturgy and the creation of a radically new Mass in which the “People of God” are regarded as the celebrants along with the priests.

The result of the new emphasis on active participation was that the people in the pews, who had for centuries been participating in the ceremonies of the Roman Rite in silence, were now transformed into rivals in a liturgical war with the clergy over the right to perform functions in the liturgy.

In order to restore peace to the Church, we need urgently to return to the time before the Liturgical Movement began to bite, when there was no spirit of contention in the liturgy, when everyone knew his place, and the laity could enjoy their natural liberty, qua lay people, to assist at Mass in silent prayer, free to choose their own methods of spiritual participation.

[1] The original can be read at Acta Sanctae Sedis, 36, 1903–1904, p. 329 and

[2] The original can be read at Acta Sanctae Sedis, 36, 1903–1904, p. 387 and

[3] Cardinal Godfried Danneels, quoted in Keith Pecklers SJ, Liturgy in a Postmodern World, Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, 2006,   p. 7

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