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The Problem of Zombie-Robot Parishioners and ‘Active Participation’


Have you ever sat in Mass and felt like this?! 3UZw1v

I know I have. There have been many times where I have just zoned out. I realise the priest has got to the end of his sermon and I haven’t really heard a word because I was daydreaming.

I suppose it doesn’t help when most other people around you are doing the same thing. To my horror, I realise that I have become one of those legendary Zombie-like parishioners that I used to marvel at as a child.

I remember the droning monotone chorus of the congregation during the creed, the robotic expressionless handshake of peace, the lifeless melody of the organ with literally 2 people singing out of the entire congregation. The ones who used to hit the ESCAPE button and walk out straight after communion – I guess they’d fulfilled their weekly obligation right? And yet we, and the same other people used to turn up week after week and filter up the isle into the same old pews that we almost seemed to be pre-programmed to return to.

A congregation of mindless robots.


And it wasn’t as if our church wasn’t trying – they got the parishioners involved in the offertory procession, the choir, the readings and bidding prayers, they even got the children to go up onto the sanctuary during the consecration to see up close what the priest was doing. But still, before long it began to dawn on me that I really wasn’t getting anything out of Mass.

By age 13 I had stopped going. I just didn’t see the point. It was so boring. The people there were so boring. The final nail in the liturgical coffin for me was the ‘Teen’ mass. The cringeworthy band with their ‘Rock’ hymns, the priest trying to be cool, the fact that they were trying so hard to include and please us… It was just embarrassing.

I felt quite sorry for them in a way. I could see how hard the few motivated ones were trying to make it work, but it wasn’t cutting it. It didn’t have any interest whatsoever in going to a dead church full of robots. There was nothing in it for me.


It wasn’t until 5 years later, age 18, when I had my first ridiculously powerful, life changing personal encounter with Jesus after a failed suicide attempt that I began returning to Mass.

Because of that encounter, I suddenly realised that Jesus Christ was real, alive, and truly present in the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the Eucharist during Mass. In those first few weeks of returning to Church as a young adult, on my own, I remember how the words of the readings and the Holy Gospel would just fly accross the church out of the mouths of the readers and just penetrate my heart like a flaming spear. I remember getting butterflies in my tummy, and my heart racing as I approached Jesus in the Holy Eucharist for the first time in a long time. And I remember the gentle peace of Him, as He surrounded me with reassurance and calm during my first tentative steps of my conversion of heart, that I was wanted and loved by Him.

And yet, I was still surrounded by those loyal, yet long suffering mindless robots that surrounded me as a child. The droning creed, the robotic handshakes, the 2 lonely hymn singers… They were all still there! In some ways I found it quite funny, but I also found that it broke my heart. I was home, but my family were zombies.

I would just watch them week after week, just going through the motions. It was like they were asleep inside, while my heart was completely on fire for Jesus. I learned pretty quickly that I was not going to fit in.


After another 10 years or so I began my Catholic studies at Maryvale university, and for the first time ever came accross the term “active participation” in the Vatican 2 document Sacrosanctum conciliumthe Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. I learned here that one of the main aims of the day in and around the 1960’s was to get the laity to participate more in the Mass. I was amazed because I thought the robotic zombie parishioner was a modern phenomenon. It seems not.

The other bombshell I learned was that up until the late 1960’s, the priest always used to say Mass with his back to the congregation!! I couldn’t believe it! Why on earth would he do that? The Mass before the late 1960’s was very different. It was said in Latin, the priest had his back to the congregation, people used to kneel to receive Holy Eucharist and would only receive on the tongue. Women were required to cover their hair in church, members of the congregation would often say rosary during Mass if they didn’t understand the Latin. Things were really different.

I can really understand why people were calling for reform in the church and pushing the idea of the “active participation” of the laity in the Mass. How easy would it be to zone out during Mass if you were just sitting there not even able to understand the language? So the Council Fathers developed this idea of active participation:

“14. Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people” (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this 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; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.” – Sacrosanctum concilium

Although it was never actually an official part of the reforming documents of Vatican 2, the radically new idea of the priest facing the people began to creep in a few years later. The idea behind this was to make the people in the congregation feel more welcome, more involved and for the first time ever they could see what the priest was doing on the altar. It was all aimed at moving towards this idea of active participation.


I can totally understand what they were trying to do in the late 1960’s, but 50 years later with obviously dwindling parishes, lack of religious vocations and widespread theological ignorance within the church, the million dollar question is:

Has this radical idea of active participation actually worked?

It was initially implemented to reduce parishioner zombification during Mass. But as i’m sure you will agree, the zombie robots are alive and well and STILL filling our churches today.


Now, as you have probably heard, Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, urged priests and bishops at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London on July 5 to start celebrating Masses ad orientem (with their back to the congregation) beginning on the first Sunday of Advent this year 2016.

This had caused uproar in the more progressive circles of the church as they believe it would take us back 5o years and undermine all the efforts made at active participation since then.

However I think they have got the wrong end of the stick here…

I think that it is pretty safe to say now that the active participation thing has not worked as intended. In all honestly, I think it has backfired massively and has actually drawn the people even further away from participating actively.

You see, the active participation that occurs currently is focused on outward signs and physical gestures. But this is not what active participation is meant to be. The true meaning is for the persons spirit to be actively involved in the mass, not though superficial things like carrying the offertory gifts, but to carry out our Baptismal ‘priestly’ role by offering our entire lives to God as Christ did on the Cross.

Of course it was never explained to me as a kid – or even as an adult that we are actuallypresent at Calvary in real time during Mass. I never knew that. I also never realised that the Mass is something that is directed at God – not at the people. I never knew. The first time I realised that was during my first ever Tridentine (Traditional Latin) Mass where the priest had His back to me. When he lifted up the consecrated host with his back to me, I suddenly realised that Mass was not all about me. It was all about God.

We all face God. The priests offers the sacrifice on our behalf. Man is not the centre of the liturgy – Christ is.


During Mass, by right and duty of my Baptism, my job is to offer my whole life – joined to the eternal sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, to God.

Why oh why did no-one ever tell me this? How can anyone possibly be luke warm during Mass armed with this knowledge? THIS is the active participation that we are meant to be carrying out during Mass – not joining the priest on the sanctuary or clapping during the Gloria.

I can see now that all those external participations actually served as distractions that drew my attention away from what I should really have been concentrating on internally. Even the priest himself can become a distraction during Mass – especially if he is young and handsome (yes, this has happened to me before during Mass *cringe*).

So to cut a very long argument short – I can totally see where Cardinal Sarah is coming from. He is trying to move the focus of the Mass back to where it should be – onto Christ, and eliminate the many distractions that have crept into the liturgy over the years. He is also trying to educate us as to the real meaning of “active participation”.


There is one last thing…

Offering Mass this way would also be a wonderfully unitive thing to do with the Eastern Churches. They all offer Mass with the priest having his back to the congregation – they never changed. And as with everything in Catholic culture, this posture is highly symbolic. I spoke to my Byzantine friend who put it perfectly:

“Every movement in the Liturgy is symbolic. For instance, we face west during the exorcism part of the Baptism ceremony and then turn to the east (the altar) to declare our allegiance to Christ. It seems strange that the priest would face west to lead us in prayer/speaking to God on our behalf.”

Yes, that does seem strange when she puts it like that doesn’t it? I’m going to have to think more about that last part very, very carefully.


A version of this post originally appeared at Faith in Our Families. It has been modified slightly for republication.

46 thoughts on “The Problem of Zombie-Robot Parishioners and ‘Active Participation’”

  1. Totally agree here. With regard to your spiritual/faith revelations as you grew older and amazement that it was not taught when you were young, you are not alone on that one either. There are many things I have come to understand as I have gotten older, that were not taught to me either. Things that I now believe too should have be basic CCD 101. It is however, God’s workings to bring us to these revelations/understandings. Its rather ironic too that pre-V2 people complained that they were not part of the Mass, that the priest with his back to the congregation meant we were passive attendees. When in actuality, by having his back to us we are more included as a body of believers and the priest, by being ordained, should in fact be the one in the front of the altar with us behind. I hope Francis does not step in to challenge Sarah’s change, but sees it for what it is.

  2. Michael Davies, in his book Liturgical Time Bombs had this to say about actuosis or “active participation”.


    It is not easy to provide an exact English equivalent of actuosus; the word involves a sincere (perhaps intense) interior participation in the Mass—–and it is always to this interior participation that prime consideration must be given. The role of external gestures is to manifest this interior participation, without which they are totally without value. These signs should not only manifest, but aid the interior participation which they symbolize.

    No gesture approved by the Church is without meaning and value—–the striking of the breast during the Confiteor, making the Sign of the Cross on the forehead, lips and heart at the beginning of the Gospel, genuflecting at the Incarnatus est during the Creed and at the Verbum caro factum est of the Last Gospel, kneeling for certain parts of the Mass—–the Canon in particular, bowing in adoration at the elevations, joining in the chants and appropriate responses: all these are appropriate external manifestations of the internal participation which the faithful should rightly be taught to make knowingly and fruitfully.</blockquote

    • It is not easy to provide an exact English equivalent of actuosus; the word involves a sincere (perhaps intense) interior participation in the Mass—–and it is always to this interior participation that prime consideration must be given. The role of external gestures is to manifest this interior participation, without which they are totally without value. These signs should not only manifest, but aid the interior participation which they symbolize.

      I agree with you and Davies wholeheartedly. Except, as you well know, trying to actually accomplish any sort of meaningful “interior participation” at a typical Novus Ordo Mass is a waste of time. The entire NO construct is predicated upon a gross imposition from the top down of an entirely arbitrary sequence of gestures and activities that the laity are expected to perform, lest they be accused of not “participating” or not being “one” with the congregation. Heaven forbid someone want to merely pray silently throughout the Mass or want to follow quietly in his Missal.

      No: He must stand and sing the banal “hymns” (a la Haugen and Haas) to “welcome the celebrant” and “send the congregation forth”. He must say every single word that is assigned to the congregation (the words that used to be said just by the servers). He must give verbal assent to the insipid and politically-charged “prayers of the faithful”. He must glad-hand with a broad smile upon his face at the “sign of peace”, taking the time to socialize and make small talk, of course. For if he fails to do any of these things, he is not “actively participating”, and we can’t have that, now, can we?

      • Reader’s hand raises: The goodness of God is everlasting.
        Faithful obliged to repeat same line over and over on each hand raise.

        If that ain’t enough active participation for the Novus Ordites, there’s always the Pentecostalist charismatics.

        • Al-You are onto something. I know a fairly new priest. He told me that he and other fellow orthodox catholics in seminary must hide what they truly believe. He did so as so many others have done and are now doing – every time a nun Professor told them that the church had the power to ordain women; every time a prof laid out the case against papal infallibility, every time a dandy prof told them that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was a sin of inhospitallity and voluntarily engaging in anal sex acts could be an act of virtue. In short, as many young people do, they REBELLED against their elders, but silently. He is now ordained, a priest forever, as are many of his fellow priests, and no one, not even a nun chancellor of a diocese can take that away from him or them. The libliturgists, the democatholics, the feminuns; their actions have and will continue to empty the pews. The mercy heretics, the mercy bullies, and the CallToAction heretics are not at population replacement level. These church-destroying zombies do not reproduce. Jesus wins this war, it is not if but when. Guy McClung, San Antonio Texas

          • I appreciate the feedback. BYW, I am not a priest…got booted out just six months prior to ordination back in 1991. I, like many of classmates, could not keep silent. The orthodox ones who did got ordained kept their mouth shut. But, oh, the suffering they must endure for our Lord.

  3. Another thing that has not been taught is that you are NOT supposed to chew the host. You are to let it slowly dissolve. It was quite a revelation to me and though it was a bit physically uncomfortable for me the first few times I did this, I was so conscious of Our Lord’s presence that my “reverence-factor” went up considerably.

  4. You can’t blame the progressives for wanting to preserve the success of the VII reforms. Let’s just look at the numbers: 100’s of seminaries opened to deal with the massive influx of vocations, 1000’s of new parishes built to accommodate all the pews needed, 1000’s of new schools built and staffed by all the young nuns where tuition is less than $500 (to pay for consumable materials), several hundred convents built, and being built, to make room for all the young women called to the religious life.

    Turning the priest towards the people is directly responsible for the mass exportation of Catholics from Europe, due to child birth, into the Middle East and the disintegration of the need for Islamic Terrorism, since they brought so much economic and spiritual success that the upset among the Muslims simply forgot their woes and complaints, basking in the economic reality of so many new jobs brought by the burgeoning Catholic population and Western economic principles. Truly, turning the priest towards the people was the final solution for the curing of the plague of Islamic Terrorism – why on earth would Traditionalists want to turn the priest around to face the meal table and simply start the terrorism all over again?

    It makes no sense for Traditionalists to complain about their loss of the “old ways’ after VII since under their ideological watch, thousands of priests left, nobody entered seminary, convents closed, schools were sold to the city or demolished, parishes were closed and consolidated.

    And then at EVERY SINGLE TURN the Traditionalists persecuted and suppressed holy, God-fearing Progressives, and did their best to frustrate them, and even did things like cite bogus translations of church law documents to further their agenda by any means possible. If it wasn’t for Cdl. Kasper’s “Society of PTdeC”, Progressivism might have never recovered from the unending blows dealt to the body of Christ by the Traditionalists. Thank God they were finally normalized by the Pope! They are right to see God’s blessing on their movement. Who but God would have inspired St. Annibale Bugnini to author his famous “Oath against Traditionalism”, and who would have guessed it’s astounding success in draining the rise of the Traditionalist tide? If it wasn’t for the Jesuit run universities protecting the last bastions of Progressive thought, surely the Church would be right back where it was in the Dark Ages, from whence spewed the “banal on the spot” liturgy formalized at Trent, which spun the worlds backwards for 500 years!

    So with so much success and blessing since 1960, so much that is obvious, it’s time for Traditionalists to hang it up and admit defeat: Mass towards the people fixed everything, and turning the priest around to face the meal table would only be crucifying man all over again.

    Fr. Magnus Oppositeland


  5. You forget that the Tabernacles and the big Crucifixes have been removed somewhere else along with all the fancy altars.

    So sadly until those are restored the few who show up would still be confused as to why Father is facing a blank wall with maybe some pattern or vague dove or something on it.

  6. Unlike what you usually see at the “new mass”, there weren’t any picnic tables or giggly hugs at Calvary. The Mass all All Ages is a Sacrifice worthy of a real altar and real tears.

  7. The other day our Rector said at Sunday Mass that he was discussing the Mass with a new priest in our parish and the new priest said the Mass was about a meal. The Rector said he corrected the priest and said the Mass was about thanksgiving. To me saying the Mass is about thanksgiving is like saying the theater is about applause. Surely one reason for all the disinterest at Mass is because the folks in the pews have no idea what it is about. Surely, It is high time that time was spent at Sunday Mass preaching why Sunday Mass is important, what it is about and what the pew sitters are there for and they are to respond.

    • Actually, your rector is correct. Eucharist derives from eukaristia which means thanksgiving. In fact in the Jewish sacrificial systems there is one called the Todah which is a thanksgiving sacrifice. Ancient Rabbinic thought said that all the sacrifices will cease except the Todah.
      That said, your Rector should have said it is Thanksgiving Sacrifice.
      If you don’t know about it already I encourage you to google the Todah. There is a very good article on it by Pimental (can’t remember first name).

      • Thanks MarcAlcan. I realize that already. My point was that Thanksgiving (Eucharist) has to have an objective. That was my point.

  8. Good story!
    In addition, “But they did not listen to me, nor did they pay attention. They walked in the stubbornness of their evil hearts and turned their backs, not their faces, to me” Jeremiah 7:24).

    My friends in Jesus & Mary,

    Our Lord requires of us only “meekness” to be helped by the Holy Spirit.
    The spiritually “meek” are not milquetoasts, or spineless wimps.

    The Greek “praus” for “meek” means controlled strength, a suppleness like that of an athlete.
    Without praus, a surfer would stand stiff and soon fall off the surfboard, and a boxer would be knocked out with the first punch without agile footwork.

    God calls the arrogant, who will not bend their opinions to His Truth, a “stiff-necked people” (Exodus 32:9).

    Arrogance, as the opposite of meekness, is spiritual arthritis. It is doing nothing. Get rid of that moral stiffness, and then “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26).

    In the story of the Good samaratan,what sin did the priest and the levi commit?
    They did not steal, or lie, or curse; their sin was that they did nothing.

    The Truth is that Jesus, fully human and fully Divine is present in the Holy Tabernacle.
    Hence, His Place of Honor in our Catholic Church is obvilous to the meek, who love the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The arrogant “feel” that they should have that place of honor.

    Jesus is our King, Our Lord & Savior!
    His Sacred Heart should be Placed in the Holy Space of Honor in our Catholic Churches, because we love Him so dearly and tenderly.

    The Sacred heart of Jesus should be the center of our Hearts, internally, and in our Homes; therefore, externally, we demonstrate this Holy Goodness by placing Him at the center of our Churches. And, we do not turn our backs from HIm. It just makes common sense!

    Our children must be shown the Truth with outwards signs of our True Faith in Jesus Christ!
    They must see how we adults, priests and laity, place Him in the Seat of Honor, the Sacred Place in the center of our Church.

    The arrogant feel that anyone who defends this Truth is not humble because this or that priest or adult does not agree. Baloney! Our meekness is quite the opposite; we must defend our Holy Faith, each and every day! Moreover, we speak out, in kindness, when such travesty is apparant.

    Like a kind and gentle father who corrects his child for running in the traffic: “Do not do that, for that it not good!” We do this out of our great love for our child.

    We defend our True Faith out of our great love, meekness, and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, so that others may also love Him too! We do this with our good thoughts, our good words, and our good deeds!

    And sometimes, it requires us to be strong and disciplined as an athlete, and say: “Do not do that, for that is not Good!”

    O Jesus, meek and humble of Heart, make our hearts like Your Heart!

    Ad Jesum per Mariam.


  9. The “realization” hits one like a getting hit over the head! Suddenly one understands the true meaning of the Sacrifice.

    What follows is the Novus Ordo “Cringe”, where one sees the folly and fully and only desires the TLM.

  10. The whole plan seem to replace “being” with “doing”, loving with activity. Women priests can “do” whatever a man can up in the sanctuary, from a human point of view, right? Just because their being is female makes no difference to modernists. Just practice and training. Move here, read there. Liturgical atheism, spiritual comrade. As long as you produce something, such as activity, only then are you valuable. The errors of Russia will spread through the world. As one who has to fight his vice of “over-doingness,” I see the benefit of silence and peace, watching and listening, like when Isaiah (I think) went out and the whisper of God, not the strong wind or big earthquake, made him prostrate himself. I rarely attend a Novus Ordo Mass any more, even a “good” one.

    • That’s something to ponder in light of a pet peeve I’ve nursed for a couple decades: the iso9000 idea, that anyone can do any job, so long as it’s well described. My view has always been that while some tasks can be filled by a cog, others certainly can not.

      But while I know the being idea, the way you put it made something more click into place.


  11. One thing I am really sick of is the glad handing when the bread has just become the Lord. It seems so much more important to give each other a pat on the back rather than concentrating on the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords now among us.

    It’s funny how ingrained this is in us.

    At Mass one morning, noticed my friend (who feels the same way I do about the glad handing) a couple of pews away. Just when the others were starting to get ready for the glad handing, she knelt down and prayed. The folks around her were put off by this and one lady looked annoyed. My friend just flat out refused to be forced into the glad handing so the only way to do it is to kneel, close your eyes and pray.

    I was wondering whether one of them would tap her in the shoulder so she can shake their hands 🙂

    If it weren’t such an august moment I would have chuckled.

    • I do it. Every. Single. Mass. And yes. The people are annoyed. And by grace, I go every day and annoy them every day.
      Occasional Sunday TLM is a true respite.

  12. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s and went to a parochial school then. When the novus ordo mass was forced upon us, I had a hard time with it… although I went to church, it was a meaningless relationship with God… I felt God was not listening anymore, so in the mid 70’s I stopped going to church altogether. My religion was gone! I could not fit in no matter what, even though I was told to accept the changes. I could not. And since then that never changed…. but it wasn’t God I could not accept, it was the Vatican 2 changes. I pray at home now, because I could talk to Him one on one with no interpreter needed. One day I hope and pray I can go back to Mass when the reverence of the Mass is once again victorious over the FALSE and ridiculous teachings that aren’t true in many cases… as once was the WORD OF GOD… Thanks to John 23rd, and every pope after him, we are in a period of Isolation of desolation against the Church.. The 3rd prophecy of Our Lady of Fatima was never fulfilled by the Popes. Therefore we live in an era of meaningless doctrine.
    I hope one day God will intervene into mans transgressions, and make things right.. Our bishops have no guts, and those who do are ostrasized by the so called elites of the Church… No doubt our country, our world is in such a mess. The little belief that is left in the world is not being helped by the Universal Church which is so fragmented. May we all pray that we shall overcome, and God will once again be our King,

  13. “Offering Mass this way would also be a wonderfully unitive thing to do with the Eastern Churches. They all offer Mass with the priest having his back to the congregation – they never changed.” BINGO. My thoughts exactly throughout the article and then I hit this point at the end. My church celebrates the Tridentine mass, for which I am thankful. Also, as Catholics, we are grateful to have the Orthodox Catholic churches (Ukrainian, etc) in communion with us. If one has not, I would advise them to find one in their area and go celebrate the divine liturgy and experience its fullness.


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