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Fully conscious and active participation.

What does it really mean and how do we help people acheive it?

James Cavanagh, Director of Worship, Diocese of Sacramento


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. " Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14

I’d like to begin with two stories that you’re familiar with. The first is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both men went to the Temple to pray. But only God could see what was in their hearts. If you were to observe them you wouldn’t know what they were thinking or how they stood in relation to God. From all outward appearances you would know which of them was more religious " the Pharisee. And if you were to apply the standard of “active participation” as it is commonly understood to both men, you would undoubtedly conclude that the Pharisee participated more actively in the liturgical life of the Temple than the tax collector. Not only that, he fasted twice a week and tithed all that he got. The tax collector, on the other hand, exemplified the very antithesis of active participation. We know how he spent most of his time and it wasn’t in the Temple performing liturgical services or out in the community doing works of mercy. Objectively speaking, the Pharisee was the more “active” of the two and yet our Lord praises the tax collector and not the Pharisee saying “he went down to his home justified” (Luke 18:9-14).   You cannot judge a book by its cover and you can’t judge authentic participation by the mere fact that someone is doing something ‘religious.’ “The Lord sees not as mans sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7)

In his apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacrament of Charity, Pope (emeritus) Benedict XVI explained what authentic participation means. “It should be made clear,” he said “that the word ‘participation’ does not refer to mere external activity during the celebration. In fact, the active participation called for the Council must be understood in more substantial terms, on the basis of a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated and its relationship to daily life.” [52]

The most important aspect of participation, then, is internal, not external. But the interior participation we’re talking about is not merely a subjective feeling; rather it’s a “greater awareness” as Pope Benedict put it, of “the mystery being celebrated”. In other words, the participation called for is primarily one of understanding. In the same paragraph (no. 14) where the Council talked about active participation as “the aim to be considered above all else” they also explained how it was to be achieved. “Pastors of souls” it said “must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.” [Emphasis added].

The second story is from Exodus 32 " the incident of the golden calf. The people, having grown impatient with Moses and his delay in coming down from the mountain, decided to take liturgical matters into their own hands. They pressured Aaron to fashion gods familiar to them, the kind they knew in Egypt. “All the people took off the rings of gold and brought them to Aaron ….” The next day, “the people rose up and offered burnt offering and ‘sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’” Incidentally, that last phrase, rendered in the NAB “rose up to revel”, suggests something much more serious than the innocent sounding word “play”. The so-called golden “calf” was actually a figure of a young bull that has just reached sexual maturity. It was a symbol of virility and strength and was a common object of worship in ancient Egypt and Canaan. The “revelry” that the people participated in was, according to some scholars, an orgy. The verb letsachek, rendered as “play” or “revelry” is a word of ominous importance, implying fornication and adulterous intercourse. The same word is used in Gen. 39:14 where Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph of trying “to lie” with her. In the Old Testament idolatry is closely related to immorality and injustice.

The point is this. In the incident of the golden calf the people actively participated in the liturgy they had created for themselves (or borrowed from Egypt). The problem is that they participated in the wrong thing the wrong way. Moses had yet to come down from the mountain with instructions not just about the moral life " the Ten Commandments " but with all the liturgical instructions concerning the People of God, including the construction of the tabernacle, the ark, the candles, the table of the presence, priestly vestments and so forth. From both stories, then, we see that external activity alone is not the measure of truly authentic participation envisioned by Vatican II and further developed in subsequent magisterial teaching and other Church documents.

The moral of the story of the golden calf is that liturgy is not something we fashion according to our liking. It is the Church’s liturgy. It comes to us “from above” revealed by Christ to his apostles who, in turn, handed it on to their successors. To accept the liturgy as it is given to us requires humility and, as the story from Exodus indicates, patience: patience with God’s servants, his priests, and patience with ourselves as we learn to grow accustomed to the sacred things of God.

In the exhortation just mentioned Pope Benedict explained the personal conditions necessary for active participation. He identified five things. The first is ongoing conversion. “Active participation in the Eucharistic liturgy can hardly be expected,” he said “if one approaches it superficially, without an examination of his or her life.” A careful examination of one’s life requires a two other things: recollection and silence, which should be accompanied by fasting and sacramental confession. For it is only “a heart reconciled to God that makes genuine participation possible.” All these things require a well-developed, steady life of prayer which is rooted in Sacred Scripture. Indeed they’re not really possible apart from a serious commitment to “pray without ceasing.”  Finally, Pope Benedict says, there can be no active participation in the sacred mysteries “without an accompanying effort to participate actively in the life of the Church as a whole, including a missionary commitment to bring Christ’s love into the life of society.” All these things then " conversion, recollection, silence, fasting, confession and apostolic activity " take place apart from Mass and are all aspects of a healthy and holistic spiritual life.

In conclusion, the kind participation envisioned by Vatican II involved something more than simply singing songs together or doing other things like administering the cup or reading Scripture. These are important, but not as important as the interior disposition of the soul at worship and the understanding one has of the mystery being celebrated. So, how do the faithful attain the fully conscious and active participation called for by Vatican II? Study and prayer. And these are the two things priests in particular are especially equipped and ordained to do. They spend years in seminary learning the faith so they can teach it. They are ordained as priests so they can lead the People of God to holiness of life. If you want to increase active participation at Mass the first and best thing to do is catechize the faithful, proclaim the gospel, expound Scripture, explain the meaning of the sacraments, and teach people how to pray. The liturgy itself is a school of prayer and a school of faith. It is, as the Catechism puts it, “the privileged place for catechizing the People of God.” [1074]. When done well the people will be brought, little by little to that fully conscious and active participation envisioned by the Second Vatican Council.

These Sacred Mysteries ….

“Mystery” comes from the Greek word, mysterion and its Latinized form, mysterium. The term has special meaning for us as Catholics. Unlike the common, secular meaning of the word that sees “mystery” as a puzzle to be solved or something that eludes, for the moment, a rational explanation, “mystery” in the litugical sense means hidden or invisible realities that extend beyond the physical realm. Once understood, they do not cease being mysteries; they remain invisible though now they are apprehended by the mind. Another word for “mystery” is, of course, “sacrament.” The traditional definition is still the best: “A sacrament is a visible sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” The emphasis here is “visible.” Sacraments then are mysteries not because their meaning forever eludes us, but because their meaning transcends our physical senses, not our intellect. That is one reason why silence is such an important part of Mass – especially at Communion. Silence gives people a chance to contemplate the mystery of the sacrament they have just received. Silence actually enables people to participate more fully and more consciously in ‘these sacred mysteries’ which is “the aim to be considered before all else.” Music directors, take note.

Msgr. Pope from the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. has a good article in which he reflects on the meaning of the word “mystery” and why it’s important for us to understand it, especially in today’s highly secular culture. Read more here.

Of all things visible and invisible

“God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” – Colossians 1:27-28

Christmas is an astounding holiday when you stop and think about it, for what it commemorates, or rather, what is asserts is that God became man.  This simple yet profound declaration, so familiar to Christians, is really quite amazing, for it affirms that within every man, woman and child, Christian or not, religious or not, believer or not, it doesn’t matter: God, in Christ, has wedded himself to humanity.  We all share a single human nature which is common to all. We all share in humanity’s inclination to selfishness and bad behavior. We all experience the pain and sorrow, sin and suffering that’s part of the human condition. No one is exempt being human, including Christians.  Yes, Christians are human too!  That’s why Christ gave us the sacrament of confession. This beautiful sacrament allows us to face up to the reality of our humanity, acknowledge our sins and shortcomings, and receive God’s help to overcome those parts of us that drag us down and hold us back from advancing as human beings.  Even with confession and all the other sacraments, life’s not easy. Sin’s “gravity” is strong. But the “weight of glory” (C.S. Lewis) that is, the grace of God is stronger. The power that elevates is greater than the inertia that oppresses. That doesn’t mean the sin and inertia don’t exist for the Christian. They certainly do. The difference is that for the Christian there’s a remedy, a way out. For the unbeliever, only despair.

The “mystery” of which St. Paul speaks in the quote from Colossians, above, is the invisible reality made possible by Christ’s Incarnation.  The union of flesh and spirit in Christ makes the invisible, visible. The “mystery” of “Christ in you” is not something you can quanitify, weigh, measure, touch or see. And yet it’s real. The problem for us who live in a modern, secular world is that we think that only physical things are real. But even the most stubborn materialist knows, if they think about it for a few seconds, that there are many things that aren’t physical but are quite real. Real things are not limited to just physical things.

God in Christ has wedded himself to our humanity, and the humanity of every one we meet. Christmas invites us to contemplate that.  The beginning of wisdom, according to the Delphic oracle, is to ‘know thyself.’ That was uttered before the Advent of Christ, before the Incarnation. Now that the Word has become flesh, now that spirit and matter, heaven and earth, God and man have come together in Christ, every human being has both the opportunity and the obligation to recognize and acknowledge ‘God with us’ – Emmanuel, as St. Hippolytus (d. 235) said, “The saying Know yourself means therefore that we should recognise and acknowledge in ourselves the God who made us in his own image, for if we do this, we in turn will be recognised and acknowledged by our Maker.”

“God is with us” is not just a pious cliche. It’s reality. We either recognize and acknowledge it or not.

Prayer IS hard. Admit it.

Prayer is vital to the Christian life. Why, one can hardly call himself a Christian if he never prays. Prayer is also essential if we want to get the most out of Mass. Prayer cultivates the soil of the soul, making it more receptive to all the graces that God showers upon us at Mass, allowing the divine life to take root, grow and bear fruit. Prayer makes us more open to God’s word and the particular message he wants to impart. In prayer we learn how to listen to that ‘still, small voice’ that speaks to us in the inner room of our heart.

Meditating on Sacred Scripture during the week sensitizes us to the often subtle ways God communicates, making the liturgy of the word much more meaningful. Prayer makes us more receptive to the divine life that pours forth from the sacraments, filling our hearts with the love of God (Rom. 5:5) that cannot be contained, but must, by its very nature, flow forth into the world.  Prayer makes us more responsive to needs of others by making us more perceptive and attuned to those around us. Prayer enables us to perceive essential dignity of the person and to see them as God does (1 Sam. 16:7).

God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45).  When we attend Mass, hear God’s word and partake of the sacraments, the divine life falls on everyone equally.  But it doesn’t have equal effect because everyone is different. Some are hard-hearted, bitter or angry and so grace cannot get in. Some are distracted by worldly concerns or preoccupied with secular interests, leaving no room for God. Cultivating a life of prayer is essential if you want to get the most out of Mass. Without a vibrant prayer life, ‘full and conscious participation’ in the mystery of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is very difficult if not, dare I say, impossible.

But let’s be honest. Prayer is hard. Holy Mother Church understands. That’s why a whole section in the Catechism is devoted to “The Battle of Prayer” (2725-2745). The first step in overcoming impediments to prayer is to admit that we don’t pray as we ought to. We need to admit that prayer, for most of us, doesn’t come easy.  The biggest obstacle to prayer for most people is time, or the apparent lack thereof. Like exercise, most people know prayer is important and know they should do it, but don’t because they can’t find the time. It’s really not a matter of time, but of the will. We don’t “find” time to pray, we must take time.  It might mean getting up a half an hour earlier in the morning. It could mean taking five minutes at midday to pray the Angelus, or twenty minutes before dinner to do Evening Prayer, or ten minutes at bedtime to read a chapter from one of the gospels.  There’s a reason why the Liturgy of the Hours developed and why religious communities formed. Prayer is hard. It takes effort. Having the support of a community committed to praying at specific times makes it easier.

Let my right hand wither if I should forget you, O Jerusalem!

It’s been a little more than a month since my last posting. I’ve been away from Quo Vadis because my father passed away and I’ve been a little preoccupied.  His decline started August 9.  On Labor Day he decided that further medical intervention was pointless and entered hospice. He passed away on September 14, the feast of the exaltation of the Holy Cross, at 10:13 p.m.

Mark’s gospel opens with a number of miraculous healings and exorcisms Each one is meant to demonstrate the gospel’s organizing thesis which declares, “The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  (Mark 1:1)  Chapter three opens with a story about a man with a withered hand. It takes place on the Sabbath in the synagogue and the religious authorities, the scribes and Pharisees, are watching to see if Jesus will do something, anything, against the Law of Moses that they can pin it on him and use it as a pretext to destroy him.

The synagogue is the place where Scripture was read and interpreted. And the purpose of reading and interpreting was to remind people of the great things God had done in the past so that they could recognize God’s actions today, in the here and now. The man with the withered hand was meant to remind the people, especially the religious leaders, that they were still in a state of spiritual exile even though they had been in Jerusalem for centuries. Physical proximity to the holy things of God does necessarily mean that one can recognize him. After all, what does “recognize” mean, but to “re-cognize” to “re-know” or become aware again.

Jesus’ miracles were not only events meant to demonstrate his divinity, they were signs meant to remind people of something they had forgotten.  And what was it they had forgotten?  What is that we have forgotten?  That God is with us. He is here. And he is Lord of all. When a nation’s leaders forget God, bad things happen. When a nation’s leaders fail to worship him, the people follow, and when they do society unravels and descends into moral anarchy.

The man with the withered hand in the gospel is a reminder of the people of God during the Babylonian Captivity. Psalm137:4-5 says, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!”  Other translations say, “…. let my right hand forget how to play the harp.”  The exile was a critical part of Israel’s history because it taught her that God was not confined to any one, specific place. Jerusalem was meant to represent heaven and everything pertaining to God. To forget Jerusalem is to forget God, which is easy to do when you’re in exile, for when Jerusalem is out of sight, she’s out of mind.

That’s why worship is so important – it’s meant to remind us of God and of the things of heaven. If the Church is only concerned about the things of this world, then, as Pope Francis said, she’s no different than an NGO. If Mass only echoes the secular world around us, then it’s worse than useless, it’s diabolical. The devil would love nothing more than for us to forget God.

What does “full and active participation” really mean?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013, 23rd week in Ordinary Time


  • Colossians 2:6-15
  • Psalm 145:1-2, 8-11
  • Luke 6:12-19

 In its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Second Vatican Council said that the “full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else” [SC 14]. But what does “full and active participation” really mean?  What exactly are we participating in? The Mass, of course. But what is the Mass? Today’s first reading gives us a clue.  St. Paul says, “As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, walk in him, rooted in him and built upon him . . . . For in him dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily, and you share in this fullness in him.” Starting with our Baptism our whole lives are meant to be entirely conformed to Christ; a real participation in him. Our participation in the Mass, then, is nothing less than our participation in Christ’s own offering of himself on the cross. ”In the Eucharist,” the Catechism says, “the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. . . . Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be untied with his offering.” [1368-1369]   In today’s gospel Jesus calls the twelve after spending the whole night in prayer. After calling them he then sets the pattern for them and their successors by teaching and healing.  This two-fold movement of teaching and healing is reflected at every Mass in the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of Holy Eucharist.

 “For in him dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily, and you share in this fullness in him.” – Colossians 2:9-10


Suffering for the sake others


Monday, Sept. 9, 23rd week in Ordinary Time


  • Colossian 1:24 " 2:3
  • Psalm 62:6-9
  • Luke 6:6-11

 Suffering is an invitation to love. In today’s first reading Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his Body, which is the Church.”  What could possibly be lacking in Christ’s suffering?  In his beautiful letter on human suffering, Salvivici Dolores, Bl. John Paul II made the observation that Christ is his love for us has ‘made room’ for us in his suffering so that we could love with a love like his. Notice that Paul does not ‘rejoice in his sufferings’ for sake of suffering, but for “your sake” " for the sake of the Church, for the sake of others. Whenever we suffer pain or loss or sorrow, it can have redemptive value when it is united to the sufferings of Christ. In today’s gospel Jesus has the audacity to heal a man on the Sabbath.  The point is that love is the highest good.  The worship of God is one of the most important things we do as human beings and it’s important that it’s done with reverence and beauty, but not at the expense of love. We worship God because it is “right and just” yes, but also because we love God. And our love for God enables us to love others more deeply.

 “The Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering.” " Salvivici Dolores, 24

Let the truth illumine your heart

Thursday, August 29, 2013, 21st week in Ordinary Time

Memorial of the Passion of St. John the Baptist


  • 1 Thessalonians 3:7-13
  • Psalm 90:3-5, 12-17
  • Mark 6:17-29

 The love that Paul had for the Church in Thessalonica really comes through in today’s first reading. “What thanksgiving,” he says “can we render to God for you for all the joy we feel on your account before our God?” Writing from Corinth he can’t wait to see them again. He longs to strengthen their faith and help them grow in love. He knows that they are still children in their understanding and there are deficiencies in their faith. But he doesn’t criticize them for that, he only wants to help them learn as much as they can.  Knowledge and love go together. “You cannot love what you do not know” but it’s also true that you cannot know what you do not love (1 John 4:8).  In today’s gospel we hear about the death of John the Baptist. He was executed by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, because John dared to shine the light of truth on Herod’s life in public. Herod liked to hear John preach as long as he said things that he wanted to hear. But when John got personal and criticized him for his unlawful marriage, that was another matter. As St. Augustine said, people  “love truth when it shines warmly on them, and hate it when it rebukes them.”

  • How have I grown in my knowledge and love of the Lord and the teachings of the Church during this Year of Faith?
  • In what ways is my faith deficient? 
  • How open am I to letting the truth of God’s word shed light on those areas of my life that I’d rather keep hidden?


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