What does it mean to 'actively participate' in Mass?

What does it mean to 'actively participate' in Mass?

People are sitting in the church during mass. Credit
People are sitting in the church during mass. Credit

.- In 1903, Pope St. Pius X wrote that it was the liturgy where the laity acquire the Christian spirit “from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church.” 

But what does that mean? How can a layperson “participate” in Mass? Must a person have some sort of role in the liturgy, such as that of a Eucharistic minister, choir singer, or altar server, to “actively participate” in Mass? 

With the public celebration of Mass still limited in many parts of the country, and with widespread dispensations from the requirement to physically attend Mass still in place across dioceses, many Catholic have been watching a livestream or recording of Mass. But what does it mean to participate in the liturgy? 

CNA talked to two experts about what “active participation” means, and how it is still possible to be a participant in Mass during a pandemic.

According to Fr. Thomas Petri, dean and acting president of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, a layperson still participates in Mass even if they are not lectoring, altar serving, or distributing Holy Communion.

“In short, Pope St. Pius X thought active participation was the assimilation of the divine mysteries, particularly the Blessed Sacrament itself, so that the faithful could be more and more configured to Jesus Christ in their lives outside of Mass,” Petri told CNA. 

Pius’ ideas were expanded upon and developed during the Second Vatican Council, Petri explained. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the council’s constitution on the sacred liturgy, “emphasized that participation should increase the vigor of the Christian life, and was more than just either external or internal participation,” he said. 

“Participation must be both because we are both body and soul,” Petri said. The constitution gave examples of participation, including songs, responses, gestures, and, interestingly enough, “sacred silence.” 

“The Mass is meant to cultivate silence during the celebration so that the very mysteries we celebrate can be pondered and prayed,” said Petri. 

Petri told CNA that participation, while being manifested in the exterior sense, should “flow from an interior disposition to be attentive to the sacred mysteries that are celebrated and to receive the graces that God wills to impart.” 

Fr. James Bradley, assistant professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America, told CNA that by virtue of baptism, participation in Mass is “the first place objective” for Catholics.  

“It is rooted in our baptism and in our continued life in Christ. Of course when we separate ourselves from Christ and the Church through serious sin, it is by means of sacramental Confession that we resume that participation,” said Bradley. 

Bradley told CNA that “an authentic understanding of this concept of active participation” is something not explained well enough to Catholics, and it is neither just external acts nor “something so spiritual that our presence at Mass becomes unimportant.” 

“In the first place we should reclaim that essential link between baptismal identity and participation in the liturgy,” said Bradley. 

But people cannot always receive the Eucharist, either because Mass is unavailable, or they have not had access to Confession. What must they do then? 

“We first of all participate in the liturgy by our attendance at the Mass. This is why the Sunday obligation is about attendance, not about receiving Holy Communion,” said Bradley. However, he noted the reception of Communion is “essential” for a person’s spiritual life. He encouraged those who cannot receive to make an Act of Spiritual Communion, but to strive for actual reception if at all possible. 

Many parishes have taken the step of offering live-streams or recordings of Masses for people while the Sunday obligation to attend has been dispensed. Both Bradley and Petri agreed that while the live-streams are good, in that they maintain a connection between a parishioner and their parish and encourage prayers, they cannot be viewed as a substitute for regular Mass attendance in non-pandemic times. 

Live-streaming “is not a waste of time--it can offer a chance to unite ourselves in some way to the action going on--but it is not the same as attending Mass and can never replace it,” Bradley told CNA. 

Petri concurred, saying that there is “no substitute for attending and participating in Mass physically,” and that sacramental graces can only be conferred in person. 

“While graces are certainly to be had by quieting oneself to watch Mass online, they are not, properly speaking, the sacramental graces that one receives by participating in Mass in person,” said Petri. He suggested that as an alternative to watching a live-stream of Mass--which is not required, as there is no obligation to do so--those who are unable to attend Mass in person should “treat Sundays differently” than the other days, read scripture, and meditate on the day’s Mass readings. 

“I suspect families with children would have an easier time with a Sunday routine like this rather than insisting that children passively watch Mass on the television,” he said. 

And what about those of who get distracted during Mass, either by daydreaming or because they are watching children? Does it “count” as participation even when other things are happening?

Fr. Petri says yes, but with a caveat. 

“Distractions during Mass, or during any prayer, are as old as original sin itself,” he said. Remaining focused is “a battle that I’m afraid we will all be fighting until that day, when, God-willing, we see Him face-to-face.” 

Petri differentiated between “willful distraction,” which would be letting one’s mind wander, and distractions that come from other sources, such as children. 

“If I’m willfully distracting myself, then I don’t think I can claim I’m participating interiorly as I should, even if exteriorly I’m going through the motions,” he said. “Of course, the Lord meets us where we are and so there’s still graces to be gained by even this minimal participation in the liturgy--but we know we should try to do better.” 

As for those who may be distracted at Mass by say, a toddler or other child, Petri says that these occurrences are part of what comes with having a family. 

“It seems the vocation of parenthood means that a person will necessarily be giving less attention and participation to the holy mysteries at liturgy for a significant amount of time in their lives,” he said. “But they, too, are receiving graces not only because of the participation they can muster, but because of the sacrifice they make in acclimating their children to the worship of God.”

Tags: Mass, Coronavirus

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