The liturgical reform movement of the twentieth century
restored the significance of the baptismal anointing of the faithful
as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people
of his own" (1 Peter 2:9). Through the sacrament of Baptism all
Christians share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. In the decades
following the Second Vatican Council, two notions from the
Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (CSL), "active participation"
and the "priesthood of the laity," have brought greater clarity to
the purpose of Christian worship and to the role of the laity in
the Church today. But they have also carried a fair amount of
confusion. "Active participation" has been understood by some
to mean physical activity, or activism, suggesting a need for
more movement and song. However, more activity does not
always lead to better liturgy. The "priesthood of the laity" has
been translated by some to mean the duplication of the role of
the ordained minster by a lay minister. It begs the question of
the proper role of the lay minister within Catholic worship and
within the greater mission of the Church. I hope to present in
these pages a somewhat nuanced position for the purpose of furthering
The goal of the Second Vatican Council was to intensify the
daily growth of Catholics in Christian living. The Council
explained, "In order that the sacred liturgy may produce its full
effect, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions,
that their thoughts match their words, and that they
cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain.
[Thus] . . . when the liturgy is celebrated, more is required than
the mere observance of the [liturgical] laws . . . [but] that the
faithful take part knowingly, actively and fruitfully" (CSL, 11).
The Council emphasized that while the liturgical laws and
rubrics are to be respected, more importantly, the dispositions
of the faithful gathering for worship are to be nurtured. In their
words, "This full, conscious, and active participation by all the
people is the aim to be considered before all else" (CSL, 14). We
might think of the rubrics as the stage directions for the sacred
drama. They provide the format by which we speak, move and
act, freeing the assembly to worship God in unison. But the
directions are no substitute for dispositions, the way the worshippers
present themselves, individually and collectively, to the
Lord. The purpose of active participation, then, is to foster these
dispositions and to focus on our purpose: offering praise and
thanksgiving to God. More recently, the General Instruction of
the Roman Missal (GIRM) echoed the Council as it directed the
planning of the liturgy such that "it leads to a conscious, active,
and full participation of the faithful both in body and mind, a
participation burning with faith, hope and charity . . . to which
the Christian people have a right and duty by reason of their
Baptism" (GIRM, 18).
Clearly, we have moved far from the so-called "priest's
Mass" of the Middle Ages with the focus on the presider's prayers
and gestures. A glance at the praenotanda (the Instruction) from
the Missal of Pope Pius V in 1570, illustrates the point. Here you
will find three sets of instructions: first, general rubrics concerning
the order of Mass with instructions for feast days, the choice
of prayers, the color of vestments, and so on; second, instructions
for priest and servers in celebrating the Mass; third,
instructions concerning defects in the celebration of the Mass,
for example, what to do if a consecrated host falls on the floor.
However, you would find no instructions for the congregation:
neither responses from the people, nor gestures or posture.
Hence, this was known as the "priest's Mass" because the priest
"said" (or "read") the Mass, and the people followed along as
best they could, or they may have engaged in acts of personal
piety, prayers, or devotions.
Four hundred years later, the Constitution on the Sacred
Liturgy sought to carefully provide rubrics for the role of the
people (CSL, 31). Moreover, it encouraged the faithful to participate
in worship through prayer, that is, to either speak or sing
the acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and hymns.
The faithful are also encouraged to pray through bodily gesture
and posture, as well as through observing a reverent silence
(CSL, 30). Active participation promotes embodied prayer. We
pray with our whole bodies, not just with our minds and hearts.
This is similar to the way we greet one another, not simply with
words, but with eye contact, perhaps a smile, along with a handshake
or an embrace. The language of the body conveys one's
intentions. The same holds true for the way we greet the Lord
and one another in the Lord's name and in the Lord's house. We
must first get the body in place.
Congregational singing is one way we convey these intentions.
Individually, singing engages more of the body than does
speaking. Perhaps this is the reason Saint Augustine opined that
those who sing pray twice. Collectively, singing is a sign of our
unity, many voices blended in harmony. Gone are the days (or at
least they should be) when the Mass began with the instruction
for the assembly to stand and sing an entrance hymn to greet the
presider. (The fallacy of this became clear to me when, on a
Sunday morning in May, in a small church in which I was presiding,
the congregation was summoned to "stand and greet the
priest celebrant with the hymn "Hail Holy Queen.") The purpose
of the entrance hymn is to gather the community, not to
greet the presider.
Besides music, the development of the various liturgical
ministries, such as lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy
Communion, and greeters, provide particular opportunities for
promoting active participation. More broadly, it would help
to think of the entire assembly in terms of liturgical ministry
in that each member is called to manifest the Lord's presence
(SC, 28). This is the way the Council imagines the gathering of
the faithful on Sunday when it explains that we know the presence
of Christ through the elements of bread and wine becoming the
body and blood of the Lord, through the scripture proclaimed
and preached, through the ordained minister, and through the
assembly (CSL, 7). Here we are Christ for one another.
One problem that has emerged over time in implementing
the full, conscious, and active participation of the assembly,
stems from an interpretation of the word "active" to mean activism.
This has led some to focus upon movement and music,
speech and song, while ignoring the need for silence. Some worship
communities have interpreted this activity to mean that
more singing, clapping, holding hands, and movement throughout
the nave and sanctuary are required. To be sure, physical
activity is good if it fosters a greater awareness of our purpose
rather than to focus on us alone. However, when this activity
reduces sacred worship to a social meeting, something is wrong.
Silence affords the opportunity to savor what we have heard, to
take to heart our vocation as disciples. While active participation
is usually expressed outwardly, its primary concern is to
cultivate an interior disposition of praise and thanksgiving to
God. The goal of active participation is to promote a greater
awareness of ourselves as the living body of Christ.
The emphasis on active participation by the whole Church indicates
that the liturgy is not reserved to the clergy but that the
whole people of God has a priestly function which needs to be
recognized and expressed (CSL, 14; GIRM, 91). Since Vatican II
the Church has seen an increase in lay ministries in worship.
Some consider this extended participation to be a sign of the
future Church, with laypeople assuming a greater role in the
faith life of the body of Christ. Others think of it as a temporary
adjustment until vocations to the priesthood rise.
Nevertheless, the rise of lay ministry begs the question,
how is the priesthood of the laity exercised? What does it look
like? As mentioned earlier, a problem arises when lay ministry is
thought to duplicate ordained ministry. Cardinal Francis Arinze,
the former Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and
the Discipline of the Sacrament, in his instruction, Redemptionis
Sacramentum (RS), states the problem: "To be avoided is the danger
of obscuring the complementary relationship between the
action of clerics and that of laypersons, in such a way that the
ministry of laypersons undergoes what might be called certain
‘clericalization,' while the sacred ministers inappropriately assume
those things that are proper to the life and activity of the faithful"
(RS, 45). Likewise, the bishops of the United States, in their document, Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord (CVL), warn that
the call to lay ecclesial ministry "should not foster an elitism that
places lay ecclesial ministers above or outside the laity" (CVL,
p. 26). Also, "lay collaboration with ordained ministers cannot
mean substitution for ordained ministry"; rather, lay ministers
should see their roles as complementary (CVL, pp. 14, 15).
What is unique to the laity, according to the bishops, is the
secular character of their vocation. As the laity dwell in the ordinary
circumstances of family, society, and their professions, they
are called to contribute to the sanctification of the world from
within, like leaven (CVL, p. 8). They serve to bring the Church
into the world and the world into conformity with God's plan
(CVL, pp.12, 26).
In contrast to the role of the laity, the ordained ministers
bear the responsibility of proclaiming the word of God and of rendering
Christ present through sacramental worship (Presbyterorum
Ordinis, 4). However, while the ordained and laity serve in different
ways, they serve the same purpose, namely, establishing
the presence of God (Paul Lakeland, The Liberation of the Laity:
In Search of an Accountable Church [New York: Continuum,
2003], p. 157). Note that describing the relationship of the two
orders as complementary needs to be examined more closely. It
would help to avoid the cliched image of the bridegroom and
bride, often used when discussing complemetarity. This image
does not work anymore. Within modern understanding, marriage
entails a reciprocal relationship in which love and leadership
are shared. Perhaps a better image for the Church is that of
the people of God as one human family (Lakeland, p. 172).
Moreover, as we see the sacred permeating the secular, and
recognize the complementary roles of ordained and laity, we realize
that the lay minister's role should not be defined relative to that
of the priest. Likewise, Christian worship is instrumental to the
ministry of the entire work of the Church in the secular world.
According to the U.S. bishops, "Lay women and men . . .
cooperate with their pastors in the service of the ecclesial community"
(CVL, p. 9). Also, in an earlier document, Environment
and Art in Catholic Worship (1978), the bishops note that the
different ministries within the liturgy recognize the gifts and
talents required for worship. All of these ministers are servants
of the assembly. Furthermore, returning to the Second Vatican
Council, we find in Lumen Gentium (LG) a reminder to pastors
that they are not expected to shoulder alone the mission of the
Church. Rather, they are to shepherd the faithful and recognize
their gifts so that all may cooperate in the mission of the Church
(LG, 30). So, the sacred subsists within the secular; the ordained
and lay ministers cooperate in service to the human family.
Finally, we should end with a note of humility for, according
to the bishops, "The Church's experience of lay participation
in Christ's ministry is still maturing" (CVL, 15). Perhaps this is
another instance of the axiom semper reformanda: the liturgy is
always reforming. And while we follow the rubrics we also focus
on nurturing the dispositions that promote the full, conscious,
and active participation of the faithful in worship. We may need
to embrace ambiguity, a middle ground between chaos and
order. Ruth Page, in her book Ambiguity and the Presence of God (London: SCM Press LTD, 1985) comments that "the world we
experience is not so much ordered as . . . capable of being
ordered . . . . Ambiguity encompasses both the necessity for
order . . . and the actual existence of diverse and fluid orders
which may be variously understood" (Page, p. 11). So, in the
evaluation of our liturgies we might ask the question "Does it
work?" Are the faithful offering praise and thanksgiving to God?
Are they growing in their call to Christian living? Do they perceive
themselves as one human family with distinct roles in service
to God and to one another? Are they able to receive the
living word of God and respond first, by gathering around the
table in true communion, and then, after being dismissed, to
reveal the sacred in the secular? If these proper dispositions are
present, then we can say that our worship works, and that we are
"a royal priesthood, a people of God's own."
1. Is the principle of active participation practiced well in my
community of worship? Does it foster the proper interior
disposition, or does it merely promote activism?
2. Does the liturgical celebration allow for appropriate periods
3. How do we encourage the congregation to sing?
4. Does the community have the means to call forth charisms
from its members, recognizing their gifts as teachers, readers, or
preachers for the benefit of the assembly?
5. Does the community take the time to evaluate its liturgy,
assessing its strengths and weaknesses in order to improve the
experience of worship?
is an associate professor of liturgical theology
at the Jesuit School in Berkeley, where he teaches sacramental
theology, liturgical theology, and presiding for ordination and for
lay ecclesial ministry. He was ordained a priest of the Society of
Jesus in 1986. He earned an MDiv from the Jesuit School of Theology
at Berkeley, an STL from the Weston Jesuit School in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, and a ThD from Boston University in 1996. Before
moving to the Bay Area, he taught sacramental theology in the
graduate school of Fordham University in New York City.
This is the fourth in a series of six articles reflecting on the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. Those using the study guide may find it helpful to read the document, which can be found online at the Vatican's web site, www.Vatican.va.
Part I: Why Study the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Today?
Part II: Finding the Heart of the Matter: The Spirituality of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
Part III: A Return to Noble Simplicity
Part IV: The Presence of Christ in the Assembly
Part V: The Intimate Connection between Word and Rite in the Liturgy
Part VI: Go in Peace: The Relationship of Liturgy to Justice