Sunday, July 29, 2012

Silence and Participation at Mass

When we turn our attention to the Latin Mass, the Extraordinary Form is frequently criticized for lacking "participation."  Upon hearing this, the traditionalist offers a riposte about different theologies of participation, the deficiencies of this or that, you know the drill.  Very rarely does anybody have success convincing either side.

I would like to do something different.  I will freely concede that for a decent number of people, they are not participating properly at Mass.  I myself have been guilty of this.  I bet you have as well.  My mind has spaced out when a priest speaks in English and in Latin.  I have words I "understand" come off flat from my mouth, and a phrase spoken in Latin carry more meaning, and vice versa.  Whenever the issue of participation comes up, we should just simply point out one fact.  Catholics behaving badly is not the fault of this or that liturgical form.  After stating that, we must then dismiss the issue at hand.  Instead, let us focus on what true participation is.  In order to do that, we must first focus on what we are as individuals.

Each and every person truly is a complex work of art.  For one, we have a body.  We also have deep knowledge of our bodies.  Therefore in worshipping God, we use what we know best.  That body conducts different motions that convey certain expressions and attitudes.    When Moses encountered God, he is instructed to remove his sandals, for he was stepping on Holy Ground.  What he did with his feet was significant in how he worshipped God.  With feet and tongue, David worshipped God in dancing around the ark, and composing some of the most beautiful Psalms.  Yet God also said that in true worship of him "all flesh will keep silence", as the prophet Habakkuk relates.

To add to this complexity we have our intellect.  With our intellect comes reason, and with reason we find a path to God.  Our God wants to be known and in many ways understood by man.  Just as we use our intellect to ponder the depths of a friendship with someone, we can do likewise with God, coming to a greater understanding and love of Him by thinking of things concerning Him.  Yet sometimes God appears in ways the intellect cannot fathom.  The author of  Ecclesiastes had knowledge surpassing all man, and yet found knowledge vanity when contemplating God.  Paul spent his life plunging deeper and deeper intellectually into understanding God and His Holy Law.  Yet the closest encounter he had with God involved him being struck dumbfounded and on the ground.

Finally, we can add emotional sentiments onto this complexity.  Many times these are a mix of physical and intellectual things.  These are also used in finding God.  When King David recognized his sinful ways, he was overwhelmed with emotion.  These emotions are also caused by gladness, such as when Zechariah proclaimed his joy in God's wonders upon the birth of his son John the Baptist.  Yet for all the importance of emotions, St. John of the Cross describes encountering Christ, whose very touch suspended all senses and emotions.

Knowing all these facts, what can we say about worship?  First and foremost, there is no one singular way to worship.  As with all things human, there are limitations.  The Mass overcomes these limitations by including all the different forms of worship.  Not only is there something for everybody, everybody will experience the full spectrum of worship.

Considered from this perspective, the question about whether or not we are participating properly at Mass takes on new meaning.  Not by mistake did the Council of Vatican II call for participation which is not just "active", but "full and active", that is, spanning the entirety of the human condition.  If you approach every part of mass every time with nothing but stoic contemplation, you are missing the chances where we publicly and vocally affirm our faith in God.  Yet on the other side of that coin, we cannot focus so much on the vocal aspect of things that we neglect the times when silent adoration is called for.  Neither is inherently superior, rather both are superior in their own proper times.


  1. It might sound funny but I was all prepared to think you and I were gonna disagree the moment I read the title of this piece Kevin. Well, to show that one should not presume such things, I give this column two thumbs up!

  2. Hey Kevin and Shawn,

    First, no I'm not resurfacing on the net or within the Catholic apologetics world, just happened to come across your website tonight while doing some websurfing.

    Second, interesting how despite having walked away from the daily grind of constant e-apologetics, God seems to have brought us along the same path to some similar conclusions. As I think I mentioned in our last discussion a few years back, our family found a wonderful Byzantine Catholic parish locally, where we have settled in over the past six years. This past summer I happened to find myself taking a course on pastoral counseling in a city where the FSSP has a strong apostolate pastored by a good friend of mine. The church was within walking distance of the hotel, so come Sunday I wandered over to the Tridentine liturgy - the first time since settling into a Byzantine parish six years ago.

    I simply could not get back into the swing of things. Although I spent years as a traddy, both on the SSPX side and the indult side (I realize my language is now outdated with Pope Benedict's protocol), despite having written my licentiate thesis on the topic, despite having spent my initial years as a canonist and Catholic writer promoting the Tridentine movement in full communion with Rome, I simply could not get back into the swing of the Tridentine liturgy. It was reverent, solemn and completely orthodox, offered in full communion with Rome, by a very good priest whom I both love and trust. But I simply found the liturgy too slow and lacking in participation for my tastes.

    More importantly to me personally, I really missed the Trinitarian dialogue that takes place during the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is reflected in the dialogue between the priest and the faithful. I missed the iconostasis, the onion dome with the Blessed Theotokus holding Christ on her lap, and the feeling of being surrounding by icons of the saints and various scenes from the life of Christ. (The art in my friend's FSSP parish, while faithful to the forms of sacred art in the Latin tradition, seemed bare when compared to the Byzantine.) Similarly, when I visit the Novus Ordo, I find that I miss the solemnity and sense of tradition and sacredness that I often associate with Byzantine and Tridentine liturgy. So the following weekend I ended up at the Melkite parish, which I attended for the duration of the course.

    When I declined subsequent invitations by coursemates to attend either Tridentine or Novus Ordo liturgies, citing my comfort with the Byzantine, I found they would often defend their choice to participate at either the FSSP or local Novus Ordo parish. The thing was, I wasn't attacking their choice, or denying that the spiritual nourishment they received from western liturgy. I was simply asserting my own choice where I feel most comfortable and nourished spiritually.

    In the end, the three liturgies may differ in terms of aesthetic and level of participation among the laity, but all three masses were offered in full communion with the same Pope Benedict and with each other. All three liturgies implore the intercession of the Blessed Mother. And most importantly, in all three liturgies we are nourished with the same Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (albeit in my case under the accidents of leavened bread).


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