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Active Participation and Singing

by Jake Tawney

This article is reprinted from the blog, Roma locuta est , posted on April 8, 2013.

The tagline for the liberal rendition of Sacrosanctum Concilium is "active participation." At the service of this one principle people will outright ignore much of what the Vatican II constitution calls for (primacy of Latin, pride of place for Gregorian Chant, etc.). The irony, as has been pointed out not only in these pages but throughout the new liturgical movement, is that the very translation of this phrase is … well … a mistranslation. While the English rendering of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy calls for an "active participation," the original Latin calls for actuosam participationem. The verb actuosa is better rendered as "actual" to properly differentiate it from another Latin verb, activa, a verb which is translated "active" and a verb which is to be found nowhere in Vatican II’s constitutions. Linguistically, this mistranslation of actuosa is unfortunately often used to justify a liturgy that would have as many people as possible doing as many things as possible. Most notably, "active participation" is often used to necessitate music that is sung by the entire congregation. The argument against Latin chant, or even against vernacular pieces sung by the choir alone, is that people are denied the "right to a full and active participation in the liturgy." When participatio actuosa is rendered as it was intended, it becomes clear that the Council Fathers pleaded for something much deeper than aerobic exercises and kumbaya sing-a-longs. They intended that the laity plunge themselves into the liturgy, that they understand the liturgy, and that they thereby live the liturgy. Thus, not only does "actual participation," strictly speaking, not require that everybody sing every song, but singing along with the choir, in some cases, can actually impede upon actual participation in the Mass.

Cantor Guy Take for instance the entrance rite. Like many of my generation, I was raised in a liturgical environment that emphasized the hymn over the action. (I use the term "hymn" liberally; I am fairly certain that very little of the easy listening selections we sang in Mass during my youth qualify as actual hymns.) Instead of seeing the music as accompanying the procession, it was almost as if the procession were there to complement the music. Everyone was to sing. If you did not sing, you were failing in your duty as a practicing Catholic. Your quality of voice did not matter, nor did your approval of the song choice. You were at Mass, and as such, you must sing. In fact, I recall one cantor who was notorious for patrolling the sanctuary, quite literally, looking for people who were not singing. If he found you without a hymnal in hand, he would give you his and grab another for himself … all while "leading" the song. His patrol around the sanctuary would continue either until he was convinced that all were singing or until the hymn ran out of verses. Sure enough, we all learned to have a book out to save ourselves the embarrassment of being gifted one by the roaming cantor. Yes, singing along was on par with reciting the Creed. If you did not say the Creed out loud you did not believe, and if you did not sing aloud you were not praying … so it was thought.

The problem is, we all had our faces buried in the song book, so we missed the entrance procession altogether. Unless you were an altar server who was spared the required book-in-hand because of the preoccupation of holding a candle, you missed the procession of the priest and the veneration of the altar. The emphasis on the singing was so great, one got the impression that the procession itself was incidental and could be eliminated if need be. You see the problem? We actually had less understanding of the liturgy because of the preference of singing over watching. By reducing our understanding we were less capable of actual participation in the liturgy. (The other issue, peripheral to this discussion but not at all a minor problem, is the awkward transition that occurs between the sing-a-long and the Penitential Act. I am convinced that this rift, created by the poor choice of music, is one of the reasons why many priests feel the need to offer some sort of informal greeting or joke after the hymn ends. Whether consciously or subconsciously, they know that there is a discontinuity between the energetic metered entrance and the solemn Penitential Act that follows.)

The Offertory song provides the clearest example of this principle. The time dedicated to this hymn is packed full of liturgical actions. The main action is the presentation of the gifts. (All of the songs accompany a procession of some kind: the entrance procession, the presentation of the gifts, the procession of the people to reception of Holy Communion, and the recessional.) In this act, members of the laity present the elements of the earth, and "work of human hands," that will provide the matter for the most Holy Eucharist. Along with the gifts of bread and wine, the people offer their very selves to Christ Jesus, that he might divinize their souls as he is about to divinize the elements. In addition to this procession, there is also the preparation of the altar, the mingling of the water and wine, the offering to the Father the prepared gifts, and the washing of the priest’s hands. Thank God I was an altar server growing up and was able to witness these extraordinary actions. The rest of the congregation, engulfed in the hymnal, praying that the roaming cantor won’t be able to tell that they are lip synching, missed the proverbial forest for the trees. One minute they are belting out the first notes of "Be Not Afraid" and next moment they are standing up for the Preface, oblivious to the beautiful myriad of preparations that have just taken place.

One might think that the communion procession is the exception. After all, the only liturgical action taking place during this time is the reception of communion. The problem, though, is that this is the time when we are supposed to be reflecting on the very mystery of the liturgy. Before reception we should be engaged in a profound offering of ourselves, and after reception we should be both thanking God for his gift of self and contemplating the mysteries of the faith in the silence of our hearts. Once again, growing up I was made to feel that the proper response to having just received the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ is to sing. Those who wanted to go the extra mile would bring their hymnal with them as they stood in line for communion. If you are not singing, then you are not participating — that was the maxim. The first two required songs (the entrance and the offertory) made us less aware of the liturgy, and the third song (the communion) made it so that we could not insert ourselves into the mysteries of the liturgy. The only irony here is that the lack of understanding caused by the first two gave us a lot less to contemplate in the third … so much so that we might as well be singing.

The final installment of the four-hymn sandwich that has fed our liturgies for decades is the recessional hymn. Here the music is to accompany the procession of the priest from the sanctuary. Admittedly, this has less liturgical action than the previous three examples, and so this is the one place where I can recommend a quality hymn (and by quality I do not mean "Lead Me, Lord") in which the congregation can participate. While I don’t think it is required, there is not much for the congregation to miss by singing a song at this time. It is telling, actually, that this is the only part of the four-hymn sandwich that does not have a Proper assigned by the Church. (See my explanation of the term "Proper" in my earlier post Climbing the Musical Ladder). The first three are all given Proper texts and chants for each and every Sunday. These compositions are structured in such a way so as to give the bulk of the singing to the choir, leaving the congregation to actually participate in the liturgical actions being performed by the priest.

However, a purely instrumental piece at this point is also fully appropriate. In fact, it would avoid the inevitably confusion of "when" the Mass is over and the people are free to go. While a hymn can be fitting and useful as a recessional, its completion should be timed to accompany the exit of the priest. Once the priest leaves the sanctuary, the people should feel free to kneel and pray or to exit the church. There is a bizarre movement in which some choirs insist on singing every printed verse. This, together with the misunderstanding that actuosam participationem as "singing everything" leads to the awkward standing around of the people once the priest has long processed out. Once more, my childhood is reflective of this misunderstanding; we were made to feel that one should continue singing as long as the organist continued playing.

The point here is simple. When "actual participation" is replaced with "active participation" by insisting that everyone sing or be able to sing every musical piece that makes its way into the Mass, people become so preoccupied with the song that they no longer pay attention to the important actions of the sacred liturgy. In doing so, they are less disposed to that which was called for by the Second Vatican Council: actuosam participationem.

As a side note, if we were to utilize more of the Propers and free the congregation of their obligation to satisfy the roaming cantor (either mythical, or in my case real), I would guess that there would be not a few sighs of relief from the congregation. Contrary to popular choir-director myth, not everyone likes to sing, and gosh darn it, that should be okay.

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