The liturgy was glorious. The majesty of the pontifical ceremonies conducted in the elevated sanctuary of a Romanesque church, accompanied by the chanted Propers for a Votive Mass of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Missa Misericorde by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (1510-1556), raised our minds and hearts to the threshold of the heavenly Jerusalem. The church architecture itself strongly suggested this kind of elevation, as the eye was drawn up from the nave to the choir to the high altar beyond, and finally upwards to the vaults and domes with their elaborate iconography. It was the kind of situation (alas, too rare) in which one felt that Roman Catholic worship could hold its own over against the acknowledged splendor of Byzantine worship.
Although the main point of this post is to make available a gallery of the day’s visual beauty, I did want to mention one thought that occurred to me as I reflected on the liturgy afterwards. One hears so much about “active participation,” but seldom do its postconciliar proponents dwell on the implications of the fact that participation means, if it means anything, “taking part in” some already existing reality, some action that is larger than us and embraces us. Think of Plato’s account of participation: the individual thing participates in its eternal Form, the image reflects its unchanging exemplar. To participate is to receive partial being from the full actuality. Therefore, liturgical participation presupposes the form, the exemplar, which is the Church’s celebration of the mysteries. This has to be already taking place so that we can enter into it and derive our momentary worship from it.
That is how I experience a pontifical Mass, as I follow the audible prayers or pray in silence, and hear the music gently pulsing through the spacious temple: it is a certain fullness of worship that already exists, so to speak, outside myself — it exists exemplarily in the heavenly Jerusalem; it exists formally and efficiently in the clergy who offer it on earth; it exists materially in the tradition and liturgical books of the Church — and I am granted the undeserved privilege of entering into it, taking part in it, participating in it.
In contrast, what is usually called participation — that is, producing liturgy out of our own actions, so that a person who is doing more or even inventing more is thought to be “participating” more — is actually the opposite: it should rather be called active fabrication, active projection, active expression, but never active participation, since it is not psychologically and metaphysically an entering into and taking possession of some fullness that is of another, from another, for another. It is the difference between being heated by a fire and making an artwork. The one who sits near a fire and gets warm is participating in that external warmth. The one who makes an artwork is not participating but producing. The liturgy is, at its root, the fire to which we draw near, so that we may undergo its action and assimilate a likeness of its being. It is not the artwork we produce out of our consciousness by the manipulation of raw material.
This fundamental contrast was brought home to me by the very “passivity” of the laity (as the progressive liturgists would have seen it) at Saturday’s liturgy. We did not do much of anything, at least outwardly. The Schola sang the Propers; the Choir sang the Mass Ordinary; the ministers in the sanctuary sang and whispered most of the prayers; the people sat quietly in the pews, opening their mouths occasionally for a thunderous “Et cum spiritu tuo” or “Amen.” And yet, I felt intensely involved, intensely connected with what was happening around me and before me — indeed, I could barely take it all in, so bright was the fire, so strong the warmth. I was taking part through and through in the whole that was set before me, taking as much a part of it as I could. It was like a fountain bubbling up so abundantly that I could fill my cup with ease and get as wet as I wished. It was refreshing to know that none of this was coming from me, dependent on me, produced by me, or validated by me — any more than water from the ground or rain from the air, light from the sun or song from the birds. It was the greatest privilege to receive, to watch and listen, pray and adore. Nothing more was needed to make this participation complete, as it already summoned and satisfied all of my powers.
Divini muneris largitate satiati, quaesumus, Domine Deus noster: ut hujus semper participatione vivamus. Per Dominum… Filled with the abundance of Thy divine gift, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that we may ever live by participation in it. Through our Lord… [Postcommunion, Saturday in Passion Week]
Looking for an “active participation” worthy of the name — active rather than activist, participation rather than production? Do your best to get to a solemn Pontifical Mass. This experience teaches more than any books can teach.