Some of our province’s parishes and priories are known locally for their beautiful liturgies. Whether it’s the music or the incense, people seem to flock to join the friars for Mass. But if we see the liturgy only as these external things, then it’s an empty set of movements. Don’t get me wrong: The external forms of the liturgy are very important, but there’s more to Mass than smells and bells. There is, most importantly, the actual prayer that takes place.
In the wake of the Second Vatican Council’s reforms of the liturgy, many people have been led to think that the best way to actively participate in Mass is to serve, read, or sing at Mass. Yet, what the Council actually intended first and foremost was an interior participation that was active, full, and conscious. In his recent message to the participants at the Eucharistic Congress in Ireland, Pope Benedict stated:
The renewal of external forms [of the liturgy], desired by the Council Fathers, was intended to make it easier to enter into the inner depth of the mystery. Its true purpose was to lead people to a personal encounter with the Lord, present in the Eucharist, and thus with the living God, so that through this contact with Christ’s love, the love of his brothers and sisters for one another might also grow. Yet not infrequently, the revision of liturgical forms has remained at an external level, and ‘active participation’ has been confused with external activity.
This is the goal of liturgical reform: being attentive to the actions of the liturgy and actively participating by uniting our prayers to those of the Church, so that we might ”enter into the inner depth of the mystery.” Obviously, this ideal is extremely hard to live up to: we’re often distracted by the concerns of the workaday world, parents have to care for their children, and priests have to concentrate on preaching and reverently carrying out all the actions of the sacred liturgy. But, this is the essence of liturgical participation: everyone praying and uniting his sacrifices, challenges, joys, and sorrows to what is happening before him.
Now, as just mentioned, this is a challenge for most of us. We suffer from so many distractions at Mass, both internal and external. Yet, those things that distract us can actually become fruitful means of prayer. Children who keep begging for crayons or Cheerios, a big deadline at work, a fight with a spouse before Mass began—each of these things can be joined to the prayers of the Mass and offered to the Lord so that He can take care of them. This is what active participation is all about:
They [the faithful] should not think it enough to participate in the eucharistic sacrifice with that general intention which befits members of Christ and children of the Church, but let them further, in keeping with the spirit of the sacred liturgy, be most closely united with the High Priest and His earthly minister, at the time the consecration of the divine Victim is enacted, and at that time especially when those solemn words are pronounced, ‘By Him and with Him and in Him is to Thee, God the Father almighty, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, all honor and glory for ever and ever;’ to these words in fact the people answer, ‘Amen.’ Nor should Christians forget to offer themselves, their cares, their sorrows, their distress and their necessities in union with their divine Savior upon the cross (Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 104).
This type of participation is both reasonable and in line with what the Church hopes will happen in the lives of her faithful members. While the renewal of the external forms and actions of the liturgy is extremely important, it’s not the only thing. While smells and bells add dignity and beauty to the liturgy, what is most pleasing in the sight of God is what the Psalmist prays for: Let my prayer arise before you like incense (Ps. 141:2).
Image: Smells and Bells