Sacrosanctum Concilium, Congar, and Participation in the Liturgy
The following is originally part of a paper I did in seminary last year for my Liturgical Theology class. I think its good and worth a share with some small revisions.
How does one participate in the liturgy?
To begin properly we must define what “participation” is in general in regards to the Church’s liturgy and our engagement with it. Certain paragraphs in Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) [The Church’s major document on the liturgy from the Second Vatican Council] shed excellent light upon how we might understand the nature of participation in its description of the nature and aims of liturgy at various points. These paragraphs are 7, 8, 10, 11, and 14. SC paragraph 7 states, “the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ,” and that it is by having “signs perceptible to the senses” that “human sanctification is signified and brought about.” It goes on to state, “the whole public worship is performed by the mystical body of Jesus Christ, that is by the head and his members.” In the next paragraph SC says that the liturgy we partake here on earth is “a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy.” Moreover, from paragraph 10 we can gather that the liturgy is “the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed,” and that it has the mission of moving the faithful to be “one in holiness” in order that they might hold fast in life to the things of faith. And it is through a “renewal of the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and his people” they may be drawn into the “compelling love of Christ,” so that they might be set on fire. Paragraph 11 argues, “in order that the liturgy may possess its full effectiveness” the faithful must develop within themselves proper dispositions and attuned minds while cooperating with the divine assistance that is grace in order that they may receive that grace worthily. All of this leads into one of the most notable paragraphs in the entire document, which talks about participation explicitly. Paragraph 14 depicts a liturgical participation that is “full, conscious, and active” which is “called for by the very nature of the liturgy.” Participation in this manner by the Church’s faithful flows out of their identity as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” who enjoy this “right and duty by reason of their baptism.” Lastly, in addition to SC, Yves Congar’s central argument in “The Ecclesia or Christian Community as a Whole Celebrates the Liturgy” tells us something about the liturgy that can also provide insight into what participation is. Congar states that Christ is the ultimate and transcendent subject of liturgical actions. Christ “by his Holy Spirit gives unity and life to his Body,” the Church. Congar also puts forth the idea that the entire body of Christ is priestly, not just the clergy (67).
Using these selections we can form a picture of what participation in the liturgy means. From SC 7 and Congar we can know that liturgical participation is inherently a priestly activity because liturgy itself is an exercise of the priestly office of Christ. Moreover, since, as Congar states, the entire body of Christ is priestly, then each participant in the liturgical act is a priest by virtue of the universal priesthood shared by all the baptized. Thus, participation in liturgy must invoke within the faithful the sense of being a priest while they are engaged in worship. Participation in the liturgy must also invoke within the faithful a sense of being intimately part of something larger than themselves, namely the wider mystical body of Christ, even as they engage in a local manifestation of the liturgy. The liturgy must also incorporate visible and physical signs and symbols (sacramentals) that point to the reality of the mysteries of the faith. Therefore, in light of this, participation means using these signs and symbols as instruments that help further the act of contemplation because to participate in the liturgy and to contemplate the divine mysteries should ultimately culminate into one single action, a movement towards God who is moving towards us. From SC 8 we learn that participation in the earthly liturgy, a “foretaste of heaven,” must also be a heavenly act as much as we can perform such acts this side of heaven. Our participation in the liturgy must always inform us that we perform the work of angels in our praise of God. That is why we along with the angels and archangels, thrones and dominions, and all the hosts and powers of heaven cry out “holy, holy, holy.”
From SC 10 we learn that just as the liturgy is the summit of the Church’s activity the faithful’s participation in the liturgy should be the summit of their own spiritual activity as believers. Participation should “move” us as body of Christ together in a unity that seeks to replicate the holiness of our Head by teaching us to hold fast to the articles of the faith. And the two most crucial articles of faith are the Word proclaimed and preached from the ambo and the supreme Article of faith that is Christ Himself in the Eucharist offered on the altar. Our reception of all articles of faith are ultimately tied up in our reception of the Eucharist, and when we receive the Eucharist, the fruit of our participation, we are renewed in our baptismal covenant with God. What is more is that just as a husband and wife draw themselves deeper and deeper into the love that compels them to be together in union through marital participation our liturgical and sacramental participation should draw us deeper into the love that compels us to be together with Christ in mystical union with Him, our divine Spouse, in the Holy Spirit. For, the love with which Christ loves us is a raging fire that is silently roaring for our human hearts to be melted down to His already lit and Sacred one, so that we might be truly one. And our participation in the liturgy stokes the flames of this holy blaze of sweet theosis. From SC 11 we gather that participation makes our inward dispositions and minds to be aligned with the proper intent and purpose of liturgy itself, the glorification of God, “the ultimate and transcendent subject of liturgical actions” (Congar) and the sanctification of man through our sacrificial worship manifested by our human actions. Moreover, through liturgical participation our lowly actions gain the ability to truly accomplish liturgy’s grand intent and purpose only by cooperating with divine grace. Proper dispositions ready and willing to worship God and minds attuned towards contemplation of the sacred mysteries allow us to worthily receive the grace we need to cooperate with in the first place. Not to mention, proper dispositions themselves are a grace from God.
The sum of all the above extrapolations from the aforementioned texts form the fullness of what it means to participate in the liturgy in a way that leads us as the faithful to be “full, conscious, and active” worshipers that in the priestly action of liturgy partake in our individual and collective threefold status as a baptized “chosen race”, a sacrificial “royal priesthood”, and a sanctified “holy nation,” truly “God’s own people.”
Photo: Some other seminarians and I during our school Mass in early 2020. Photo by former seminarian, now-priest Corey Bruns. Used on this site with permission.