Are You Fully Conscious?

13 Nov

During the “Year of Faith,” Pope Benedict has asked us to take a fresh look at the teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which he and Bl. John Paul II have called a “sure compass” for the Church at this crucial moment in human history. Therefore, over the next several weeks, we will post reflections on key teachings from the 16 documents of Vatican II, and will also provide references and resources for further study.

We will first turn to Sacrosanctum Concilium, also known as the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. It was the first document promulgated by the Council, and it is one of the four “constitutions.” The constitutions are considered Vatican II’s most significant documents. And of course, given the dramatic liturgical changes that came from the Council, it is important to understand the mind of the Church as reflected in this pivotal document.

Today I want to focus on paragraph 14 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which provides, in part:

“Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people’ (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

“In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else . . .”

The Council clearly teaches that all men and women are called to a “fully conscious and active participation” at Mass. As one of the aims of the Council was to reinvigorate the faith of the people, the Church desired to make the sacred liturgy more accessible, but without sacrificing substance or the overarching sense of reverence we must have in the face of this sacred mystery. Fifty years later, we still recognize the need for a “new evangelization,” a “new springtime.” Therefore, fostering greater participation at Mass–what Vatican II called the “source and summit of the Christian life”–continues to be a significant objective for the Church (see Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei, no. 9).

But this needs to be understood properly.

“Fully conscious and active participation” pertains primarily to our interior disposition. Our minds should not be elsewhere, nor should we be merely passive observers, waiting to be entertained or enlightened. Rather, as members of Christ’s body, we lift up our hearts to God, offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God in union with Christ, our high priest (cf. Rom. 12:1).

For most lay people most of the time, this entails our entering into the movement of the liturgy from our place in the pew.

There are, however, some roles that laity often play in the celebration, such as reader, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, cantor/musician, and server (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1143). When done with appropriate preparation, dignity, and reverence, these roles complement the ministry of the ordained ministers (i.e., the priest and deacon) and help create a prayerful environment for the celebration of the liturgy.

Two caveats should be offered here. First, “fully conscious and active participation” must not be reduced to having a “part to play” at Mass. The focus should be on Christ, not on the priest or lay ministers. An excessive focus on lay activity during Mass detracts from the essential nature of the liturgy as divine worship, and it distorts the teaching of Vatican II regarding lay participation at Mass.

Second, in recent decades the Church has emphasized the laity’s vocation to actively participate in the saving mission of the Church. When lay people embrace this call to spread the Gospel, they are engaged is what is known as the “lay apostolate.” The lay apostolate is principally exercised in the world–at home, in neighborhoods, in the workplace, and in the public square. Helping with the readings or distribution of Communion is a very good thing, but that’s not really what the Church has in mind when she speaks of an “active laity” or “lay apostolate” or “new evangelization.” Rather, the laity should see the Mass as commissioning them to be witnesses to Christ in the world.

We will revisit the role of the laity in later documents of the Council. For now, however, let’s commit ourselves to being “fully conscious” every time we participate at Mass.

6 Responses to “Are You Fully Conscious?”


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