Full Participation in the Liturgy Needs Mystagogical Reflection

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Zita Maier, Humboldt, Sask.

Full participation, the intended outcome of liturgical renewal

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II called for the full, conscious, and active participation of the faithful to be considered above all else in the renewal and promotion of the liturgy.  At the same time, the document also called for the “necessary instruction” to achieve that full participation (no. 14). The very nature of the liturgy demanded participation by the faithful; it was their right and duty by reason of their baptism, the document said.

Liturgical reforms, often a flashpoint for differing views

A key element of making the liturgy more accessible to all the faithful was the use of the people’s mother tongue (no. 36), as well as a simplification of the rites so as to need little explanation (no. 34). These reforms were well received by many Catholics, but not by all. The liturgy has often become the battleground as various segments in the Church with differing opinions try to impose on their community their own vision of how the liturgy should be celebrated. That the liturgy has become the focal point for such differing opinions is not surprising, since it is the liturgy that expresses who the Church is and what the Church believes. The liturgy is what Kathleen Hughes calls “enacted belief.”1

Reforms were often inadequately explained

Liturgical reforms were often implemented with little preparation beforehand.  As a result, many Catholics experienced a distinct dislocation at having their patterns of worship so drastically changed. Many of the changes were never adequately explained to the very people who were supposed to benefit from them.  There may also have been an unspoken assumption that since people were now hearing the readings and prayers in their own language and were singing words they understood, they would also be able to enter more fully into what the liturgy is really about, that is, making present for them in the here and now the saving death and resurrection of Christ and uniting themselves with this saving event.

The liturgy’s capacity to transform not yet realized

There may also have developed the assumption that if in a parish the assembly participates in the singing, answers the prayers with a relative amount of energy, exudes a sense of community by welcoming each other and any strangers, and participates in other aspects of parish life, there is indeed full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy. Some will even boast that their parish is very involved, meaning that a high proportion of people in the parish volunteer for the various liturgical ministries. On the other hand, many parishes experience a liturgy that is lifeless, with numbers dwindling because people are seeking life elsewhere. Those who continue to come do so out of a sense of duty rather than out of any love for the liturgy or with any enthusiasm for the Church’s greatest act of thanksgiving. Many parishioners may have only a superficial understanding of what is going on as the liturgy unfolds, or may pay little attention to what the eucharistic prayer is all about. They usually have a sense of the structure of the Liturgy of the Word, since lay-people are the readers of the Scriptures preceding the gospel.  But that this proclamation is God speaking to them is not part of their understanding. They do not have a sense of the structure of the eucharistic prayer, nor do they know where it is they are to offer themselves. As a result, they do not fully “own” the prayer as theirs. In the end, the reformed liturgy has not brought about much of a difference in the life of the Church, in spite of the liturgy’s power to transform those who truly enter into it.

What does full participation mean?

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy offers little explanation as to what “full, conscious, and active participation” consists of, other than that it is inherent in the very nature of what liturgy is. At the parish level, participation is too often treated as something external and left at that, never exploring what it really implies.

Participation is primarily internal

Hughes describes participation this way:

Active participation in the liturgy is primarily internal, no matter how much such external manifestations may be concrete indications of what is happening within. Active participation has to do with a kind of mindful engagement in the rites, an attending to the words and gestures, the symbols, the choreography, the space, the season. Without interior participation the rites are empty formalism.2

What is needed to achieve participation?

Also unclear in the CSL is what is called for by the “necessary instruction” (no. 14) required not only to achieve such participation but to see the liturgy as “the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit” (no. 14).  Unfortunately, there has been very little systematic and on-going catechesis at the adult level to help people understand the deeper meaning of the liturgical rites. Many Catholics are quite content to continue to live their faith at the level it was when they finished their formal catechesis either in high school or at the elementary school level.

Preparation for the Sunday readings

Pope John Paul II touched on this issue in his 1998 apostolic letter, Dies Domini: The Day of the Lord.  In it he suggested that in order for the faithful to benefit from hearing the Word of God in the liturgy each Sunday they must take steps to prepare themselves in order to draw life from its proclamation. Of particular benefit, he said, is bringing people together beforehand to reflect on the Word of God they will hear proclaimed.3

Faith re-encountered

Many parishes have among their people a small group of “cradle” Catholics who have discovered a whole new understanding of their faith when they were asked to sponsor someone wanting to join the Church and participated in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) journey with the newcomer. Some have been known to declare that everyone in the parish should be “made” to participate in such an experience.

Mystagogy reintroduced through the RCIA

It is in the context of the RCIA that the idea of mystagogy, a period of post-baptismal catechesis, was re-introduced into the current church experience.  The word mystagogy derives from a Greek word meaning “teaching of mystery.”4 This time of catechesis, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults suggests, is “of great significance for both the neophytes and the rest of the faithful,” and they in turn should “derive from it a renewal of inspiration and of outlook” (p. 145).

Mystagogical reflection in the early Church

Both the catechumenate and mystagogical preaching were at their height in and around the fourth century. Reflections on liturgy by teachers of the time – Cyril of Jerusalem (+386), John Chysostom (+407), Augustine of Hippo (+430), among others – are part of the Church’s legacy. It is from one such mystagogical reflection that we have the often quoted words of Augustine: “If you are the body and members of Christ, then what is laid on the Lord’s table is the sacrament of what you yourselves are, and it is the sacrament of what you are that you receive.”5

Mystagogical preaching often absent from today’s liturgy

Judging from the Church’s experience of that time, mystagogical preaching is an important part of ongoing catechesis. But one hears very little in current homilies and other preaching on the prayers in the liturgy and how these prayers might support what has been proclaimed in the Scriptures. An example: In a homily given recently on a World Mission Sunday, the preacher spoke eloquently on the call of the baptized to mission, to service in the world, but made no mention of what happens at the end of every liturgical celebration, the dismissal rite that sends the community forth in service of Christ. It was an opportunity missed.

A mystagogical approach needed to engage the faithful

Also needed is some kind of program which is not just about accumulating information about the liturgy but which helps to deepen people’s personal engagement in and love for the liturgy. Making the liturgy accessible to “head and heart” is done best, according to Hughes, by a mystagogical approach.6 There are several characteristics (Hughes lists seven)7 of mystagogy as re-introduced in current church practice that make it particularly appropriate:

  • It is for all the baptized and not just for the neophytes, according to the RCIA;
  • Mystagogy is a lifelong process involving a commitment to learning and deepening one’s understanding and commitment that is never finished;
  • The whole of the community’s sacramental life is appropriate material for mystagogical reflection;
  • Mystagogy is focused on personal experience, a sense of an encounter with God, the many layers of meaning in liturgical texts and symbols, and sharing this experience in order to be enriched;
  • Mystagogy requires carefully prepared and well-celebrated liturgy. The liturgy itself is the first teacher describing who the baptized Christian is.

How is this approach implemented in a parish?

How is this carried out in a parish? By making sure, as a start, that the annual renewal sessions for readers, communion ministers, and other specific ministers in the community do more than just review procedure. Every session should include an opportunity to reflect on the liturgy and what it means to people, thus encouraging the kind of attentiveness to texts, gestures, postures, music, and environment that facilitates full participation. That is only the beginning; every parish needs to offer every opportunity to invite people to explore what they do in their liturgy.


1. Kathleen Hughes, A Mystagogy of Sacrament: Saying Amen. Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1999; p. xiv.

2.  Hughes, p. 18.

3. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Dies Domini: The Day of the Lord (July 5, 1998): no. 40, “… At the level of personal appropriation, the hearing of the word of God proclaimed must be well prepared in the souls of the faithful by an apt knowledge of Scripture and, where pastorally possible, by special initiatives designed to deepen understanding of the biblical readings, particularly those used on Sundays and holy days. If Christian individuals and families are not regularly drawing new life from the reading of the sacred text in a spirit of prayer and docility to the Church's interpretation, then it is difficult for the liturgical proclamation of the word of God alone to produce the fruit we might expect. This is the value of initiatives in parish communities which bring together during the week those who take part in the Eucharist — priest, ministers and faithful  — in order to prepare the Sunday liturgy, reflecting beforehand upon the word of God which will be proclaimed. The objective sought here is that the entire celebration — praying, singing, listening, and not just the preaching — should express in some way the theme of the Sunday liturgy, so that all those taking part may be penetrated more powerfully by it.”

4.  Hughes, p. 9.

5. Robert Cabié, The Eucharist, vol. 2 of The Church at Prayer: An Introduction to the Liturgy. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1986, p. 118.

6.  Hughes, p. 8.

7.  Hughes, pp. 13ff.

Last Updated on Friday, March 05 2010  
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