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Reverence: The Ultimate Form Of “Active Participation” In The Sacred Liturgy

November 13, 2019 Featured Today No Comments

By JAMES MONTI

Over the decades since the Second Vatican Council, a lot has been said and debated concerning the concept of “active participation” in the Mass and how this should properly be defined. There has been a growing recognition and consensus that active participation is not about inventing external roles for everyone to play during the Mass, but rather a disposition of the soul whereby we become first and foremost interiorly engaged in the Holy Sacrifice as an act of worship.
A further question arises as to what this interior participation in the Mass specifically means. Is it simply a matter of following the words of the Mass, or is it something far more? That “something far more” is reverence.
Integral to truly “active participation” is the conscious perception and attentive awareness of the Divine Presence in the Holy Eucharist. Reverence is our response to this conscious perception and hence constitutes “active participation” in its highest form — our conscious worship of God as God. It is an intentional receptivity to what is holy, to the divine. Reverence totally engages the heart and the mind to respond to the presence of God.
As Dietrich von Hildebrand observed, in our participation in the sacred liturgy, reverence “never allows us to forget the awe in which we must always make our approach to God” (Liturgy and Personality, Steubenville, Ohio, Hildebrand Project, 2016, p. 41).
While there are instances that simply require a momentary act of reverence, such as a bow when in the course of conversation the Holy Name of Jesus is spoken, or the making the Sign of the Cross when in the course of driving a Catholic church is passed, reverence more often than not requires a certain vigilance, a disposition in our thoughts, words and actions that goes beyond what is momentary. When going to a church for Mass or for any other reason, reverence is required of us from the moment we enter the door until the moment we leave. This watchful form of reverence is all the more required when we enter within the ambit of Holy Mass itself.
Reverence is a pervasive force that permeates the deepest recesses of the human heart. We can see an exterior expression of this in the incensation during the Offertory, a ceremony observed in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite. The oblata, the altar, the priest and other ministers of the altar, and the congregation all receive this incensation. The incense immerses everyone and everything in the mystery that will transpire upon the altar.
It impresses upon our minds that everyone and everything participating in the Sacrifice of the Mass must be purified and sanctified, made holy and fit for the sublime mysteries to follow. It is not unlike the cloud that descended upon the Tent of Meeting when Moses conversed with God (Exodus 33:9).
Incense is a particularly compelling expression of reverence in that it speaks to three senses. Its fragrance bathes the soul in a sacred aura. Its ascending clouds, often illuminated by streaming sunlight, awes us as a sort of visible pathway between Earth and Heaven whereby our prayers rise and God’s blessings descend, not unlike the ladder between Heaven and Earth that Jacob saw (Gen. 28:12). And for the ears, a thurible wielded in the skilled hands of a priest well-versed in the “ars celebrandi,” the “art of celebrating,” becomes a veritable instrument of sacred music with its rhythmic clatter as it is swung.
There is nothing passive about reverence. It engages the totality of a man’s being, for it is a striving to respond in some commensurate manner (if that were possible) to infinitude, to the infinite goodness, majesty, holiness, and omnipotence of God. It is active participation at its best.
In contrast to reverence, exterior action in and of itself offers no guarantee of truly “active participation.” An external action can easily become quite passive, an action given little thought or reflection. Those with a daily commute to work know from experience how over time the journey becomes so routine that as they drive they scarcely think about it, their minds largely preoccupied with other things.
For St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890), the role of reverence in divine worship is axiomatic. In a sermon entitled “Reverence in Worship,” he observes:
“Indeed so natural is the connection between a reverential spirit in worshipping God, and faith in God, that the wonder only is, how anyone can for a moment imagine he has faith in God, and yet allow himself to be irreverent towards Him. To believe in God, is to believe the being and presence of One who is All-holy, and All-powerful, and All-gracious; how can a man really believe thus of Him, and yet make free with Him? It is almost a contradiction in terms.
“Hence even heathen religions have ever considered faith and reverence identical. To believe, and not to revere, to worship familiarly, and at one’s ease, is an anomaly and a prodigy unknown even to false religions, to say nothing of the true one” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, volume 8, London, Rivingtons, 1868, pp. 4-5).
Often enough over the past five decades, false notions of “active participation” have tended to erase or at least minimize the distinction between the sacred and the secular and to pull down the veil that reverence sets around what is holy. We see this in such illicit practices as inviting children or adults to stand around the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer as if they were “concelebrants” with the priest in confecting the Holy Eucharist. Of this manner of rejecting the traditional norms of reverence, Cardinal Newman notes:
“. . . They break in upon the unanimous suffrage of mankind, and determine, at least by their conduct, that reverence and awe are not primary religious duties. They have considered that in some way or other, either by God’s favour or by their own illumination, they are brought so near to God that they have no need to fear at all, or to put any restraint upon their words or thoughts when addressing Him. They have considered awe to be superstition, and reverence to be slavery” (ibid., pp. 5-6).
False constructs of active participation in the sacred liturgy also assume that there is an endless need to be inventive in coming up with new ways to make the congregation feel they are involved, lest they become bored with the “same old words” and the “same old roles” played by the “same old cast of characters” week after week. Some months ago, I actually came across a liturgical essay that spoke in these terms about Sunday Mass. Cardinal Newman was familiar with this mentality in his own time:
“. . . All we do in church is done on a principle of reverence; it is done with the thought that we are in God’s presence. But irreverent persons, not understanding this, when they come into church, and find nothing there of a striking kind, when they find everything is read from a book, and in a calm, quiet way, and still more, when they come a second and a third time, and find everything just the same, over and over again, they are offended and tired.
“ ‘There is nothing,’ they say, ‘to rouse or interest them.’ They think God’s service dull and tiresome, if I may use such words; for they do not come to church to honor God, but to please themselves. They want something new. They think the prayers are long….Now is it not plain that those who are thus tired, and wearied, and made impatient by our sacred services below, would most certainly get tired and wearied with heaven above?” (ibid., pp. 9-10).
It is one of the many ironies of the postconciliar era that amidst all the talk about “active participation” and how the Mass is supposed to be primarily about receiving the Holy Eucharist, not just seeing it, that the supreme act of active participation, the reception of Holy Communion, has been incredibly marginalized. In most parishes the act of going up for Holy Communion has been almost totally de-ceremonialized, with kneeling or genuflecting for Holy Communion a rarity.
And communicants in most cases are given virtually no time to pray or reflect after receiving. Upon returning to their pews, they are almost immediately told to pull out their hymnals and sing, or the announcement of items from the parish bulletin begins. The priest quickly completes the purification of the sacred vessels, and after scarcely more than a momentary pause of silence, he begins the Post-Communion Prayer to end the Mass. Is this a fitting way to commune with Almighty God?
Of course, we know that although reverence is first and foremost an interior disposition, it does as we have already mentioned manifest itself in exterior actions as well. These actions, such as genuflecting, kneeling, bowing one’s head, folding the hands, standing for the Gospel and the Creed, etc., are likewise acts of “active participation” in the Mass, all the more so if we make an effort to do them in a conscious manner.
Thus the act of genuflection should be more than just a rushed reflex gesture that is not even given a thought. We should strive to make each genuflection a conscious act of love and adoration directed to our God, such that while our knee is bending our mind and heart are genuflecting too.

A Gift Of Pleasing Fragrance

Dressing in one’s “Sunday best” for Sunday Mass, dressing in a serious and modest manner, can also be considered an act of “active participation” in the Mass, comporting ourselves for the sacred duty of worshipping God, not unlike the priest vesting himself for his sacred priestly role of celebrating and confecting the Holy Sacrifice.
Active participation has also been associated with the idea of making the liturgy more “intelligible” — that the laity would get more involved in the liturgy if the words and actions were made more understandable through the use of the vernacular, simpler ceremonies, and so on. Yet nothing makes the sacred liturgy more intelligible than reverence. For it is reverence that reveals to us the very essence of the Mass.
The supreme example of reverence in worship was given to us by Our Lord Himself, “Who in the days of his flesh, with a strong cry and tears, offering up prayers and supplications to him that was able to save him from death, was heard for his reverence” (Heb. 5:7 — Douay-Rheims translation). May our reverence at Mass be a gift of pleasing fragrance to God!

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