Liturgical participation: if you’re not doing, you’re not learning

Liturgical participation: if you’re not doing, you’re not learning

My grandmother’s kitchen was the kind of place where the family would gather when we went to visit. The kitchen was too small for all of us, but it was where Grandma spent most of her time. So if you wanted to be with her, you hung out in the kitchen.

To make matters worse, she had a huge antique hutch pushed up against the side wall. The way the house was built, we always entered through the kitchen door, and the door would never fully open because the hutch was in the way.

I didn’t realize until after Grandma died and we were cleaning out the house that she never used the hutch! It became a catchall for family pictures, coupons, unopened mail, “special” dishes and glasses that never saw service, grandchildren’s abandoned craft projects, and various jars and dishes full of paper clips, rubber bands, and thumbtacks. Once we cleared all the junk off it, we saw the simple beauty of the hutch that had been hidden from us for so many years.

The history of liturgical reform is like that. Over the centuries, so many superfluous things were added on to the simple beauty of the liturgy—especially the Eucharist—that its true use and purpose was hidden from most of the faithful.

One revolution sparks another

Starting in the 1800s, some visionary leaders began a movement to restore the liturgy so it could once again function as it was intended to. The first spark for this restoration movement was the aftermath of the French Revolution. The social upheaval in 18th and 19th century France had led to the widespread abandonment or destruction of Catholic churches and monasteries. Catholicism did not die out, but it had become, essentially, an arm of the government.

Over the centuries, so many superfluous things were added on to the simple beauty of the liturgy—especially the Eucharist—that its true use and purpose was hidden from most of the faithful. Click To Tweet

Then, in 1833, a priest named Prosper Guéranger reopened the priory of Solesmes. His goal was to combat the excessive insecurity, suffering, crime, violence, and immorality that was tearing French society apart. Guéranger believed that if he could restore a practice of worship based on the authentic tradition of the church instead of the discordant innovations of post-revolution French Catholicism, society could begin to knit itself back together.

Guéranger, in other words, began to clear the liturgy of the clutter left by the French Revolution and centuries of accretion.

A pope returns us to the basics

France was not the only place impacted by the values of the revolution, however. Most of the Catholic world was coming to grips with a shift from a mediaeval world view based on superstition, feudalism, and monarchical government, to a modern world that advocated rationalism, scientific method, and democratic government.

This was not a smooth transition. The new thinkers and leaders closely identified the church with all of the liabilities of the old world. And the church had not yet learned how to integrate itself into the new world. The social impact was that those who were left behind and most harmed in the transition to new ways of constructing society had no advocate.

Pius X, who was pope from 1903 to 1914, like Guéranger, saw a solution in the liturgy. In Pius’s time, ordinary Catholics were not actively participating in the liturgy. Instead, the subsisted on sentimental and pietistic devotions accompanied by cloying music. These devotions were heavily influenced by the tastes of the day and not the tradition of the apostles.

Pius’s strategy was to reassert the basics. He focused on encouraging frequent reception of communion, which was mostly absent from Catholic practice. And he encouraged congregational singing instead of the performance of amateur operettas.

His goal was to imbue the faithful with the spirit of the liturgy and thereby cause a positive change in society, stemming the secular forces of individualism.

The liturgical movement in the United States

The forces of both secular individualism and the liturgical reform had particular effects in the United States. More than anywhere else, the effects of laissez-faire capitalism had a dramatically destructive impact on society, culminating the Great Depression beginning in 1929.

Virgil Michel, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, joined the Benedictine abbey of St. John’s in Collegeville while Pius X was still pope. Michel had witnessed first-hand the destructive effects of the industrial revolution on workers and their families. Michel believed that a reformed liturgy would give ordinary Catholics a sense of joy and beauty that was lacking in their lives. In 1935, he wrote:

Pius X tells us that the liturgy is the indispensable source of the true Christian spirit; Pius XI says that the true Christian spirit is indispensable for social regeneration. Hence the conclusion: The liturgy is the indispensable basis of Christian social regeneration. (The Social Question: Essays on Capitalism and Christianity, 8)

In his book, Called to Participate, liturgist and theologian Mark Searle wrote:

Virgil Michel saw the liturgy as a practice, a learning-by-doing of the great truths of the Christian faith. These truths, forgotten in the privatistic devotional Catholicism of the nineteenth century, included the social dimension of the human person, the corporate character of the Church, or organic nature of society, the recognition that the Christian life is lived as part of a larger whole for the sake of others, not just for the sake of oneself. (8)

The learn-by-doing method that Michel envisioned required that the entire assembly be actively involved in the celebration. You can’t learn if you’re not doing.

But, like my grandmother’s hutch, the great truths of the Christian faith that are naturally and beautifully expressed in the liturgy were obscured by centuries of clutter. It would take a world-wide council of bishops to finally restore the liturgy to its inherent noble simplicity, which in turn would allow for the full participation of the gathered assembly.

In a future post, we’ll look at how that restoration happened and what it means for today’s Catholics.

This article is based on Mark Searle’s book, Called to Participate, Theological, Ritual, and Social Perspectives, 1-8.

See also these related articles:
  1. Pastoral liturgists are “keepers of the fire”: The third level of liturgical participation
  2. Moving from technique to artistry: Three levels of liturgical participation
  3. How your liturgical ministry changes the world
  4. Do you remember the liturgical revolution of Vatican II?
  5. Liturgical participation: if you’re not doing, you’re not learning
  6. How Madison Avenue is sabotaging our worship
  7. A singing church is symbolic of the divine Trinity
  8. Singing with our ancestors in faith
  9. Music is the sacramental sign of God’s love for us
  10. Why sing? Because God put a song in our hearts


Image credit: Amber Turner , Unsplash


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