How can the laity participate?

The new Mass has lots of spoken responses for the congregation and roles for them to play (reading the scriptures, bringing the gifts to the altar, etc); but in the old Mass the priest and servers perform all the liturgical actions. How, then, are the laity supposed to participate?

Sometimes we hear stories about the "Dark Ages" before Vatican II when the priest "had his back to the people" and mumbled his prayers in Latin; and the laity fingered their rosary beads because they had nothing else to do. But that is a rather judgmental and shallow way of looking at it. We could as easily say that in those happier days, the priest turned to face the Lord, addressing His Majesty in a sacred language while the faithful united themselves interiorly to the sacred mystery before them, contemplating Jesus Christ.

Everyone can and should participate in the Mass; but this is primarily an interior act. The priest offers the sacrifice. We unite ourselves and our intentions with this offering.

Even in the modern rite, the participation of the laity does not consist essentially in understanding all the prayers, singing songs, giving the readings, bringing the gifts to the altar, or distributing Holy Communion. Their main participation is simple acts of will: by offering the sacrifice through the hands of the priest and in union with him, in adoration, thanksgiving, expiation, and supplication, and offering ourselves in union with the divine Victim. In this way, we can be "most closely united with the High Priest and His earthly minister, at the time the consecration of the divine Victim is enacted."[1]

Reciting responses aloud as a congregation can be helpful, but only insofar as they help us to make the interior acts of worship. Even then it comes at a price. Now we are thinking about the words we have to say and how we are saying them, how our neighbor is saying them. There is already a temptation to do this with the priest, but when he chants the prayers or says them in Latin he fades into the background, giving place to the holy, mysterious, and timeless sacrifice. When there is no veil over the prayers, all our idiosyncracies stand out and easily become the focus of our attention. Even if we get used to everyone's quirks or are able to ignore them, if we do not veil the sacred, the atmosphere of the liturgy can become very much like any other assembly of human beings talking to one another, and not something sacred. Thus, no matter how many responses we give or postures we assume, we can the more easily lose touch with the spiritual realities taking place before us.

Those who wish to join with the priest in praying the prayers of the Traditional Mass can use a missal or missalette containing a translation in their own language; and in some places, it is customary for the people to recite some of the responses with the altar servers. At the same time, the Church teaches that such forms of participation in the Mass are

by no means necessary to constitute it a public act or to give it a social character. ... [And] they have strayed from the path of truth and right reason who ... assert that without them the Mass cannot fulfill its appointed end. ...

Many of the faithful are unable to use the Roman missal even though it is written in the vernacular; nor are all capable of understanding correctly the liturgical rites and formulas. So varied and diverse are men's talents and characters that it is impossible for all to be moved and attracted to the same extent by community prayers, hymns and liturgical services. Moreover, the needs and inclinations of all are not the same, nor are they always constant in the same individual. Who, then, would say, on account of such a prejudice, that all these Christians cannot participate in the Mass nor share its fruits? On the contrary, they can adopt some other method which proves easier for certain people; for instance, they can lovingly meditate on the mysteries of Jesus Christ or perform other exercises of piety or recite prayers which, though they differ from the sacred rites, are still essentially in harmony with them.[2]

1. Mediator Dei, nos. 92, 98, 104; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1358

2. Med. Dei, nos. 106-108


Todd Aylard