He tackles the most contentious issues in church music today with a serene confidence in the wisdom of the Church’s Magisterium and with a pastor’s patient willingness to spell out the first principles and draw forth the right conclusions. It is a masterpiece by any standards, one that deserves to be a model for sacred music in every diocese of this great country.
LOOKING BACK ON ALL THE YEARS I have been studying and discussing the sacred liturgy ― its theology, history, canon law, music, and so forth ― I would say that the single most misunderstood concept of the entire postconciliar period has been “active participation.” The very phrase itself, coined by St. Pius X and disseminated in his 1903 motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini, has often been interpreted in a manner diametrically opposed to St. Pius X’s own teaching and that of his successors.
Participatio actuosa could be rendered “a thoroughly actualized sharing,” that is, a sharing in the mysteries of the liturgy that is not merely potential or possible or distant or sleepy, but deeply involved, closely bound up in the unfolding action, attentive in mind and receptive in heart, and doing whatever it is appropriate to be doing at any given moment. Clearly, this does not and cannot mean doing everything that is being done: for example, the layman can never recite the Eucharistic Prayer, the deacon or priest reading the Gospel never says “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ,” and the celebrant never says “And with your spirit.”
There are many different roles, and as the Second Vatican Council categorically stated, each person should do all of that which belongs to his role―and only that. The liturgy in this way is a reflection of the hierarchical structure of the Church, which itself reflects the structure of the entire cosmos, from angels to atoms, itself reflected in the microcosm of the human soul with its powers of intellect, will, sensitive appetite, and so forth. Everything in God’s good creation is hierarchically ordered, and the virtue of each part is to belong to the whole in the right way, doing all that belongs to the part, and only that which belongs to the part. To act otherwise is to introduce disorder, disruption, confusion, rivalry, anarchy―the vices characteristic of the fallen angels and of human beings inasmuch as they are unrepentant sinners.
THIS IS THE NORMAL CATHOLIC WORLDVIEW, and Archbishop Sample brings it to bear on the particular question of music (and musicians) for the Mass, in keeping with the authentic teaching of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, a document he discusses throughout his pastoral letter. Here is how he puts it:
Those responsible for sacred music in the Mass must foster and enable the participatio actuosa (active participation) of all the faithful; all should have the opportunity to participate fully and consciously in the sacred action of the Mass. This does not mean that everyone present has to sing everything all the time; the sacred music of the Mass pertains to different participants in different ways depending on its structure and its position in the rite. The congregation should be encouraged and enabled to sing whenever appropriate, and when the singing is properly rendered by the cantor or choir alone, participate interiorly through engaged and prayerful silent reflection. Likewise, the musicians should be attentive and prayerfully engaged in the parts of the Mass which do not necessarily involve music, both for their own spiritual good and so as not to become a distraction to others. They should participate in the Mass, observing all of the appropriate postures and gestures of the congregation to the fullest degree possible.
Note especially the sentence: “This does not mean that everyone present has to sing everything all the time; the sacred music of the Mass pertains to different participants in different ways depending on its structure and its position in the rite.” He then explains how the sovereign principle of participatio actuosa is not at all violated by this division of labor or distribution of functions: “The congregation should be encouraged and enabled to sing whenever appropriate, and when the singing is properly rendered by the cantor or choir alone, participate interiorly through engaged and prayerful silent reflection.”
In giving this brief and clear summary, Archbishop Sample is following in the footsteps of St. John Paul II, who addressed the contentious issue directly in one of the most important liturgical catecheses of his pontificate:
Only by being radically faithful to this doctrinal foundation [concerning the essential distinction between ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful] can we avoid one-dimensional and unilateral interpretations of the Council’s teaching. The sharing of all the baptized in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ is the key to understanding the Council’s call for “full, conscious and active participation” in the liturgy (SC 14). Full participation certainly means that every member of the community has a part to play in the liturgy; and in this respect a great deal has been achieved in parishes and communities across your land. But full participation does not mean that everyone does everything, since this would lead to a clericalizing of the laity and a laicizing of the priesthood; and this was not what the Council had in mind. The liturgy, like the Church, is intended to be hierarchical and polyphonic, respecting the different roles assigned by Christ and allowing all the different voices to blend in one great hymn of praise.
Active participation certainly means that, in gesture, word, song and service, all the members of the community take part in an act of worship, which is anything but inert or passive. Yet active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be countercultural. (Ad limina Address to the Bishops of the Northwestern United States, October 9, 1998)
May the light-filled teaching of St. John Paul II, reflected in the mirror of Archbishop Sample’s pastoral letter, shine ever more brightly in the Catholic world, as an era of misguided attempts at inculturation gives way to one of joyful obedience to the Magisterium. To the extent that this really happens, parishes and monasteries will begin to find their way out of the parched desert of chasing the world and into the watered garden of the Church’s Tradition, lush and life-giving.
This is part of an 8-part series on Archbishop Sample’s historic letter: