The problem of Zombie-Robot parishioners and ‘active participation’.

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Have you ever sat in Mass and felt like this?! I know I have. There have been many times where I have just zoned out. I realise the priest has got to the end of his sermon and I haven’t really heard a word because I was daydreaming.

I suppose it doesn’t help when most other people around you are doing the same thing. To my horror, I realise that I have become one of those legendary Zombie-like parishioners that I used to marvel at as a child.

I remember the droning monotone chorus of the congregation during the creed, the robotic expressionless handshake of peace, the lifeless melody of the organ with literally 2 people singing out of the entire congregation. The ones who used to hit the ESCAPE button and walk out straight after communion – I guess they’d fulfilled their weekly obligation right? And yet we, and the same other people used to turn up week after week and filter up the isle into the same old pews that we almost seemed to be pre-programmed to return to.

A congregation of mindless robots.

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And it wasn’t as if our church wasn’t trying – they got the parishioners involved in the offertory procession, the choir, the readings and bidding prayers, they even got the children to go up onto the sanctuary during the consecration to see up close what the priest was doing. But still, before long it began to dawn on me that I really wasn’t getting anything out of Mass.

By age 13 I had stopped going. I just didn’t see the point. It was so boring. The people there were so boring. The final nail in the liturgical coffin for me was the ‘Teen’ mass. The cringeworthy band with their ‘Rock’ hymns, the priest trying to be cool, the fact that they were trying so hard to include and please us… It was just embarrassing.

I felt quite sorry for them in a way. I could see how hard the few motivated ones were trying to make it work, but it wasn’t cutting it. It didn’t have any interest whatsoever in going to a dead church full of robots. There was nothing in it for me.

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It wasn’t until 5 years later, age 18, when I had my first ridiculously powerful, life changing personal encounter with Jesus after a failed suicide attempt that I began returning to Mass.

Because of that encounter, I suddenly realised that Jesus Christ was real, alive, and truly present in the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the Eucharist during Mass. In those first few weeks of returning to Church as a young adult, on my own, I remember how the words of the readings and the Holy Gospel would just fly accross the church out of the mouths of the readers and just penetrate my heart like a flaming spear. I remember getting butterflies in my tummy, and my heart racing as I approached Jesus in the Holy Eucharist for the first time in a long time. And I remember the gentle peace of Him, as He surrounded me with reassurance and calm during my first tentative steps of my conversion of heart, that I was wanted and loved by Him.

And yet, I was still surrounded by those loyal, yet long suffering mindless robots that surrounded me as a child. The droning creed, the robotic handshakes, the 2 lonely hymn singers… They were all still there! In some ways I found it quite funny 🙂 but I also found that it broke my heart. I was home, but my family were zombies.

I would just watch them week after week, just going through the motions. It was like they were asleep inside, while my heart was completely on fire for Jesus. I learned pretty quickly that I was not going to fit in.

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After another 10 years or so I began my Catholic studies at Maryvale university, and for the first time ever came accross the term “active participation” in the Vatican 2 document Sacrosanctum conciliumthe Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. I learned here that one of the main aims of the day in and around the 1960’s was to get the laity to participate more in the Mass. I was amazed because I thought the robotic zombie parishioner was a modern phenomenon. It seems not.

The other bombshell I learned was that up until the late 1960’s, the priest always used to say Mass with his back to the congregation!! I couldn’t believe it! Why on earth would he do that? The Mass before the late 1960’s was very different. It was said in Latin, the priest had his back to the congregation, people used to kneel to receive Holy Eucharist and would only receive on the tongue. Women were required to cover their hair in church, members of the congregation would often say rosary during Mass if they didn’t understand the Latin. Things were really different.

I can really understand why people were calling for reform in the church and pushing the idea of the “active participation” of the laity in the Mass. How easy would it be to zone out during Mass if you were just sitting there not even able to understand the language? So the Council Fathers developed this idea of active participation:

“14. Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people” (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.” – Sacrosanctum concilium

Although it was never actually an official part of the reforming documents of Vatican 2, the radically new idea of the priest facing the people began to creep in a few years later. The idea behind this was to make the people in the congregation feel more welcome, more involved and for the first time ever they could see what the priest was doing on the altar. It was all aimed at moving towards this idea of active participation.

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I can totally understand what they were trying to do in the late 1960’s, but 50 years later with obviously dwindling parishes, lack of religious vocations and widespread theological ignorance within the church, the million dollar question is:

Has this radical idea of active participation actually worked?

It was initially implemented to reduce parishioner zombification during Mass. But as i’m sure you will agree, the zombie robots are alive and well and STILL filling our churches today.

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Now, as you have probably heard, Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, urged priests and bishops at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London on July 5 to start celebrating Masses ad orientem (with their back to the congregation) beginning on the first Sunday of Advent this year 2016.

This had caused uproar in the more progressive circles of the church as they believe it would take us back 5o years and undermine all the efforts made at active participation since then.

However I think they have got the wrong end of the stick here…

I think that it is pretty safe to say now that the active participation thing has not worked as intended. In all honestly, I think it has backfired massively and has actually drawn the people even further away from participating actively.

You see, the active participation that occurs currently is focused on outward signs and physical gestures. But this is not what active participation is meant to be. The true meaning is for the persons spirit to be actively involved in the mass, not though superficial things like carrying the offertory gifts, but to carry out our Baptismal ‘priestly’ role by offering our entire lives to God as Christ did on the Cross.

Of course it was never explained to me as a kid – or even as an adult that we are actually present at Calvary in real time during Mass. I never knew that. I also never realised that the Mass is something that is directed at God – not at the people. I never knew. The first time I realised that was during my first ever Tridentine (Traditional Latin) Mass where the priest had His back to me. When he lifted up the consecrated host with his back to me, I suddenly realised that Mass was not all about me. It was all about God.

We all face God. The priests offers the sacrifice on our behalf. Man is not the centre of the liturgy – Christ is.

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During Mass, by right and duty of my Baptism, my job is to offer my whole life – joined to the eternal sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, to God.

Why oh why did no-one ever tell me this? How can anyone possibly be luke warm during Mass armed with this knowledge? THIS is the active participation that we are meant to be carrying out during Mass – not joining the priest on the sanctuary or clapping during the Gloria.

I can see now that all those external participations actually served as distractions that drew my attention away from what I should really have been concentrating on internally. Even the priest himself can become a distraction during Mass – especially if he is young and handsome (yes, this has happened to me before during Mass *cringe*).

So to cut a very long argument short – I can totally see where Cardinal Sarah is coming from. He is trying to move the focus of the Mass back to where it should be – onto Christ, and eliminate the many distractions that have crept into the liturgy over the years. He is also trying to educate us as to the real meaning of “active participation”.

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There is one last thing…

Offering Mass this way would also be a wonderfully unitive thing to do with the Eastern Churches. They all offer Mass with the priest having his back to the congregation – they never changed. And as with everything in Catholic culture, this posture is highly symbolic. I spoke to my Byzantine friend who put it perfectly:

“Every movement in the Liturgy is symbolic. For instance, we face west during the exorcism part of the Baptism ceremony and then turn to the east (the altar) to declare our allegiance to Christ. It seems strange that the priest would face west to lead us in prayer/speaking to God on our behalf.”

Yes, that does seem strange when she puts it like that doesn’t it? I’m going to have to think more about that last part very, very carefully.