Singing the Mass 2, Active Participation

There is a common misconception that has been very damaging to the Liturgy of the Church. Many people believe that “Active Participation” at Mass started after Vatican II, in the 1960’s. It is wrong. Active Participation is inherent to the Liturgy, and it was made clear by Pope Pius X’s writings as early as 1903. Active Participation has also always been linked to Gregorian Chant. Active Participation and Gregorian Chant are like two sides of the same coin.

Over a century ago, Pope Pius X called for the first time for “Active Participation” in the Sacred Liturgy, in his Motu Proprio Tra le Sollecitudini (November 22, 1903).
St Pius X also wrote: ” The ancient traditional Gregorian Chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship, and the fact must be accepted by all that an ecclesiastical function loses none of its solemnity when accompanied by this music alone. Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times.“(Tra Le sollecitudini II.3.)
The Pope’s recommendation is very practical. Gregorian Chant alone has the universality (in latin), the beauty of form (revealing the text) and knowable simplicity allowing for the priest and any multi-cultural congregation to dialogue the text of the Mass. It was true then, and it is true now.  

Historical perspective. Reading the Church documents:

Reading the Motu Proprio in its proper context requires a quick look the 150-year-long Liturgical movement started in the 1800s and ending in 1963 when the movement became the liturgical reform of Vatican II. These articles from the 1930’s provide such context: The Liturgical Movement
From 1903 to 1963, successive popes built on the initial leadership of Pius X and complemented his instructions for music and the liturgy. Most notably: Pius XI with his Apostolic constitution Divini cultus on December 20, 1928, and Pius XII with the encyclicals Mediator Dei on November 20, 1947 and Musicæ sacræ disciplina on December 25, 1955.
A very practical guide called De musica sacra et sacra liturgia, Instruction on Sacred Music and Sacred Liturgy (download: de-musica-sacra-et-sacra-liturgia) was then published by the Sacred Congregation for Rites on September 3, 1958 . It describes in over 20 paragraphs what is included, and not included, in the “Active Participation” of the faithful at Mass.
Only 4 years later, the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, commonly known as the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II, opened under the pontificate of Pope John XXIII on October 11 1962. Just one year later, Sacrosanctum Concilium , a new Constitution on the Liturgy was presented by the new pope Paul VI, introducing few updates on the education started by St Pius X, referenced in paragraph 112.
Vatican II happened in the 1960’s and was thus interpreted by some well-intentioned Catholics as a “rupture”, not just a “reform”. These Catholics were mistaken, as the background provided above has shown. But the consequences of this wrong interpretation still burdens the proper implementation of the decisions from Vatican II.
From Vatican II came new Instructions on music in the liturgy, titled “Musicam Sacram“, on 5 March, 1967. It included some updates on the “Active Participation” definitions from 1958:
“15. The faithful fulfill their liturgical role by making that full, conscious and active participation which is demanded by the nature of the liturgy itself and which is, by reason of baptism, the right and duty of the Christian people. This participation
(a) Should be above all internal, in the sense that by it the faithful join their mind to what they pronounce or hear, and cooperate with heavenly grace,
(b) Must be, on the other hand, external also, that is, such as to show the internal participation by gestures and bodily attitudes, by the acclamations, responses and singing.
The faithful should also be taught to unite themselves interiorly to what the ministers or choir sing, so that by listening to them they may raise their minds to God.


28. The distinction between solemn, sung and read Mass, sanctioned by the Instruction of 1958, is retained, according to the traditional liturgical laws at present in force. However, for the sung Mass (Missa cantata), different degrees of participation are put forward here for reasons of pastoral usefulness, so that it may become easier to make the celebration of Mass more beautiful by singing, according to the capabilities of each congregation.
These degrees are so arranged that the first may be used even by itself, but the second and third, wholly or partially, may never be used without the first. In this way the faithful will be continually led towards an ever greater participation in the singing.
29. The following belong to the first degree:
(a) In the entrance rites: the greeting of the priest together with the reply of the people; the prayer.
(b) In the Liturgy of the Word: the acclamations at the Gospel.
(c) In the Eucharistic Liturgy: the prayer over the offerings; the preface with its dialogue and the Sanctus; the final doxology of the Canon, the Lord’s prayer with its introduction and embolism; the Pax Domini; the prayer after the Communion; the formulas of dismissal.


30. The following belong to the second degree:
(a) the Kyrie, Gloria and Agnus Dei;
(b) the Creed;
(c) the prayer of the faithful.


31. The following belong to the third degree:
(a) the songs at the Entrance and Communion processions;
(b) the songs after the Lesson or Epistle;
(c) the Alleluia before the Gospel;
(d) the song at the Offertory;
(e) the readings of Sacred Scripture, unless it seems more suitable to proclaim them without singing. (…)


50. (…) Gregorian chant, as proper to the Roman liturgy, should be given pride of place, other things being equal. Its melodies, contained in the “typical” editions, should be used, to the extent that this is possible.(…)
52. (…) Above all, the study and practice of Gregorian chant is to be promoted, because, with its special characteristics, it is a basis of great importance for the development of sacred music. “

What is the Proper?

  • The “PROPER” of the Mass change with each Mass. They are mostly the “third degree of participation” describe above. The Proper includes:
    • Introit (Entrance Chant),
    • Gradual (after the first reading, sometimes replaced by a “Responsorial psalm”)
    • Alleluia (the Gospel Acclamation)
    • Offertory (during the presentation of the gifts)
    • Communion
  • The “KYRIALE”, also called “ORDINARY of the Mass” change with the Liturgical season. The US Bishops (USCCB) recommend the “JUBILATE DEO” as a minimum to know. Mass XVII is proper to Sundays in Advent and Lent, Mass I to Sundays during Easter season, Mass XI for Sundays in Ordinary time. Mass VIII (De Angelis) can also be used in Ordinary Time. These parts of the Mass are:
    • Kyrie Eleison
    • Gloria (if said)
    • Sanctus
    • Agnus Dei
  • The other parts usually do not change, hence they are mostly the “first degree of Participation” but may vary depending on the solemnity of the Sunday, or the language chosen by the celebrant. Examples: Dialogues-Responses (English), Dialogues-Responses (Latin) , Credo III, Pater Noster, Gloria VIII

What about Hymns? Archbishop Sample answers that question in his recent pastoral letter: Sing to the Lord a New Song

Want to learn more about the liturgy and active participation? Consider taking the on-line classes of the Liturgical Institute. See link here: Liturgical Institute online classes

Keynote and Powerpoint presentations on themes developed in this page (part 2 of a 3-part “Singing the Mass” workshop)

Click here for Part 1, and here for Part 3.

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