‘Fully conscious, and active participation’

On December 4, 1963 the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was approved by the Second Vatican Council by a vote of 2,147 to 4, but the reforms proposed by this document did not suddenly arise there on the floor of the Council. Pope Paul VI noted, “The liturgy was the first subject to be examined and the first, too, in a sense, in intrinsic worth and importance for the life of the Church.” Dr. Pamela Jackson has pointed out that this Constitution “did not suddenly appear out of nowhere, but was the culmination of over a hundred years of research, reflection, writing, and pastoral work of the Liturgical Movement.”

Beginning in the 1830’s, groups of people in various countries were participating in what has been called the Liturgical Movement. This movement was attempting to recover the original sources of the liturgy. As earlier as 1903 Pope St. Pius X commented that in order to acquire the Christian spirit the “first and most indispensable source” is “active participation in the sacred mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church” (On the Restoration of Sacred Music). In 1947 Pope Pius XII wrote Mediator Dei, the Church’s first encyclical on liturgy. He noted that “The worship rendered by the Church to God must be, in its entirety, both interior as well as exterior.” (Mediator Dei, 23). Pope Pius XII comments on how Christ himself offers the liturgy:


The sacred liturgy is, consequently, the public worship which our Redeemer as Head of the Church renders to the Father, as well as the worship which the community of the faithful renders to its Founder, and through Him to the heavenly Father. It is, in short, the worship rendered by the Mystical Body of Christ in the entirety of its Head and members.


He connects this idea to the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and notes that the Church prolongs the ministry of Jesus by means of; the sacred liturgy, the sacraments and by offering to God, “the daily tribute of her prayer of praise.” (MD 3)

Our lives should be centered on the Eucharist, enriched by the other sacraments and overflowing with prayer and contemplation in the midst of the world. As the Fathers of Second Vatican Council later repeat: “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.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14).

The ultimate purpose of the liturgy is to make present the Paschal Mystery.  The Fathers of the council note later in the Constitution that through the liturgy and the sacraments the faithful are given graces which sanctify almost every event in their lives and that “they are given access to the stream of divine grace which flows from the paschal mystery of the passion, death, the resurrection of Christ, the font from which all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power.” (SC 61).

The phrase “fully conscious, and active participation” became a kind of “sound bite” or “catch phrase” after the council but many people fail to note that the line continues “. . . which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.” (SC 14).

That which is “demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” has been carefully defined by the Constitution in paragraphs 5 through 13. We are called to reverently enter into the re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery to meet the risen Christ present in the minister, the proclamation of the Word, in His sacramental Body and Blood, and in his Body the Church.

In his work The Spirit of the Liturgy Pope Benedict reminds us that “active participation” does not mean that as many people as possible, as often as possible need to be externally involved but that everyone takes part in the sacred action of liturgy. Remember that the term “active participation” was originally used in 1903 and 1947 in relation to what we now call the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. As the Holy Father points out, “the word ‘participation’ refers to a principal action in which everyone has a ‘part’.” This action is primarily interior.

St. Augustine views our common partaking of the Eucharist as a participation or ‘communion’ with Christ’s sacrifice (1 Corinthians 10:16), and a sharing in Christ’s immortality. St. Paul refers to the notion of sacrifice in Roman’s twelve, where he writes:


I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2).


St. Augustine comments on this passage in his book the City of God.  He interprets this sacrifice as the soul rising up in contemplation of God and being transformed by this union. The soul becomes “a sacrifice when it offers itself to God, in order that, being inflamed by the fire of His love, it may receive of His beauty and become pleasing to Him, losing the shape of earthly desire, and being remolded in the image of permanent loveliness” (City of God, X.6).

The first part of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy concentrates on the meaning and beauty of the liturgy while the rest of the document proposes specific reforms. I will discuss some of these reforms in part two of this piece.

Holy Mary, Mother of the Church and the Star of the New Evangelization, Pray for us!


Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.



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October 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph