Notes from a participant

The word “participation” was dominant in banners, T-shirts and speeches at the convention I attended a week ago in Washington. But it was always accompanied by other words that embellished what that participation should be, and where and how it might occur.

It was a convention of nearly 3,000 people who appreciate very well the desire for participation at Mass: cantors and choir members; organists, pianists, cellists, drummers and instrumentalists of every stripe; music and liturgy directors from parishes and dioceses; people who’ve been leading music in worship for decades and college students still getting their feet wet, or voices tuned; a couple hundred pastors; a cardinal who helped select the new pope — lots of people who could not imagine worship without the people of God raising voices and hearts in song.

The convention hall for the National Pastoral Musicians convention is anchored by the baptismal font, foreground, and Easter candle across the room.

The convention hall for the National Pastoral Musicians convention is anchored by the baptismal font, foreground, and Easter candle across the room.

What’s always tremendous about this convention, and I’ve attended several of them, is the energy and enthusiasm of people forming a community, albeit for just five days, with shared hopes and potential. There are choirs and music ministers at all of the convention liturgies, but remember almost everyone in the assembly is a musician and so the choir is basically everyone, aside from a few outliers such as myself who get to pretend that we can really sing. Actually, I was prepped for the convention’s remarkable music by our equally remarkable music at the neighborhood Mass we celebrated the day before I headed to Washington. We had embraced the convention’s focus.

That theme — “Participation: Liturgy. Life. Mission.” — was inspired by the Second Vatican Council’s first major decree, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, issued 50 years ago this coming November. One of its crucial contributions to the life of the Church was its call for participatio actuosa (in Latin), or full, conscious and active participation (in English). Translations, as liturgy scholar Rita Ferrone explained in the convention’s opening address, are always lacking. What the Latin phrase suggests, she said, is a bundle of energy, almost something hard to contain.

Regardless, she concluded, the bishops of Vatican II recognized that if the Church was going to be prepared for a new era, as Pope John XXIII (soon to be Saint John XXIII) envisioned and hoped, then “participation in liturgy was the engine that would drive a powerful renewal of the Church.” Thus the “Life” and “Mission” part of the convention theme. Participatio actuosa of worship becomes the driving force of our life and mission, a “bundle of energy” as it were for Christ.

Father John Baldovin, a liturgy professor at Boston College, elaborated upon that necessity a day later when he explained that the liturgical reforms inspired and encouraged by Vatican II were never intended to apply only to how we worship as Catholic, “but also in how Christian worship affects the Christian life” – how we live and how we share our faith, in other words “ecumenism” and “social teaching.” Baldovin quoted Pope Francis at the recent World Youth Day: “The Church’s power does not reside in herself,” but from “the deep waters of God” from which we draw our strength to live the liturgy in life and mission, to participate in the world. TL


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