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Dancers carrying incense bowls around the altar during the Closing Eucharistic Liturgy presided over by Archbishop José Gomez at the L.A. Religious Education Congress March 24, 2019. Lisa Bourne /

May 21, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Historian Yves Chiron, in his bestselling biography of Annibale Bugnini, notes the rising popularity of a phrase—today more likely to elicit the rolling of eyes—that was bandied about in the 1950s and 1960s:

The “active participation of the faithful” in the liturgy was one of this period’s recurring themes well before it became the watchword of the reform that Vatican II envisaged. In September 1953, Cardinal Lercaro, Archbishop of Bologna, made it the theme of his keynote address at the International Meeting for Liturgical Studies at Lugano, Italy: “Active participation, the fundamental principle of Pius X’s pastoral and liturgical reform.” Two years later, he published a diocesan liturgical directory for Bologna with this meaningful title: A messa, figlioli! Direttorio liturgico per la partecipazione attiva dei fideli alla santa messa letta (“To Mass, My Children! Liturgical Directory for the Active Participation of the Faithful at Low Mass”). This directory circulated widely.

As an author myself, I am often struck by the discrepancies between positions attributed to authors and the actual positions held by the same authors upon a closer look. Pope St. Pius X was held aloft as the author of this mantra “active participation,” but was Cardinal Lercaro—or any of the lesser lights who said the same kind of thing—actually being faithful to the thought of Pius X?

In the Motu Proprio Tra le Sollecitudini of 1903, Pope Pius X called for a reform to sacred music, not in order to bring it up to date (aggiornamento), but precisely to move it away from the fashions of the day—Italian operatic-style church music, which was very au courant—and back to a healthy condition characterized by music truly suited for the liturgy, which he identified as Gregorian chant and music inspired by and compatible with it, such as Renaissance polyphony. Before he lays down specific rules for sacred music, however, Pius X first enunciates the general rule that motivates and justifies his actions:

It being our ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit restored in every respect and preserved by all the faithful, we deem it necessary to provide before everything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for the object of acquiring this spirit from its indispensable fount, which is the active participation in the holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church.

As usual with older papal documents, the wording here is exquisitely crafted so that each idea fits into the whole in its proper order. The purpose or final cause for Pius X’s reform is “to see the true Christian spirit restored and preserved”; this he says against the backdrop of a Europe ravaged by anticlericalism and encroaching secularism. He then identifies the means by which this purpose will be achieved. First and foremost (“before everything else”), “the sanctity and dignity of the temple” must be provided for: all that conduces to the holiness and nobility of Catholic worship has to be put in place first, so that the second step may occur: the faithful assembling there to acquire the Christian spirit from its “indispensable fount.” The “active participation” of the people, a phrase used here for the first time, is not portrayed as the goal or end, simply speaking, nor has it priority over the soundness and fittingness of the worship.

Put more simply: the end is the true Christian spirit. The means are twofold: the public and solemn prayer of the Church itself, which ought to be correctly done, with sanctity and dignity; and the active participation of the faithful in that prayer, so that its spirit may become theirs. Note here that Pius X is assuming that the faithful will be assimilated to the spirit of the liturgy itself. What it is, they also will be; what it is not, they can never become.

Now, compare the above text to another one, this time from the Second Vatican Council’s Sacrosanctum Concilium of 1963, sixty years later.

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.

It cannot escape our notice that this text turns things on their head. Where Pius X had said that what should be “provided for before everything else” is the “sanctity and dignity of the temple,” Vatican II says that “the aim to be considered before all else” is “full and active participation by all the people.” In doing so, it inverts the hierarchy of goods. Now the worship of God and its right condition becomes secondary to the people’s involvement. The activity of the faithful is to take priority in liturgical reform and conduct. 

In practice, we know what this led to: the holiness and nobility of worship done for God’s glory suffered grave damage because all attention was focused on getting people “involved” in ways both legitimate and illegitimate. Instead of placing the objective good of authentic liturgy first and the subjective good of participation second, which is the correct order, Vatican II implies that the subjective good takes precedence and should even determine the content of the objective good. It is interesting to note, as well, that whereas Pius X speaks in this connection of “holy mysteries” and “solemn public prayer,” Vatican II simply speaks of “the sacred liturgy.” Of course the phrase is not incorrect, but one sees a lessening of the note of majesty and mystery.

So, while superficially it may seem that the two documents are saying the same thing, a closer look shows that they diverge on a point of no small importance. Cardinal Lercaro blundered, therefore, in asserting that “active participation [is] the fundamental principle of Pius X’s pastoral and liturgical reform.” 

Nor should we be surprised that Pius X’s views are much more akin to those of his immediate predecessor, Leo XIII, who—in his splendid letter Testem Benevolentiae of 1899—teaches that the primary work or activity of the laity is to live as faithful Christians in the world and to raise up prayer to God, while the primary work of the clergy is to preach sound doctrine and to celebrate glorious liturgies in honor of God, the Greatest and Best:

The Scriptures teach us that it is the duty of all to be solicitous for the salvation of one’s neighbor, according to the power and position of each. The faithful do this by religiously discharging the duties of their state of life, by the uprightness of their conduct, by their works of Christian charity and by earnest and continuous prayer to God. On the other hand, those who belong to the clergy should do this by an enlightened fulfillment of their preaching ministry, by the pomp and splendor of ceremonies, and especially by setting forth that sound form of doctrine which Saint Paul inculcated upon Titus and Timothy.

The Church will be better off when we have a lot more of “that sound form of doctrine” and “pomp and splendor of ceremonies,” so that before everything else, the sanctity and dignity of the temple may be duly provided for—and in this way, the faithful may come to participate most fruitfully in the holy mysteries.

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Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California (B.A. Liberal Arts) and The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC (M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy). He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria and the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, then helped establish Wyoming Catholic College in 2006. There he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history and directed the choirs until leaving in 2018 to devote himself full-time to writing and lecturing.

Today he contributes regularly to many websites and publications, including New Liturgical Movement, OnePeterFive, LifeSiteNews, Rorate Caeli, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News, and has published thirteen books, including four on traditional Catholicism: Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014, also available in Czech, Polish, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Belarusian), Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017), Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018), and Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020). His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over a thousand articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church.

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, visit his personal website,