The role of music in active participation: Part two

Luke Ponce


Luke PonceWhen last I treated the topic at hand, we explored how the full, active and conscious participation of the faithful in the liturgy is fostered by congregational singing of chant and other liturgical music. We also traced the line from Pope St. Pius X’s declaration that restoring chant would help ensure this active participation to the affirmation of this principle in the documents of Vatican II. Today, I would like to consider the other side of this principle: Can active participation still be fostered when the congregation isn’t singing along  for example, when the choir sings a piece on their own? 

Short answer: yes. 

To explain why this is the case, it is helpful to understand what is implied by the word “active” that might not be obvious at first glance. In modern usage and understanding, the word “active” is primarily associated with external actions, things we do in the physical realm. Liturgically, this could be anything from the congregational responses (e.g. “and with your spirit”) to kneeling at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer. 

Congregational singing forms part of this category, but more than just engaging our lips and our lungs, it engages our souls and our sense of devotion. When we kneel out of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, it is not merely a bodily gesture but a reflection of our faith in the words of Our Lord: “This is my body. … This is my blood.” The church’s understanding of active participation reflects this principle. 

In his encyclical “Mediator Dei,” Pope Pius XII makes the point that “the chief element of divine worship must be interior,” else our outward observance “amounts to mere formalism, without meaning and without content” (24). In the preceding paragraph, he writes that the liturgy is both internal and external because man is composed of both body and soul  and yet, it is the interior that is the chief aspect to be fostered. 

While congregational singing is, as we have already established, of great importance, a holistic definition of active participation can help us to see that outward congregational actions need not be constant for this participation to be consistently fostered. I use the example of a “choir-only” piece during Mass because it is a common one. Think of pieces like Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus,” Allegri’s “Miserere” or Tallis’ “If Ye Love Me.” These may be too difficult or logistically impossible for the congregation to sing but are nonetheless wholly appropriate expressions of devotion. 

Moreover, I would posit that occasional choral singing actually increases the active participation of all present. When the congregation is given the opportunity to reflect silently on the words of Scripture or prayer that are set to music, or even the beauty of the notes themselves, the interior aspect of active participation is strengthened. In a world so devoid of opportunities and spaces for silence and reflection, this can be one of the liturgy’s greatest strengths both for evangelization and for ongoing spiritual nourishment. 

Those in the field of sacred music have a responsibility to the faithful and to the church as a whole to carry on this artistic tradition as most befits the splendor of the mysteries made present in the liturgy. Even in this present era when one might as commonly hear praise and worship on Sunday morning as one would a four-part hymn with organ (at least on our venerable campus), the spiritual benefit of balancing congregational and choral singing should not be forgotten. Both have their place in what we offer to Christ: the tapestry of prayer, song, symbol and our very presence by which we worship as one body united in him.