6. Why Should the Assembly Participate in the Mass?
Why Come to Mass on Time and Why Stay until the End of Mass?
reminds us, “You are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it” (1 Cor 12:27
Thus, when baptized Christians gather for worship, they gather as
members of the body of Christ alive in the world today. We unite
together, prompted by the Spirit, with Christ our brother as our head,
in giving praise and glory to God our Father. It is part of our
Christian tradition, recalled by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
of the Second Vatican Council,
that ultimately it is Christ who, as priest, offers worship to God in
the liturgy (no. 7). Thus, when the baptized unite together in the
liturgy, no one can ever be a passive spectator watching a priest do
something for us, since all are parts of Christ’s body, the Church, and
it is Christ, head and members, who is actively giving praise and glory
to our God.
Scripture narrates various instances of God’s holy people actively
participating in worshiping God. For example, at the rededication of the
temple in Jerusalem, the scribe Ezra read the book of the law to the
people gathered for worship and, afterwards, “all the people answered,
‘Amen, Amen’ ” (Neh 8:6
The Acts of the Apostles recalls that the early Christian community
gathered for prayer in the temple and celebrated the “breaking of bread”
in their homes (Acts 2:46
). Psalm 103
begins, “Bless the Lord, O my soul. All my being, bless his holy name.”
Worshiping God is more than being physically present in a church – it
involves listening, speaking, singing, standing, kneeling, sitting –
that is, using all our being to praise our God.
God’s holy people, gathered for worship, are not spectators at a sport’s
event, watching others perform for them. The worship of our God is
something that all Christians participate in as a response to the love
they feel for the God who is love (1 Jn 4:16
As the statement of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, “Music
in Catholic Worship”, says: “People in love make signs of love, not only
to express their love but also to deepen it” (no. 4). When we gather at
Mass, we deepen our love for God and for each other, and this demands
participation rather than passivity.
At least twelve paragraphs of the revised General Instruction of the
Roman Missal refer to “active participation” or “active celebration” by
those gathered at Mass. Several of these paragraphs (e.g., GIRM
nos. 18, 386) include a more extended quotation taken from the
Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy which refers to the “full, active,
and conscious participation” of all the faithful and states that such
participation is both a “right” and a “duty” (no. 14).
In most human organizations, whether it be a nation or a social club,
citizenship or membership not only confers certain rights but also
involves certain obligations. By baptism, an individual is united to
Christ and his Church and enjoys the blessings of God’s salvific graces,
particularly through the sacraments. Yet baptism also commits an
individual to live a life modeled on Christ’s life, a life of love and
service. Christ did not passively stand by when people sought him. He
reached out to those who needed him and healed, nourished, and forgave.
The way we participate at Sunday Mass is a symbol of the way we should
live out our Christian commitment the rest of the week. There are always
unexpected traffic jams that may cause us on occasion to be late for
Mass. Nevertheless, our love for Christ and desire to celebrate with our
sisters and brothers in Christ as fully as possible should impel us to
arrive at church early, to recollect ourselves for the great mystery of
the Eucharist we celebrate, and to hear all of God’s nourishing word.
Similarly, time conflicts (or sudden illness) may be a reason why, on
occasion, someone may need to leave Mass early, but our unity as the
body of Christ is imperfectly symbolized when anyone departs before the
words of the formal dismissal are spoken. One would find it odd if
someone invited to a formal dinner arrived after the other guests had
already begun the first course or left before the dessert and words of
thanks offered by the host. Yet, too often the individualism of our
society so influences some Catholics that they see nothing wrong in
arriving late for Mass or leaving the community’s celebration early,
often for trivial reasons.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
reminds all Christians that the liturgy is the “summit” and “font” of
Christian life (no. 10). It also enjoins bishops and parish priests to
help the faithful participate fully in the liturgy, actively engaged in
the liturgical rites (no. 11). St. John
reminds us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (Jn 3:16
As a people of faith, it is our privilege and duty to participate as
fully as possible with Christ our brother in giving thanks to our loving
God for the gift of his son. Such active participation during the
liturgy is far from being an optional “add-on” during Mass, for it is at
the core of what being a Christian is all about.