How many times have I heard priests exclaim their enthusiasm for ‘full participation’ at Mass. It is a kind of modern Catholic mantra. Indeed, not only a Catholic mantra, it has become an ideological slogan before which all must bow. So, in the name of ‘full participation’ we have overturned 2000 years of church architectural tradition and built round churches, fan shaped churches, churches that are auditoria, churches that are circus tents, churches that are stadiums–all in an attempt to get as many people as close as possible to the altar as if proximity to the altar constitutes full participation.

The tradition of sacred music has fallen to this revolutionary creed as well. Down with Gregorian chant and classic hymns and the venerable music of the liturgy and up with tacky songs with sentimental semi heretical lyrics. More often than not this music is imposed on the people. Every kind of secular style of music has entered the sanctuary in an attempt to get ‘full participation’ and all of it has been imposed by well meaning ideologues–and the irony of it is that these are the same people who claim to be democratic and ‘listening to the voice of the people of God’.

And has it worked? I have celebrated Mass at churches where an eager liturgy director (usually an ex-nun or priest) waves his arms about and brings the energy and fake enthusiasm of a Broadway dancer to his task and still the hymnbooks stay in the pew rack, the arms remain folded on the chest, the lips remain firmly closed and the expression of bored frustration remains stamped on the faces of the faithful. I’ve seen the priests celebrate Mass with the ‘game show host’ style of liturgy–all false bonhomie and dumbed down cheerfulness–and his efforts are still met with solid, silent animosity. “Do what you like Father. You won’t get me to open my mouth.”

After experiencing my own frustration at expecting congregations to sing hymns I am beginning to come around to their point of view. Let us stand things on their head and really listen to the ‘voice of the faithful’ and ask ourselves whether they might actually be right. Maybe their instincts to be silent at Mass and not sing or wave their arms about or hug people are right. Maybe they know more about it in their blissful ignorance than we do with all our good ideas about ‘full participation’.

Maybe what the faithful actually want is not wonderful orgasmic hymns and breath taking music. Maybe what they want is a quiet, dignified Mass with a simple, skilled choir or schola. Maybe what they want–even if they don’t know it–is a Mass where they simply watch and pray and listen and wonder at the mystery of what is going on at the altar. Maybe they are ‘fully participating’ in this way and who am I to judge? So I am moving increasingly to the position that I will let the people do what they want at Mass. I will encourage them and direct them, but I will not dictate my views or my tastes and impose them. I will simply say the black and do the red and preach the gospel and try to be a priest not an entertainer.

I also notice how few people in the congregation come out to extra meetings and seminars and services and lectures and Bible studies and all these other goodies we lay on. The attendance is very poor. Where is the ‘full participation’? Well, maybe again the faithful have it right and they are going out from Mass on Sundays to try to live their faith in the workplace, at home, at school and wherever the path of life leads them that week.

If I am right, then suddenly I understand “full participation at Mass” I am there fully and completely and attentively in body, mind and Spirit. I am caught up with the action of the Mass and the transaction between earth and heaven. My whole being is participating in what is going on and as I receive my Lord–Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity–I am fully participating in that sublime and contemplative action of Grace.

Then as I go out into the world, by that same grace, my life is transformed and I am a light in the darkness and the grace of the Son becomes incarnate in my life and I fully participate in a whole life that fully participates in the life of Christ–and if this is what is happening a far, far greater thing is taking place than some priest and music director forcing me to sing Eagles’ Wings for the umpteenth time.