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Composure and Participation
(Preparing Yourself For Mass (Sophia Institute Press))

Until now our attention has been directed mainly to the liturgical word. But Holy Mass does not consist only - even primarily - of words, although the Liturgy does include forms of divine service of which this is true: vespers, or choral prayer generally. The Mass, on the other hand, is fundamentally an act. The words the Lord used to establish it do not run: "Say this in memory of Me" or "consider, proclaim, praise what has taken place," but "do." True, the Mass begins as an oral service and stretches as such from the preparation at the foot of the altar to the Credo, and it resumes this nature toward the end (from the Communion to the Last Gospel). Between the two parts comes action: the gift-offerings are prepared; the mystery of the Transubstantiation is executed; the sacred nourishment is proffered and received. Thus the believer's task consists not only in hearing and speaking the text of the Mass but also in taking part in the sacred act, and once again the prerequisite of participation is inner composure.

Today it is not easy to speak of genuine participation. This is due largely to the development which the liturgy of the Lord's memorial has undergone. The first congregation was the group of disciples at table. This original form of community at table continued for a short time, as long as the congregations were very small. The Acts of the Apostles describe them: "And continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread in their houses, they took their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and being in favor with all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their company such as were to be saved." [1] Here all still participate directly in the execution of the sacred act: they sit together at table over the divine Supper. We get the same picture from the first Epistle to the Corinthians.[2]

Then, however, the congregations began to grow, and their numbers forced a new form on the sacred action. It lost its original, immediate character, and became stylized, transposed to the plane of the liturgical-sacramental. In place of the realistic act we now have its symbolic representation. Table became altar, and thereby lost something of its direct associations. A large number of people was less able to participate than a small number, and involuntarily the believer's attitude shifted to that of a mere observer. The whole became more and more sharply divided into two parts: here the altar on which the sacred act is ritually executed; there the people, aware that they are represented by the priest, but no longer actually seated at table. As time went on and the rooms for divine service became larger, the new form took over more consistently; today little remains of the original form - strictly speaking, only the collection after the Offertory and the communion rail.

Certain details of the early form of the Mass could undoubtedly be restored. The liturgical movement has achieved much, but much still remains to be done. First of all, without innovations and artificialities, the Offertory could be developed so that its original sense is thrown into sharper relief and the congregation could participate in it more fully. In general, however, historical development cannot be turned back. As long as congregations have the size they must have at present, the possibility of direct participation will necessarily remain limited. It is up to us to see to it that participation does not consist only of these outward details.

To participate means to share in the task of another. Here that other is the priest. He is not there for himself, but for the congregation. By means of the words he speaks and gestures he makes in the power of his office, something happens - through Christ. Everyone present is called upon to share in that happening. The priest responds to it, not privately for himself, but for all. And again all are invited to share in his invocation, celebration, adoration, pleading, and thanksgiving. The celebrant's actions radiate in all directions far beyond his personal life. This is so primarily that all may - and should - enter into them.

How does such entry take place? First of all, through the participants' vital awareness of what is happening. When the Offertory prayer is spoken and the priest uncovers the chalice, we should say to ourselves: "Now the gift-offerings with which the mystery will be celebrated are being prepared. What the Lord instructed His disciples to do when He told them to prepare for the Feast of the Passover, and what the first congregations did when each believer stepped forward with his offering of bread, wine, oil, is being done - now." Today all the preparations have been telescoped to the brief movements with which the priest lifts up the paten with the host and replaces it, receives the wine from the server, pours and mixes it with water, raises the chalice and puts it down again. [3]

Here we must realize that these few gifts on the altar stand for all that was formerly given and done in preparation for the Lord's supper, and for the needs of the poor brothers and sisters in Christ; whatever is done for the least of these is done "for Me." Something else belongs with the bread and wine: the money-offering of the faithful. I hesitate to add this, particularly in view of the often undignified manner in which the "jingle,bag" makes the rounds or coins clank into the box. Surely this matter could be managed differently; it should be, for the money represents the abundant, personal gifts once brought to the altar. A poor representative, to be sure! How much more alive this act was when one brought bread from his own oven, another a jug of wine, a third a jar of oil. Those offerings had a form and speech of their own. Now we have only cold coin. But we should neither lament what is past nor dream of future impossibilities; money is the modem substitute for goods. Hence our participation in the offering demands that this impoverished gesture be made as well as possible. We must not, for example, start fishing for our gift in church, breaking thereby the quiet of the ceremony. We should thoughtfully prepare our gift at home, and not in the spirit with which we respond to an irksome if not presumptuous demand, but in the spirit of a genuine offering, a sacrifice that we really feet. And when we place the money in the basket, let it be with reverence to God and with charity to all.

When the Sanctus has been spoken and the Canon of the Mass begins, we should remind ourselves: "Now I shall witness, indeed partake in, what the ancient Church called actio, the essential act." We must give our full attention to it. As soon as silence reigns once again [4] we should say to ourselves: "The Lord's last will and testament is being executed. He said: 'As often as you shall do these things, in memory of Me shall you do them.'" What happened in the room of the Last Supper is taking place here: Christ comes. He is present in His salutary love and in the destiny which it met. The priest acts, but we must act with him by being inwardly present, by watching him every moment at the altar table, identifying ourselves with his every gesture. (Thus I bring myself to a profound consciousness of what is taking place, a consciousness that can overflow into action - I can personally go up and receive the sacred food.)

Then comes the Agnus Dei. The priest says the prayer of preparation for Communion and partakes of the sacred food. He then shows the faithful the host saying: "Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world." And he gives it to those at the communion rail. Thus another of the Lord's commands is obeyed: "Take ye all and eat this." Alas, not as frequently as it might. Often the act itself is left out, and participation consists only in thinking and visualizing, attending, willing and loving, watching and sharing.

But this, too, is good and great, for the act of the spirit is as important - or more important - than movements of hands and feet. The priest acts and we act with him, following observantly, spiritually. Naturally, we must be genuinely active, not simply watchful. We must overcome the unconcern, sleepiness, indolence, and inertia which keep us from the sacred act so that we may enter into it vitally.

Composure alone enables us to do this. When the mind is not collected and the heart is restless and inattentive, the believer will be occasionally conscious of a word or gesture, or the bell will remind him that one of the high points of the Mass is at hand; never will he be in that state of active, watchful vitality which alone permits genuine participation. Liturgical action begins with learning composure. Everything else - the use of the missal, instruction about the meaning and history of the Mass, and the chorales - is important and fruitful only as long as it is rooted in self-collectedness.

Composure and the participation springing from it must be practiced. There is a much-aired opinion that only the prayer and religious act rising involuntarily from within are genuine. This is erroneous. Prayer and religious action are life. But life consists only partly in spontaneous acts; most of life is service and conscious effort, and both are at least as important as impulsive activity.

We so often use the phrase church service. Why don't we for once take it seriously? Service does not imply action overflowing naturally from an inner need, but rather action performed in obedience at the appointed time. When it is service in God's sight rather than man's, it is not only external action but also - and preeminently - inner action, participation. Hence divine serving must be learned and practiced over and over again so that it may become increasingly vigilant, profound, true. Then we shall be granted also that living experience which is beyond all willing and practicing. We shall be seized and so drawn into the act of salvation that we really exist in the memorial of the Lord, a work not of men, but of God. It is the imperishable reality of the salutary act, God, sent in the hour of the sacred ceremony which enters the world and time ever and again. Consciousness of this divine event is doubtless the greatest gift the Mass can give. It comes, however, only when God gives it. Our task lies in the effort and in loyalty of service. [5]


  1. Acts 2:46-47.
  2. 1 Cor. 10:15-17; 11:17-34
  3. The meaning of that part of the Mass which is called the Offertory is easily misconstrued. It has as yet nothing to do with the real sacrifice - Christ's offering of self in His salutary death - but is merely the preparation for the sacred banquet. What sacrifice it contains is of a very simple nature: formerly the faithful brought gifts so that from them the sacred meal might be prepared and the poor fed. This sacrifice consists then in the generosity and charity which the congregation contributes to the holy service of the altar and to their neighbors.
  4. How important it is that silence realy reign! Bell-ringing during Mass has become necessary - to our shame. It is meant to remind the faithful that something really important is soon to take place; it also implies that without the totally foreign intrusion of the bells the faithful would likely be unaware of it. Something precious - stillness - is destroyed by the sound. If the faithful, were, in fact, really composed, the ringing would be superfluous: any persistent wool-gatherer would be called back to attention by the thundering silence of the congregation, a far better signal than the jingling of bells.
  5. See my Vorschule des Bretens (Mainz: Matthias Grunewald Verlag, 1948).

"Preparing Yourself for Mass," by Romano Guardini, ch. 6
Copyright © 1939 Matthias Grünewald Verlag
English translation Copyright © 1993 Sophia Institute
Reprinted with the permission of Sophia Institute Press, Box 5284, Manchester, NH 03108; 1-800-888-9344.

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All contents © copyright, 1998-2019
The Catholic Liturgical Library