The Second Vatican Council was followed quickly by an explosion of lay liturgical ministries. Prior to the council, the sanctuary of every church had been clearly demarcated from the main body of the church by the presence of a Communion rail.
However, once the faithful began to receive Communion standing, some laity entered the sanctuary to serve as Eucharistic ministers and the Mass began with a procession from the back of the church, the Communion rail had become a hindrance.
The growth of these ministries has largely been a good thing. Having lay people read the Scriptures, for example, has helped solidify the notion that the liturgy is an act of the whole assembly.
However, when the council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy said the Church should encourage the full, conscious and active participation of the faithful, it was not calling for a growth in liturgical ministries by a few members of the parish.
Rather, it was saying such participation should occur in a manner "demanded by the very nature of the liturgy." That is, the liturgy is a re-presentation of the paschal mystery in which all the baptized are called to participate in Christ's act of redemption with all of their hearts and souls.
For the liturgy to be effective in our lives, all the people, not just a few, are called to participate. We do not make our own salvation, but rather find eternal life through sharing in the salvation Christ has merited for us.
Participation of the faithful in the liturgy is essentially a matter of developing the proper dispositions so that they may cooperate with heavenly grace.
The Constitution on the Liturgy is quite explicit about this. For a good liturgy, "something more is required than the laws governing valid and lawful celebration."
Rather, "in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds be attuned to their voices and that they cooperate with heavenly grace lest they receive it in vain" (n. 11).
What lies behind this paragraph? One feature of the Tridentine Mass was the physical and psychological distance between the priest and the faithful. Even if the laity could hear the priest, they couldn't necessarily understand him given that the Mass was "said" in Latin.
So, many of the faithful prayed the rosary or other devotions in parallel with the Mass. As such, they did not, in any meaningful way, participate in the liturgy.
From the priest's perspective, the Mass was mainly about rubrics - precisely following the numerous minute regulations of how to celebrate the Mass. Eliciting the conscious participation of the faithful was not seen as part of what the celebrant had to do.
The 20th century Liturgical Movement set out to change that and the general thrust of the movement was accepted by Pope Pius XII.
Vatican II's Constitution on the Liturgy underlined with red ink the importance of the full participation of all in the Mass. "The Church earnestly desires that Christ's faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators," it stated (n. 48).
The faithful should be brought to understand the rites and prayers of the liturgy, "conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration," it said. They should be instructed by God's Word, receive Holy Communion, give thanks to God and offer themselves to God during the Mass.
"Through Christ, the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and each other, so that finally God may be all in all" (n. 48).
One may question the extent to which this lofty goal has been achieved in the 47 years since the end of Vatican II. It can be difficult to give one's full attention to the prayers, the readings and the homily throughout the Mass.
All of us bring our personal barriers to this full, conscious and active participation - personal worries and cares that can distract us as well as a basic lack of understanding of the liturgy and of Scripture.
Nevertheless, the central goal of the reform of the liturgy is the fostering of attentive minds and hearts united with Christ during the Eucharistic celebration.
Less than three months after the promulgation of the liturgy constitution, Pope Paul VI issued a document enacting some liturgical reforms and stating, "We appeal insistently to bishops of dioceses to set at once about teaching their people the power and interior worth of the sacred liturgy."
For the paschal mystery to be brought to its fullest culmination, the lay faithful need to bring their cares and sacrifices to the liturgy and then to engage their hearts and minds fully in the liturgical action. This is what the fathers of Vatican II meant by full, conscious and active participation, a participation "which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy" (n. 14).