“Active participation” not activity

Father Aaron Williams

By Father Aaron Williams
In my previous article, I introduced the topic of the Solemn Liturgy as envisioned by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. Now, I wish to begin considering certain elements which the Council Fathers named as essential to that form of worship: the first and most fundamental of which is the active participation of the faithful. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, states, “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (14). The question, however, is how we are to define what constitutes this sort of participation. In recent years, it has been the trend to attempt to meet this standard of participation by making ‘jobs’ for people at Mass — a large number of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, dividing readings into sections particularly at school Masses so that several students can each read a portion, or only using musical selections which the congregation can easily sing without preparation.
While there is certainly legitimate room for lay participation in the liturgy in certain specific roles, the vision of the Second Vatican Council cannot be reduced to mere “activity”— such that we only consider people to be actively participating in the Mass if they have some particular and individual task. The Sacred Liturgy is the foremost place where we express the unity of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ and thus the greatest participation in the liturgy can only be expressed in those ways that the Body acts as a whole and not as individual functionaries.
When the term “active participation” first appeared in a Papal document, it was in 1903 when Pope Saint Pius X wrote to the faithful in the Diocese of Rome in order to encourage a greater and active participation, particularly by chanting the dialogues and responses at Mass.
In most places today, parishes never experience this sort of participation. But, Pope Pius X considered it a beautiful and fundamental expression of the unity of the Church to see the priest and faithful elevate their various dialogues into song—the chanting of the greeting (“The Lord be with you”) or the Preface of the Mass, as well as the various texts of the Ordinary (the “Gloria” or the “Sanctus”). But, more than that, his later successor, Pope Pius XII, commended the faithful to a participation which unified the mind to the voice. It was his desire that the faithful prepare themselves first by learning about the Mass and the articles of the faith that the liturgy expresses, so that when they make their responses at Mass, they do so with a real interior spirit of faith. To this end, he encouraged the publication of personal missals containing the readings and prayers of the Mass so the faithful could study them before Mass and pray with them during the Mass as a way of mentally joining themselves to the prayers that the priest speaks aloud in their name.
Pope Saint John Paul II underlined that participation in the liturgy is much more than speaking or gestures, but can even be deeply spiritual in the form of meditative silence. He says, “Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active.”
What is truly regrettable, is that in the modern experience of the liturgy, many parishes treat the aim of active participation as a requirement to get people “involved” in various roles. But, this is really at its heart a hidden form of clericalism, or at least a lack of true understanding of the lay vocation to holiness. It is not just the sort of recognizable ministerial “roles” at the Mass which make us holy, as if the lay faithful “miss out” on something deeply spiritual by not taking on particular tasks, or as if only the priest has access to the highest form of participation. Rather, true participation — even on the part of the priest — requires a spiritual closeness to the Lord in the Mass.
For this, we should take as our model the Blessed Virgin Mary. She gives the greatest image of active participation by her quiet observance of the Crucifixion. It was not her who was nailed to the Cross, but her own participation was heightened and perfected by uniting her heart to the sacrifice of her Son. It should be our aim above all else that, in the Mass, we can achieve this level of participation by our awareness of the prayers and readings, our interior prayer, our disciplined preparation before Mass. We are not mere spectators, nor are we actors — we are members of the Body of Christ in the Mass and the members of the Body must be united in their heart to the mind of the Head, who is Christ the Lord.

(Father Aaron Williams is the parochial vicar at Greenville St. Joseph Parish and serves as the liaison to seminarians for the Office of Vocations.)

Lessons from a president’s funeral

Father Aaron Williams

By Father Aaron Williams
Last month, the nation paid witness to the state funeral of President George H.W. Bush. It was a solemn occasion, especially the funeral service itself, held in the Episcopalian National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. But, watching this funeral service, I was reminded of a funeral of another president that happened a several years before I was born — yet one I have been able to watch online (more than once).
When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, an event occurred in this nation that has never occurred before nor occurred since: the state funeral of a Catholic president. But, that funeral Mass in comparison to many of the more recent funerals of non-Catholic presidents, is actually pretty disappointing. It was a Pontifical Low Mass. We don’t really have those distinctions anymore, but before the liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council there was a classification of different types of Masses which most people just called “Low” or “High” Mass.
In a high Mass, everything is sung. Sometimes you even have a solemn high Mass when the priest is assisted by a full gambit of ministers — a deacon and a subdeacon. But, in a low Mass nothing is sung — or at least, nothing of the texts of the Mass itself are sung. They are all spoken by the priest: the readings, the dialogues, the chants. All spoken. Exceptions were made in the early 1900s to allow vernacular hymns to be sung over the Mass itself while the priest spoke the actual texts of the Mass simultaneously.
And, this is the state funeral that was given to President John F. Kennedy. A low Mass, celebrated by a bishop (and therefore a ‘pontifical’ low Mass). One can go online and look up the video and hear Cardinal Cushing rattle off the Latin of the Mass in his Bostonian accent while various operatic voices sing settings of “Ave Maria” over and over again. The most comedic moment, in my opinion, is when the organ plays a light interlude during the procession as Cardinal Cushing walks down the aisle holding a piece of letter paper and mumbling the words of Psalm 51 to himself in pace so fast that it is entirely unintelligible.
The Second Vatican Council, in promoting the renewal and restoration of the Sacred Liturgy desired that elements of the liturgy be simplified, not so that the liturgy may become lackluster but so that the solemn liturgy would be more readily available to the faithful in the average parish. But, has this been the result?
Despite my harsh critique of President Kennedy’s funeral Mass, most Catholics alive today have never experienced anything more than a low Mass — or at least its equivalent. At best, they have experienced some elements of the solemn liturgy using sparingly on really important feast days. But the true solemn liturgy, the liturgy which was so earnestly promoted by the Second Vatican Council, has all but disappeared in the world today. Instead, most parishes always speak all the texts of the Mass, and then the choir tosses a few choice hymn over the Mass for good measure. Its really just a low Mass.
But, one remarkable thing that is being seen today is that, especially amongst young people, a trend is developing of a desire to restore the solemnity to the Sacred Liturgy. And, people are quick to try to make this into a political argument. They say that young people today are “romantic” over an “ideal” liturgical time that really didn’t exist. They want to “return” to something that they don’t really know about.
But, the reality that I have experienced in young people today is really quite different. Young people want a higher bar. They are not looking to turn back the clock. In fact, they are looking to go even further — and to see the vision of the Second Vatican Council fully realized. But that vision, when you actually look at the documents of Vatican II, is far different than what we have today or what we might imagine. It is certainly not a Pontifical Low Mass.
The solemn liturgy of the Church makes use of the greatest meeting of tradition and culture imaginable. Tradition, because the liturgy employs elements from ancient Christianity, yet hands them on to us polished and ready to be used again; and, culture, because the liturgy takes the best of modern talent and efforts and makes them fitting for sacred worship as well.
Over the next few articles, I would like to delve into the elements which the Second Vatican Council itself proposed as necessary to the solemn liturgy — why they are necessary, why we should seek to promote them, and how that can be done.

(Father Aaron Williams is the parochial vicar at Greenville St. Joseph Parish and serves as the liaison to seminarians for the Office of Vocations.)

People look east

Father Aaron Williams

By Father Aaron Williams
The Advent season is one of my favorite seasons of the year — mainly because of the texts used in the liturgy during this time of expectation and hope. One of my favorite lines in the breviary during this season comes on the Second Sunday of Advent. “The Lord will surely come and will not be late; if he seems to delay, wait for him.” Another ancient text for Advent speaks of looking to Christ coming on the last day. “I look from afar: and lo, I see the power of God coming and a cloud covering the whole earth.”
Advent has always been a time of double-expectation. On one hand, we are expectant of the birth of Christ on Christmas day. But, on the other we are hopeful for the final return of our Lord in the end. Of that day, Christ says, “Just as lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Christian tradition has always associated the East with the coming of Christ. We can even make a simile of it: Christ the Rising Son will come as the rising of the sun.
For this reason, Christian worship from ancient times was even oriented physically towards the east. Many of our Churches are built so that the faithful face East in their pews. Old Catholic cemeteries were often designed so that the grave plots faced East — giving a sign that even the dead remain hopeful for the return of Christ. For the majority of liturgical history, Catholic worship was always totally oriented towards the East with even the priest facing towards the rear wall of the Church where there was an image of Christ displayed — both priest and faithful looking hopefully towards Christ.
In the reformed liturgy, room was given in the new missal to allow priests to begin celebrating the Mass facing the people. This became popular throughout the world, and with the exception of some chapels and churches without free-standing altars, has nearly become the entirely universal practice in the Roman Church today. It is worth mentioning, however, that even in the modern form of the Mass where such a face-to-face orientation is allowed (and common), Eastward celebration by the celebrant was never outlawed. On the contrary, even the modern Roman Missal assumes this orientation and gives directions to the priest as to when he should momentarily turn around at various points in the Mass in order to address the faithful behind him.
In fact, in recent years, some high-ranking officials in the Church, including Robert Cardinal Sarah — the head of the Vatican’s own liturgy office — have encouraged priests to reconsider this ancient posture. Even the former chairman of the U.S. Bishop’s office of Divine Worship, Bishop Arthur Serratelli, wrote a letter to all the bishops of the United States last year where he underscored that this was a legitimate option even in today’s liturgy, though adding that such a decision should take into account the spirit of the parish and the vision of the bishop in his own diocese. In other Christian liturgical rites (such as the Eastern/Greek liturgy), Eastward orientation is still the assumed and required posture.
So, while I would certainly underscore Bishop Serratelli’s comment regarding the pastoral considerations such a decision should require, it is helpful to look upon this ancient custom with a true understanding of its meaning. Regrettably, most people associate this posture with a sort of “clerical” understanding of the Church, where priests are disinterested with he faithful and thus approach the Mass with their “backs facing them.” But, this is not a helpful perspective on our own rich liturgical history, which is far more rooted in theological ideas than such base considerations.
For our own purposes, perhaps during this Advent season we can encourage a spirit of “Eastward worship” in our own homes by making sure there is a dedicated focus for prayer — a crucifix or a holy image. Families can gather and pray together before these images, and remain hopeful for the coming of Christ the Lord in all his glory.

(Father Aaron Williams is the parochial vicar at Greenville St. Joseph Parish and serves as the liaison to seminarians for the Office of Vocations.)

Scripture’s place in liturgy

Spirit and truth

Father Aaron Williams

By Father Aaron Williams
Fifty-five years ago, when the Second Vatican Council promulgated the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), there was a great move in the Church for an increased emphasis on the role of Sacred Scripture in the lives of Catholics. The Council, at that time, called for a reworking of the lectionary readings in order to allow for a wider selection of scripture to be read in the Mass. In order to meet this demand, a three-year cycle of readings was developed and a third reading was added to the Mass on Sundays and Feast days — thus allowing for a much wider exposure of Sacred Scripture to the faithful at weekend Masses.
But, I am not sure if many Catholics understand the structure of the modern lectionary. Besides simply giving us more varied readings, the new lectionary also gives a sort of systematic approach to reading the Bible, by demonstrating both the way that the New Testament is a fulfillment of the Old, and also by providing a community with a more continuous reading of various passages. So, I thought it would be helpful to give insight into this structure, as well as provide a few comments on other ways the Scriptures may be opened to us in all our liturgical gatherings.
Generally speaking, the Gospel readings of the lectionary during the three-year cycle are taken from the Gospel of Matthew (in year A), Mark (in year B), and Luke (in year C). The Gospel of John, as is tradition in the Church, is reserved to major feasts of the Church — except during the summer of year B when six weeks are devoted to the reading of the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse from John’s Gospel (as we just completed a few weeks ago).
During Ordinary Time, these passages from the Gospel are read semi-continuously. In other words, they generally flow one story to the next as laid out in the Gospels, so that if we are paying attention we will hear the full story over the thirty-four weeks of Ordinary time in the Church’s liturgical year. During this time as well, the first reading at Sunday Masses is selected to as to comment on the Gospel. In this way, the Gospel demonstrates the fulfillment of the passage chosen as the first reading. The psalm of this Mass is chosen to comment on the first reading. For this reason, when I prepare my homilies, I always read the Gospel first, then the first reading, and then the psalm.
The second reading is always a passage from an Epistle (a New Testament letter). During Ordinary Time, these passages are also read semi-continuously. That means that the second reading is selected not to comment on any other reading that day, but to simply be read from start to finish as its own separate text. This essentially means that a priest could choose for three years to focus just on the Gospel and first reading, and then for the next three years to focus on the epistles — providing a six year rotation of readings. (That’s one term as a pastor!)
In the other seasons of the year, all the readings are selected thematically in order to represent a unified expression of the mystery of that particular feast or season.
Another area where Sacred Scripture is used in the liturgy, which is less-commonly seen in parishes today, are the texts chosen as antiphons. An antiphon is a short passage of scripture which is traditionally sung at various moments of the Mass. The Roman Missal gives antiphons for each Mass at the Entrance and at Communion. The chant editions published by the Church also give antiphons at the offertory. Some parishes may read these texts at daily Mass, but they are intended to be sung — and many settings of these texts are available today from various publishers (even for free).
The benefit of these texts is that often they are chosen to comment on the particular mystery being celebrated, or to reflect the readings. In this way, they are sort of an extension of the lectionary. During Ordinary time, for example, the Communion Antiphons on Sunday are selected to comment on the Gospel passage read that day. Sometimes they are even direct excerpts in order to remind us that the presence of Christ and his works which we heard in scripture is now made manifest to us in the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist.
The Entrance Antiphons are beautiful passages given to introduce the feast. Thus, on Christmas morning we hear: “A child is born for us, and a son is given to us” (Is., 9:5). Or, on Easter Sunday: “I have risen, and I am with you still, alleluia. You have laid your hand upon me, alleluia, too wonderful for me, this knowledge, alleluia, alleluia.” (cf. Ps. 139:18, 5-6).

(Father Aaron Williams is the parochial vicar at Greenville St. Joseph Parish.)

Unwrapping God’s supreme gift: Eucharist

Father Aaron Williams

Spirit and truth
By Father Aaron Williams
The Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist is our Lord’s supreme gift to us. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council rightly called it the “source and summit of the Christian life.” Pope Francis calls the Eucharist the “Living Memorial of [God’s] love.” It is both the promise and the means of friendship with the Lord.
It is the most precious treasure of the Church — even martyrdom pales in comparison to its glory. And, therefore, it is rightly the heart and center of our lives. Our Lord himself declares that, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” In the Holy Eucharist, our Lord unites us to Himself in a spiritual and physical manner, such that it is a true communion: He in us, and we in Him.
It is truly regrettable that so many people — indeed, so many Catholics — do not have faith in this supreme Sacrament of our Lord. God has chosen to communicate His love for humanity in such a simple and human sign, but just as His Son was rejected and spurned, so too the Sacrament of His Son’s Body is not accepted by some Catholics. Of course, this is not often a vicious act. There are not a good number of Christians who would willingly and viciously reject something that is an apparent gift from God. They doubt this sign most often because they simply do not understand it.
And, in some small way, this is unsurprising. Surely, we might ask, if our Lord truly willed that all people be united to Him in this Sacrament, He would have given us something more conspicuous — something akin to the few extraordinary Eucharistic miracles in the Church’s long history. Surely, then all would come to believe — would they not? Why does the Lord desire to reveal Himself to us in signs? Why not with extraordinary displays?
In the words of Saint Josemaria, “Jesus hides in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar because He wants us to dare to approach Him.” God tells Moses, “You cannot see My Face; for no man shall see me and live.” And, Moses too, after approaching the Lord in the Tent of Meeting, hid his face, for the glory of the Lord upon him was too radiant for others to see. Even our Lord’s human Body is a veil of the radiant glory of God. The one moment when His human Body is visibly glorified — the Transfiguration — the Apostles fall down in terror and hide their faces.
But, in this Sacrament of our Lord’s Body, Christ desires not that we cower, but that we gaze upon Him in wonder — that we should look upon Him, and He upon us. Our Lord yearns that we should approach Him, receive Him into our very bodies, and become one with Him, just as He and the Father are One. And, therefore, Saint Thomas declares in the sequence he composed for the feast of Corpus Christi:
Here beneath these signs are hidden
priceless things, to sense forbidden;
signs, not things, are all we see.
Flesh from bread, and Blood from wine,
yet is Christ in either sin,
all entire confessed to be.
The Sacrament we experience in the Mass is truly a veil. Our own frailty might desire that Christ should make Himself known in perhaps a grander sign, or with a vivid display; but, what we may not grasp is the sheer love of God present for us in this sign.
And so, perhaps not totally comprehending this great Sacrament, but out of love for God, we approach the altar. We gaze upon the Lord with bended knee. We quietly contemplate His love for us as we see Him held aloft. And, we receive Him fully and truly into our bodies in this Sacrament, so that we may become one with Him. Christ hides behind this simple bread, not so that we may have trouble finding Him there, but that we should not be afraid to look for Him.
That is how great God’s love is for all of us. God has so humbled Himself to appear to us to be simple — to appear to us to be something we can hold, something we can receive into our mouth. The God who created the universe, contains Himself in this tiny Host, just so that we can contain Him. Receive Him like a child — like you received your own first Holy Communion. Receive this gift with awe and in wonder. Prepare yourself by confession and penance. And, never fail to give thanks to Almighty God. (Adapted from a homily given on June 3.)
(Father Aaron Williams is the parochial vicar at St. Joseph in Greenville.)

Q&A: Father Aaron Williams

Top left, Father Aaron Williams waits to be called by name at his ordination Mass. At right, Father Williams with his neices, Hadley and Eva Williams. At bottom left, Father Williams celebrates his first Mass at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle. (Photos by Maureen Smith and Tereza Ma)

Father Aaron Williams is a Jackson native who knew from his earliest memories that he wanted to be a priest. Chancellor Mary Woodward, who watched Father Williams grow up, allowed him to serve at a very young age. His family jokes that this was a way to make him sit still during Mass. He has one older brother, Matthew, and sister-in-law Marie, who have two girls, Ava and Hadley.
In addition to loving the liturgy, Father Williams is a life-long learner. “I attended St. Therese Catholic School for a few years and finished at St. Richard Catholic School. I did middle and high school at St. Joseph in Madison. After graduating from high school, I entered St. Joseph Seminary College in St. Benedict, Louisiana, where I earned a B.A. in Philosophy. From there I entered Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, where I earned an Masters in Divinity. I will complete the course requirements this summer to also earn a M.A. in Liturgical Studies from the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, Illinois,” he said.
Father Williams will share his love of learning with the students at Greenville St. Joseph School, where he will teach fifth and sixth grade this fall as well as serving as parochial vicar at St. Joseph Parish.
Father Williams’ mother, Julia is a long-time employee of the diocese, having worked at Madison St. Joseph School, the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle and now as the Human Resources coordinator for the Diocese of Jackson.

Home parish: The Cathedral of Saint Peter the Apostle
Favorite Saints and why?
Saint Philip Neri. He is a model of priestly zeal and joy. He was known both for his deep devotion to the Lord, but also the levity by which he handled himself. He was fiercely devoted to his friends, and sought to grow in love with the Lord by forming communities of other devoted persons around him who could work together in fraternity to spread the gospel message and offer fitting worship to God.
Do you have a favorite devotion, religious image or prayer and why?
I have a great love for the Divine Office. There are certain texts which pop up each year that I look forward to hearing again and again. My favorite prayer is the Suscipe of Saint Ignatius of Loyola — it entrusts the whole will to the Lord, confident that He will take care of us, and requests His grace as our only benefit. 

Who vested you at ordination and why?
Father Jeffrey Waldrep. He was my pastor when I entered seminary and provided me great help and encouragement in making that step.

Do you have any hobbies?
I am an organist and composer. I also enjoy reading theology and research, though I occasionally read or listen to a fictional book. Apart from that, I am a cyclist when time permits it and enjoy going out to see new movies.
In what parishes have you served?
St. Francis in Brookhaven, St. Mary’s in Yazoo and All Saints in Belzoni, St. Jude in Pearl, and St. Patrick and St. Joseph in Meridian.
Can you tell me a little about your vocation story ?
I’ve always wanted to be a priest. I began serving at the Cathedral when I was very young and began to love the Mass. This love was encouraged by my parents, pastors, members of the Cathedral, and my school teachers. Eventually I applied to the seminary in my senior year of high school.
Can you share something about yourself people may not know?
My first year at Notre Dame Seminary I published a volume containing English adaptations of the Gregorian Chants used for Vespers (Evening Prayer) on Sundays and Feasts during the academic year. It is the only book of it’s kind currently in existence. I have received multiple requests from religious communities and houses to finish the text to include the full liturgical year, but I have been unable to make time to respond to these requests.
What advice do you have for those discerning a vocation?
My generation has a tendency to see discernment (or all life decisions) as a sort of all-or-nothing consideration—one choice necessitates the closing of all other pathways. But, a true discernment is not a negative choice. We choose a certain path out of love for that life, and ultimately out of love for the Lord. Certainly there will be difficulties along the way, but love is powerful enough to drive us on despite the apparent sacrifices which will need to be made. But, we need not immediately consider all those sacrifices—they will come in time. Discernment in the present moment means to follow the movements of the heart, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. He will guide us into all truth, and we have no need to fear following Him wherever He leads.

Is there one part of priesthood in particular you are looking forward to?
I am looking forward to celebrating the Sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and hearing confessions.
What are you looking forward to about your first parish assignment?
I have a great love of teaching and sharing the faith. My assignment in Greenville will have me directly teaching in the elementary school and continually present in the high school.