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Father Pivarnik Delves Deeper into Liturgical Participation

pivarnik,-gabriel-fr.jpgRev. Gabriel Pivarnik, O.P., assistant professor of theology and director of the Providence College Center for Catholic and Dominican Studies, has taken on a subject that few scholars have investigated deeply over the last half century — the participation of the laity in the liturgy.

In his new book, Toward a Trinitarian Theology of Liturgical Participation (Liturgical Press, 2013), Father Pivarnik identifies the major theological developments in the concept of active participation of the last century and demonstrates how liturgical participation can be viewed, in various ways, through the lens of a Trinitarian narrative.

Why write this book? What interested you in the topic?
I have always had this kind of fascination with how sacraments might work — that is, why do they make a difference in our lives as believers? Because of that interest, I had started years ago looking at the way the Trinity might act in the world, vis-á-vis the sacraments, and kept being drawn more and more into the concept of participation. The early church often spoke of participating in Christ or participating in the Triune God, and I began to wonder what the connection was between our participation in the liturgy and our participation in God, since the former is seen as the vehicle by which the latter happens. 

What is the book about?
Half a century after the Second Vatican Council called for the active participation of the laity in the liturgy, a comprehensive theology of what liturgical participation actually means remains elusive. While most sacramental studies have highlighted the role and action of Christ, the conciliar reform and the theology that emanated from it call for a deeper Trinitarian understanding of the liturgy and sacraments.

In my book, I have tried to identify the major theological developments in the concept of active participation of the last century, most notably in Mediator Dei and the Vatican II documents. Perhaps more importantly, I also considered how those different developments were received by theologians. Drawing especially on the work of Cipriano Vagaggini and Edward Kilmartin, I demonstrate how liturgical participation can be viewed in metaphysical, soteriological, and ecclesiological terms through the lens of a Trinitarian narrative.

What is liturgical participation and why is there an emphasis on it?
Liturgical participation, roughly speaking, refers to the manner in which the average believers participate in the liturgy — for most people, this simply means, “What we do at Mass.” But, it also implies our participation in every sacramental or liturgical celebration (a wedding, a baptism, confession, etc.). For roughly 60 years before the Vatican II Council convened, there had been a growing movement to highlight liturgical participation. What Vatican II did is make the concept normative: the reform of the liturgy after the Council was guided by a principle of “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy. In some ways, this move coincides with the Council’s emphasis on the “People of God” and the role of the lay person in living out his or her faith. 

While conducting research for the book, was there anything that surprised you or that you found particularly interesting?
1tttpivarnik.jpgI think that the thing that really surprised me was the lack of scholarship on the concept of participation after the Council. There is really a poverty of dialogue and discourse on the topic. One would think that if this was a guiding norm, there would have been more of an attempt to theologize about it. But, what most people do not realize, and I certainly did not, was that most of the real work in trying to unpack the term “participation” happened in the two decades before the Council — I certainly didn’t know that before I started. By the time you get to the Council, most theologians and bishops who were present were pretty set on their meaning and understanding of the term. We run into issues only decades later. Because there was so little writing about this in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no set understanding on the part of the faithful or later theologians by the time you get to the year 2000.

The year 2003 marked the 100th anniversary of the first time “active participation” was used in a church document to refer to the participation of the laity in the liturgy. Ironically, in the same year, most people didn’t really know what the fullness of that term implied. That year, because of the anniversary, saw a variety of conferences and symposiums on “active participation” and many talked about reclaiming the full meaning of the phrase.

The other thing that fascinates me about this topic is how it opens the door to talk about so many other theological arenas. In one way, that was the purpose of this book. I speak of building something “toward a Trinitarian theology of liturgical participation” because so much more work needs to be done. In the end, I posit that there are three main areas where new work really needs to focus: connecting the Trinitarian language used in both Baptism and Eucharist, grappling with trying to understand how we can speak about an active presence of the Holy Spirit, and thrusting eschatology (the study of end times, the Final Kingdom) back into the discussion of participation as a guiding principle. 

What do you want readers to take from the book? What do you hope they take?
I want them to see that “active participation” or “liturgical participation” is multivalent. It contains a huge series of metaphoric meanings that all need to work together in order to understand it properly. I think having this fuller expression in one’s “wheelhouse” allows us to approach the liturgy differently and thereby “participate” at a deeper and more fundamental level. I argue that participation occurs in various orders: at the level of being, at the level of salvation, at the level of communion, at the level of action, and even at the level of purpose (the “WHY” of it all).

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