Life to the Full: Active Participation in the Liturgy

Canon Pat Hartnett explores how we can participate more deeply in the Mass and shows us the fruits of this richer engagement for our faith and biblical understanding.

icon-home » Education » Secondary Schools » Life to the Full: Active Participat...


I have come that you may have life to the full. (John 10: 10b).

What does this quotation from John’s Gospel mean when we reflect on the Mass? And how do we experience ‘full, conscious and active participation in the Liturgy’?

In the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium it talks of being fed and nourished at the table of the Word and the table of the Eucharist.  That Word needs to be broken open for people so that like the disciples on the road to Emmaus we can say: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he opened the scriptures to us.’  (Luke 24: 32).

Paragraph 48 of Sacrosanctum Concilium states:

‘Christ’s faithful when present at the Eucharist… should be instructed by God’s Word and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s body; they should give thanks to God; by offering the immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should also learn to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect unity with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all.’

We need a deeper understanding of the parts of Mass so that we can truly participate in the Liturgy rather than simply remain as passive observers. This requires a deeper sense of reciprocal presence, not just the real presence of the risen Christ in Word, sacrament and fellowship, but also in our conscious presence and engagement.

So here’s an overview of how Mass works and its Scriptural foundations to help you deepen your faith, your understanding and participation in the Eucharist.


The beginning of Mass opens with the procession of the priest and ministers through the congregation to the Sanctuary. This symbolises the gathering of the whole pilgrim people of God from all our different lives and realities to encounter Christ together. He who will come among us in Word and Sacrament makes us one in him.

Prior to this action the congregation are a group of people waiting for the Liturgy to begin. 
By processing through the congregation the priest is preparing the people for worship.  This congregation are the gathered people of God preparing to encounter Christ through Word and Eucharist.


Nehemiah 8: 2-6; 8-10

What is happening to the people gathered to hear the Word of God? 
What do you think the people are thinking about? 
What joys and sorrows do they bring? 

As we gather to worship we bring with us all that we celebrate and are thankful for, as well as all that weighs us down and that troubles us.

We prepare ourselves to bring all these things to God, offering our whole being.


As we gather to celebrate the Eucharist we reflect on how we experience God’s mercy. We acknowledge that we are a healed, forgiven and reconciled people, gathered by God’s grace and not by our own strengths.

St. John in his first Letter tells us: ‘This is the love I mean not our love for God but God’s love for us.’ (1 John 4:10) 

Where do you need to experience the mercy of God? 

As we prepare to encounter Christ in Word and Eucharist we want to experience the healing we need that only God’s mercy brings.  There is always the invitation from God: ‘Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28)


Revelation 3: 20-22

As we prepare to celebrate the Eucharist let us open the door of our hearts and welcome the Lord for food and nourishment. Let us experience the healing presence of the Lord. 

What would prevent you from turning to God’s mercy?

The Gloria is said or sung to give praise to God for all he has done for us and all that he gives us.

The Collect Prayer is when we pause in silence and reflect on what we need to bring to the Lord in this Mass.  The priest then gathers all our intentions to include them in the Opening Prayer of the Mass.


During the Ordinary Sundays of the year we listen to the first reading which comes from the Old Testament.  The Psalm reflects a theme or themes from that reading.  The second reading is always from one of the Letters in the New Testament usually from St. Paul.  Over a period of weeks we listen to the whole of that Letter.  The Gospel is linked to the Old Testament reading.  The seasons of Advent, Christmastide, Lent and Easter have readings relating to those seasons. 

It is important to listen to the Word of God. Silence after each reading helps us to listen more carefully to what God is saying to us as individuals and as a community. Our attitude during the Liturgy of the Word is one of attentive, expectant listening. Through his Word, God may have a message for us.  Let us listen with a disciple’s ear. 

If you are able to, it would be good to have read the readings prior to coming to Mass so that you are allowing that Word to speak to your heart. 


Luke 4: 16–22

Notice how attentive the people are as Jesus reads the Scriptures.  We need that stillness. silence and openness to be touched by the proclamation of God’s Word. 

What would help you to encounter Christ in his Word?


The preacher breaks open the word so that its relevance to the lives of our community at this point becomes clearer. The Word of God is alive and active as the author of the Letter to Hebrews tells.  That Word is as relevant today as it was when the inspired scribe put pen to paper. 

After the Homily a short silence is again encouraged to enable us to reflect on what we have heard more prayerfully. And to allow the Word of God to dwell in our hearts.

It is useful to take home the Mass sheet with the readings printed on it.  Praying and meditating on that Word during the week allows the Holy Spirit to draw us deeper in understanding of what God is saying to us.


The bread and wine is usually brought to the Altar in procession.  This gesture is to show that as the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the Altar so we too bring all that we want to offer to God in this Mass; our lives, our gifts and talents.  Just as the bread and wine will be changed, transformed into Christ’s Body and Blood so may our lives be transformed as we participate in the Liturgy.  This is another way where we participate fully in the celebration.  We are not bystanders but participants. And our participation is both inward and outward.


Luke 19: 1–10

This is a wonderful story of a person’s encounter with Jesus.  Jesus sees beyond Zacchaeus’ well known sins and failings.  He sees what he could become.  Jesus stays with him and enters the intimacy of his home. As a result of this encounter Zacchaeus is transformed. 

Do I allow the Lord to see beyond my failings and allow him to transform me?


The Preface reminds us of what God has done for his creation, and what he is doing now. We are then invited to join the angels and saints in a cosmic hymn of praise. What a wonderful image of this congregation being invited to join the angels and saints in praising our heavenly Father. 

The Eucharistic prayer is a wonderful prayer to reflect on. 
Take some time in praying that prayer and rejoice in what it is revealing to us.

In every Mass, the Holy Spirit is invited to come upon the gifts of bread and wine that they may be transformed.  The gesture of the priest placing his hands over the gifts reminds us of many aspects of the great Bible story:

God creating the world;
Mary being asked to be the Mother of God;
The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost;
The laying on of hands in the Sacraments;
The many occasions when Jesus laid his hands on the sick and forgave sinners;
The many times the disciples were prayed over before a mission.

The Amen at the end of the Preface is our chance to say ‘yes’ to everything we have heard.  During this prayer we have a sense of being taken up and are part of the drama unfolding.


1 Corinthians 11: 23–27

The actions of taking, blessing, breaking and giving, take place particularly in the Liturgy of the Eucharist but these actions recur throughout the Mass.  They are the actions that form us gradually as a Eucharistic people.  He takes us and blesses us through the sacraments and the many graces he bestows upon us.  He breaks us of our failings and sinfulness and sends us forth from Mass to live out that which we have celebrated.


We have already received from the table of the Word.  As we process to receive Holy Communion it is recommended that some simple chant should be sung which is linked to the Liturgy of the Word, to remind us that we now prepare ourselves to be fed with the Eucharist.  To process reminds us that we are a pilgrim people on a journey. 

Silence after Holy Communion is important showing the link with the silence at the end of the Liturgy of the Word.  These moments of silence are important in our Liturgy.  It gives God a chance to speak to our hearts.

The Bishops of England and Wales have produced a document highlighting silence in the Liturgy. The link is at the end of this article.

The Dismissal at the end of Mass instructs us to go out and put into practice what we have celebrated.  We are to be a light in the darkness and salt of the earth. We are to become what we have received. This also means living the gospel values of our shared communion: feeding the poor, visiting the sick, and challenging the many injustices we encounter wherever we live. Our participation continues to be both inward and outward as we leave the Church door.

The Liturgy therefore, enables us to encounter God within our hearts and minds, our bodies and our lips. It invites all our senses to praise and worship our Maker. Our responses whether silent or aloud articulate the many levels of our being, reflecting the immanent as well as the transcendent within our faith.  Not only this but our participation is both individual and communal. So while we may come to Mass alone, our shared experience brings us together in faith.


Luke 24: 13–35

Reflect on this passage and see the connection with our celebration of Mass.  The disciples encountered Christ in Word and Eucharist.  Share your journey of encounter with someone you trust.

Further reading:

The Place of Silence in the Liturgy –

Sacrosanctum Conciliam –

Sacramentum Caritatis –

The Very Reverend Canon Pat Hartnett EV is a priest of Middlesbrough Diocese, Parish Priest of All Saints Church, Thirsk; and Episcopal Vicar for Spirituality and Worship.

Image: © Mazur/