The problem of Zombie-Robot parishioners and ‘active participation’.


Have you ever sat in Mass and felt like this?! I know I have. There have been many times where I have just zoned out. I realise the priest has got to the end of his sermon and I haven’t really heard a word because I was daydreaming.

I suppose it doesn’t help when most other people around you are doing the same thing. To my horror, I realise that I have become one of those legendary Zombie-like parishioners that I used to marvel at as a child.

I remember the droning monotone chorus of the congregation during the creed, the robotic expressionless handshake of peace, the lifeless melody of the organ with literally 2 people singing out of the entire congregation. The ones who used to hit the ESCAPE button and walk out straight after communion – I guess they’d fulfilled their weekly obligation right? And yet we, and the same other people used to turn up week after week and filter up the isle into the same old pews that we almost seemed to be pre-programmed to return to.

A congregation of mindless robots.


And it wasn’t as if our church wasn’t trying – they got the parishioners involved in the offertory procession, the choir, the readings and bidding prayers, they even got the children to go up onto the sanctuary during the consecration to see up close what the priest was doing. But still, before long it began to dawn on me that I really wasn’t getting anything out of Mass.

By age 13 I had stopped going. I just didn’t see the point. It was so boring. The people there were so boring. The final nail in the liturgical coffin for me was the ‘Teen’ mass. The cringeworthy band with their ‘Rock’ hymns, the priest trying to be cool, the fact that they were trying so hard to include and please us… It was just embarrassing.

I felt quite sorry for them in a way. I could see how hard the few motivated ones were trying to make it work, but it wasn’t cutting it. It didn’t have any interest whatsoever in going to a dead church full of robots. There was nothing in it for me.


It wasn’t until 5 years later, age 18, when I had my first ridiculously powerful, life changing personal encounter with Jesus after a failed suicide attempt that I began returning to Mass.

Because of that encounter, I suddenly realised that Jesus Christ was real, alive, and truly present in the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the Eucharist during Mass. In those first few weeks of returning to Church as a young adult, on my own, I remember how the words of the readings and the Holy Gospel would just fly accross the church out of the mouths of the readers and just penetrate my heart like a flaming spear. I remember getting butterflies in my tummy, and my heart racing as I approached Jesus in the Holy Eucharist for the first time in a long time. And I remember the gentle peace of Him, as He surrounded me with reassurance and calm during my first tentative steps of my conversion of heart, that I was wanted and loved by Him.

And yet, I was still surrounded by those loyal, yet long suffering mindless robots that surrounded me as a child. The droning creed, the robotic handshakes, the 2 lonely hymn singers… They were all still there! In some ways I found it quite funny 🙂 but I also found that it broke my heart. I was home, but my family were zombies.

I would just watch them week after week, just going through the motions. It was like they were asleep inside, while my heart was completely on fire for Jesus. I learned pretty quickly that I was not going to fit in.


After another 10 years or so I began my Catholic studies at Maryvale university, and for the first time ever came accross the term “active participation” in the Vatican 2 document Sacrosanctum conciliumthe Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. I learned here that one of the main aims of the day in and around the 1960’s was to get the laity to participate more in the Mass. I was amazed because I thought the robotic zombie parishioner was a modern phenomenon. It seems not.

The other bombshell I learned was that up until the late 1960’s, the priest always used to say Mass with his back to the congregation!! I couldn’t believe it! Why on earth would he do that? The Mass before the late 1960’s was very different. It was said in Latin, the priest had his back to the congregation, people used to kneel to receive Holy Eucharist and would only receive on the tongue. Women were required to cover their hair in church, members of the congregation would often say rosary during Mass if they didn’t understand the Latin. Things were really different.

I can really understand why people were calling for reform in the church and pushing the idea of the “active participation” of the laity in the Mass. How easy would it be to zone out during Mass if you were just sitting there not even able to understand the language? So the Council Fathers developed this idea of active participation:

“14. 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. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people” (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.” – Sacrosanctum concilium

Although it was never actually an official part of the reforming documents of Vatican 2, the radically new idea of the priest facing the people began to creep in a few years later. The idea behind this was to make the people in the congregation feel more welcome, more involved and for the first time ever they could see what the priest was doing on the altar. It was all aimed at moving towards this idea of active participation.


I can totally understand what they were trying to do in the late 1960’s, but 50 years later with obviously dwindling parishes, lack of religious vocations and widespread theological ignorance within the church, the million dollar question is:

Has this radical idea of active participation actually worked?

It was initially implemented to reduce parishioner zombification during Mass. But as i’m sure you will agree, the zombie robots are alive and well and STILL filling our churches today.



Now, as you have probably heard, Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, urged priests and bishops at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London on July 5 to start celebrating Masses ad orientem (with their back to the congregation) beginning on the first Sunday of Advent this year 2016.

This had caused uproar in the more progressive circles of the church as they believe it would take us back 5o years and undermine all the efforts made at active participation since then.

However I think they have got the wrong end of the stick here…

I think that it is pretty safe to say now that the active participation thing has not worked as intended. In all honestly, I think it has backfired massively and has actually drawn the people even further away from participating actively.

You see, the active participation that occurs currently is focused on outward signs and physical gestures. But this is not what active participation is meant to be. The true meaning is for the persons spirit to be actively involved in the mass, not though superficial things like carrying the offertory gifts, but to carry out our Baptismal ‘priestly’ role by offering our entire lives to God as Christ did on the Cross.

Of course it was never explained to me as a kid – or even as an adult that we are actually present at Calvary in real time during Mass. I never knew that. I also never realised that the Mass is something that is directed at God – not at the people. I never knew. The first time I realised that was during my first ever Tridentine (Traditional Latin) Mass where the priest had His back to me. When he lifted up the consecrated host with his back to me, I suddenly realised that Mass was not all about me. It was all about God.

We all face God. The priests offers the sacrifice on our behalf. Man is not the centre of the liturgy – Christ is.


During Mass, by right and duty of my Baptism, my job is to offer my whole life – joined to the eternal sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, to God.

Why oh why did no-one ever tell me this? How can anyone possibly be luke warm during Mass armed with this knowledge? THIS is the active participation that we are meant to be carrying out during Mass – not joining the priest on the sanctuary or clapping during the Gloria.

I can see now that all those external participations actually served as distractions that drew my attention away from what I should really have been concentrating on internally. Even the priest himself can become a distraction during Mass – especially if he is young and handsome (yes, this has happened to me before during Mass *cringe*).

So to cut a very long argument short – I can totally see where Cardinal Sarah is coming from. He is trying to move the focus of the Mass back to where it should be – onto Christ, and eliminate the many distractions that have crept into the liturgy over the years. He is also trying to educate us as to the real meaning of “active participation”.


There is one last thing…

Offering Mass this way would also be a wonderfully unitive thing to do with the Eastern Churches. They all offer Mass with the priest having his back to the congregation – they never changed. And as with everything in Catholic culture, this posture is highly symbolic. I spoke to my Byzantine friend who put it perfectly:

“Every movement in the Liturgy is symbolic. For instance, we face west during the exorcism part of the Baptism ceremony and then turn to the east (the altar) to declare our allegiance to Christ. It seems strange that the priest would face west to lead us in prayer/speaking to God on our behalf.”

Yes, that does seem strange when she puts it like that doesn’t it? I’m going to have to think more about that last part very, very carefully.



16 thoughts on “The problem of Zombie-Robot parishioners and ‘active participation’.

  1. Every time we come together as ‘church’ we should be experiencing a 1 Cor 14:26 type of meeting, where everybody’s needs are met and we can go away knowing that those needs have been met. That is not happening and many are going home, empty and unfulfilled. The New Testament concept of church is that of a body ministry, not one person acting on behalf of the people like in the Tabernacle of Moses.
    In the time of David there were two tabernacles operating at the same time for a period of about 30 years. the Tabernacle of Moses which was in Shiloh had the Outer Court, the Holy Place and furnishings along with the veil but no Ark of God. There were daily animal sacrifices and everything was silent and formal and one man experienced the presence of God on behalf of all the people.
    In the 1st apostolic letter, James in Acts 15, who was the Bishop of Jerusalem at this time in quoting from the prophet (Amos 9: 11) speaks of a restoration of the HOUSE OF DAVID. THE HOUSE OF DAVID is where David exercised his Kingly role in Zion. He sat on his throne to exercise truth, justice, and judgement and in righteousness. (Is 16:5) This speaks of Jesus who sits at the right hand of the Father as King to reign forever.
    THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID is where the Ark was placed and where he exercised his priestly role in Zion. This speaks of Jesus our High Priest who intercedes for all who come to God through him.
    The Tabernacle of David had no Court or Holy Place or furnishings. The Holy of Holies was transferred here with the Ark of the Lord. There was no veil and access was available to everyone. There were daily spiritual sacrifices; loud praises, rejoicing and joy with thanksgiving, clapping and lifting up of hands; singers and many instruments and Levites were appointed to minister before the Ark continually day and night Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name (Heb 13:15).

    Attending church should be a place where we ‘experience’ the presence of God not just in the Eucharist but also in his body around us. Paul talks about communion as ‘koinonia’, fellowship.
    The reason he said that many were sick and had died before their time was because they were failing to recognise the body of Christ (1 Cor 11:30) There was one loaf and when it was broken we then become the body of Christ. Isn’t that why Jesus said we were not to participate at the altar unless we were first reconciled to each other?

    As for the priest saying the Mass with his back towards the people then let me give you a scriptural insight of God showing his back, it is in Ex 33:23. God told Moses that he could not be in the flesh and see his face. You have to be in the spirit to see the face of God. What was the revelation? God said ‘I am going to put you in the cleft of the rock and I am going to remove my hand and you will see my back’. Now if I were to build up a relationship with someone and we then agree to meet and they were to ask me for a photo of myself so that they could recognise me when we meet and I were to send them a photo of my back, would that not be a strange thing to do? The cleft of the rock speaks of Calvary and in Psalm 129:3 it says that ‘ploughmen have ploughed my back with deep furrows’ and this speaks of the humanity of Jesus, God becoming flesh for us, taking upon himself the sins and weaknesses of all of us, showing himself to be full of compassion and grace, slow to anger abounding in love and faithfulness, and when Moses saw this he got the revelation and it transformed his life so much that he had to put a veil over his face because the reflection of God radiated from him. Likewise when we get that same revelation then ” we with our unveiled faces should be reflecting the glory of the Lord to a world that needs to see it (2 Cor 3:18)…. Hope this makes sense

    • Gerry McDonnell, you make some good points, but your comment that “The New Testament concept of church is that of a body ministry, not one person acting on behalf of the people like in the Tabernacle of Moses” fails to describe the Church, and it dismisses the summit of the Church’s ministry, which is to be united with him in the one Perfect Sacrifice, that of Christ giving his life for our redemption.
      “Fellowship” need not be physical at that time. (our fellowship with the Church Triumphant is not dependant on back slapping and cheering and tambourine shaking, but it is very real). There is plenty of time in the day for believers to join in the life of the Church, but the Holy Mass need not be sullied in order for this to happen.
      I do find it odd that you refer to the OT to justify the priest facing the opposite way than the people face, but then also dismiss the OT when it comes to the concept of one person acting on behalf of the community.
      Christ’s sacrifice on that of one person on behalf of all mankind. Certainly during the Holy Mass we can recognise this.

  2. The problem is not with the idea of “active participation”. Even in the old traditional low masses, the devout were participating actively, even if they weren’t trooping up to the ambo or waving their arms in the air or singing pop songs disguised as “hymns”. They were active in their prayer, their posture, and their following the Mass and joining their worship with that of the priest who was offering the Mass. The Latin that was spoken aloud would have been known by most Catholics, and that which was spoken sotto voce was present to every parishioner in her or his missal. Of course, some people may have been daydreaming during the Mass; I suspect that even a certain portion of the people who listened to Jesus preaching were distracted by one thing or another.

    “Active participation” is every bit as much, if not more, present among people who don’t join in the singing led by the human windmill in the sanctuary, who don’t pirouette flashing 1960s “peace” signs to all and sundry, who decline putting on “Hello! I’m …..” stickers on “Name-Tag Sunday” and asking the stranger next to them what his or her “personal intention” is so that they can pray for it.

    I am willing to bet that at almost any Mass in the Extraordinary Form that you attend, you will experience more “active participation” in the holy Sacrifice of the Mass than you would have experienced in a year’s worth of liturgies at your average local parish..

  3. There are three kinds of prayer
    Gimme, Thanks and WOW.
    Wow is when God is more than the me in it although it starts with my sincere praise & worship. I trust the Holy Spirit’s leadings & correctings in the Church so this change will be good. However having an individual close personal relationship with Jesus Christ is essential. Mass once a week although it keeps me connected and filled with the Eucharistic grace it is usually not quite enough. I need to feed on His word daily for spiritual sustenance. Perhaps because I’m in a battle “working out my own salvation in fear and trembling” but I believe it’s more because “He first loved me”. I found Jesus loving me via His Holy Spirit in a LIFE IN THE SPIRIT seminar after a Charismatic Mass 27 years ago. Once you’re in love with Jesus Christ the Mass totally changes for you. It does not have to be Sunday charismatic or short daily or in another language like Latin or festive Spanish, it becomes more real and alive. So “seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you”. We Catholics are a melting pot with over one billion individual people simmering for over two thousand years but we are tasty. How much do you REALLY want to also “taste and see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living”? And be able to one day “see the face of God and live”.Jesus said, “be ye perfect as the Father is perfect” so I must continue to seek Him although Jesus also said “only the Father is good”. So I keep seeking, I die to self, then when transformationed after death I’ll get to be my perfect self. Certainly the essential element is faith because if you don’t believe please ask others to pray for you. But also for believers the beginning can be motivated by just not wanting to go to hell. But if your faith doesn’t grow past that you’re missing a gold rock goodness which is not just trusting Jesus but actually loving
    God’s will. Which I personally still struggle with but I’m in the company of Jesus when He asked the Father if He would “take this cup”. There are not just a few things in this world I don’t like. I hate HATE is a biggy. I think St.Paul said we don’t struggle against flesh ie people but we fight the good fight of faith and we struggle against powers & principalities in high places ie devils. Yep the devil comes to steal, kill and destroy BUT Jesus came to give us life abundantly and to save us so we can be able to love God and love the sinner not the sin. It ain’t easy but ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE WITH GOD. Even a virgin birth.
    Please pray this prayer of agreement with me right now:

  4. So true Zombie catholics are a international phenomena. I was shocked when i found the TLM to see people actually participating. In my local parish the zombie has almost died out and gets now partially replaced by the clueless once a year for grannys memorial mass going “catholic”. This sort has no idea whatsoever of what is happening in the mass they neither stand nor kneel. The only time this type gets up is to recieve ‘the bread of live’ from the friendly lady with the glass plate. This type is particularly easy to spot because they will not only sit during consecration and stare in confusion at the funnily dressed man standing at the table playinh with the golden cups and plates they will also answer the expression “the body of christ” with “thank you where can i get the wine”
    So yeah look forward to the future

  5. Really appreciate this thought provoking post. Out of interest how do you know people are not participating? Obviously God knows if we are paying attention or not, but can the rest of us really know? Personally I find it hard to tell when people are participating quietly in an interior way especially when my own hypercritical thoughts distract me. I do know that when my heart is open I care more about what is happening during mass and am more tolerant and loving in the way I see others. I wish it were more often and a sober and beautiful liturgy helps me enormously, whereas a banal one is a penance. But I suspect the problem lies a bit more with my attitude, as Christ is present regardless. Recently I did a course at the Benedictine Institute at Ealing Abbey and went to the abbey church for mass and the divine office daily whenever I could. This was such a profound and life changing treasure I could not do it justice in a short blog reply. After 2 weeks of this deep spiritual nourishment, I could even go to the youth mass at my parish church and not throw an internal hissy fit! I could focus on Christ rather than just the surface and see others as unique and special. But knowing my intolerant nature and the plain fact that we all need to be fed, I will have to go to Ealing Abbey when I can, for the spiritual food to carry on. Tigerish Waters has posted a marvellous blog on remembering that the only orientation is towards Christ, the altar and the cross.

  6. In general, I really appreciated this post, especially your mention of the Eastern Churches. As a Byzantine Catholic Church, we have always celebrated the Divine Liturgy facing liturgical east. This is not true of all Eastern Catholic Churches, however. Some (in particular the Maronite Church) have also recently adopted the practice of facing toward the people. You also stated: “Offering Mass this way would also be a wonderfully unitive thing to do with the Eastern Churches.” While I absolutely applaud the move in the Latin Church to return to the practice of facing East during the Mass, our unity is not found in the similarities of our worship, nor is disunity found in differences. Our unity is found in the Communion that we share with each other, and our common Communion with the Bishop of Rome, the successor to St. Peter.

  7. I just came across your article. My main comment is that the issue of restoring active participation (which had been mainly lost in the West through the destructive secular convulsions that shook the Catholic Church after the Protestant Reformation — including some erroneous concepts being picked up by Catholics) was actually being addressed as early as the 19th century (such as through Dom Gueranger) which climaxed officially with St. Pius X’s 1903 motu propio on sacred music (Tra Le Sollecitudini) and continued by scores of liturgists as well as by Popes Pius XI (Divini Cultus) and especially Pius XII (Mediator Dei).

    So in reality, this subject was not actually introduced in the 1960s (or by Vatican II) and what eventually was via the Novus Ordo Missae was an exaggerated emphasis (i.e., melding the royal priesthood with the common priesthood) connected with problematic practices.

    On that latter part, you might be interested in my recent discussion on the topic of “ad orientem” with Stephen Kokx on his Church and State show:

    Also, concerning some further info about active participation, I think you might appreciate my pieces on the Dialogue Mass: (note, the link referenced to Fr. Simoulin’s great article on “Attendance and Participation is now this: