Sixty-two years ago Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical, Mediator Dei, which encouraged the active participation of the faithful in the Mass. The pope was not enamoured with the common practice of people praying the rosary or other devotions during Mass, but he did make allowance for it.
The Mass then was in Latin and, to follow the Mass, one needed to have a missal with a translation of the Mass on a page facing the Latin. If one was illiterate or couldn't afford a missal, meditating on the mysteries of Christ's life was about the only way one could participate.
With the liturgy now celebrated in the vernacular with an emphasis on full, conscious and active participation of the faithful for roughly 45 years, there is no viable rationale for private devotions during the liturgy. Yet, vestiges of the idea that the Mass is an act of private devotion still hang on.
Some kneel, some stand during the Eucharistic Prayer; the reception of Communion is frequently followed by the opting out from the Communion hymn in order to say private prayer; some still pray their rosaries during Mass.
If anything, this privatization of the liturgy has increased in recent years as some places have chosen not to give directions for posture as we awaited the finalization of the new General Instruction on the Roman Missal. The new GIRM is now available, although we still await directions on posture.
But the new pastoral letter from the Canadian bishops on the revised Roman Missal (Pages 10-11) is a welcome call for unity during Mass. The bishops wisely quote the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Liturgy, which said, "Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the 'sacrament of unity,' namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops."
The letter pointedly urges clergy and faithful to follow the directions of their local bishop, especially on posture during the Eucharistic Prayer. "In our communal celebrations, the words, gestures and postures we use at worship are an important sign of our unity and harmony."
Our words, gestures and postures ought to be guided by the decision of the local bishop, and not by a theologian at Notre Dame, a nun in Alabama or our own whims and fancies. Indeed, the faithful long for such direction in order that there may be visible unity among us. The lack of such unity only perpetuates the wrong-headed notion that the liturgy is a private devotion.
The Church does not rely on liturgical police to ensure uniformity, but rather on the good will and desire for unity among its people. It would be our prayer that such unity be abundantly evident when the revisions to the liturgy take effect at the beginning of Advent.