One of the biggest differences between the Traditional Mass and the Novus Ordo is the concept of participation. Those experiencing a Traditional mass for the first time (especially a low Mass) will be shocked by what is perceived to be the non-participation of the laity.
This is because, many of those at the Novus Ordo are told that they are given the "riches of full and active participation of the people at Mass, something generations of Catholics didn't get at that stuffy old Latin Mass." At this point I must put a disclaimer up: I recognize this is not true of everybody who attends to the Novus Ordo, or the thinking of any priest who says it. There certainly are souls who try to love our Lord in the Novus Ordo, and priests who wish to devote their life to Jesus Christ. I would suggest to them, that the Traditional Mass offers them a far better opportunity to do so.
Anyhow, the truth is generations of Catholics praying the rosary and singing Latin chants they didn't understand participated ten times more than Catholics who have everything put in front of them in the vernacular with folk music. The problem is there is a method of participation in which Catholics have engaged for centuries which is not described as active, but described as Vatican II summed it up "actuosa participatio", actual participation, not active as it is falsely translated. Some will recoil and say no, no Vatican II, I don't want to hear it! This is an instance when the Council was summing up Tradition and not giving the appearance of departing from it.
Actual Participation, is not when you say something you understand, engage in one of a billion Novus Ordo ministries, (liturgical dance ministry, clown mass ministry, trapeze ministry, inculturation ministry, bingo ministry, old ladies with crappy hair-do ministry, etc.) and if we limit ourselves to the Traditional Mass, it is not merely reading the words in the Missal. It is in the words of Pope St. Pius X "praying the Mass." The St. Andrew's Daily Missal lists 3 things we can do to take part in the Liturgy:
1) Reconstruct the historic setting in which took place the event in our Lord's life, or in that of one of His saints which is being commemorated on the appointed day. In doing this much help may be gained from the chant, the introit, epistle, Gospel, etc.
2) Offer to God, for his greater glory, the mystery of our Redeemer's life which is being commemorated, or the acts of virtue which have been practised by the saint whose feast it is. This is done in the Canon of the Mass; it is not fitting to communicate without having made this offering which appeases the most High and brings us divine grace.
3) Ask of God (this is done in the Pater noster) and receive from Him by the merits and intercession of our Lord and His saints, the graces which they themselves received when they were living on earth.
There are many ways in which this spirituality was traditionally accomplished. One of those ways was by meditating on the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary. Generally it is said that the faithful prayed the rosary because they didn't understand what was going on at Mass. This however is patently false for a number of reasons. First, the sheer volumes of hand-missals, devotional books and other guides published for the Holy Liturgy before Vatican II would suggest something different. The ubiquitousness of these books would indicate that large numbers of people before Vatican II were in fact praying and following these missals. But I digress.
Praying the rosary at Mass is still much maligned by Novus Ordo apologists as non-participation, something which should happen in a different place. Certainly this is true of public recitation of the rosary at low Mass, which was introduced by rosary guilds in the 1930's in some areas. This was not the way most people prayed the rosary at Mass. As a private devotion, asking our Blessed Lady to lead you in to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is one of the best ways to enter into the Holy Liturgy which makes that sacrifice represent on the holy altar.
Another manner of actual participation in the Holy Mass is reading meditations designed for each part of the Mass. I have a number of old prayer books from the 19th and early 20th centuries that provide meditations for different parts. For example, a Carmelite prayer book for the old Carmelite Missal of the Holy Sepulchre has the following:
At the Preface
We offer to the most Holy Trinity the merits of Jesus CHrist, in thanksgiving for the precious blood which Jesus shed in teh Garden for us; and by His merits we beseech the divine majesty to grant us the pardon of all our sins.
Lastly, and most prevalently we can pray the missal. The missal is a treasure trove of all the Church's prayers, her devotions, all the pious meditations, and her doctrine, to consider prayerfully, lovingly, and meditatively. Moreover the Mass is a form of contemplation, by which the Holy Sacrifice of Christ is not only made represent on the altar, but represent in our souls as well. The treasure of the missal is something we have that Catholics in former generations did not have, due to the lack of a printing press and literacy. When used we should not merely read the words of the missal, but meditate on their meaning whether it is in the Ordinary of the Mass or in the propers of the day. God does not need the prayers of the faithful in order to accomplish the Mass, He wants us to pray to Him with the Mass. Many people who switch over from the Novus Ordo are obsessed with being at the exact spot as the priest all the time. A particular advantage which developed in the West that did not develop in the east (in my opinion) is that the priest and the faithful are not on the same page all the time. There are in fact two different forms of prayer going on. The priest is offering up a prayer that he alone can offer, which the laity can not offer. Therefore it is not necessary for the laity to follow the priest at every turn. There are prayers which occur twice, one for the priest to say, and one for us to say in adoration. For example there is the fact that the priest says the confiteor, and then we say one for ourselves (silently however), the priest says his own Domine non sum dignus (Lord I am not worthy), and we say one as well. (I'll pause here to add that in many places an Irish-American custom that is in violation of the rubrics holds that the priest says the 2nd Domine non sum dignus. This should not be as the altar servers, not the priest, are to say this one, after the priest makes the invocation "Ecce agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi.") The priest has special prayers which he says before and after he receives communion, which he alone can say, all of which are form Psalm 115, and Psalm 17.
The purpose of following along in the Missal is not to follow each of these events. It is of little benefit to us to reason that the priest has just received communion, therefore he is saying "Quid retribuam Domino pro omnibus que retribuit mihi" from Psalm 115. What is useful to us on the other hand is to read the Church's communion prayer and meditate on the action of the liturgy. The richness of the Missal, even of one Sunday's Mass is scarcely comprehensible in this life, therefore it is necessary to focus our attention on a few prayers. This doesn't mean by any stretch that one can not read all the prayers of the day in the Missal, I'm merely saying that you should not stress yourself out trying to figure out where the priest is, but make your participation in the Mass actual.
One will also remember, that in old books and in old lives of the saints, one is told that a given saint "heard Mass" or was "hearing Mass", not that he was "active in liturgical ministries." Hearing Mass is nothing different than following the second plan in this schema, attentively devoting oneself to the worship of Jesus Christ at Mass.
These ways of participating at Mass are not mutually exclusive, nor is one way better than the other in my opinion. Each person will find his own way to sanctification in the Holy Liturgy.
The importance of actual participation at Mass
There are worse things than getting bent out of shape over where the priest is. The capital sin at Mass is a lack of attention to the Sacred mysteries. There are many testimonies in Church history of Saints who had great grace from being attentive and devoted during Mass, and great punishments for those who were not. For example:
Blessed Veronica of Binasco relates of herself the following "One day, whilst at Mass, I cast a glance of curiosity at one of my sisters in in religion. Immediately after, my guardian angel gave me such a severe reprimand for this fault as made me almost die from fright. Ah! how severe was not the look he cast at me, and how sharp the words he spoke to me! 'Why did you give such unbecoming liberty to your eyes?' sad he; 'why did you cast the look of curiosity at your sister? Indeed this is not a little fault.' Then he gave me in the name of Jesus Christ a penance for my sin, over which I shed bitter tears for three days. Since that time I hardly ever again dared to make the least motion at Mass for fear of being punished by the Divine Majesty." (Bollandus in Vita ejusdem, quoted in "The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass" by Fr. Michael Muller)
On another occasion, the same book reports of a holy pastor who said Mass. During Mass he saw two women in the pew, faithful and devoted who had angels hovering over them. There was another one however, who was not paying attention at Mass, and the demons made gestures indicating their dominion over her. Lastly, and perhaps one of my favorite stores from this book
which is available from TAN, is the following:
It is related of Drahomira, the mother of St. Wenceslaus, a very impious Duchess of Bohemia, how she one day went in a carriage to Saes in order to take a solemn oath on her father's grave, to extirpate all the Christians in her dominions. Passing a chapel in which Mass was being said, the driver, on hearing the bell ring for the Elevation of the Host, stopped the carriage and knelt down on the bare ground to adore Our Lord Jesus Christ on the altar. At this the impious Duchess flew into a violent passion, cursing the driver and the Blessed Sacrament. In punishment for her horrible blasphemies, the earth opened and swallowed her and her whole escort. They cried for help, but in vain. In a moment they were gone forever. The driver was glad indeed for having stopped the carriage to adore Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament; his faith and devotion saving him from destruction. (ibid, pg. 385).
In conclusion, you have everything to lose by not attentively hearing Mass, and everything to gain by doing so. The reason we must go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days is because it is the Church's official, magisterial interpretation of the 3rd commandment. It is the best and only way to truly keep the day holy, as there is no act holier which we can do other than assisting at Mass, offering up our prayers and ourselves in union with the priest.
Protestants will always ask where does it say you must go to Church. For them, by the principle of private judgment which is introduced by the doctrine of Faith Alone, it is up to each man to determine if he will go to Church or not. Even a pastor of a protestant Church claiming that one must go to Church to fulfill the commandment, has no more authority than Adam to tell him what to do, because that would go against private judgment and be introducing...(gasp!) some time of Tradition and authority!
For us we have no such private judgment. We must go to Holy Mass on Sunday to keep the commandment, as the magisterial authority of the Catholic Church has always and everywhere believed this to be the case, and the graces to be attained there are beyond anything we can attain by any other act.