Rorate Caeli

FIUV PP: The Lectionary

Today I can publish a Position Paper on the Lectionary, a subject of great importance if only because it is widely held that the 1970 Missal has, in its Lectionary at least, a decisive advantage over the previous liturgical tradition. The paper seeks to show that the ancient lectionary has its own value.

The primary liturgical problem with expanding the lectionary is that the connection between the readings and the other propers - prayers like the Collect and Secret, but above all the chants - is lost. This is true on Sundays, but the effect on the sanctoral cycle is even more serious, since the saints can no longer have readings assigned to their feasts with any particular appropriateness.

I put some more commentary on the issue on my own blog here.

The series of position papers has no covered those issues which we feel to be of particular urgency, including Holy Week, Prefaces, and the Lectionary. We still intend to cover other issues, notably the calendar, which is an issue of outstanding complexity. But from now on I will not attempt to maintain a regular publication schedule, but will publish the papers as they become available. The next one likely to be published is on the reading and singing of the lections in Latin.

I would like to draw attention to the magazine Laudamus Te, which is very kindly printing a shortened version of the paper on celebration 'ad orientem'. This magazine, which is a new venture dedicated to commenting on the traditional liturgical year, is worthy of readers' attention and support; it is in great need of subscribers in this early stage of its existence, to defray its printing costs.

It can be downloaded as a pdf here. The whole series can be seen on the FIUV website here. The collected set of papers 1-13, printed as a short book, is available from Lulu here.

Comments can be sent to
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Solemn Proclamation of the Gospel at a recent Requiem in London


FIUV PP 15: The Lectionary of the Extraordinary Form

1.      One of the distinctive characteristics of the Extraordinary Form, in contrast to the Ordinary Form, is the Lectionary. This consists in a single year’s cycle of readings, providing a single Gospel passage and Epistle[1] for Sundays, feast days, and the ferias of Lent. On ferias outside Lent the readings (and Proper prayers and chants) are those of the previous Sunday, unless a Votive Mass is being said. A greater number of lections are given for Ember Days[2] and certain other days.[3] By contrast the Ordinary Form has a three-year cycle of readings for Sundays, for which a passage from the Gospel and two from elsewhere are given, and readings are assigned for every day of the year.

The Value of the 1962 Lectionary

2.      The most ancient part of the 1962 Lectionary is the cycle of Sunday Gospels, which largely corresponds with the subjects of Pope St Gregory the Great’s sermons on the corresponding days, given between 590 and 604. This cycle, however, continued to develop, as did the cycle of Sunday Epistles, and cycles of lections for the ferias of Lent, and other ferias, and the Sanctoral cycle, until the 9th century,[4] when it assumed the form still in use today.[5]

3.      The great antiquity of the Lectionary, coupled with its continuous use, demands our respect. First, this Lectionary reflects the liturgical and scriptural thinking of the Fathers of the Church. Secondly, it has been the basis of the liturgical experience and reflection of countless generations of the Latin Church’s doctors, saints, scholars, and artists. Thirdly, it is closely connected with the chants of the day, which frequently refer to its texts and constitute a musical commentary upon them. Fourthly, it has proven its worth, spiritually, pastorally, and in other practical ways, in a very wide range of social and cultural circumstances, over a very long period of time, and is shared with the historic liturgies of Anglicans and Lutherans.[6]

4.      The Lectionary’s development is such that, while the Sunday Gospels and Epistles each form a discernible series,[7] the two series are independent of each other. We are not presented with connections between readings dependent on the exegetical preferences of scholars of any particular age, but rather a more fundamental working-out of the mysteries of salvation.

5.      The Lectionary’s limited size allows the Faithful to attain a thorough familiarity with the cycle, particularly in the context of the use of hand-missals and commentaries on the liturgy, which expound the passages and their connection with the season, and the proper prayers and chants of the day. The association of feasts and particular Sundays with particular Gospel or Epistle passages echoes the practice of the Eastern churches, where Sundays are often named after the Gospel of the day.

6.      The missals and commentaries just mentioned, which are made possible by the limited set of liturgical texts,[8] are themselves of great value in developing the spirituality of the faithful, and any reform which rendered them obsolete would cause the loss, for practical purposes, of an enormous body of popular liturgical scholarship and spirituality.[9]

Ferial Cycles

7.      The 1962 Lectionary corresponds (with the exception of newly created feast days) with that of the Roman Missal of 1570. This, in turn, is dependent upon the Missale Romano-Seraphicum (the Franciscan Missal) of the 13th century, which did not include the lections for the non-Lenten ferias found in earlier Roman books, as well as in the books of other rites and usages. Gallican Missals with lections for non-Lenten ferias continued in use into the second half of the 19th century.[10] Typically, readings would be given for some, but not all, days of the week, such as Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and would include, for example, parallel accounts of the pericope used in the Sunday Gospel.

8.      The ancient ferial Lectionary did not displace the readings for feast days, and given the fullness of the Sanctoral cycle in Rome, and the developing popularity of Votive Masses, it seems likely that the editors of Roman Missals from the 13th century onwards thought it was unnecessary: there is clearly little point in a cycle of readings which is rarely used. The Lenten ferial cycle could only avoid being swamped by feasts and votive Masses by giving it a greater liturgical priority.[11] A relative paucity of feast days is appropriate to the Lenten season, as is the distinctive character of the ferial Mass formularies, which also include ancient, complex, and profoundly beautiful chants.

9.      This points to a major difficulty in expanding the Lectionary by creating a new, or restoring an old, ferial cycle: it cannot easily co-exist with a full sanctoral cycle with its own readings. It is for this reason that the 1966 ‘Alternative Lectionary’,[12] and the Lectionary of the 1970 Missal, entirely displace the readings of the sanctoral cycle.

10.  The loss of the Sanctoral cycle would be a great blow to the liturgical expression of devotion to the saints. The more important saints have their own readings and other Propers, which serve as a commentary on their lives and work; the less important use the Commons of the Saints, which include formularies of considerable antiquity and devotional value, and give feasts of particular groups of saints (Doctors, Abbots, Holy Women and so on) a recognisable and distinctive character.[13]

11.  Such a reform would mean that the readings assigned to Votive Masses, also, would have to give way to ferial readings, which would be a similar blow to the devotions to which they pertain, and for the spread of which they have been encouraged by Popes over many centuries. Both the feasts of saints and Votive Masses, when celebrated, would be accompanied by lections which might easily be inappropriate, creating a problematic tension in the liturgy.[14]

12.  Further, and insuperable, problems derive from the Proper prayers and chants of the Sanctoral Cycle and Votive Masses, which, if they are to survive at all, will bear no relation in theme or mood to the lections, unless purely by chance.

The Divine Office

13.  Sacrosanctum Concilium called for a more ‘lavish’ presentation of Scripture to the Faithful.[15] A way of achieving this in perfect harmony with the liturgy already in place would be to encourage the wider use of the Office, and particularly Matins. Indeed, Sacrosantum Concilium is eager to do this,[16] as is the Code of Canon Law.[17]

14.  The lections of the liturgy always have both latreutic and dogmatic functions, but the former function is more emphasised in the Mass, and the latter in the Office. The ceremonial associated with the readings at Mass encourage us to see them as a special offering to God: we might call them ‘verbal incense’.[18] While the Divine Office is primarily a prayer, the didactic function of the readings is emphasised by, for example, the reading in Matins of commentaries, from the Fathers of the Church, on the very passages of Scripture just read.

15.  Furthermore, the connection between Matins and the Eucharistic liturgy, particularly of Sundays and feasts, makes it the ideal supplement to the Mass of the day; indeed Matins may be thought of as a preparation for Mass.[19]

16.  It was not so long ago that the Faithful thought nothing of going to Church twice on a Sunday, to attend Vespers as well as Mass; Matins was once widely celebrated in parish churches.[20] It is perhaps easier to envisage today the private use of the Office by the laity, though occasional public celebrations would do much to encourage this. The considerable success enjoyed by ‘The League for the Divine Office’ in promoting the (private, vernacular) use of the Office by the laity, in the middle of the 20th century, sets an important precedent.

17.  The role of Scripture in the liturgy is not limited to the Lectionary. Both the Propers and the Ordinary of the Extraordinary Form make extensive use the Psalms,[21] and there are a great many quotations of, and references to, the Scriptures throughout the Mass.[22] It cannot be maintained that the 1962 Mass lacks a Scriptural dimension, and nor do the other sacraments and sacramentals of the 1962 liturgical books.[23]

18.  The ancient, one-year cycle of readings, particularly for Sundays, has an irreplaceable value in representing the thoughts of the Latin fathers, in harmony with the season and feast, allowing the Faithful to become as familiar as possible with the cycle, especially in light of the long tradition of liturgical commentary, and in connection with the Proper prayers and chants of the day.

19.  Until the decree Novum Rubricarum (1960),[24] when a feast or a Sunday was suppressed by an occurent feast (one occupying the same day) of greater importance, the Last Gospel would be not the opening verses of the Gospel of St John, but the proper Gospel of the suppressed Sunday or feast.[25] Given the importance of the Sunday cycle, the restoration of the older practice would seem appropriate, and would be one modest way of expanding the number of Gospel passages read to the Faithful.

20.  Most of all, however, the riches of the Scriptures are already presented in a liturgical context in the Office, and above all in Matins. The encouragement of the participation of the Faithful in the existing riches of the liturgy should take priority over reform: this was the guiding principle of the more cautious members of the Liturgical Movement, exemplified by the scholar Fr William Busch, a leader of the League for the Divine Office, whose words are appropriate to the current situation:
We should not wish to change in haste what we are only beginning to revive. Let us take time to learn what the Liturgy is, and then we shall be in a position to judge what adaptations to modern circumstances may be desirable—perhaps not so many as we first imagined…[26]

[1] The selection of passages is not, in fact, entirely limited to the Epistles, but includes passages from the Acts of the Apostles, the Book of Revelations, and the Old Testament.
[2] Ember Wednesdays have one extra reading; Ember Saturdays have a total of five extra readings. Ember Days are celebrated four times a year. (In the 1962 Missal a shorter form of the Saturday service can be celebrated.)
[3] The Easter Vigil has a large number of readings (particularly in the form it took before the 1955 reform); Palm Sunday has an extra Gospel (and, before 1955, an extra lesson), as part of the Blessing of Palms. On All Souls Day and Christmas Day priests are permitted to say three Masses, and each Mass has its own lections and other Propers.
[4] Of the manuscript sources for the Roman Lectionary the earliest and most valuable is the Würzburg MS (Universitätsbibliothek, codex; ed. Morin, Rev. bén. 27 (1910) 41-74 and 28 (1911) 296-330) – a collection of 16 folios in a probably English hand of around 700 (possibly from the late 7th century). The Epistle list probably represents Roman usage in the 2nd half of the 7th century; the Gospel list appears to be later. There is an extensive set of Gospels for the Sanctoral Cycle, but fewer Epistles, suggesting a degree of fluidity or free choice. It appears to give alternative Epistles for some occasions (similar passages from St Paul, for example, which could not plausibly be interpreted as being intended as extra readings). There is provision for too many Sundays after Epiphany, and too few Sundays after Pentecost. There are readings provided for one, two, or three ferial days in particular weeks. By the 9th century provision is made for the correct number of Sundays, a complete set of lections for Lenten ferias (Thursday had been non-liturgical until Pope St Gregory II (d. 731)), a formalised Common of Saints, separation of the Temporal from the Sanctoral Cycles, and thoroughly revised systems of ferial readings outside Lent. By this time also there is a degree of divergence between Roman and Gallican books.
[5] Leaving aside later feasts celebrated on Sundays, such as Trinity Sunday and the Feast of the Holy Family.
[6] The Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer is based on that of the Sarum Missal, which is essentially identical to the Roman Missal; the traditional Lutheran Lectionary is based on that of the Roman Missal. The ecumenical value of the ancient one-year cycle gave the architects of the 1970 Lectionary serious pause: see Annibale Bugnini The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990) po415-6.
[7] This is particularly evident in Advent and Lent; the Season After Pentecost is less obviously thematic, but a pattern is still discernible. Pius Parsch wrote of it: ‘From the point of view of content, the …cycle could well be divided into three groups. The first emphasize miracle-cures. Accounts of Christ’s miracles are related, yet these narratives are not intended for our instruction primarily, but rather as indications of the operations of God’s grace in the Mass. Such, too, was the ultimate aim and end of our Lord when He worked wonders. …
A second group tends to employ contrast pictures—the kingdom of God versus the kingdom of the world. These .. are primarily found in the Masses from the seventh to the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. … Ancient piety often employed this pedagogical method. …
The third class, which concentrates on the parousia, is proper to the Sundays from the fifteenth to the end of the year. These Masses are exceptional for variety of mood and depth of doctrine.’
[8] Missals with only the texts for Sundays and important feasts can be truly ‘pocket sized’; children’s missals lacking the Latin for some or all of the texts can be very small indeed.
[9] Dom Prosper Guéranger, Abbot of Solesmes: L’Année Liturgique, in French, published in 15 volumes between 1841 and 1844 (published in English as The Liturgical Year in 1949; a reprint is still in print). Bl. Ildefonso Schuster, Archbishop of Milan: Liber Sacramentorum, in Italian, published in 5 volumes in 1919 (published in English as The Sacramentary in 1924). Fr Pius Parsch: Das Jahr des Heiles, published in 3 Volumes in 1923 (published in English as The Church’s Year of Grace in 1953). These works, particularly those of Guéranger and Parsch, were and are widely disseminated. The text of L’Année Liturgique is available at least in part online in French ( and English (
[10] In addition to the Gallican (or ‘neo-Gallican’) missals in use in the various dioceses of France, the Sarum Missal, used in the British Isles until the late 16th century, included ferial readings; in Germany, they are found in the Münster Missal as late as 1835.
[11] In the 1962 calendar the ferias of Lent are of the 3rd Class, while those of the rest of the year are 4th Class; again, many feasts falling in Lent are a lower ranking than they would otherwise have, and get only a commemoration.
[12] The ‘Alternative Lectionary’, published on 12th March 1966 for optional use, consists of a one-year series of Gospels and a two-year cycle of first lessons for all days in the liturgical year De Tempore which might not be impeded by a 1st or 2nd class feast. Thus, the Lectionary left gaps for the more important feasts to fill. The Sunday and Sanctoral cycles were not changed. This Lectionary was superseded by the Lectionary of the 1970 Missal.
[13] Pius Parsch wrote commentaries on the Commons of the Saints: The Church’s Year of Grace English edition (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1962) Vol. IV pp372-412
[14] The other Propers would also be involved in this tension, whether they are appropriate to the feast (and therefore, potentially, not to the readings), as with the 1966 experiment, or fixed to the cycle of readings (and therefore independent of the feast), as in the 1970 Missal. The liturgical schola László Dobsay comments: ‘The three-year system totally dissolved the association between the liturgical day (and its texts) and the pericopes assigned; this is a loss both in a liturgical and a pastoral perspective’ (László Dobsay The Restoration and Organic Development of the Roman Rite (London: T&T Clarke, 2010) p143.
[15] Sacrosanctum Concilium 51: ‘The treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word [more literally: ‘so that a richer table of God’s word may be prepared for the Faithful’]. In this way a more representative portion [literally ‘a more excellent part’] of the holy scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years.’ (‘Quo ditior mensa verbi Dei paretur fidelibus, thesauri biblici largius aperiantur, ita ut, intra praestitutum annorum spatium, praestantior pars Scripturarum Sanctarum populo legatur.’)
[16] Sacrosanctum Concilium 85: ‘Hence all who render this service are not only fulfilling a duty of the Church, but also are sharing in the greatest honour of Christ’s spouse, for by offering these praises to God they are standing before God’s throne in the name of the Church their Mother.’ (‘Omnes proinde qui haec praestant, tum Ecclesiae officium explent, tum summum Sponsae Christi honorem participant, quia laudes Deo persolventes stant ante thronum Dei nomine Matris Ecclesiae.’)
100: ‘Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.’ (‘Curent animarum pastores ut Horae praecipuae, praesertim Vesperae, diebus dominicis et festis sollemnioribus, in ecclesia communiter celebrentur. Commendatur ut et ipsi laici recitent Officium divinum, vel cum sacerdotibus, vel inter se congregati, quin immo unusquisque solus.’) Cf. Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004) 41: ‘For encouraging, promoting and nourishing this interior understanding of liturgical participation, the continuous and widespread celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, the use of the sacramentals and exercises of Christian popular piety are extremely helpful.’ (‘Ad hunc sensum interiorem participationis liturgicae suscitandum, promovendum et alendum valde utilia sunt assidua et diffusa celebratio Liturgiae Horarum, usus sacramentalium exercitiaque pietatis christianae popularis.’)
[17] Code of Canon Law (1983) 1174 §2. ‘Other [literally, ‘The other’, ‘ceteri’: that is, all the other] members of the Christian faithful, according to circumstances, are also earnestly invited to participate in the liturgy of the hours as an action of the Church.’ (‘Ad participandam liturgiam horarum, utpote actionem Ecclesiae, etiam ceteri christifideles, pro adiunctis, enixe invitantur.’)
[18] Dr Peter Kwasniewski “The Loss of Liturgical Riches in the Sanctoral Cycle” in The Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Fall 2007), pp. 30-35: ‘Recitation of the text of Scripture is made decisively subordinate to the historical embodiment of Scripture's message in holy persons. The readings serve, in other words, to frame, adorn, and bring to light the face of Christ and the faces of all His imitators. The use of Scripture is iconic, not homiletic. We are not being lectured at, but rather summoned to worship, to bow down before mysteries. The readings are to function as verbal incense, not verbose information.’
[19] See the Catholic Encyclopedia (1917), entry on ‘Matins’: ‘In a certain sense it is, perhaps, the Office which was primitively the preparation for the Mass, that is to say, the Mass of the Catechumens, which presents at any rate the same construction as that Office:—the reading from the Old Testament, then the epistles and the Acts, and finally the Gospel—the whole being intermingled with psalmody, and terminated by the Homily (cf. Cabrol: Les Origines Liturgiques, Paris, 1906, 334 seq.).
[20] A tradition which has left its mark on Anglicanism, where Matins is still celebrated publicly; this practices was reintroduced by Pius Parsch in his parish. Morning Prayer is also typically celebrated before Mass in the Eastern Churches.
[21] Notably, part of Psalm 50 (Asperges me) or 117 (the verse to the Vidi Aquam) at the sprinkling of the Faithful on Sundays; Psalm 42 (Iudica me) in the Preparatory Prayers; and part of Psalm 25 (Lavabo) at the Lavabo.
[22] To give just one example, the prayer Supra quae of the Roman Canon refers to the sacrifices in the Old Testament of Abel (Genesis 4.4), Abraham (Genesis 22.13), and Melchisedech (Genesis 14.18).
[23] To give just two examples, the Canticle of Zachary is recited in full during burials, and the Psalm Domini est terra (23) at the Churching of Women (the Blessing of a Woman after Childbirth).
[24] See Novum rubricarum 509.
[25] Thus, prior to 1960, if an important feast fell on a Sunday, such that the Mass to be said was not that of the Sunday, the Sunday Gospel would be read in place of the opening verses of St John’s Gospel as the Last Gospel.
[26] William Busch “On Liturgical Reforms” Orate Fratres 11.8 (1936-7): pp352-57, quoted in Reid p105. Fr Busch was active in translating the German works of Fr Pius Parsch into English, and helped found the ‘League of the Divine Office’. Another scholar of the Liturgical Movement who makes a similar distinction between learning to appreciate and reforming the litugy, also quoted by Reid, was Fr Hans Anscar Reinhold, writing in 1947: ‘The modern Liturgical Movement is obedient, orthodox, modest. The first thing it demands is that all of us, we ourselves, perform the Liturgy as it is in the books and conform to it. Self reform and perfection. In the second place we we expect this to open our eyes to niceties and rediscoveries that will transform our thinking into greater dogmatic correctness, proportionality and joy. The third thing will be to see the Liturgy restored to simplicity and originality. Only in the fourth degree will we prostrate ourselves at the feet of the Holy Father and ask for reforms.’ (Reid, op. cit. p141-2).