Rorate Caeli

50 Years of a Religious and Cultural Catastrophe: When the Yearly Biblical Readings of Immemorial Tradition Were Cast Away

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the revised Lectionary, promulgated with the decree Ordo Lectionum of May 25, 1969, Rorate has obtained permission from Bloomsbury to post the full text (slightly revised), albeit without its 59 detailed footnotes, of Dr. Kwasniewski's contribution to Sacra Liturgia 2015 in New York City, which was published in the proceedings, Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives, ed. Alcuin Reid (London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 287–320. (See here for a book review.) The publisher is offering a 35% discount on the book if you purchase it from their website using the code REID35 at checkout. Offer ends July 31, 2019.


A Systematic Critique of the New Lectionary, On the Occasion of Its Fiftieth Anniversary

Peter Kwasniewski

While almost every other aspect of the liturgical reform following Vatican II has been the target of serious criticism, the revamped multi-year lectionary is the one element consistently put forward as a notable success, an instance of genuine progress. A popular Catholic author writes:

I believe, however, that the most significant change [in the liturgy] came about in 1969, with the introduction of the revised lectionary. The media missed this one because there was so little controversy. Almost everyone agreed that the finished product was a remarkable achievement. And there can be no doubt that it was a major development in the life of the church. The lectionary was designed specifically for the purpose of highlighting the essential relationship between scripture and liturgy.

Another well-respected theologian concurs:

It seems likely that, whatever future developments occur in the Roman Rite, this extended use and emphasis on Sacred Scripture in Catholic worship may prove to be Pope Paul’s most lasting contribution, and, arguably, even the most important long-term gift of his pontificate to the life of the Church.

No less a figure than Pope Benedict XVI, though an outspoken critic of many postconciliar changes, praised the gains of the new lectionary. Robert Moynihan relates this story:

When, for example, I expressed my belief (this was in 1993, so, almost 20 [now 26] years ago) that the annual cycle of readings should not have been replaced by a three-year cycle of readings (I argued that the annual cycle was in a certain way more ‘organic,’ more in harmony with the natural cycle of the seasons, and so more deeply penetrating, psychologically and spiritually, into the hearts and souls of ordinary faithful, who would here the same words on the same Sunday each year, but in the changed circumstances brought by the passage of time and life), he then was quite emphatic that the three-year cycle was an improvement, saying it allowed the faithful to hear more passages of the Word of God, and did not limit them to hearing the same passages each year. This argument made clear to me that Pope Benedict personally does in some ways favor at least certain aspects of the conciliar liturgical reform as an improvement over the traditional liturgy.

This story is supported by n. 57 of Benedict XVI’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini:

In the first place I wish to mention the importance of the Lectionary. The reform called for by the Second Vatican Council has borne fruit in a richer access to sacred Scripture, which is now offered in abundance, especially at Sunday Mass. The present structure of the Lectionary not only presents the more important texts of Scripture with some frequency, but also helps us to understand the unity of God’s plan thanks to the interplay of the Old and New Testament readings, an interplay “in which Christ is the central figure, commemorated in his paschal mystery.”

All the same, there is good reason to revisit the lectionary half a century later, in light of experience and maturity of reflection, and to ask whether the principles guiding its revision and the actual realization of those principles are everything hoped for.


1. The Liturgical Movement and the Second Vatican Council

There were sound reasons for wishing to supplement the old lectionary. As a simple matter of liturgical history, it must be admitted that Western rites of the Mass, including the Roman, had once contained a wider range of Scriptural lessons than we find in the Roman rite codified by St. Pius V after the Council of Trent and still in use today as the Missal of St. John XXIII. As one recent author describes it:

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. 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.

The increasing prominence of the sanctoral cycle and the great popularity of votive Masses tended to displace these ferial readings to such an extent that, from the 13th century onwards, it seemed nugatory to include in the missal readings that would only rarely be used. This fact, together with a desire to include everything needed for Mass in one conveniently printable and portable volume, explains why it was deemed sufficient for the 1570 Missal to contain a reduced selection of readings.

By the middle of the 20th century, there was widespread agreement among participants in the Liturgical Movement that the Roman rite would benefit from an increase in the variety and extent of biblical lections—a judgment that emerged, in large part, from the contemporaneous biblical movement, with its renewed emphasis on salvation history. Fr. Morin, a friend of Louis Bouyer’s, stated in 1944: “Whether we rejoice in it or deplore it, the liturgy is . . . biblical. To claim to make anyone understand it without initiating him into the Bible is a contradiction in terms.” Liturgists at Maria Laach were talking in 1951 about having a three- or four-year lectionary cycle. In a 1956 meeting of Pius XII’s Commission for the Reform of the Sacred Liturgy, a new Capitulare lectionum et evangeliorum for the Roman Missal was examined. The conversation touched on a triennial cycle of readings. To Cardinal Cicognoni’s formal query: “In general terms, should the scriptural pericopes of the Mass be expanded?,” the Pian Commission unanimously replied in the affirmative.

Given this background, it is hardly surprising that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council discussed the revision of the lectionary but did not give it a great deal of attention. If one is looking through the Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani Secundi for sensational speeches in the aula where council fathers sparred over Scripture in the Mass, one will be somewhat disappointed. A number of fathers were concerned about the inconvenience of spreading out Scripture over multiple years and therefore requiring multiple volumes for the celebration of Mass. Others suggested the compromise of enriching the annual cycle with weekday readings, particularly from the New Testament. Still others noted that the Sunday readings were lacking in some of the most touching passages of the Gospels. But it was not a matter on which many had much to say. Modifications to the Ordo Missae and the retention of Latin were far more controversial and time-consuming subjects of debate.

In the end, the great majority of Fathers voted to approve the following provisions in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium:

24. Sacred scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy. For it is from scripture that lessons are read and explained in the homily, and psalms are sung; the prayers, collects, and liturgical songs are scriptural in their inspiration and their force, and it is from the scriptures that actions and signs derive their meaning. Thus to achieve the restoration, progress, and adaptation of the sacred liturgy, it is essential to promote that warm and living love for scripture to which the venerable tradition of both eastern and western rites gives testimony.

35. That rite and word may be clearly seen to be intimately conjoined in the liturgy:
  1) In sacred celebrations a more abundant, more varied, and more suitable reading from Sacred Scripture should be restored [instauretur].
  2) The best place for a sermon, since it is part of the liturgical action, is to be indicated even in the rubrics, as far as the rite will allow, and the ministry of preaching is to be fulfilled most faithfully and well. The sermon, moreover, should draw mainly from the fonts of Scripture and the Liturgy, as a proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation or the mystery of Christ, which is ever made present and active within us, especially in liturgical celebrations.

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. In this way a more representative portion of the Holy Scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years.

2. The Consilium’s Revised Lectionary

The carrying out of these conciliar mandates was left in the hands of the Consilium ad exsequen­dam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia. If the committee in charge of the lectionary, Coetus XI, had diligently followed two important principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium—namely, section 23, “There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing,” and section 50, “elements which have suffered injury through accidents of history are now to be restored to the vigor which they had in the days of the holy Fathers, as may seem useful or necessary”—the result would have looked significantly different. For in that case, the process of lectionary revision would have involved, first and foremost, restoring to the Roman rite lessons that once actually belonged to it, and second, cautiously introducing new lessons in a manner harmonious with the genius of the rite itself.

But it was not to be so. In this area as in so many other areas, the ambitions of the Consilium were monumental and innovative. It was not enough to enhance what already existed; the entire lectionary was to be recast from the ground up. The council fathers never debated the merits or demerits of such a plan because nothing had ever been said in the aula about scrapping the existing lectionary and starting more or less from scratch. As was true of other liturgical metamorphoses, it would have been unthinkable to the vast majority of the council fathers that the liturgy would soon be treated as a laboratory experiment whose parts could be removed, replaced, and fabricated ad libitum.

Coetus XI’s work resulted in the Novus Ordo lectionary with which we are all familiar: a three-year cycle of Sunday readings, a two-year cycle of weekday readings, and a veritable mountain of reading options for feasts, sacramental rites, and other special occasions. A fairly full account of the principles behind the reform and many of the practical decisions made was offered in the document called General Introduction to the Lectionary, the first edition of which appeared in 1969, and a second, revised and expanded, in 1981. In the pages that follow, I will be engaging ideas explicitly stated in this General Introduction.

3. Critique of the Revised Lectionary

To be sure, there are gains in the new lectionary, such as the splendid selection of prophetic readings for the ferias of Advent, the selection of readings for Paschaltide, and the felicitous pairing of certain Old Testament and New Testament pericopes. Nevertheless, lone voices over the decades have pointed out various problems with it, ranging from the selection, length, and sheer number of readings, to the academic structuring of the cycles, to worrying omissions, to incidental problems that have arisen in practice.

In this section, I will re-examine four guiding principles of the lectionary revision, namely: the lengthening of the readings; their arrangement as a multi-year cycle; the general preference for lectio semi-continua or continuity of readings over the readings of the sanctoral cycle; and the decision to omit “difficult” readings. Then I will consider how the new lectionary was implemented in the flesh, namely the ars celebrandi it inaugurated.


(a) The purpose of Scripture in the Mass

Before examining any particular principle behind the new lectionary, however, there is the more fundamental question of the very purpose or function of the reading of Scripture in the Mass. Is it a moment of instruction for the people, or is it an element of the latreutic worship offered by Christ and His Mystical Body to the Most Holy Trinity?

It can and should be both, but in a certain order. The Word of God is proclaimed at Mass as part of the spiritual preparation for the sacrifice of our Redeemer and the communion of God and man in the sacrament of His Passion. Because it is the sacrifice of the Mystical Body, head and members, it is also the sacrifice we, as children of the Church militant, offer to God in union with the Church triumphant and on behalf of the Church suffering. Consequently, the lessons have an ecclesial identity, a sacerdotal orientation, and a eucharistic finality, all of which ought to determine which lessons are the best for their purpose and how they are best to be proclaimed. The readings at Mass are not so much didactic as iconic, pointing the way beyond themselves.

The goal of liturgy is not to make us familiar with Scripture in the manner of a Bible study or catechism class—which, of course, ought to be taking place at some other time—but to give us the right formation of mind and heart with regard to the realities of our faith so that we may worship God in spirit and in truth. In the traditional rites of East and West, Scripture serves as a support to the liturgical action; it illustrates or magnifies something else that the worship is principally about.


(b) Caution regarding the length of readings

As we saw, the Council Fathers desired that there be more Scripture in the Church’s liturgies. The first way to pursue this goal is to put more Scripture into each individual liturgy. This was done both by adding a reading to Masses on Sundays and feasts and by lengthening the readings on average in all Masses. In light of Scripture’s purpose within the Mass, however, I believe we should reconsider the wisdom of increasing the readings within a given Mass. It is a truism that more is not necessarily better, but there are specific reasons to be concerned about what one might call the ecology of the Mass, the delicate balance of its interacting parts.

The generally longer readings of the revised lectionary, together with a new emphasis in Sacrosanctum Concilium on the homily as an integral part of the liturgy, have contributed to what one might call “verbal imperialism,” that is, the tendency of words and wordiness to take over at many Masses, suffocate silence and meditation, and obscure the centrality of the Eucharistic sacrifice. It happens all too frequently that the homily will last a good fifteen minutes or more whereas the most solemn part of the Mass will last approximately three minutes due to the choice of the Second Eucharistic Prayer.

We must keep in mind that, in the Novus Ordo, nearly everything in the Mass is said aloud from start to finish. From the greeting to the collect to the readings to the homily to the Eucharistic prayer and so on until the end, everything is placed on the same level phenomenolog­i­cally; done badly, it can be like going point by point through the items on a meeting agenda. This means that sheer length translates inevitably into emphasis. In this world of total exposure and extroversion, the Eucharistic Prayer tends to be the loser; it simply does not have enough prominence to holds its own. In the usus antiquior, the silent Roman Canon provides a center of gravity that no text or talking can outshine. It was and will always be the great counterbalance to lengthy sermons or sub-optimal music—or even sumptuous music.

The total size of the Sunday Liturgy of the Word, if one takes into account the two readings, a responsorial psalm, the Gospel, a possibly bloated homily, the Creed, and the prayer of the faithful, when followed by a diminished Liturgy of the Eucharist, has left far too many Catholics with a false impression of what the Mass primarily is. It seems like the main thing we do together is read Scripture and talk about it. A reenactment of the Last Supper is then added on so that everyone gets to receive something before going home. As we know, Catholics like to get something at Mass, whether ashes or palms or bulletins, and, in a way, the lamentable phenomenon of everyone lining up to receive communion fits in with this pattern. The Mass as a true and proper Sacrifice has therefore been almost entirely eclipsed by the Mass as “a table of the Word and a table of the Eucharist from which we are fed.” Obviously there is some truth in this language, but when it becomes the central way of understanding the Mass, we are looking at a profound distortion.

If the purpose of the readings at Mass is to prepare people for and lead into the great Eucharistic sacrifice, then the danger of verbal imperialism is obvious: by unduly prolonging the readings, the words have broken off and become their own thing, a center of gravity that dominates the liturgy. At this point, the readings are no longer in harmony with their purpose at Mass but are militating against it. Here we see, for the first time, the possibility of Scripture in tension with the Eucharist rather than serving it as a handmaid. The lengthening of the readings and the overemphasis on the homily, coming together with other liturgical changes (more often than not, abridgements or simplifications) made after Vatican II, has disturbed the balance of the Mass, as excessive farming can lead to soil erosion and the destruction of an ecosystem.


(c) Fittingness of annual cycle

We have considered some of the problems of increasing the readings within one Mass. A second way of putting more Scripture into the Mass would be to extend the readings over a greater number of Masses. While this could be done even within the scope of one year, it seems that the liturgical reformers quickly moved to the assumption of a multi-year cycle. With multiple years at its disposal, the new lectionary is able to cover a remarkable portion of Scripture, comprising the whole of salvation history and offering a remarkable array of important biblical passages. This, more than anything else, is seen as the great achievement of the reform.

However, I would like to urge caution even here. A one-year cycle of readings can be considered not only with regard to the quantity of Scripture it presents but also with regard to the way in which it presents the Scripture it contains. One year is a natural unit of time, with a satisfying completeness, like that of a circle. Historically, Western and Eastern rites have always had a one-year cycle of readings, as does synagogue worship. Indeed, every culture has linked the rhythms of human life to the combined rhythms of the sun and the moon, joining the human to the cosmological. Sacrosanctum Concilium itself furnishes a convincing account of why the liturgical year is just that—a year:

Holy Mother Church is conscious that she must celebrate the saving work of her divine Spouse by devoutly recalling it on certain days throughout the course of the year. Every week, on the day which she has called the Lord’s day, she keeps the memory of the Lord’s resurrection, which she also celebrates once in the year, together with His blessed passion, in the most solemn festival of Easter. Within the cycle of a year, moreover, she unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from the Incarnation and birth until the Ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the coming of the Lord. ... In celebrating this annual cycle of Christ’s mysteries, holy Church honors with especial love the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, who is joined by an inseparable bond to the saving work of her Son. ... The Church has also included in the annual cycle days devoted to the memory of the martyrs and the other saints. (SC 102–104, emphasis added)

With the one-year cycle comes repetition and its fruit of familiarity, which leads to internalization—the planting of the seed deep in the soil of the soul. One who immerses himself in the traditional liturgy becomes aware that its annual readings, over time, are becoming bone of one’s bone, flesh of one’s flesh. One begins to think of certain days, months, seasons of the year, or categories of saints in tandem with their particular readings, which open up their meaning more and more to the devout soul. If the Word of God has an infinite depth to it, the traditional liturgy bids us stand beside the same well year by year, dropping down our bucket into it, and in that way awakening us to an inexhaustible depth that may not be so clear to someone who is dipping his bucket into different places of a flooding stream over the course of two or three years.

The fundamental elements of faith and habits of prayer need to be inculcated week after week, day after day; and thus it is pedagogically most appropriate to have readings repeated annually: the age-old Epistle and Gospel assigned for the various Sundays after Pentecost, the readings for the Easter Octave, the readings for certain categories of saints—Martyrs, Apostles, Confessors, Doctors, Popes, Virgins. In this way, the Christian people are strongly formed by a set of “core texts” throughout the cycle of the year, rather than being carried off each day into new regions of text—especially some of the drier historical narratives or longer passages of the Prophets, from which it may be hard to benefit except by extra-liturgical study.

It seems inarguable that the faithful need more Scripture in their lives. But it does not follow that we must cover as much Scriptural ground as possible at Mass. Consider the matter from a psychological point of view. The reading at Mass is a “feature of an event”: the mind does not easily connect yesterday’s reading to today’s, or today’s with tomorrow’s. A bunch of things are happening in the course of the liturgy and in the rest of my day, and unless the priest very deliberately connects the readings, each day is an entity unto itself. The daily Mass is the discrete unit, and so the readings should be proportioned to it, not to a larger time sequence (apart from the general character of the liturgical year and its seasons). The result is that with an expanded lectionary people will hear and forget more Scripture than they did before; whereas on the old one-year cycle, people hear things repeatedly and have the opportunity to become familiar with them. We stand to get more, spiritually, out of one inspired passage that becomes familiar than from a long-term cycle attempting to “get through” a lot of Scripture.

The situation is quite different with lectio divina, where each day one is focused exclusively on the Bible, and so it’s easier to connect days to each other. Because they essentially practice lectio divina or at least some form of concentrated Bible study as they prepare their homilies, priests are the ones who stand to benefit the most from the two-year/three-year cycles, which could explain the enthusiasm of many of the clergy for the lectionary. But what about the laity? Note that the Catholic biblical renewal in recent years is largely from Protestant converts who have introduced salvation history and lectio divina into parish programs. This suggests that the work we need to be doing is more at home outside the Mass than inside.

Thus, although it is common to praise the new lectionary for containing much more Scripture than its predecessor, experience with both could lead one to the opposite conclusion—namely, that the multi-year lectionary is unwieldy and hard to absorb, whereas the old cycle of readings is beautifully proportioned to the rhythm of the natural cycle of time and the fullness of the ecclesiastical year of grace that builds upon nature. And we can say, in general, that an annual cycle of well-chosen readings is more suited to the iconic and latreutic purpose of Scripture in the Mass as articulated earlier.


(d) Primacy of the sanctoral cycle

Having looked at the extension of the readings both within a given Mass and over many Masses, I turn now to a third guiding principle of the revised lectionary, namely, the preference for continuous reading or lectio semi-continua, in other words, that we read sequentially from a certain book or letter or Gospel over a period of time, and that maintaining this continuity for the most part trumps the sanctoral cycle. This is a distinct and important principle.

Everything said above about the impracticality of continuity in readings could be repeated here, but I want to draw attention to the special relationship the saints have to Scripture and to the Mass. Since the goal of Christian faith is not a material knowledge of Scripture but personal sanctification and conversion, which is the formal content and aim of Scripture itself, the saints are rightly put forward in the liturgy as our example of how to live, how to believe, how to love—and Scripture is rightly pressed into service for this purpose, by the correlation of specific readings with specific saints or classes of saints. On account of both their more limited number and their memorable (and mandated) alignment with particular saints, these lessons and gospels facilitate familiarity with the Word of God as it illustrates or teaches us about the triumph of God’s holy ones.

The saints are, one could say, Scripture in flesh and blood, and that is why the written word is so appropriately called upon to minister to them and reflect their existential primacy. Scripture, by itself, is a dead letter. It is the saints who are the ultimate proof and most glorious manifestation of the truth of the Christian faith. The saints demonstrate that Scripture is not a lifeless book but a living paradigm. We must understand the role of Scripture at Mass in reference to its embodiment in the lives of the saints and its continual directing of our gaze to the supreme reality of Jesus Christ, Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom.

Allow me to offer just one example. On May 4, the feast of St. Monica in the usus antiquior, the Epistle of the Mass is St. Paul speaking of the honor due to true widows (a reading Monica shares with other holy widows), but the specially chosen Gospel recounts when Jesus raised the weeping widow’s son from the dead and restored him to his mother. What more perfect Gospel could there be for the mother of St. Augustine! What could better impress both the Gospel and Monica’s life on our minds than this striking juxtaposition! Each year, throughout her sojourn on earth, no matter how many thousands of years will pass by, Holy Mother Church will thus commemorate the mother who never lost faith in God and eventually regained her son, dead in sin and error, risen in the life of grace.


(e) Coherence of Mass Propers and Ordinary

The three guiding principles of the new lectionary that I have examined so far have to do with the quantity of Scripture in the Mass. Before moving on to a fourth guiding principle that does not concern quantity, I want to pause and raise a question about the category of quantity itself as regards Scripture in the Mass.

We can take the question of the sanctoral cycle as an example of what I mean. The use of an all-embracing proper or common of the Mass within the sanctoral cycle has the effect of knitting an entire liturgy together as a seamless garment: the prayers honor and invoke the saint; the readings and antiphons extol the virtues of the saint, who is put forward as our example and teacher; the Eucharistic sacrifice links the Church Triumphant, represented by the lists of saints in the Roman Canon, to all of us pilgrims in the Church Militant. The whole liturgy acquires a unity of sanctification, showing us both the primordial Way of sanctity—Jesus in the Holy Eucharist—and the models of sanctity achieved.

The feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (Appendx A, below) can serve as a particular example of the immense literary and theological richness of the traditional Missale Romanum, which centers the variable parts of the Mass around the saint whose memory we celebrate on earth. As can be easily seen, the elements of the Mass connect with one another like links in a chain, providing the worshiper with a focused spiritual formation and a powerful incentive to prayer.

If we take a step further back and look at the antiphons, prayers, and readings against the backdrop of the presence of Scripture throughout the Ordo Missae, we can see just how impressive is the result (Appendix B). One might call this phenomenon “biblical permeation” or “scriptural suffusion,” a suffusion supported by the unchanging Ordo Missae. Because the Order of Mass is not subject to a plethora of options, it is much easier to connect the variable parts to the invariable. For example, the characteristic use of Old Testament texts in the antiphons strongly harmonizes with the Roman Canon’s express mention of Abel, Abraham, and Melchizedek and with its hieratic language of sacrifice, so reminiscent of the Mosaic Law. The solidity and stability of the Canon is like a massive foundation of rock on which the carefully hewn stones of the propers are built up into a spacious edifice for prayer.

As the diagram shows, Scripture permeates the usus antiquior at every level. Even though many of the prayers are said silently, Catholics who are well acquainted with the old rite follow along in their missals and make these rich prayers their own. This has certainly been my experience: I have come to cherish not only the changing propers but also the fixed verses from Psalm 42, Psalm 25, Psalm 115, and the Prologue of John’s Gospel.

In the new liturgy, by contrast, the prayers, readings, and Eucharist are awkwardly situated vis-à-vis one another: they no longer fit together into a single flow of action. The biblical lessons are extrinsic and accidental to the celebration of most saints’ days, in tension with Scripture’s inner purpose. The general problem here is the overall integrity of the liturgical service. Going beyond the formal “readings” at Mass, we should also look to how Scripture is present throughout the rest of the liturgy. How “saturated with Scripture” is the liturgy as a whole? Do the proper antiphons, prayers, and readings cohere with one another and with the Ordo Missae?

Accordingly, while there is obviously a vastly greater extension of Scripture in the new rite, one may still raise a question about its intensity. Is the new Roman Missal as deeply imbued with the language, imagery, and spirit of Scripture as the old Missale Romanum?


(f) Omission or dilution of “difficult” passages

To this point I have called into question those guiding principles behind the reform of the lectionary that concerned the quantity of Scripture in the Mass. I want to look briefly at one of the non-quantitative aspects of the reform, namely, the decision to omit or marginalize “difficult” passages.

It might be assumed that once the reformers allowed themselves three years of Sundays and two years of weekdays, they would certainly not fail to include in their new lectionary all the readings that are found in the traditional Roman liturgy, and that in their march through various books of the Bible they would not omit any key passages. Instead, they made a programmatic decision to avoid what they considered “difficult” biblical texts. What kind of texts did they have in mind? I will offer a couple of examples.

In the vast new Lectionary, the following three verses from 1 Corinthians 11 never appear, not even once: “Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink of the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the Body and of the Blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself; and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. For he that eatheth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the Body of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27–29). St. Paul’s warning against receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord unworthily, that is, unto one’s damnation, has not been read at any Novus Ordo Mass for almost half a century. And yet, in the traditional Latin Mass, these verses are heard at least three times every year, once on Holy Thursday (where the Epistle is 1 Cor 11:20–32), and twice on Corpus Christi (where the Epistle is 1 Cor 11:23–29, and the Communion antiphon is 1 Cor 11:26-27). Catholics who attend the usus antiquior will never fail to have these challenging words placed before their consciences. Let us be frank: the concept of an unworthy communion has simply disappeared from the general Catholic consciousness, and the new lectionary must share some of the blame.

It is well known that the cursing or imprecatory psalms were removed from the Liturgy of the Hours, but it is less well known that selective psalm suppression affected the Mass as well. There are a surprising number of psalm verses prominent in the old Missal that are either absent in the new lectionary or much more rarely found. For example, the moving lines of Psalm 42 with which every celebration of the usus antiquior begins were, in the new lectionary, exiled to Friday of the 25th week of Ordinary Time in Year 1 and a couple of verses in the Easter Vigil. That’s it. Psalm 34 [35], so beloved to our ancestors for its Passiontide language and ascetical images, was whittled down from eight appearances in the usus antiquior to a single appearance in the usus recentiorif, that is, the Introit is said or sung, which is optional (Appendix C).

What is happening in such examples (and they are numerous) is quite simple. Embarrassed by a divinely-revealed doctrine or spiritual attitude, certain members of the Church do what they can to ensure that it is either never or only very rarely mentioned. The men of Coetus XI knew what the traditional lections were, and it appears that they deliberately suppressed some of them. The novelty of the multi-year cycles and the monumental fact of “more Scripture” distracted our attention from the subtler question of what was lost in the transition. A similar process of doctrinal attenuation can be seen in the Consilium’s editing of the Collects, whose postconciliar versions frequently omit or downplay mention of “unpleasant things.”


(g) The ars celebrandi

Everything I have said to this point has to do with the lectionary itself: what led to its creation, what principles guided its formation, and how particular readings were selected or excluded. But how Scripture is treated, how it is reverenced by the ministers, how it is integrated into the entire liturgy, is arguably no less important than the selection and quantity of readings. A metaphor would be the contrast between the modern printed book and the medieval illuminated manuscript. A Bible that has been written out by hand in a beautiful script ennobled with an elaborate initial and surrounded by lavish ornamentation is a certain way of viewing and treating the Word of God, no less than a cheap modern paperback that crams the words onto thin sheets with a drab, uniform layout and no special images. In this final portion of my critique, I would like to turn our attention to the domain of the ars celebrandi.

One sign of whether we are grasping the Eucharistic nobility and finality of the readings is whether the lections are proclaimed with due solemnity. They should be surrounded by a rich ceremonial, including the chanting of the sacred text, candles, and incense. At a High Mass, the priest’s chanting of the readings elevates them in a manner fitting to the depth and beauty of God’s own words and fitting, also, to the public act of transmitting divine revelation. The chant is like musical incense. At a solemn Mass, the hierarchical chanting, first by the subdeacon, then by the deacon, wonderfully expresses the metaphysical relationship of the elements: the lowliest minister sings the Epistle, the mid-level minister sings the Gospel, and the highest minister, the one who directly represents Christ the High Priest, whispers the words of consecration that infinitely exceed any song on earth. In such ways, the classical Roman rite brings out forcefully the fact that when we are handling Scripture, we are not handling mere human verbiage, but precious secrets proceeding from the mouth of God. Paradoxically, the usus antiquior treats the Word of God with tremendous veneration and yet decisively subordinates that written Word to the Mysterium Fidei, the Word made flesh.

At a High Mass, the chanting of the Epistle and Gospel and the slow-moving elaborate beauty of the interlectional chants—the Gradual and the Alleluia or Tract—prompt us to receive the Word as God’s Word and to meditate on it. While theoretically available to the OF, chanted readings and the chants between the readings are encountered extremely rarely. Rather, the delivery of the Sunday readings—up to four of them in a row, read aloud in the manner of a lecture, and all too often with monotonous elocution—treats these words as merely human, not divine, and discourages meditation. (Low Mass in the usus antiquior is a separate question, but I would argue that the overall atmosphere of silence and reverence characteristic of the Low Mass endows the readings and antiphons with a similarly meditative poignancy, and their being read at the altar by the priest serves a function similar to their solemn chanting at a High Mass.)

We saw earlier that the Council had stated, in words that warmed the hearts of Fr. Bouyer, Fr. Morin, and others of their generation: “To achieve the restoration, progress, and adaptation of the sacred liturgy, it is essential to promote that warm and living love for scripture to which the venerable tradition of both eastern and western rites gives testimony” (SC 24). How, in a manner proper to liturgy, do we best promote a warm and living love for Scripture? We treat Scripture in a special ceremonial way: we enclose it in a silver or gold case; we chant the readings; we incense and kiss the Gospel, and flank it with candles. With its simultaneous introduction of a multitude of readings and of lay lectors, the Novus Ordo has ironically rendered a sung and solemn Liturgy of the Word extremely rare, and, as we know too well, the spoken version tends to be unremarkable and eminently ignorable, when it is not positively annoying due to well-meant attempts to declaim the readings with dramatic flair.

Finally, we can ask ourselves: Does there need to be a homily at a weekday Mass? Cannot the Word of God, or better yet, the liturgy as a whole, sometimes be allowed to “speak for itself”? We need to find ways to make our liturgies less centered on human wisdom and the personalities of the actors and more centered on Jesus Christ, His Word, His Sacrifice.


4. Conclusions

The criteria we have considered in this paper—the function of Scripture in the Eucharistic sacrifice, the internal cohesion of the Mass as an ‘ecosystem’, the psychology of memory, the natural unit of the year, the due place of the sanctoral cycle, the spiritual role of difficult passages, the aesthetic and ceremonial treatment suited to the divine Word, and, not least of all, the authority inherent in traditional practice—permit us to draw a number of general conclusions.

First, like much else in the liturgical reform conducted under Pope Paul VI, the new lectionary exhibits signs of unseemly haste, overweening ambition, and disregard of principles approved by the council fathers. The Council’s call for “more Scripture” was open to different and even conflicting realizations. The revised lectionary, while it does represent one possible implementation of numbers 35 and 51 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, ends up contradicting outright numbers 23 and 50 of the same Constitution, which enunciate the controlling principle of continuity with tradition as well as the request that elements already present in our tradition be restored. It is worth noting that the bulk of the readings in the preconciliar Missale Romanum represent an inheritance from the early centuries of Catholic worship, a stable body of lessons on which generations of pastors, preachers, theologians, and laity had been nurtured, a tradition deserving of immense respect for its venerable antiquity. It is, to speak plainly, outrageous that this unbroken tradition, which had withstood all the ravages of time, fell victim to the scalpels of liturgical specialists. The result has been an obvious rupture and discontinuity at the very heart of the Roman rite, in spite of legal fictions and constructs necessary to help us through this period of crisis.

Second, quite apart from whether or not it can be seen as faithful to the Council’s desiderata, the Novus Ordo lectionary is gravely flawed because of its overall conception, its unwieldy bulk, its politically correct omissions, and its watering down of key spiritual goods emphasized in the old readings. No human mind can relate to so great a quantity of biblical text spread out over multiple years: it is out of proportion to the natural cycle of the year and its seasons; it is out of proportion to the supernatural cycle of the liturgical year. The revised lectionary does not lend itself readily to the sacrificial finality of the Mass but, inasmuch as it appears to serve a didactic function, sets up a different goal, quasi-independent of the offering of the Sacrifice. The use of the names “Liturgy of the Word” and “Liturgy of the Eucharist” underlines the problem: it is as if there are two liturgies glued together. They are seldom joined by the obvious connection of being related to one and the same feast, since the new lectionary prefers to ignore the saints in its march through the books of Scripture. Nor has it often been the custom to join the two liturgies by means of ceremonial practices that show the chanting of Scripture to be one phase of the journey towards Jerusalem and the hill of Calvary (cf. Lk 9:51).

Third, in light of this critique, we are in a better position to acknowledge that the usus antiquior possesses what is, in many ways, a superior lectionary, and Catholics who rejoice to worship in this form of the Roman rite should be unafraid to maintain and argue this advantage. We have a magnificent treasure to preserve and to share generously with our fellow Catholics, as Pope Benedict XVI expressly hoped we would do.

Fourth, the current usus antiquior readings are less varied and numerous than they have been at different points in the Roman rite’s history, and there is no inherent reason why the annual cycle could not be judiciously enriched with daily readings for certain seasons and by the selection of appropriate new readings for certain saints’ feasts, all the while scrupulously respecting and maintaining the cycle of readings already in place. In this way, the primacy of the liturgical year and the coherence of the sanctoral cycle could both be maintained, and neither sound tradition nor valuable spiritual goods would have to be compromised.

Fifth, now does not seem to be the best time to undertake this task. Those who love the classical Roman liturgy deeply appreciate the stability and serenity of the old missal and often (quite reasonably, in my opinion) feel shell-shocked by changes, small or great. And those who are in charge of liturgical matters in the Church still seem doggedly committed to the defense (one might say, at all costs) of the novelties of the 1960s and 1970s. It is not an environment favorable to the preservation of tradition or to its legitimate and prudent development. There is a spiritual danger, too, in setting about to “improve”: reformatory arrogance, one of the curses of modern progressivism. Our age does not seem to be especially talented at subtle or judicious improvements; we are an age of demolitions with wrecking balls. Nor should we be surprised that something put together in a matter of a few years would not be as solid and coherent as something that developed organically for many centuries. I sympathize with those who say we need a breathing space, a season of refreshment, in which we rediscover and rejoice in the traditional liturgy of the Church, with the notion of change far from our minds. The Lord in His kindness may someday provide a peaceful opportunity for gently supplementing the lections of the usus antiquior. We should neither try to rush the advent of that day, nor close off our minds to that possibility.


Contemporary ars celebrandi at its worst

5. Practical Steps

Since we are also interested here in practical steps, there are several things we can be doing right now to address at least some of the problems that have been raised.

First and foremost, we must celebrate the usus antiquior ever more widely, and learn again from our own tradition the properly liturgical function, configuration, and ceremonial of the readings. In this realm, it is crucial to promote the sung Mass and, where possible, the solemn High Mass, so that all things, including the proclamation of God’s Word, may be done beautifully and nobly.

Again, pastors in charge of usus antiquior communities ought to promote lectio divina and Bible studies and not be afraid to base their preaching on Sacred Scripture, while not neglecting texts from the missal, the catechism, and other classic homiletic sources. The tight integration of the propers of the Mass often make it easy to fulfill the Council’s request that “the sermon . . . should draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources” (SC 35.2, emphasis added). How rare it is to hear sermons that comment at any length on the texts of the Mass, whether proper to the day or from the Ordinary! Is it not strange that, apart from baptisms, first communions, and other special events, priests so rarely draw their themes from the immense treasury of the liturgy itself?

Within the sphere of the Novus Ordo, there are several things that can be done.

First, since one of the most notable characteristics of the historic Roman rite is its permeation with the Word of God, the proper antiphons at Mass should always be sung—at least the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion chants. In this way we can overcome one of the greatest ironies of the post-conciliar period, namely, that while the Council, like Scripture, bestows praise on sacred song, the Liturgy of the Word today is rarely chanted, and, even worse, our authentically scriptural songs—the propers—have been replaced with hymns of notoriously variable quality and fidelity to the Bible.
Second, we should take a hermeneutic of continuity approach to the modern lectionary. On memorials and feasts, we can choose from the optional readings those that correspond to the former missal, or in any case, those that fit well with the saint in question. During the suppressed Octave of Pentecost, we should celebrate Votive Masses of the Holy Spirit, selecting appropriate readings, once again emulating the old rite as closely as possible. The proclamation of the readings should be heightened with ceremonial features such as chanted lessons (whenever lectors, deacons, and priests can be sufficiently trained), incense, and candles.

Third, and in spite of the problem of verbosity, we should not fall into the trap of using the so-called “short forms” of readings, which are often ruses for omitting the uncomfortable bits—as when the American and British lectionaries provide for the silencing of the verse “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.” If a priest sees that “difficult” verses of Scripture have been altogether omitted under the pressure of liberalism and secularism, he would do well to bring up those very verses in his homily.

Fourth, lectors should be more carefully selected and trained for their purpose, and suitably vested, as befits the dignity of their office. A deliberate effort to increase the number of male lectors would also be a worthy endeavor.

Fifth, to counterbalance the problem of “verbal imperialism,” the Liturgy of the Eucharist should be given due weight and dignity by the sacred music employed, by the adoption (whenever possible) of an eastward orientation at the altar, and by the use of the Roman Canon, so that this part of the liturgy truly appears to be the Mass’s point of arrival—in the words of the poet Richard Crashaw, “the full, final Sacrifice / On which all figures fix’t their eyes. / The ransomed Isaac, and his ram; / The Manna, and the Paschal Lamb.” It need not take longer in terms of the clock, but it ought to feel weightier. In a traditional Solemn High Mass, the Mass of the Catechumens often takes considerably longer than the Mass of the Faithful, yet the latter always stands out as the summit of the holy mountain.

Lastly, the Catholic parish, like the life of every Catholic, should manifest a variety of prayer forms and a breadth of education. The vast increase in the quantity of Scripture at Mass reflects a mentality that sees Mass as the only time when Catholics are ever going to be in church or anywhere near a Bible, so one has to pack everything one can into that time. This mentality obviously neglects the role of the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours, which is and has always been a dedicated liturgy of the Word of God and deserves its important place—for example, in publicly celebrated Vespers. Moreover, nothing can substitute for extraliturgical formation in catechism classes, prayer groups, and Bible studies, through pamphlets, books, and DVDs distributed to the faithful, and even through well-written bulletins. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us, lectio divina should be taught and encouraged. The formation of the faithful in the Word of God is not a burden that the Mass was ever meant to carry or is even well-suited to carry.

Allow me to close with the moving words of Cardinal Ratzinger in his preface to Dom Alcuin Reid’s The Organic Development of the Liturgy—words that apply extremely well to the revision of the lectionary.

Growth is not possible unless the Liturgy’s identity is preserved, and . . . proper development is possible only if careful attention is paid to the inner structural logic of this “organism.” Just as a gardener cares for a living plant as it develops, with due attention to the power of growth and life within the plant, and the rules it obeys, so the Church ought to give reverent care to the Liturgy through the ages, distinguishing actions that are helpful and healing from those that are violent and destructive. If that is how things are, then we must try to ascertain the inner structure of a rite, and the rules by which its life is governed, in order thus to find the right way to preserve its vital force in changing times, to strengthen and renew it.


Appendix A
 Appendix B
 Appendix C
[Postscript: At the time I wrote this lecture, in 2015, I was more favorable to the “reform of the reform” and the “hermeneutic of continuity.” At this point I am skeptical about both, for reasons I have explained elsewhere. Nevertheless, I understand that many clergy find themselves in the position of celebrating the Novus Ordo and they wish to do the best they can with the materials at hand. The recommendations given in the lecture are to be taken as pragmatic steps towards the ultimate goal of recovering traditional Catholic worship in its fullness.]