Rorate Caeli

Full Text of Dr. Kwasniewski’s Talk on the Superiority of the Old Lectionary over the New

The following lecture, sponsored by the Coalition for Canceled Priests, was given at Velocity All Sports in Mokena, Illinois, on March 7, 2022. The video also includes an extensive Q&A.—PAK 

Mythbusting: Why the TLM’s Lectionary Is Superior to the New Lectionary

Peter A. Kwasniewski

While almost every other aspect of the liturgical reform following Vatican II has been the target of serious and sustained 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 in his 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.”

And yet, it is no secret that knowledge of the Bible among Catholics today has reached an abysmal level, with surveys showing that most cannot say anything intelligent about any of the major figures of salvation history, especially from the Old Testament, and with awareness of the actual teaching of Christ in the Gospels at an all-time low. The first thing we have to note, therefore, is that without adequate catechesis and well-prepared preaching, no amount of Bible reading is going to be able to penetrate into the minds and hearts of the faithful. Sacred Scripture is an ancient collection of many different types of writing, most of which seem very remote to us, and some of which are downright impenetrable without help. Just reading it, by itself, is probably not going to do much for most people. We can therefore say, with certainty, that the new lectionary has not produced the immense harvest of biblical literacy that was promised by the ivory-tower intellectuals who designed it, just as the liturgical reform in general has not lived up to the utopian prophecies of Paul VI, about churches packed with eager and joyful Catholics of all ages, actively participating better than ever, or maybe even for the first time! This much is clear: the vast postconciliar simplification of the liturgy, together with the vast increase in Bible reading, has not achieved the goal that was given as their sole justification, namely, that by such means Catholics would become more liturgically conscientious and more committed to their Faith.

At the same time, we have see a slow but steady increase in the number of Catholics who have returned to the liturgical traditions of the Church, most especially in the form of the traditional Latin Mass, which has its own much more compact lectionary contained within the missal, and, of course, reproduced in the daily hand missals used by many of the faithful. Traditionalists take Scripture very seriously: they may be among the only ones left who still believe that it is the very Word of God, inspired, inerrant, infallible in every jot and tittle. And because they believe in catechizing their children, there is often a reasonably good outline of salvation history in their minds. This revival of the Latin Mass, in spite of its powerful enemies (a topic into which I do not intend to go, at least in my lecture), prompts us to ask a controversial question: Are there reasons to believe that the ancient lectionary—and, in general, the ancient approach to Scripture in the Mass—has more to be said on its behalf than we’ve been led to think? Could it be that here, too, the Church knew what she was doing for centuries and even millennia? 

A little background

We need just a little bit of historical background to understand our subject. The Roman Rite of Mass, like every other traditional Christian liturgical rite Eastern or Western, had always had a one-year cycle of readings. This means you read the same selection of Epistles and Gospels from year to year on any day that has a fixed Mass formulary, either from the temporal cycle or from the sanctoral cycle, although of course the shifting of calendar dates might mean that a certain Epistle or Gospel happens not to be read in a given year (say, if a saint’s feast falls on a Sunday). There are other readings attached to Votive Masses that can be chosen under certain conditions.

However, the oldest lectionaries of the Roman Rite (seventh and eighth centuries) did contain more readings than the 1570 Tridentine Missal has: in particular, we find (albeit inconsistently) that Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays outside of Lent had ferial readings that could be used when there was no clash with a feast. Because of the increasing number of saints’ feasts and the increasing popularity of Votive Masses, and because of a desire to make the one-volume missal as compact as possible, these ferial readings dropped away in the later Middle Ages.

So one thing we can say, even up front, is that if there is good reason to introduce more readings or a greater variety of readings, there were already precedents within our tradition by reference to which the number of readings could have been gently and intelligently increased without having done violence to the many positive features of the existing one-year lectionary. For example, some ferial readings could have been provided for Advent and for Easter.

In any case, by 1951 liturgists were already talking about creating a three- or four-year lectionary, and in 1956 Pius XII’s liturgical commission had prepared a draft of a three-year cycle. Seven years later, in 1963, the vast majority of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council voted in favor of a Constitution, Sacrosanctum Concilium, that contained the following provisions: “In sacred celebrations a more abundant, more varied, and more suitable reading from Sacred Scripture should be restored [instauretur]”—that’s a key term, because it suggests not inventing something whole-cloth—and “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.”

The Council threw its weight behind a multi-year lectionary, but said nothing about getting rid of the existing lectionary. As with every other aspect of the reform, there was plenty of debate among the members of the body charged with executing the liturgical reform, called “the Consilium.” Pretty early on the members of Coetus XI, the sub-group in charge of the lectionary, decided to throw out the existing lectionary, which was born in the first millennium of the Church, in the golden age of the Church Fathers, and had reached its classic form by the 8th century, when St. John Damascene was writing the first “summa” to sum up the achievements of the Fathers. In that sense, the traditional Roman lectionary has a “clout” that can be compared to that of the Roman Canon, the Roman calendar, and the corpus of Gregorian chant. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council never debated the question of chucking out any of these things because it would have been unthinkable to them to treat our tradition this way—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 most of us here will be 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. It is therefore not correct to call it a revised or reformed lectionary; it is simply a new one, having very little overlap with the cycle used, in one form or another, for over 1300 years.

Amidst the cork-popping celebrations that surrounded the release of the new lectionary in 1969, lone voices began to point 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 the remainder of my talk this evening, I will first try to define the very purpose of Scripture in the Mass. Second, I will re-examine several guiding principles of the lectionary revision, namely: the lengthening of readings; their arrangement as a multi-year cycle; the general preference for lectio continua or continuity of readings; and the decision to omit “difficult” readings. Third, I will consider how the new lectionary was implemented in the flesh, namely the ars celebrandi it inaugurated. Then I will draw some conclusions.

The purpose of Scripture in the Mass

The question that must be asked first and foremost is this: What is the purpose of the reading of Scripture in the Mass? Is it a moment of instruction for the people or is it an element of the worship offered by Christ and His Mystical Body to the Most Holy Trinity? We can say, on historical, liturgical, and theological grounds, that the proclamation of the readings at Mass has both of these purposes, but in a certain order.

First, the readings are undoubtedly instructional for the faithful. This is rather obvious: they are words chosen to impart to us a certain “lesson,” to show us the life, miracles, parables, and teaching of the Lord, and to prepare our minds and hearts for receiving Christ Himself when He comes, even as the Old Testament prophets culminating in John the Baptist prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah. In a way, we could say that the Mass of Catechumens stands to the Mass of the Faithful as John the Baptist to his cousin Jesus: the first points to the second, saying: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world.” The readings in the traditional missal were chosen to begin with for their universal moral, dogmatic, and Eucharistic content, and for their connection with individual saints or classes of saints. The saints themselves are presented to us as living icons to which the letter of the Bible points us, and in which its message is fulfilled. The readings hold up great examples of virtue and prepare the congregation for communion with the Lord in adoration and in the heavenly banquet.

Second—and this point is less obvious to modern Catholics, though I suspect it was obvious in centuries past—the readings are themselves an offering of worship to Almighty God: they are proclaimed for His glory and honor, and to obtain His blessing. The clergy chant the divine words in the presence of their Author as part of the logikē latreia or rational/verbal worship we owe to our Creator and Redeemer. These words are a making-present of the covenant with God, an enactment of their meaning in the sacramental context for which they were intended, a grateful and humble recitation in the sight of God of the truths He has spoken and the good things He has promised. In Scripture itself we often see this manner of praying to God: “Remember, Lord, the promises Thou hast spoken!”—not that He will forget, but He wants us not to forget His promises, and He lovingly wants us to “hold Him to them,” so to speak. A striking passage in the Book of Wisdom presents exactly this picture of the function of the minister in the liturgy:

For a blameless man made haste to be their champion: Bringing the weapon of his own ministry, even prayer and the propitiation of incense, he withstood the indignation, and set an end to the calamity, shewing that he was your servant. And he overcame the  anger, not by strength of body, not by efficacy of weapons; but by word did he subdue the minister of punishment, by bringing to remembrance oaths and covenants made with the fathers. (Wisdom 18:21–22)

The solemn and formal style of the reading, directed elsewhere than the people immediately present, makes it clear that we are acknowledging that the God whom these texts mention is really here in our midst, or rather, we are come into His presence with thanksgiving; thus the readings turn into gifts that, having been placed in our hands by God, we turn around and offer back to Him, even as we do with the bread and wine. Or to use a different metaphor, the readings are a form of verbal incense by which we “raise our hands to His commandments” (et levavi manus meas ad mandata tua: Ps 118:48).

When we take seriously the traditional view of the divine inspiration of Scripture, we can see that the loving care, the acts of reverence paid to the Word of God in the first part of the Mass—everything from praying that one might be worthy to speak its content, accompanying the book with candles, making the sign of the cross on it, incensing it, kissing it, and singing the readings to dignified and penetrating chant tones—is very much like the worship paid to the cross on Good Friday, or the veneration given to Byzantine icons: in a real way, we are coming into contact with God Himself. He is the one whose truth is made present when the reading is proclaimed: it is not a past memory but a present power for conversion and illumination. Surely Scripture is not the Real Presence of the Holy Eucharist, but it is divine in a way that no other human words are divine. This is why the rich ceremonial in which the ancient Roman rite wraps the reading or chanting of the Word of God makes so much sense: the liturgy wants to accentuate the fact that in this scenario, the word on paper, the word floating through the air, is superior to our minds, determinative of our wills. In short: it is God, in verbal mode, and we enter into His verbal presence with signs of veneration. We glorify Him by the liturgical enactment of His revelation.

It is, needless to say, a minority view that the chanting of the readings at Mass is an act of worship directed to God as well as an instruction for the people. In fact, there is something counterintuitive about this idea. After all, it would seem obvious that the reason Scripture is read in the Mass is to educate the faithful. But it is not so simple as a binary “either/or.” The traditional Roman liturgy tends, over the centuries, to turn everything into a prayer directed to God, as if there should be no place in the liturgy for something that is exclusively “for the people.”

A great example of this is how the Creed is recited or sung in the usus antiquior. We all know that the Creed is a confession of faith, that it is basically a list of dogmas held by Christians. It has no obvious characteristics of being a prayer directed to God; rather, it looks like a badge of orthodoxy by which we signify our orthodoxy in the sight of the Church. And yet, in the usus antiquior the priest recites the Creed ad orientem at the high altar, bowing the head at the mention of God the Father, the Holy Name of Jesus, and the divinity of the Holy Ghost, genuflecting at the Et incarnatus est, and making the sign of the cross at the Et vitam venturi saeculi, concluding with an “Amen.” In this way the profession of orthodoxy has been turned into a prayer to the Triune God, a manner of communing with the One who has graciously revealed His mysteries to man.

What we see with the Credo is what we see with every element in the Mass, Office, and other sacramental rites. The whole liturgy is for God, and in fact its highest educational value consists precisely in communicating to the people the primacy and ultimacy of God, that He is the Alpha and Omega of all our exterior and interior acts, including the act of listening to readings and comprehending them. In a sense, the readings are offered up to God so that we may be offered up to Him in our understanding of the Word and the affections stirred up by it.

This is why it does not matter so much whether or not every word is intelligible; what matters far more is to see that this Word is divine, holy, heavenly, that we are standing on holy ground. The verbal comprehension can follow in due time, but we will never grasp the Word rightly if we do not first venerate it as divine and worship the God from whom it emanates and in whose presence it comes alive. The traditional Roman Rite does not treat “the apostolic letters and the Holy Gospel” as mere “books” or “documents” or “instructions,” but as “moments of liturgical action, deriving from the liturgy, where they do not have a simply narrative or purely edifying meaning, but one even more important — precisely an active, sacramental meaning.”

Therefore, the goal of divine worship 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.

The length of readings

Now, 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 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, suffocating silence and meditation, and obscuring the centrality of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

We must keep in mind that, in the Novus Ordo, nearly everything 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; it can be like going point by point through the items on a meeting agenda, and we all know how thrilling it is to sit through a long meeting. Because of this monotony, sheer length translates inevitably into emphasis. In this approach, 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 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,” to use the language of official documents. 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 made after Vatican II (more often than not, abridgements or simplifications), has disturbed the balance of the Mass, as excessive farming can lead to soil erosion and the destruction of an ecosystem.

Fittingness of an 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 everyone involved in liturgical reform quickly favored the approach 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—if we compare statistics for Sundays, vigils, and major feasts, the new lectionary has 58% of the Gospels, 25% of the NT Epistles, and 3.7% of the OT, while the old missal has 22% of the NT Gospels, 11% of the NT Epistles, and 0.8% of the OT (not counting the Psalms, which play a prominent role in both). 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. As I mentioned before, 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.

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. Joseph Shaw points out:

The [traditional] 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.

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 a well-chosen selection of 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.

The faithful need more Scripture in their lives—no one will dispute this point. 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.

There’s a reason we have the expression “to learn something by heart.” What you have in your heart is really a part of you. What remains in a book or on the internet is not really part of you. That’s why it’s silly when people say things like: “We moderns are so much better off than the medievals, because we can access millions of texts online instantly at any time!” The medievals had memorized huge swaths of Scripture and it therefore shaped their inmost selves. A modern person has memorized very little except his social security number, some phone numbers, and maybe some scientific laws, so having every library at his fingertips means almost nothing—he doesn’t know what to look for, he doesn’t know what wisdom tastes like, and he isn’t carrying a library of truth within himself.

The practice of lectio divina or praying with Scripture, where each day one is focused exclusively on the Bible, makes it easier to connect days to each other. This is why the most sensible way to increase Catholic knowledge of Scripture is (a) to teach it in religion/catechism class, and (b) to encourage lectio divina. The Catholic biblical renewal in recent years is largely owing to Protestant converts who have moved mountains to introduce salvation history (“The Great Adventure”) 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. (My personal theory is that we find enthusiasts for the new lectionary mostly among the clergy because, if they take their work seriously, they end up using the lectionary as a kind of lectio divina for preparing their homilies, so they stand to benefit much more from it than those who merely attend Mass do.)

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 quite 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 worship-oriented purpose of Scripture in the Mass.

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 new 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 I said a moment ago about the impracticality of connecting readings from day to day 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—after all, this 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, the sanctoral 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 appropriately called upon to minister to them and reflect their existential primacy. It bears mentioning that scholarship on the history of the liturgy has established with certainty that, apart from Easter, the very earliest liturgical commemorations were not those of the great feasts of Our Lord and His Mother, but rather those of the martyrs, like St. Stephen and St. Lawrence. You probably didn’t know that St. Stephen was celebrated on December 26th prior to Christmas being celebrated on the 25th! The special feastdays that ornamented the primitive Eucharistic liturgies with proper readings, prayers, and antiphons were nearly always those of the saints; the sanctoral cycle enjoyed a de facto pride of place for many centuries. On the basis of respect for tradition, therefore, this cycle deserves at very least to be allotted a place of honor within the framework of the later emphasis on Sundays and holy days honoring the mysteries of Christ. This the Novus Ordo calendar and rubrics have, regrettably, failed to do.

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.

Here’s an example. On May 4, the traditional feastday of St. Monica (because it is the day of her birth into eternal life), the Epistle of the Mass is St. Paul speaking of the honor due to pious 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 thus commemorates the mother who never lost faith in God and eventually regained her son, dead in sin and error, risen in the life of grace. With the new lectionary’s insistence on the preferability of lectio continua, it is highly likely that no special readings will taken place on Monica’s feastday, and instead we will hear whatever other readings happen to be in the lectionary that day. In tension with Scripture’s inner purpose, the readings are extrinsic and accidental to the saint commemorated.

The traditional Mass approaches each day as a coherent whole unto itself. When we are celebrating the feast of a saint, all the variable parts of the Mass—the Propers (which comprise the Introit, Gradual, Tract, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion), the Readings (Epistle and Gospel), the Orations (Collect, Secret, Postcommunion), sometimes the Preface and the Sequence—all of these coalesce around the saint of the day. This 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 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:
It could be due to my own limitations, but the same number of years of immersion in the new lectionary and the new Mass—even at a time in my life when I was taking my faith quite seriously—never produced in me the same depth of remembrance, association, resonance, and penetration into the texts of the liturgy as my immersion in the old Mass has done.

If we take a step further back and look at the changing antiphons, prayers, and readings against the backdrop of the stable presence of the Scripture quotes and allusions that permeate the Order of Mass, we can see just how impressive is the result:
This biblical permeation or scriptural suffusion is supported by the unchangingness of the Order of Mass: because it 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 assist at the old rite often 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, but follow in sequence like independent blocks. There is a reason for that: each part of the New Mass was designed by a separate subcommittee, and the subcommittees seldom communicated with one another. At the end, all the separate pieces were glued together by papal decree, so what you are really getting is a compilation of independent projects. The end result is a liturgy in which the Propers, the Orations, the biblical lessons, and the Order of Mass simply do not cohere with one another, and sometimes do not even exist since their use is optional.

The general problem here is the overall integrity of the liturgical service. To evaluate Scripture in the Mass, we must go beyond the formal “readings” and look at how the Word of God 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 Order of Mass? 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?

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 Ordinary Form 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 both the Epistle and the Communion antiphon presents them). If, moreover, the faithful happen to attend a votive Mass of the Blessed Sacrament—a popular choice among votive Masses—they will encounter them yet again. 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 obviously shares 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 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—“I will go in unto the altar of God, to God who giveth joy to my youth,” and so forth—were, in the new lectionary, exiled to a lonesome 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, so beloved to our ancestors for its Passiontide language and ascetical images, was whittled down from eight appearances in the traditional Mass to a single appearance in the Novus Ordo—and only if the Introit is said or sung, which is optional:

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.” That is why we should not hesitate to say openly that Archbishop Arthur Roche is telling fibs (that’s putting it politely) when he says, over and over again, that the new missal “contains more riches.” No, in actual fact, it removes many of the riches of the old missal, and fills in the gaping space with modern watered-down, dumbed-down content, “lest anyone” (to use Bugnini’s words) “find reason for spiritual discomfort in the prayer of the Church.” Goodness, no—we wouldn’t ever want Christians to encounter anything uncomfortable as they sit through a long service of amplified readings in the cushioned pews of air-conditioned suburban churches.

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 talk, I would like to turn our attention to the domain of what is called 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 Latin 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 relationship of the elements: the lowest major minister sings the Epistle, the mid-level major minister sings the Gospel, and the highest major 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. The Latin Mass treats the Word of God with tremendous veneration and yet at the same time 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 throughout the year, the Gradual and the Tract in Septuagesima and Lent, or the pair of Alleluias in Paschaltide—prompt us to receive the Word as God’s Word and to meditate on it. While theoretically available in the Novus Ordo, 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 if we count the responsorial psalm, read from the same exact place, and all too often with monotonous delivery—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? The answer is not hard to figure out. We treat Scripture in a special ceremonial way: we enclose it in a silver or gold case (this is more common in the East); we chant the readings; we incense the Gospel, flank it with candles, and carry it back to the priest at the altar to be kissed. 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 rather dull and easy to ignore, 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 opinions and personalities and more centered on Jesus Christ, His Word and His Sacrifice.


The criteria we have looked at—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 some 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 a venerable 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.

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 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 traditional Latin Mass possesses what is, in many ways, a superior lectionary. Catholics who love 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, in spite of the scandal of coreligionists who persecute us.

Fourth, the current Latin Mass 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 or commons, all the while scrupulously respecting and maintaining the readings already in place. In this way, the primacy of the liturgical year and the coherence of the sanctoral cycle would be maintained, and neither sound tradition nor valuable spiritual goods would have to be compromised. Yet now does not seem to be the best time to undertake this task. Those who love the classical Roman liturgy appreciate the stability and serenity of the old missal and quite reasonably wish to avoid further upheaval, while those who are in charge of liturgical matters in the Church seem doggedly committed to the defense, at all costs, of the novelties of the 1960s and 1970s. In short: not a situation favorable to the preservation of tradition or to its legitimate and prudent development. 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.

Fifth, 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 homilies or 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?

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 an 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 biblical education and piety of the faithful is not a burden that the Mass, as such, was ever meant to carry, or is even well-suited to carry. Its purpose is something far greater: the glorification of God in the supreme sacrifice of Christ and the sanctification of the people in their communion with Him, the Word-made-flesh.