Singing the epistle at Pontifical High Mass in the Lateran Basilica,
celebrated by the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship
Recently there has been an interesting exchange on the question of who should do the readings at at Mass in the modern rite. (Cf. Benedict Constable and Joseph Shaw.) Reference has been made to the question of instituted Lectors. Lector was one of the minor orders since at least the time of Tertullian, but in 1972, Pope Paul VI made Lector a lay ministry by the Apostolic Letter Ministeria Quaedam. (Latin original - English translation.) In the traditional orders, however, seminarians are still ordained to the Lectorate as a minor order.
A traditional seminarian who has been ordained Lector recently reminded me that Lectors in such seminaries do not read or chant the epistle at Mass. Their "ministry of reading" is limited to occasionally chanting one of the lessons when there are several before the epistle (on ember days, for example.) The epistle itself is always chanted by the subdeacon at High Mass, chanted by the celebrant at Missa Cantata (solemn Mass without a deacon and subdeacon) and read by the celebrant at Low Mass.
So if we are to base the question of who should read the epistle in the modern rite on the ancient practice, Lectors have nothing much to do with it. If the modern rite is to follow tradition in the matter of who does the first reading, it has to be the celebrant or a deacon, not an ordained Lector, an instituted Lector, or a layperson stepping into this role. Modern liturgists will probably want to argue that in the modern rite, lay people have a liturgical role and various ministries, and that doing the reading is one of them. This question is one of those left essentially unresolved by almost universally tolerated practice.
What I would like to raise is the question of why the readings are almost never chanted. It is true that the directives on music since the Council give quite a bit of flexibility over what may be sung at Mass. In the traditional form of Mass, you essentially either have sung Mass or a said "Low" Mass. At sung Mass, all of the sung parts must be sung, period. In the modern rite, there is a hierarchy of what is more important to sing. It is some time since I mastered the labyrinthine rules of this: they seem to change from time to time, and they are largely ignored in any case. Whatever the rules say, grand "set-piece" liturgies in the modern rite in Cathedrals and Seminaries round the world are praised to the skies for their wonderful music when neither the Introit nor the Communion is sung, let alone the Offertorium. (Many experienced musicians have never heard that there is such a thing as an Offertory chant in the modern rite.)
What you will very rarely come across is a chanted first reading or second reading in the vernacular. Occasionally in seminaries and the like, the Gospel is chanted, but that is still rare; most people will only have heard such a thing when watching papal liturgies on television. Yet surely the second Vatican Council emphasised the importance of the word? If the Preface at Mass or the Sanctus is chanted, why is St Paul so neglected? Are the very words of Christ Himself in the Gospel to be left spoken as though they are part of the private prayers of the priest?
Two developments have contributed to this effective downgrading of the word of the Lord. The first and less interesting to my mind, is the invention of the microphone. Nowadays the words can be heard even if they are just spoken, whereas the chant made the voice carry more effectively in a large building. The general rule at the traditional Solemn Mass is that the public prayers are sung while the private prayers are said in a low voice (secreto). Conversely at Low Mass, the texts that would be sung at Solemn Mass are said audibly, whereas the private prayers are again spoken secreto. The anomalies (particularly the prayers at the foot of the altar and the Last Gospel) are generally associated with elements considered extraneous to the core of the rite of Mass. The microphone makes it possible in practice to ignore the distinction between public and private prayers, and so it is in fact ignored, thus damaging the balance of elements in the Roman Rite. It is one of those unforeseen consequences of the hasty reform of the rite.
More interesting, I think, is the question of what exactly we are doing when we proclaim the word of God. It is almost universally accepted that at the Mass, the word of God is proclaimed solely for the instruction of the people. Obviously it would be foolish to consider this as irrelevant; there are plenty of patristic homilies commenting on the Gospel of the day, and clearly the instructional or catechetical element has a long and noble history.
However this does not rule out the possibility which is rarely mentioned, that the chanting of the scriptures at Mass has a doxological and sacramental dimension. The division between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist in the modern form, or between the Mass of the Catechumens and the Mass of the Faithful in the traditional form, cannot be taken to mean a division between worship and non-worship, or between classroom and prayer. The whole rite is an act of worship, including the proclamation of the scriptures. The one who reads is enunciating words inspired by the Holy Ghost. They are meant to be set forth with reverence and solemnity. Even liturgical abuses such as the deacon dancing around in a meaningful pattern, accompanied by voile-swirling ladies, while waving the Gospel book above his head, are witness to the fundamental meaning of the reading of the Word as an act which is in itself the worship of the Father and not just a didactic exercise.
The acclamation in response to the proclamation of scripture is Deo gratias or Laus tibi Christe, not pursed lips and a nod of understanding. We do not affirm that we have heard and digested, we give thanks and praise, two fundamental actions of participation in the action of Christ in the divine Liturgy.
So why are the readings always spoken and never chanted at sung Masses in the modern form?
It occurred to me that if this thesis spreads like a forest fire and inspires liturgists around the world to re-introduce the chanting of the readings, there is a strong possibility that some liturgists will assume the freedom to go beyond the traditional sober chants in their noble simplicity so commended by the second Vatican Council. As with the Responsorial Psalm, there could be new chants composed, especially for the bits with lots of compassion and "mothering" images, that might make the prophet Hosea sound like a cross between the Carpenters and Dolly Parton. I disclaim all responsibility for any such consequences now or in the future, anything to the contrary notwithstanding.