The “Readings” at Mass: Worship or Instruction?


Following my post on Cardinal Sarah, reconciliation and the lectionary, Peter Kwasniewski kindly sent me a scan of his article “The Reform of the Lectionary” which was published in Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century. At first, I thought of simply summarising some of the main points but it occurred to me that several principles were important and worthy of further discussion, so I will look at some in due course.

The first is the most fundamental. Kwasniewski rightly says that it should be engaged before examining any particular principle behind the new lectionary. It is the question of the purpose or function of reading the scriptures at Mass. As he puts it:
“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.”
He affirms that what we may call the doxological purpose is primary.

This question determines any subsequent discussion of what passages are chosen, how they are distributed, and how they are treated in the sacred Liturgy. Conversely, changes to the manner of presentation of those passages give a strong clue to the underlying attitude to scripture at Mass.

For example, shortly before the second Vatican Council (on 24 July 1961) the Sacred Congregation of Rites ruled that the subdeacon was allowed to face the people when chanting the epistle at High Mass. This was an innovation that became embedded into the modern rite of Mass, (an option not often used in celebrations of the usus antiquior.) Nowadays, if the minister in the modern rite, lay or cleric, were to read the “first reading” facing the altar, it would probably be thought “rude” such is the complete loss of any sense of the scriptures being proclaimed primarily to give glory to God.

When readers go on a course, they are often sent by their parish priest who wants to improve on “A reading from the letter of St Paul to the Philippines” followed by a mumbled rendition with mistakes in phrasing, and poor delivery. The aim is to give the scriptures more life, more meaning, so that the people in the pews can approach the liturgist's ideal, and listen without their missalettes, understanding everything.

One indicator is the common instruction to make eye contact, as one might do when delivering a speech or lecture. I was told by a student in Rome a few years ago, that the papal MC instructed them not to attempt to make eye contact since that was a distraction from what they were doing in proclaiming a sacred text. That recognises a deeper purpose to the scripture reading than delivering an instructional passage for didactic purposes. If we are giving glory to God by what we are solemnly saying or chanting, why would we feel the need to look at anyone else, and why would anyone else think that we should look at them?

Notice that in the modern rite, we nearly always speak of the “readings.” If on a rare occasion at a Cathedral, a seminary, or an unusual parish, the epistle or gospel is chanted, it would probably be described without any conscious irony as the “reading” being sung. In the traditional liturgy, the solemn Mass, with the chanting of the public prayers, always and routinely including the epistle and gospel, was considered the model form from which the said or “low” Mass is essentially a cut-down version. In the modern rite, there is a sliding scale of solemnity with the option to sing more or less of the public prayers, but this is very rarely applied to the “readings.”

Cardinal Sarah’s well-meant and sincere proposal for a lectionary shared by the two forms of the Roman Rite has been helpful in bringing these questions to the fore. The usus antiquior, by preserving the rituals associated with the epistle and gospel, has also preserved the possibility of recovering the idea that the scriptures at Mass do not have a primarily instructional purpose but are an integral part of a ritual that is totally focussed on the worship of God. That doxological focus is itself instructional for people of every language, of every level of academic ability, and of every social class, transcending any verbal attempt at teaching or explaining.We really need to settle the question of what the liturgical proclamation of the scriptures is for before ever embarking on any attempt to devise a shared lectionary.

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