Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Sacrosanctum Concilium and the New Lectionary

This article is the last of a five-part series occasioned by a recent article by Dr Kwasniewski. Click the following links to read part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.
The final question which I wish to address in this series on the lectionary is, “Does the new lectionary fulfill the terms for reform set out in Sacrosanctum Concilium?”

The short answer is “yes”, but with a few very large caveats.

The first caveat is that the new lectionary does what Sacrosanctum Concilium asks for, if what it says about the Scriptures is considered in total isolation from the rest of the document, and from the context in which it was written and promulgated. As with sacred music and the use of a sacred language, Sacrosanctum Concilium called for a reform, and a fairly mild one at that; what came after was a revolution.

The decree gives two instructions concerned the readings in the liturgy. The first is in paragraph 35.1, in the first chapter (paragraphs 5-46), ‘On General Principles for the Renewal and Fostering of the Sacred Liturgy.’ “In sacred celebrations there is to be more reading from holy scripture, and it is to be more varied and suitable.” As is so often the case with Church documents these days, this translation from the Vatican website is not quite exact; the verb in the official Latin version of this sentence is “instauretur – let there be restored.” This indicates at least ad litteram that something which was done once before is to be done again, not that something wholly new was to be created.

The three words here translated as “more … more varied and suitable” are in the Latin original “abundantior, varior et aptior,” modifying a singular collective noun “lectio - reading”, not “readings” in the plural. A more literal translation would be “In sacred celebrations, let a more abundant, varied and suitable reading of Sacred Scripture be restored.” This would seem, therefore, to be a reference to restoring what the then-standard liturgical scholarship thought (wrongly) was the original tradition of the Roman Rite: a Mass with three readings like the Ambrosian Rite. “Restore” would also refer to the long-disused corpus of readings for the ferias outside of Lent, as found in the ancient Roman lectionaries.

The problem is of course that while this sounds like a great idea, it is sufficiently vague that almost any reform could have fulfilled at least the first two terms. The Council asks for the reading of the Scriptures to be “more abundant”, without saying how much more abundant. Ought we to have three readings at Mass like the Ambrosians? Four like the Syro-Malabars? At every Mass, or at some? It asks for it to be “more varied” without saying how much more varied. Is all repetition to be avoided, or only some? And most importantly, it asks for it to be “more suitable”, without giving any indication of where, if at all, the traditional lectionary then in use for well over a millenium in the majority of its parts was not suitable. All of it? Some of it? If so, how much?

The second indication for reform of the lectionary is paragraph 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.” Here again, a more literal translation is needed. “That a richer table of the word of God may be provided for the faithful, let the treasures of the Bible be opened up more plentifully, so that, within the (or ‘a’) prescribed period of years, the praestantior part of the Sacred Scriptures may be read to the people.”

The Latin word “praesto”, the participle of which is “praestans”, means, “to stand out, to excel, to be superior”. “Praestantior pars” therefore is not “the better part” in the sense of the larger part, but the better part in the sense of the better passages. It does not mean “more representative”. Fundamentally, paragraph 51 says specifically in the section on the Mass (paragraphs 47-58) what paragraph 35 already says about the liturgy in general, and with the same vagueness. No indication is given as to the length of the presumed multi-year cycle, an innovation which Alfonse Cardinal Stickler deemed a “crime against nature”, nor as to which parts of the Bible constitute the “more excellent parts.” It is not too much of a stretch to imagine the great reformers of the Tridentine period, such as Borromeo and Bellarmine, defending the Roman Missal against Luther, Calvin and Cranmer as containing precisely “the reading of the better part of the Scripture for the faithful.” It is also noteworthy that no recipes are given for the laying out of the richer table. Will it be the ancient lectionaries of the Roman Rite (as most of the scholars of the Liturgical Movement would probably have assumed)? The modern lectionary of the Byzantine or Ambrosian Rite? The Book of Common Prayer?

Under these terms, any reform of the lectionary would achieve what the Council asked for, as long as the mere number of readings in the Mass was bigger. But there is no reason to believe that what the Council Fathers thought they were asking for was the almost complete replacement of the traditional lectionary in use for about 12 centuries (and in parts, even longer than that) with something totally new. There is no indication that they thought the lectionary would be expanded mostly without reference to any of the historical sources that the scholarship of their time associated with the Roman Rite (whether rightly or wrongly).

If, on the other hand, we attempt to understand Sacrosanctum Concilium as a whole, the new lectionary does not to fulfill the precept of paragraph 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.” (my emphasis) The new lectionary is not an outgrowth or modification of the traditional one, but a wholly new creation.

There are two other important caveats which must be mentioned, regarding the censorship of the Scriptures in the modern lectionary, and the appalling quality of the translations in liturgical use, both of which have significantly vitiated what Sacrosanctum Concilium wished to achieve. To take an example of the first from the current liturgical season: the Roman Rite traditionally reads Luke 3, 1-6 on the 4th Sunday of Advent, the beginning of St. John the Baptist’s public ministry. The Ambrosian Rite, among others, reads a longer version of this Gospel, adding verses 7-18, John’s speech and instructions to the crowds that came to see him in the desert. In the new lectionary, verses 1-6 are read on the 2nd Sunday of Advent in year C, and verses 10-18 on the 3rd Sunday, omitting the first public words of St. John that Luke records:
He said therefore to the multitudes that went forth to be baptized by him: Ye offspring of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of penance; and do not begin to say, We have Abraham for our father. For I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit, shall be cut down and cast into the fire.
Censorship of this type abounds in the new lectionary, and is often, as here, a reflection of the false irenicism that reigned supreme in so much of the Church in the 1960s. In other cases, it is no more than a sop to the lazy. Three of the most important Gospels of St. John traditionally read in Lent, those of the Samaritan Woman, the Blind Man and the Raising of Lazarus, and the three Synoptics Passions all appear in the new lectionary with optional shorter forms. (The Passion of St. Mark, the longest in proportion to its Gospel as a whole, may be reduced to a mere 39 verses, and the Gospel of the Blind Man to 15!) It is very much to be hoped that a future reform of the lectionary will treat the Scriptures with greater respect.

And then there is the matter of the translations, a problem which has plagued the post-Conciliar liturgical reform in all of its aspects from the beginning. Simply put, they are awful. In many of the major languages in which the Roman Rite is celebrated today, the faithful do not hear the Bible itself in the readings, but a paraphrase so badly done as to substantially distort it. In the United States, the New American Bible is the only one currently authorized for use in the lectionary. It is full of inaccuracies, (“Hail, favored one!”) and completely devoid of literary merit (“Hail, favored one!”). No passage of it stands up well before either the King James Bible or the Douay, even where the latter are incorrect as translations. (I commend to our readers this very good essay from First Things by a brilliant scholar and literary critic, Dr. Anthony Esolen of Providence College in Rhode Island, for a witty excoriation of the language of the NAB, which he calls “Nabbish” to distinguish it from English.)

If the Church truly wishes to open up the treasure of the Scriptures to the faithful, it is time to do for the Bible what has now been successfully done for the rest of the Mass: eliminate the “colorless, odorless, gaseous paraphrase,” as Dr. Esolen rightly calls it, and make a new translation, or choose an older one, that genuinely conveys the truth and majesty of the Word of God.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: