Tuesday, June 09, 2015

“Advertising” the Lectionary - An Insight into its Reform

Dom Adrian Nocent, O.S.B. (1913-96), was a liturgist and monk of Maredsous Abbey in Belgium. He was drafted as an additional member into Coetus XI, the group of the Consilium responsible for the reform of the lectionary, soon after they had started their work.

Shortly before his death, Nocent contributed various articles to a 5 volume set of books entitled Handbook for Liturgical Studies, and one of those was on the lectionary. As a member of the group who worked on the lectionary reform, one might have hoped that he would give some first-hand, detailed insight into how and why Coetus XI made the decisions they did in the process of the reform. Unfortunately, for the most part, Nocent seems happy merely to recount the origins of the Roman Rite lectionary and tell us about the structure of its post-conciliar form; sadly, there’s not a lot in this article that can’t be found elsewhere (and in more detail) in other books.

However, we do get one, small, tantalising glimpse into the mind and workings of Coetus XI. Describing the arrangement of the readings for Sundays, feast days and weekdays, Nocent writes that:
This entire arrangement was not accomplished without objections and differing ideas. Some, for example, arguing from modern advertising methods, wanted to have only the ipsissima verba Christi proclaimed in a single sentence. This could have made a deep impression on the hearers. (p. 185 of A. Nocent, “The Roman Lectionary for Mass” in A. Chupungco [ed.], Handbook for Liturgical Studies [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997-2000, 5 vols.], vol. 3, pp. 177-188, my emphasis)
I have to admit that, upon first reading this sentence, I had to do a double-take because I thought I’d misread it: the idea seemed so outlandish! But I can imagine how such an idea might have been argued at the time: if we require a liturgical reform for ‘modern man’, one that requires that rites “should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation” (SC 34), why shouldn’t such a reform integrate modern advertising methods? If there’s anything ‘modern man’ understands, it is advertising slogans, and they certainly don’t require much explanation!

What the reformed lectionary could have been like
It should go without saying that importing any sort of secular consumerist attitudes into the sacred liturgy is a terrible idea – not least because it goes completely against the principle of organic development (cf. SC 23) and is not at all in accord with the authentic spirit of the liturgy (cf. SC 14).

As well as this troubling notion, the level of confidence some members of Coetus XI evidently had in the historical-critical scholarship of the time is, to my mind, astounding.[1] If this idea of only having the ipsissima verba Christi, ‘the very words of Christ’, had actually been implemented, would we have ended up with a lectionary where the Gospel readings changed with the whims and vagaries of critical scholarship, where the ‘very words’ spoken by our Lord were subject to alteration every 20-30 years or so? How would such a lectionary have paid even lip-service to one of the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitutions, Dei Verbum?
Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven. (DV 19)
The very fact that this idea was even subject to a “long discussion” tells us quite a bit about the liturgical and biblical presuppositions that some members of Coetus XI evidently brought to their work.

Nocent goes on to tell us, thankfully, that:
After long discussion, the idea was not accepted for various reasons. First, the liturgy cannot go into the technical details of a text’s composition, determining the ipsissima verba Christi and separating them from what the evangelist wrote. A gospel is already, at least in part, a composition involving the free and inspired choice of the evangelist. Thus it seemed that any further choice in the manner of determining the text to be proclaimed must be excluded. Finally, from a liturgical point of view, it would have been rather strange to have the deacon walk to the ambo to proclaim a single sentence ("Roman Lectionary", p. 185).
Well, at least there were some members of the group who were thinking “from a liturgical point of view” in this instance!

As interesting as this very small insight into Coetus XI is, it would be great to know more about how the views of biblical scholarship at the time influenced the working methods of Coetus XI and the composition of the reformed lectionary. In this regard, if readers know of any pertinent quotes, books, or other resources, please share them in the comments below!


[1] Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has contributed a huge amount with regard to the proper relationship between critical biblical scholarship and the Church, and the necessity of a “criticism of the criticism”. See, for example, “Biblical Interpretation in Conflict” in God’s Word: Scripture–Tradition–Office (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), pp. 91-126; The Nature and Mission of Theology: Essays to Orient Theology in Today’s Debates (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), pp. 61-69; Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), pp. xi-xxiv; the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (1993); and the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (2010), esp. nos. 29-49.

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