Friday, September 22, 2017

Problems with the Reformed Lectionary: A Summary

The published proceedings of the 2015 Sacra Liturgia USA conference contain many very interesting and fine papers, and I would thoroughly recommend them to those who have not yet read them. [1] Among the papers presented is one entitled “The Reform of the Lectionary”, by NLM’s own Dr Peter Kwasniewski. As someone who is particularly interested in the lectionary, I thought I would present a summary of Dr Kwasniewski’s arguments in his excellent contribution to Sacra Liturgia USA.

The prevailing orthodoxy is that, while other aspects of the post-conciliar liturgical reform might legitimately be questioned, the new lectionary is an obvious success. However, in recent years there have been more people asking whether or not this common view is justified—especially since it can be argued that, rather than following historical precedents in the Roman tradition and retaining and enhancing the readings already in place, Coetus XI of the Consilium went far beyond the principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium 23 by designing a lectionary ex novo.

In his presentation of some of the problems of the reformed Mass lectionary, Kwasniewski starts with the very purpose of proclaiming Scripture in the Mass. Readings during Mass are not primarily “Bible lessons.” First and foremost, readings ought to support the primary liturgical action by helping the faithful to prepare spiritually for the offering up of the Holy Sacrifice and the reception of Holy Communion. The readings are meant to be iconic, pointing the way beyond themselves to the act of worship in which the Incarnate Word is made present among us as the unblemished Lamb offered to the Most Holy Trinity in adoration, propitiation, and impetration, and offered to the faithful as their supernatural food. This perspective highlights the strengths of the old lectionary and the weaknesses of the new.

Firstly, by lengthening the readings and emphasizing the homily, the new lectionary takes focus away from the Sacrifice, which is the heart of the matter. This happens easily in the Ordinary Form because almost everything is spoken aloud. Without silence or chant to separate them, actions become emphasised by length more than anything else. As the length of the Liturgy of the Word is often longer than the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the biblical lessons acquire phenomenologically more weight than the renewal of the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary, which is the central purpose of the Mass.

Secondly, an annual cycle is a more fitting unit of time because it is naturally complete. All Western and Eastern rites have always had one-year cycles for reading Scripture, and every culture links human activities to the cosmological cycles of the sun and the moon. Moreover, the repetition of one year allows the faithful to become more familiar with the readings, and to enter ever more deeply into them as the years roll on. The multi-year system in the Ordinary Form, on the other hand, provides the faithful with so much more to forget, with far fewer opportunities to be inspired by a familiar passage.

Thirdly, there is a principle in the revised lectionary that continuous readings should be preferred to the sanctoral cycle. [2] This, in Kwasniewski’s view, is a poor principle. The ultimate goal of our public worship is the sanctification of the faithful, not a material knowledge of Scripture, which is more proper to catechesis and study. Thus it is fitting that we use the Scriptures to celebrate the saints, who have been sanctified as models for us to venerate and imitate. Without their lives, in which the Word is (so to speak) made flesh, Scripture itself is a dead letter. So it seems more in keeping with the spirit of the liturgy to give primacy to the sanctoral cycle, and to have readings directly connected with the saints, than it is to follow a fabricated system of continuous readings that seems to ignore the fitting cultus of the saints in the Mass.

Fourthly, the integration of Scripture into the Mass is much more evident in the old lectionary. For example, on a saint’s feast day, the prayers throughout the Mass invoke and honour the saint, the readings and antiphons extol the saint’s virtues, and the Sacrifice unites us with the saints as the Church Militant meets with the Church Triumphant in the Eucharist. Throughout the usus antiquior, the language of Scripture, its vocabulary and rhetoric, permeate the liturgy in almost every prayer of the priest. This is far less obvious in the modern liturgy, where the lectionary has been greatly increased but the other fixed prayers have been greatly decreased. The new lectionary is a large body of readings that floats detached, as it were, from the rest of the liturgy, which damages the coherence of the whole.

Fifthly, despite its much greater magnitude, the new lectionary does not, in fact, merely add Scripture to the liturgy; it omits many passages that had been proclaimed faithfully for over 1,500 years of Catholic worship, especially those one could consider “difficult”. The classic example is St Paul’s exhortation to examine our worthiness to approach the Eucharist lest we condemn ourselves by partaking unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27-29), a passage abundantly present in the usus antiquior, but that never appears once in the new cycle of readings. [3] The revisers of the lectionary admitted openly that they were editing out passages they deemed “difficult” for modern man. [4] Thus, the new lectionary does a disservice to the Christian people by depriving them of certain challenging texts that the Church’s tradition had always shared. As one modern writer concludes: the new lectionary presents more of Scripture’s words—and less of its message. This reveals a systematic fault in the reformers’ mindset that is certainly not operative in the old lectionary.

Finally, Kwasniewski points out that the way Scripture is treated in the liturgy should give us a clue about how important it is. In the usus antiquior, the kisses, bows, chants, incensations, etc., that occur with the reading of Scripture ennoble it much more than the simple reading that usually occurs in the Ordinary Form, whose plainness of ceremonial matches the Cartesian emphasis on quantity of text over quality of liturgical placement and meaning. It is not too surprising that, in such circumstances, the homily often overshadows or competes with the word of Scripture, since there is almost no difference between how Scripture is proclaimed and how the homily is proclaimed.

In sum, the new lectionary is not a success, for it has many flaws that did not exist in the old lectionary, which grew up organically with the Roman rite and was honoured by the Church’s unwavering fidelity for well over a millennium. The new lectionary was compiled with unseemly haste, without adherence to preceding tradition and the explicit principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium. The reformers’ modern mindset is reflected in their decision to increase vastly the amount of text but simultaneously to omit important and difficult passages that had always been a part of the Roman Church’s cycle of readings. The old lectionary of the usus antiquior does not suffer from these flaws. In theory, there is no reason it could not be enhanced by the addition of appropriate readings chosen for ferial days or for the feasts of specific saints that until now have used only the readings in the Commons. Nevertheless, any augmentation would have to honour the existing one-year cycle of readings, the veneration of the saints on their feasts, and the primacy of latreutic over catechetical aims. This being said, it is not at all clear that now would be a good time in history to begin attempting changes, when so much damage has been done by experimentation and so many Catholics are still shell-shocked by the violence of the post-conciliar reforms.

By way of conclusion, Kwasniewski asks about the practical steps we can take in order to fulfil the desires of Sacrosanctum Concilium to reveal the unity of word and ritual, and to open up the treasures of Scripture. He suggests that priests in more traditional communities should not limit themselves to preaching dogmatic homilies but should work into their homilies some helpful commentary on the Scripture readings and antiphons of the Mass, while also promoting lectio divina and Bible studies outside of the liturgy. In the Ordinary Form sphere, we should approach the liturgy with a hermeneutic of continuity by chanting the propers, prayers, and readings, and choosing the more traditional options. If a difficult passage is omitted from the lectionary, it could be quoted in the homily as part of the sound teaching that the preacher is to provide for his flock. We should increase our use of male lectors and properly vest them. We should emphasize that the Mass is a sacrifice by adopting the ad orientem posture, praying the Roman Canon, and employing traditional sacred music. Parishes everywhere should have opportunities to pray outside of the Mass (e.g., in Vespers or Compline) and to be educated in Scripture.

This is, of course, only a summary of Dr Kwasniewski’s contribution to the Sacra Liturgia USA proceedings, and I would thoroughly recommend reading the entire paper. Although I would certainly agree that we need ritual stability rather than yet more reform right now, detailed and faithful criticism of the post-conciliar reforms (and the period immediately before Vatican II itself) is necessary if future generations are to avoid the mistakes and excesses made in the name of the Council. To this end, the work of Dr Kwasniewski, and many others who love the liturgy of the Church, is vital reading.


[1] Alcuin Reid (ed.), Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016) (USA, UK).

[2] Cf. General Introduction to the Lectionary, 83; General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 357-358.

[3] Kwasnieswki provides more examples of this phenomenon in “Not Just More Scripture, but Different Scripture”, the foreword to my book Index Lectionum: A Comparative Table of Readings for the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite (USA, UK).

[4] Cf. General Introduction to the Lectionary, 76.

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