Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Postconciliar Lectionary at 50: A Detailed Critique

Today is the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the revised Lectionary by the decree Ordo Lectionum of May 25, 1969. As readers of NLM will know from personal experience, this lectionary tends to be hailed as a great -- even the greatest -- success of the liturgical reform. Almost every other aspect of the reform has been criticized, but this piece is assumed to be "good as gold."

Upon more careful examination, however, there are many serious reasons to question the revised Lectionary in its entire conception, its underlying principles, and its specific content. When I came around to writing my talk on the subject for Sacred Liturgia 2015 in New York City, I learned that many authors over the years had made particular criticisms but none (as far as I could ascertain) had offered a thoroughgoing critique. This I attempted to provide, demonstrating how profound a rupture with the Catholic liturgical tradition this lectionary represents, how destabilizing and disunifying it proves to be within the structure and rhythm of the Roman rite, and why the old lectionary of the usus antiquior is, in fact, superior on numerous grounds.

Rorate Caeli obtained permission to publish the full text of this talk, but without its 59 supporting and amplifying footnotes. Here are some excerpts from the talk:
To be sure, there are gains in the new lectionary, such as the splendid selection of prophetic readings for the ferias of Advent, the selection of readings for Paschaltide, and the felicitous pairing of certain Old Testament and New Testament pericopes. Nevertheless, lone voices over the decades have pointed out various problems with it, ranging from the selection, length, and sheer number of readings, to the academic structuring of the cycles, to worrying omissions, to incidental problems that have arisen in practice.
Before examining any particular principle behind the new lectionary, however, there is the more fundamental question of the very purpose or function of the reading of Scripture in the Mass. 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?
       It can and should be both, but in a certain order. The Word of God is proclaimed at Mass as part of the spiritual preparation for the sacrifice of our Redeemer and the communion of God and man in the sacrament of His Passion. Because it is the sacrifice of the Mystical Body, head and members, it is also the sacrifice we, as children of the Church militant, offer to God in union with the Church triumphant and on behalf of the Church suffering. Consequently, the lessons have an ecclesial identity, a sacerdotal orientation, and a Eucharistic finality, all of which ought to determine which lessons are the best for their purpose and how they are best to be proclaimed. The readings at Mass are not so much didactic as iconic, pointing the way beyond themselves.
       The goal of liturgy is not to make us familiar with Scripture in the manner of a Bible study or catechism class — which, of course, ought to be taking place at some other time — but to give us the right formation of mind and heart with regard to the realities of our faith so that we may worship God in spirit and in truth. In the traditional rites of East and West, Scripture serves as a support to the liturgical action; it illustrates or magnifies something else that the worship is principally about.
The criteria we have considered in this paper — the function of Scripture in the Eucharistic sacrifice, the internal cohesion of the Mass as an ‘ecosystem’, the psychology of memory, the natural unit of the year, the due place of the sanctoral cycle, the spiritual role of difficult passages, the aesthetic and ceremonial treatment suited to the divine Word, and, not least of all, the authority inherent in traditional practice—permit us to draw a number of general conclusions.
       First, like much else in the liturgical reform conducted under Pope Paul VI, the new lectionary exhibits signs of unseemly haste, overweening ambition, and disregard of principles approved by the council fathers. The Council’s call for “more Scripture” was open to different and even conflicting realizations. The revised lectionary, while it does represent one possible implementation of numbers 35 and 51 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, ends up contradicting outright numbers 23 and 50 of the same Constitution, which enunciate the controlling principle of continuity with tradition as well as the request that elements already present in our tradition be restored. It is worth noting that the bulk of the readings in the preconciliar Missale Romanum represent an inheritance from the early centuries of Catholic worship, a stable body of lessons on which generations of pastors, preachers, theologians, and laity had been nurtured, a tradition deserving of immense respect for its venerable antiquity. It is, to speak plainly, outrageous that this unbroken tradition, which had withstood all the ravages of time, fell victim to the scalpels of liturgical specialists. The result has been an obvious rupture and discontinuity at the very heart of the Roman rite, in spite of legal fictions and constructs necessary to help us through this period of crisis.
       Second, quite apart from whether or not it can be seen as faithful to the Council’s desiderata, the Novus Ordo lectionary is gravely flawed because of its overall conception, its unwieldy bulk, its politically correct omissions, and its watering down of key spiritual goods emphasized in the old readings. No human mind can relate to so great a quantity of biblical text spread out over multiple years: it is out of proportion to the natural cycle of the year and its seasons; it is out of proportion to the supernatural cycle of the liturgical year. The revised lectionary does not lend itself readily to the sacrificial finality of the Mass but, inasmuch as it appears to serve a didactic function, sets up a different goal, quasi-independent of the offering of the Sacrifice. The use of the names “Liturgy of the Word” and “Liturgy of the Eucharist” underlines the problem: it is as if there are two liturgies glued together. They are seldom joined by the obvious connection of being related to one and the same feast, since the new lectionary prefers to ignore the saints in its march through the books of Scripture. Nor has it often been the custom to join the two liturgies by means of ceremonial practices that show the chanting of Scripture to be one phase of the journey towards Jerusalem and the hill of Calvary (cf. Lk 9:51).
Read the whole talk here.

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Over the years, I have published a number of other articles on the lectionary. For convenience, here are links to the more substantive ones:

"Not Just More Scripture, But Different Scripture — Comparing the Old and New Lectionaries"

"A Tale of Two Lectionaries: Qualitative versus Quantitative Measures"

"The Omission that Haunts the Church — 1 Corinthians 11:27-29"

"How Typical Lector Praxis Transmits a Pelagian and Protestant Message"

"A Great Example of an Expurgated Reading in the New Lectionary"

"Is Reading More Scripture at Mass Always Better?"

"The New Lectionary and the Catholic Wedding"

Of related interest:

"The Omission of 'Difficult' Psalms and the Spreading-Thin of the Psalter"

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: