Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Putting Aperuit Illis Into Practice

I am sure that most of our readers have already heard that the Pope issued a motu proprio yesterday, the feast of the great Biblical scholar St Jerome, instituting “the Sunday of the Word of God.” The new observance will be kept on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, as it is currently called, but the document does not suggest that any new liturgical propers will be issued for that Sunday, nor does it contain any ritual prescriptions to accompany the new celebration. There is a statement that “It is important … that in the Eucharistic celebration the sacred text be enthroned,” which is obviously too nebulous to be counted as a prescription. As with all the wisest Papal legislation on the liturgy, almost nothing is commanded, and suggestions are vague.

The high altar of the church of St Sulpice in Paris; the bronze fixtures attached to the pillars, seen at the extreme left and right of this photo, are stands for the Epistle and Gospel books. (Image by David Iliff from Wikimedia Commons, cropped; CC BY-SA 3.0)
“On this Sunday, it would be particularly appropriate to highlight the proclamation of the word of the Lord and to emphasize in the homily the honour that it is due. Bishops could celebrate the Rite of Installation of Lectors or a similar commissioning of readers … renewed efforts should be made to provide members of the faithful with the training needed to be genuine proclaimers of the word ...  Pastors can also find ways of giving a Bible, or one of its books, to the entire assembly…” (My emphases)

Immediately before speaking about the enthroning of the Word of God, the letter states that “(t)he various communities will find their own ways to mark this Sunday with a certain solemnity.” It might therefore be helpful to consider some of the ways in which the various communities can do this, not only on the specific Sunday in question, but in general, since, as the Pope writes “A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event, but rather a year-long event…”

1. Scriptural readings should be sung, rather than read. Christian worship has always recognized that music and silence are the most solemn and appropriate ways of worshipping God, which is why the Scriptural readings are sung in all historical liturgical traditions. This is also why, when the Roman Rite developed the custom of the low Mass, it was always strictly segregated by the rubrics from the sung and solemn forms of Mass. The common habit of simply reading the Scriptures in the middle of a sung Mass makes for a thoroughly anti-climactic presentation of the Word of God, and should be avoided.

2. Scriptural readings should be presented hierarchically, in accordance with the perennial custom of the Church. This hierarchical presentation is something intrinsic to the very way the readings are arranged at the Mass; for example, the Gospel always appears as the culmination of the Liturgy of the Word, and can only be read by a deacon or a priest. In those traditions which have three readings, the Old Testament is always placed before the Epistle, to show that it is a preparation for the coming of Christ, and that it can only properly be understood in the light of the New Testament. This hierarchical presentation is also emphasized by the common tradition of singing the readings in different tones, and with different ceremonies. A simple example is that of the Roman tradition, in which the reading of the Epistle is done in a different place from that of the Gospel, in both the high and low Mass, and is never accompanied by incense and lights, as the Gospel is. Analogous customs are found in all other rites.

The schola cantorum of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, with the Epistle pulpit on the left, and the Gospel pulpit on the right. (Image by Alvesgaspar from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Unfortunately, there are many churches where the same pulpit is used by both or all three readers (depending on the day), as well as the cantor who leads the responsorial psalm and the Alleluja, the reader of the intercessions, and Coach Bob when he announces next week’s basketball game against Sacred Heart. The dignity of the Word of God can only be enhanced by separating these things from each other, giving each in its own appropriate place, with the highest reserved for the Gospel, and leaving the announcement of the basketball game to the bulletin.

3. Scriptural readings have always accompanied the sacrificial ministry of the priesthood, and to the greatest degree possible should be presented as part of that ministry. From the very beginning of Christianity, there has never been such a thing as a Mass without at least two Scriptural readings [1], of which the last is always a Gospel. Furthermore, the readings themselves were done from time immemorial by ordained lectors, which is to say, by the members of a minor order, instituted by the Church in service to the major order of the priesthood. There are inscriptions in the Roman catacombs which mention lectors already in the second century. Unfortunately, in modern times it has become very common to ignore the instituted lectorate, or treat it as a formality, no more than a stepping stone on the way to priestly ordination. How could we better emphasize the dignity of the Word of God than by encouraging the special ministry dedicated specifically to its proclamation?

4. The readers should therefore also be dressed in a manner appropriate to their liturgical role. Although there is no subdeacon in the post-Conciliar rite of Mass, the decree by which this mistake was introduced into the Latin church, Ministeria quaedam, explicitly states that the functions of the subdeacon are now given to the lector and acolyte. [2] It is therefore entirely appropriate that an instituted lector should wear the tunicle, the liturgical garment proper to the subdeacon, when he serves at Mass, just as the priest wears a chasuble, and the deacon a dalmatic.

In the traditional Roman Rite, there are only a handful of occasions on which there is a reading before the Epistle; these readings are sung by a lector wearing a surplice, and there is no reason why this custom may not carry over into the post-Conciliar rite. However, the custom of having three readings at every Mass of a Sunday and solemnity was taken from the Ambrosian Rite, on the erroneous belief that it is an archaic form of the Roman Rite, and thus preserved the earliest custom of the Roman Rite. In the Ambrosian Rite, the lector of the first reading wears a cope, and there is no particular reason as far as I can see why this should not also be done in the Roman Rite; the common misconception that one needs to be a tonsured cleric to wear a cope is in fact a misconception. Of course, one may argue that such is not the custom of the Roman Rite, but then again, the additional reading before the Epistle on every Sunday and solemnity is also not the custom of the Roman Rite.

The singing of the first reading during an Ambrosian Solemn Mass.
In regard to the text itself:

5. There are many places where the post-Conciliar lectionary offers the option of a shorter or a longer version of a reading. For example, on the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time in year A, the parable of the wedding garment, Matthew 22, 1-14, may be read in a shorter version which omits the last four verses, the part about the wedding garment. Likewise, all three of the Synoptic Passions on Palm Sunday may be read in shortened versions which include less than half of the total verses of the longer version, and omit such “unimportant” details as the Last Supper and the Lord’s burial. Especially where these shortened versions substantially misrepresent the Word of God, the use of them should always be rejected in favor of the fuller presentation.

6. In a similar vein, it is well known there are readings which the modern lectionary presents in a censored version, omitting those words of Scripture deemed too difficult for Modern Man™, or likely to cause him offense. It would of course be an abuse to reintegrate such passages into the liturgical readings themselves. However, until such time as these errors may be fixed, there is no reason why the censored passages cannot be mentioned and explained in the homily. As the Pope reminds us, “Dei Verbum stresses that ‘we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures.’ ” This is a truth which the censoring of Scripture in the liturgy does much to undermine.

7. Looking further down the road, we may also hope that the Sunday of the Word of God, and the renewed love for the Scriptures which it will engender, will induce the bishops’ conferences to finally reject the use of the awful translations under which the vernacular liturgy still languishes in many places, including the United States. The new motu proprio rightly observes that “we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures.” It is therefore incumbent upon our shepherds to remove obstacles to growing in the knowledge and love of the Scriptures, such as the New American Bible.

8. Lastly, since the issuance of an earlier motu proprio, one of such importance that it is can still be referred to as the motu proprio without further qualification, priests and their congregations throughout the world are growing ever more familiar with the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, which ends with the reading of the Prologue of St John. This extra Gospel, far from being an “element … added with but little advantage” serves as a daily reminder that the truest and fullest meaning of the expression “Word of God” is found in the words “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Genuflection at the end of the Last Gospel in a Dominican Missa cantata.
[1] It is true that some early sources attest that in the Roman Rite, there was no Mass of the Catechumens at the three Masses anciently celebrated on Holy Thursday, an anomaly swiftly and happily discarded.

[2] The subdiaconate is, of course, of such ancient institution that even Paul VI did not dare suppress it outright; Ministeria quaedam states that the subdiaconate “non habetur amplius – longer exists”, then states immediately after this that acolytes may be called subdeacons.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: