Wednesday, March 22, 2023

A History of Vernacular Scripture from the Pulpit: A Research Project by Nico Fassino

Our thanks to Mr Nico Fassino for sharing with us this account of his latest research project; this article is an abridgment and summary of material published on the Epistles & Gospels project website. Mr Fassino is the founder of the Hand Missal History Project, an independent research initiative dedicated to exploring Catholic history through the untold and forgotten experiences of the laity across the centuries. Learn more at or @HandMissals.

Detail of ‘Worship Service in Trier Cathedral’ by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, 1838.
The tradition of reading portions of the holy Scriptures during the Christian liturgy goes back to the time of the Apostles. The selections and arrangement of specific Scriptural readings varied between geographic regions and liturgical traditions, but generally included letters and writings of the Apostles as well as selections from the four Gospels and other parts of the New and Old Testaments. In the Roman Rite, a regular and standardized cycle of readings (the “Epistles and Gospels”) for use at Mass was established by the sixth and seventh centuries.
Surviving commentaries, homilies, and manuscript lectionaries demonstrate that this cycle of liturgical Scripture readings remained basically unchanged from the early medieval period until the liturgical reforms in the mid-twentieth century. The texts and arrangement of the Epistles and Gospels of the Roman Rite have been widely recognized and praised –even by non-Catholics– as a masterful summation of the Bible and Christian doctrine: German Protestant theologian Ernst Ranke considered them to be “the greatest perfection of liturgical art,” by which the Catholic Church endeavored “to make the congregation familiar with a very extensive portion of Scripture,” and that “the abundance of texts and the ingenious arrangement cannot be praised too much.” [1]
Conventional Narratives
Despite the beauty of the Epistle and Gospel texts, it is commonly thought that the laity did not regularly hear or understand the liturgical Scripture readings because they were read by the priest in Latin at the altar, and not to the people in their own language. It is a widespread belief in both scholarly and popular historical accounts that, in the decades and centuries before the Second Vatican Council, the laity had “little or no engagement with the Scripture readings” and that “[s]cripture was foreign territory to most pre-Vatican II Catholics—Protestants knew their Bible, Catholics celebrated their Mass.” [2]
There were some notable efforts to improve access to the vernacular Scriptures in the immediate years before the council. In 1936, Bishop Edwin V O’Hara (the pioneering figure behind the creation of the 1954 English Ritual) started the project to create a new, modern translation of the New Testament for the use of Catholics. The work was finally published to national acclaim in 1941 under the auspices of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. O’Hara also commissioned a special project alongside the wider translation effort: a book of the Sunday liturgical Scripture readings for use from the pulpit, so that the priest could recite the Epistle and Gospel in English before the homily.
This companion volume, using the new Confraternity translation, was also published in 1941 as The Epistles and Gospels for Sundays and Holydays by William H. Sadlier of New York City. It was initially adopted by 72 American dioceses, and soon spread throughout the United States and Canada. (A similar book, using Ronald Knox’s translation of the Bible, was published in 1945 for pulpit use in England and Wales). The 1941 Confraternity version was quickly incorporated into hand missals for the laity, allowing them to read the same Scripture text in the pew as they heard from the pulpit and studied at home.
From the front matter of a St. Joseph hand missal for the laity, demonstrating how the use of the Confraternity Scriptures from the pulpit was designed to be integrated with the experience of the readings in the hand missal.

Two decades after the publication of the Confraternity version, the practice of reciting the Scriptures from the pulpit began to change in the light of modern developments. In 1958, Pius XII instituted lay “commentators” who could read the vernacular texts of the Epistle and Gospel via a microphone and loudspeaker, in addition to offering running narration and explanation for the ceremonies of the Mass. A few years later, the need to recite the Scriptures in translation was eliminated by the liturgical changes which followed the council. Ultimately, even the ancient cycle of the Epistles and Gospels was replaced by a series of new lectionary books and revisions which remain ongoing even to the present day.
The History of Vernacular Scripture from the Pulpit
But the custom of reading the Sunday Scripture readings in the vernacular from the pulpit did not originate with O’Hara and the 1941 pulpit edition of the Confraternity translation. Rather, this was an ancient tradition which had been practiced throughout English-speaking lands since at least the 900s.
In a new study, titled The Epistles & Gospels in English: A history of vernacular Scripture from the pulpit, I offer the first comprehensive survey of this practice between 971 and 1964. The paper investigates this custom across five distinct historical eras, concluding with the first liturgical changes following the Second Vatican Council. The paper includes a number of valuable translations, and is heavily illustrated with images from twenty manuscripts and rare books, including several that have never before been available to the public.
English Epistles & Gospels in the Medieval Ages
The very earliest surviving manuscript collections of English homilies demonstrate that the custom of reciting the Sunday Gospel in the vernacular was already established and widely practiced by the late 900s. The Blickling Homilies, first published around 971, and Aelfric of Eynsham’s Catholic Homilies, first published around 995, both contain English translations of the entire Sunday Gospel placed at the beginning of the homily for the benefit of the laity.
Details from English homilies containing a vernacular translation of the Gospel reading. At left, the Blickling Homilies (Princeton University Library M 71, folio 6v) for Quinquagesima Sunday; at right, Aelfric’s Catholic Homilies (Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 343, folio 56v) for the First Sunday of Lent.
There were a large number of English homily collections published in the following centuries which contained English translations and commentary on the Sunday Scripture readings. Examples include the Ormulum (circa 1180), the Northern Homily Cycle (circa 1315), John Mirk’s extraordinarily popular Book of Festivals (produced in manuscript and print from the 1380s to the 1530s), and editions like the “Dominical Gospels and of other certain great feasts” found in manuscripts Harley 2276 and Royal 18 A XVII (circa 1450).
This wasn't merely an English phenomenon. Rather, the English custom was part of a pan-European tradition of reciting the Sunday Epistle and Gospels in the vernacular for the benefit of the faithful. Between the late 1300s and the early 1500s, hundreds of editions of vernacular Epistles and Gospel books were published under a variety of titles, including Epistolae et evangelia, Postilla super epistulas et evangelia, and Postilla seu enarrationes.
These books were used by children at school, laity in the pews, and by priests in the pulpit across Europe. Editions survive in German, Italian, Dutch, French, Croatian, Spanish, Danish, English and more (they were even produced in the indigenous vernaculars in the New World, like the Nahuatl-language Epistolae et Evangelia produced in Mexico in the 1500s). The custom of reciting the Sunday liturgical Scriptures in the vernacular was so widespread that, as attested to be numerous contemporary accounts, many layfolk (even the poor and uneducated) came to memorize much of the Epistle and Gospel cycle and associate the readings with the different parts of the liturgical year.
Examples of European vernacular Epistle & Gospel books, published under the title of ‘Epistolae et evangelia. At left, a 1487 edition in Italian (Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze Magl. C.5.10); at center, a 1486 edition in Dutch (Koninklijke Bibliotheek 168 G 33); at right, a 1495 edition in German (Bridwell Library Special Collections 06285).
Even Martin Luther attested that practice was widespread throughout Catholic Europe before the Reformation. Speaking of how God had preserved certain essential elements in the true church even despite “abomination” of the papacy, Luther said (in passages which to my knowledge have never before been translated into English, emphasis added):
“… in this Church, God remarkably and effectively preserved: [i] Baptism; [ii] next, the text of the Gospel, recited from the pulpit and in sermons in the vernacular of any country [...]
Since, I say, the office of the word is the greatest, the highest worship of God in the Church, Christ even in preserving it against the devil, against every falsehood and hypocrisy, administered it more effectively, no doubt, such that the Papists themselves […] the fiercest enemies of Christ, and most pernicious Pharisees against the doctrine of grace, nevertheless publicly recited the name of Christ and the text of the Gospel from the pulpit, not only in Latin but also in the local vernacular of any people throughout the whole world. ” [3]
English Epistles & Gospels in the Modern Period
With the dawn of the nineteenth century came the renewal of a trend which had been present throughout the medieval ages: bishops and councils urging priests to proclaim the Scriptures in English to their congregations during the celebration of Sunday Mass. In 1791, Bishop John Carroll opened the first synod for the church in the United States at St. Peter’s pro-cathedral in Baltimore. Regulations for Sunday Mass were prescribed in the Synod’s 17th Statute, which directed that the more solemn forms of sung and high Mass should be celebrated whenever possible, that it was desirable for some vernacular hymns and prayers be sung by the congregation, and that a vernacular translation of the Gospel was to be recited before the sermon. [4]
Saint Peter’s Catholic Church, Baltimore, by Thomas Ruckle, 1801 (the site of the 1791 Synod). Image courtesy of the Maryland Center for History and Culture (1981.51)
Similar regulations were issued by the bishops of Great Britain in 1822 and Ireland in 1826, and similar decrees would be regularly renewed throughout the English-speaking world in the subsequent decades. These decrees also inspired an outpouring of new books to assist priests in this task. Many publishers began to print specialized “pulpit use” versions of the Epistles and Gospels. These were popular with the clergy because they were designed for liturgical use, easy to hold and read in the pulpit, utilized the specific translations permitted by the hierarchy, and created a more standard experience across parishes and dioceses for the faithful in the pews.
Frontispiece of Epistles and Gospels for Pulpit Use, published by M.H. Wiltzius Co. of Milwaukee in 1893.
This article has been only a brief summary and overview of the history of the Epistles and Gospels in English. There are many other fascinating details which could not be included here. Examples include how original editions of the Rheims New Testament were used to read the English Epistles and Gospels at Mass during the period of persecution and recusancy in England, how Epistle and Gospel books sustained the faith and worship of the laity on remote American frontiers (even producing the vocation of the Bishop of Raleigh!), and local traditions like that of the Archdiocese of Portland where the vernacular Gospel was read at every daily Mass during Lent.
Detail from the Lenten Regulations for the city of Seattle and the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, published in The Catholic Northwest Progress, February 15, 1901, page 8. This was included in the Lenten Regulations annually between at least 1901 and 1929.
This new study demonstrates that, contrary to both popular and scholarly narratives, there was a long-standing and popular tradition of Catholics priests reciting English translations of the Sunday Scripture readings from the pulpit for the benefit of the laity during the Mass. We can now see that significant numbers of the laity –throughout many lands and ages– had regular and meaningful vernacular engagement with the Roman Rite’s ancient cycle of Epistles and Gospel readings, allowing them to memorize large amounts of Scripture and participate deeply in the annual liturgical cycle. All of this offers new insights into the history of pastoral care for the laity and cannot but transform our understanding of the lived experience of Catholic communities throughout the English-speaking world over the past 1,000 years.
[1] Ernst Ranke, Das kirchliche Perikopensystem aus den ältesten Urkunden der Römischen Liturgie dargelegt und erläutert. (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1847), page 400. Translation by Rev. John M. Lenhart, O.M.Cap, “The Bible as the meditation book of Medieval Laity,” The Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. 101, no. 3 (1939), page 195.
[2] John Cavadini, Mary Healy, and Thomas Weinandy, “A Synoptic Look at the Failures and Successes of Post-Vatican II Liturgical Reforms.” Church Life Journal, December 1, 2022.
[3] Martin Luther, De missa privata et unctione sacerdotum libellus (Vitebergae, 1534). The folios of this work are not numbered, but the quoted text appears on pages 71-72 and 96 if counted manually from the first page of text which begins “Toto hoc tempore.”
[4] “Dein Missa cum cantu solemniter celebretur; et solemnioribus diebus, si fieri potest, assistentibus Diacono et Subdiacono... Finito Evangelio legantur preces praescriptae pro omnibus ordinibus et felici statu Reipublicae; Evangelium item proprium illius diei lingua vernacula...Optandum est ut inter officia hymni aliqui aut preces lingua vernacular cantentur.” See Concilia Provincialia Baltimori habita ab anno 1829, usque ad annum 1840 (Baltimore: John Murphy, 1842), pp 15-16.

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