Vatican II and the Proclamation of Scripture

Glory be to Jesus Christ.

I wish to speak of a cross carried by the parish priest. We might say there is a tension between the spoken word and the gestures of the liturgy. No doubt this claim will sound very strange. I assure you it is a reality. This is a tension, and it arises in that almost ineffable contact with the mystery of the Incarnation, in the Eucharist, around which it is all too easy in human weakness to overemphasize one aspect or another: words and deeds, bringing us into contact with The Word, who died and rose again. Any time we think we have “figured it all out,” and gotten the liturgy “perfect” this side of heaven, we have failed. So, where shall we go with this? Vatican II and the Mass.

I recall here how my seminary formators said “we are a Vatican II seminary.” I will assert, with those excellent teachers, that there are no heresies, formal or material, put forth in the works of the council. The texts of the council are sound, authoritative, and essential; they of course must be read with the whole Tradition, not on their own. The events we all know of, where the documents of Vatican II could prove to be shortsighted to great and upcoming abuse, (even while free from doctrinal error), where a million and one innovations, sacrileges, and heresies were propounded in the “name” and “spirit” of Vatican II, shall not deter us from carrying on the whole of the Church’s infallible Tradition, with, in, and through the official works of the Council.

With this now said, I hope my reader is familiar with Sacrosanctum Concillium and Dei Verbum, along with Summorum Pontificum, and now Traditiones Custodes. In order to sort out the significance of the latter documents, I say, that the liturgically engaged Catholic who wants to get the tradition of the Roman Rite “correct,” ought to read both Sacrosanctum Concillium and Dei Verbum, and simultaneously reflect on the tension emphasized, the great dilemma presented, by the contrast of the Extraordinary Form and the Ordinary Form of the Roman Missal. So what is this tension, between words and deeds? 

I must start with this fact: scripture was meant to be proclaimed. Before the liturgical reforms under Pope Paul VI, the proclamation of Christ to the faithful in the rite of the Mass was not done in the mode of proclaiming scripture. It really was not. We are not talking about good scriptural preaching “within” the Mass, but the Mass itself. The “proclamation” in the Mass was done only in Latin. The key adjoining fact is not that an English translation could be inserted. No, the key fact is that, once proclaimed in Latin, the proclamation was “displayed” in the mode of visibly, mostly inaudibly for the congregants, allusions of the sacrifice of Christ, in the unfolding of each liturgical gesture handed down by the tradition. The words of consecration effected that Miracle of miracles, the transubstantiation of the host, and a “host” of surrounding gestures complimented the worship of the invisible reality in the sacrifice of the altar.

But after the reforms, the gestures were greatly simplified; the whole Mass was greatly simplified. Catholic traditionalists will say it was “watered down” and stripped of essential elements. I will not argue these points here. I will only point to what was added, and so highlight the tension of which I speak.

What was added to the Mass? The “Lectionary.”

Sacrosanctum Concillium and Dei Verbum were given, and a liturgical proclamation of scriptures, directed by the rubrics, in the Mass, in the vernacular, as the council documents demanded, was launched. It was “for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that [every Catholic] may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16). Now I repeat! It was not as if there wasn’t a proclamation of Christ in the Tridentine Mass. It was more so within all the movements and gestures accumulated by tradition. Even without that laudable practice (considered nearly essential and still not seen as intrinsically required for the Tridentine Mass), of reading English translations to introduce a sermon for the Mass, there was a proclamation of Christ in gestures of the Mass. After the council these were stripped down, and lots and lots of Scriptural passages were introduced.

Here are just some of the more noticeable rubrics that were “simplified.”

–        Genuflections, bows, and various prayers at the foot of the altar, starting the Mass: gone.

–        Kissing the altar 3 or 4 times? Let’s make it just 2.

–        Rubrics for the priest’s positioning between the opening prayers and the Gloria, or for the Epistle or Gospel? Gone.

–        Genuflecting during the creed? Make that just at Christmas and the Annunciation.

–        Tracing the sign of the cross a great number of times over the offerings and sacred species? Now just once before the consecration.

–        Ringing the bells at many distinct parts of the Eucharistic prayer? Now optional.

–        A liturgical reading of John 1 after the blessing and dismissal have been given: gone.

These are some of the major rubrics eliminated. Essentially, the lectionary of many and various readings was the only true addition.

One Catholic author has summarized the percentages for “biblical texts used for Sundays, vigils, and major feasts,” before and after the new lectionary. She puts it, respectively:

This is a significant and notable increase. Even if Catholics were not all going to become Dr. Scott Hahn or Dr. Mary Healey, the teaching and knowledge of scripture was meant to increase. Sacrosanctum Concillium and Dei Verbum (henceforth called SC & DV), presented a huge challenge. How have Catholics done with it? If you do the proclamation well, you have made up for the de-emphasis on the visible externals. But if you do a very poor job in that liturgical action which is meant to become your “strength” in proclamation, how weak will the whole proclamation become?

Theoretically, the liturgical reforms were to hold to SC & DV, thoroughly and essentially. Our Eucharistic communion with Christ and his whole body, that “active participation” which was to happen as each member joined themselves to the presence and sacrifice of Christ on the altar, was much less to be nurtured by the visible gestures of the priest (or the rubrics followed exclusively by the servers at the altar), and now much more to be nurtured by a proclamation of the word. Catholics were to develop a deep familiarity, insight and understanding of the scriptures. They were all going to know “salvation history,” from Genesis to Revelation. They were going to start reading their Bibles on their own, out of a profound love of Christ, having encountered Him in “the breaking of the bread,” eager to grow in that living communion. The Church was going to treasure scripture, read scripture, and pass on the Tradition of the Church with a deep knowledge of scripture more than any previous generation. And the Liturgy itself was going to open up these treasures to them in a resonating crescendo of divine revelation, words and deeds harmonizing with the profound communion with Christ.

And what happened after Vatican II? The final onslaughts of secularism came upon the western Church, the worst fruits of an anti-faith “historical Biblical criticism” ” ripened to fruition, and Catholics abandoned both Bible and Sacrament at the exact same rate that Protestants abandoned their weakened belief in the scriptures (or even faster!). The great shifting of the “forms” of the liturgy did not heal so many of the weakened sheep, nor prevent new maladies from ravaging other sheep who started strong. Indeed, some of those charged with administering the medicine took delight in conjuring new illnesses to spread. I do not say that SC & DV were wrong in the forward direction they pointed for Catholics in the modern world. I’m just hoping we might finally be trying to move in that direction.

In a minuscule attempt to help, let me circle around those things that I say are “in tension,” from my own experience and personal dispositions. There are really two things that have prevented me from celebrating any Masses in the Extraordinary Form. The need to say each and every prayer in Latin is not one of the two. Rather they are, 1) the sheer number of rubrics for the greater number of movements and gestures which are prescribed in the Missal, and 2) the need for a server who is capable of saying the prescribed responses in Latin.

Now, in contrast, for the Ordinary Form it is not as if there is such a paucity of rubrics that any person could learn them in a day, or even a week. It takes both practice, familiarity, and study to be prepared to offer the Mass properly, licitly, and reverently in the Ordinary Form. But there is a “relative” paucity of rubrics, and what is more, often the lack of a prescribed liturgical gesture is all the more noticeable by the fact that every priest does begin to make up all kinds of rubrics of his own. How many priests now mentally insert the words “here try to make eye contact with congregants,” into parts of the Eucharistic prayer? How many also feel compelled to hold up the host and extend it towards the congregation as they say “he took bread and, giving thanks, broke it”? Do I disdain this creation of rubrics in the mind of the celebrant? No, I simply hold that my own self-imposed rubrics are superior to theirs when considered in the whole of the Mass.

At the heart of my considerations of where some appropriate rubric “ought” to be added, I will tell you where my mind is so often focused: the deep significance of each word of scripture. It is not a mere devotional association of certain scripture verses with certain actions of the Mass. Still less is it a suggested “gesture” which turns a scriptural word into a mere “stage prompt.” We do more harm than good for the people in the pews when we try to “act” some gesture, merely because it is mentioned audibly in a prayer or scripture reference.

No. When I say “the deep significance of each word of scripture,” it is most often a surmounting resonance of many different verses and themes. I tell you certainly, I experience this great tension, where on the one hand the words of the Mass (many of the scriptural allusions in prayers along with the direct reading of scripture) seem to demand, truly demand, either a profound and intricate response of reverent, symbolic action, or on the other hand a fervent and prolonged exposition, of many words of length, merely to “touch the tip of the iceberg” in the meaning evoked. If only we had the time, and the fortitude, to include all-of-the-above!

With trepidation, I will try to give some broad examples. Here are the current realities that I profoundly “protest against” in my sentiments concerning what has happened with the typical Sunday, Ordinary Form Mass:

–        “Hallowed be Thy name”: I think of the lie that the average parishioner’s life is so full of important, meaningful, prayerful, and holy activities that we have to keep their schedule “moving” on Sunday mornings. “We need to provide multiple ‘options’ for Sunday Mass, but all before 12:30pm, and all lasting no more than one hour, tops”!

–        “Thus sayeth the Lord”: You know those completely misguided, unrealistic expectations for Sunday homilies? “Father, make it perfectly address all our lives, make it engaging, and joyful, and happy and funny, and filled with stories, and relevant and interesting, and encouraging… and scriptural and devotional, and prayerful… and make sure it is no more than 10 minutes, preferably no more than 8”!

–        “A Reading from the Book of…”: The “discretion” of our lectionary is mixed with much half-heartedness. Our lectionary selections, excerpts, long forms, short forms, and chopped up readings are still keeping to that mindset “keep it short!”, simultaneously chopping out the most ‘difficult’ passages. I myself have often thought “We added a ton of liturgical proclamations of scripture, and at the same time, not nearly enough. We are stuck in the middle: our readings are now too long to be used succinctly as ‘proof texts’ or devotional admonitions, and they are way too short to complete the context. If we are opening up a narrative or an epistle, let us read it!”

–        “It will become for us the Bread of Life”: How devastating is the impression we allow when referring to the Eucharist as “Bread” without explaining the capitalized “B”, (or saying “wine” without reference to the miracle that makes it “consecrated”), without reference to that whole Gospel chapter that promulgates the salvific effects of that Flesh and Blood in “The Bread of Life Discourse” (John 6!).

Regarding the last example, I often think of a phrase of Chesterton. He said it concerning Gospel sayings on attitudes towards wealth and riches. I apply it to Modernist language meant to change beliefs in the Eucharist: “Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags” (Orthodoxy, Ch. VII). Attempts were made to water down some of the liturgical themes of the Eucharist. The attending scriptures were carefully chosen not to alarm any Protestants who might attend a Catholic Mass. And yet, in the end, some Catholics did learn the meaning of those scripture verses, within the faith of the Church and the infallible Catholic Tradition. Even in the shortest of references (“The Bread of Life”), the fire in those scriptures will become hot enough to boil all Modernism down to rags. May it happen quickly. May the proclamation of scriptures in the Mass, their true and full meaning, be an ever more powerful instrument of our Lord and God, in the Flesh, who “came to cast fire upon the earth” (Luke 12:49).

I have used the word “tension” for all the elements meant to be combined and cultivated in the Mass. But let us, in closing, use the more appropriate word. Reading the scripture does not impose “tensions” on our life, or on the liturgy. The scriptures, and the Word they contain, lay upon us the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is work to learn the words, the messages, the narratives, and the themes of sacred scripture. But we must do this work, and bring others into it. We must carry this Cross and undergo this Passion to share in the glory of the Resurrection.

Maybe I am off base in my attempts to point the way forward. Perhaps it is for the best that I stand nearly-alone in my desire to turn the readings of every Mass into a full-on Bible study. But my point here is just this. Go read SC & DV and see if they do not in some part speak to my frustrations, and difficulties I am describing here.

Below I have paste various quotes.

    +++.  Selections.    +++

Sacrosanctum Concilium

24. Sacred scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy. For it is from scripture that lessons are read and explained in the homily, and psalms are sung; the prayers, collects, and liturgical songs are scriptural in their inspiration and their force, and it is from the scriptures that actions and signs derive their meaning. Thus to achieve the restoration, progress, and adaptation of the sacred liturgy, it is essential to promote that warm and living love for scripture to which the venerable tradition of both eastern and western rites gives testimony.

34. The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.

35. That the intimate connection between words and rites may be apparent in the liturgy:

1) In sacred celebrations there is to be more reading from holy scripture, and it is to be more varied and suitable.

2) Because the sermon is part of the liturgical service, the best place for it is to be indicated even in the rubrics, as far as the nature of the rite will allow; the ministry of preaching is to be fulfilled with exactitude and fidelity. The sermon, moreover, should draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources, and its character should be that of a proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ, ever made present and active within us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy.

3) Instruction which is more explicitly liturgical should also be given in a variety of ways; if necessary, short directives to be spoken by the priest or proper minister should be provided within the rites themselves. But they should occur only at the more suitable moments, and be in prescribed or similar words.

4) Bible services should be encouraged, especially on the vigils of the more solemn feasts, on some weekdays in Advent and Lent, and on Sundays and feast days. They are particularly to be commended in places where no priest is available; when this is so, a deacon or some other person authorized by the bishop should preside over the celebration.

50. The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as also the connection between them, may be more clearly manifested, and that devout and active participation by the faithful may be more easily achieved.

For this purpose the rites are to be simplified, due care being taken to preserve their substance; elements which, with the passage of time, came to be duplicated, or were added with but little advantage, are now to be discarded; other elements which have suffered injury through accidents of history are now to be restored to the vigor which they had in the days of the holy Fathers, as may seem useful or necessary.

51. The treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word. In this way a more representative portion of the holy scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years.

52. By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text, during the course of the liturgical year; the homily, therefore, is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself; in fact, at those Masses which are celebrated with the assistance of the people on Sundays and feasts of obligation, it should not be omitted except for a serious reason.

+++.  Selections.    +++

Dei Verbum     

9. Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.(6)

23. The bride of the incarnate Word, the Church taught by the Holy Spirit, is concerned to move ahead toward a deeper understanding of the Sacred Scriptures so that she may increasingly feed her sons with the divine words. Therefore, she also encourages the study of the holy Fathers of both East and West and of sacred liturgies. Catholic exegetes then and other students of sacred theology, working diligently together and using appropriate means, should devote their energies, under the watchful care of the sacred teaching office of the Church, to an exploration and exposition of the divine writings. This should be so done that as many ministers of the divine word as possible will be able effectively to provide the nourishment of the Scriptures for the people of God, to enlighten their minds, strengthen their wills, and set men’s hearts on fire with the love of God. The sacred synod encourages the sons of the Church and Biblical scholars to continue energetically, following the mind of the Church, with the work they have so well begun, with a constant renewal of vigor.

24. Sacred theology rests on the written word of God, together with sacred tradition, as its primary and perpetual foundation. By scrutinizing in the light of faith all truth stored up in the mystery of Christ, theology is most powerfully strengthened and constantly rejuvenated by that word. For the Sacred Scriptures contain the word of God and since they are inspired, really are the word of God; and so the study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology.  By the same word of Scripture the ministry of the word also, that is, pastoral preaching, catechetics and all Christian instruction, in which the liturgical homily must hold the foremost place, is nourished in a healthy way and flourishes in a holy way.

25. Therefore, all the clergy must hold fast to the Sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study, especially the priests of Christ and others, such as deacons and catechists who are legitimately active in the ministry of the word. This is to be done so that none of them will become “an empty preacher of the word of God outwardly, who is not a listener to it inwardly” since they must share the abundant wealth of the divine word with the faithful committed to them, especially in the sacred liturgy. The sacred synod also earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful, especially Religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the “excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:8). “For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Therefore, they should gladly put themselves in touch with the sacred text itself, whether it be through the liturgy, rich in the divine word, or through devotional reading, or through instructions suitable for the purpose and other aids which, in our time, with approval and active support of the shepherds of the Church, are commendably spread everywhere. And let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for “we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying.”

It devolves on sacred bishops “who have the apostolic teaching” to give the faithful entrusted to them suitable instruction in the right use of the divine books, especially the New Testament and above all the Gospels. This can be done through translations of the sacred texts, which are to be provided with the necessary and really adequate explanations so that the children of the Church may safely and profitably become conversant with the Sacred Scriptures and be penetrated with their spirit.

Furthermore, editions of the Sacred Scriptures, provided with suitable footnotes, should be prepared also for the use of non-Christians and adapted to their situation. Both pastors of souls and Christians generally should see to the wise distribution of these in one way or another.

26. In this way, therefore, through the reading and study of the sacred books “the word of God may spread rapidly and be glorified” (2 Thess. 3:1) and the treasure of revelation, entrusted to the Church, may more and more fill the hearts of men. Just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, similar we may hope for a new stimulus for the life of the Spirit from a growing reverence for the word of God, which “lasts forever” (Is. 40:8; see 1 Peter 1:23-25).

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