ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
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.
Paragraph 35 is lengthy, divided into four parts in its discussion of Sacred Scripture and the Liturgy. Consequently, I will break the treatment into four parts over the next several weeks. Para. 35 (1) is one of the most significant reforms of Catholic worship, and of Catholic life in general, to come forth from the Council. The relationship of the Church and the Bible is highly complex, and a short look at recent history will show just how revolutionary this text really is.
Going back to the Middle Ages and an age when there were few books and few people who could read or write, access to the full corpus of revealed scripture was limited. The same limitations applied to the writings of Church fathers on the Scriptures, such as those of St. Augustine. A typical Christian would know only those texts proclaimed in Church during Mass, where they would be exposed to 50 to 100 Gospel texts year after year. Old Testament excerpts such as the two creation accounts, Noah’s Ark, the Exodus, and the kingship of David were staples of catechetics, and the Psalms were sung in monasteries and in the Mass itself. But the writings of the prophets were generally unknown except for texts thought to predict the coming of the Messiah, in the understanding of the time. Not for nothing was the rosary referred to as “the poor man’s Bible” for its inclusion of the fifteen Biblical mysteries.
There were, throughout the Middle Ages, a number of Catholic thinkers and innovators who realized that the Scriptures needed greater exposure in Christian life. In 1209 Francis of Assisi led his first handful of brothers to the court of Pope Innocent III for his blessing upon the group and its rule, which Francis drew directly from Gospel quotes calling for radical renunciation of self in the form of poverty, chastity, and obedience. (This was a shrewd tactic on Francis’ part, as the Italian landscape was peppered with loose, unfocused fraternities of brothers and sisters seeking a life of penance and attracting the concern of the early inquisitors.] Innocent originally demurred, citing in so many words that living the Gospel in its pure form was an impossibility. He advised Francis to adopt the more institutional Augustinian Rule, but later gave permission for Francis to pursue his Gospel way of life.
I am jumping ahead here about three centuries to the Renaissance and the Reformation. In the final chapter of his comprehensive Medieval Christianity (2015), a chapter entitled “Piety and Its Problems,” Kevin Madigan describes a period of chaos, peopled by those frantically working to avoid hell, and those who were growing despondent that salvation could be achieved at all. Martin Luther, who suffered from both extremes, came to personal awareness of redemption by his intense study of the Bible, notably St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which Luther understood to mean that we are saved by personal faith in God.
In Luther’s preaching and writing, Roman Catholicism came in for much criticism for its emphases on practices and beliefs which Luther could not trace to the Bible, most immediately the sale of salvation through indulgences. The Catholic response, the Council of Trent (1545-1563), responded that the Bible can only be authoritatively interpreted by the Church itself in its teaching authority guided by the Holy Spirit. Given that the printing press had made wholesale distribution of the Bible a given, the Church found it necessary to declare cautions on its use, having seen the power of Luther’s commentaries.
By 1800, Protestant scholars were examining the Bible closely with new methodology, most specifically Ressourcement, a term meaning “return to the sources.” Bible study became an interdisciplinary project, incorporating insights from theology to archaeology. In 1943 Pope Pius XII issued Divino Afflante Spiritu, which permitted Catholic scholars to utilize the modern methodologies of Biblical research to produce better translations for the faithful at large. Between 1941 and 1970 the Confraternity of Catholic Doctrine (CCD) Bible, a reworked Catholic translation of St. Jerome’s fifth century Latin Vulgate translation, came into popular use in the U.S., and was approved for liturgical use until the NAB and the NABRE translations were approved by the U.S. bishops (1970 and later.)
Para. 35 dictates several reforms in the usage of the bible in sacramental worship. First, the Council calls for “more reading.” One can interpret this phrase in multiple ways. “More” may refer to “more intelligible” proclamation of Scripture in the Liturgy, specifically in the language of the participating faithful. “More” also refers to volume; the 1970 Mass of Paul VI contains three distinct readings in liturgy of Sundays and feasts. Prior to 1970 the Missal contained only two readings, a portion of a Pauline epistle and a Gospel segment; these assigned readings were repeated every year. The new Mass includes a selection from the Hebrew Scripture as well as the New Testament letters and the Gospels, rotated on a three-year cycle and arranged around an annual proclamation of a synoptic evangelist—Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Another reading of “more” and perhaps the most important is the growth in the relationship of every single believer and the Word of God. I am old enough to remember when the Bible was, in popular Catholic usage, a Protestant book, from the world of Billy Graham and tent revivals. Catholics read the lives of the saints and other devotionals, but the idea of daily Bible reading in the home as preparation for Sunday Mass or personal meditation and prayer was not common, Pius XII’s encouragements notwithstanding. By incorporating liturgical reading of Scripture with personal study and prayer creates the potential of a unity of understanding that was absent in Luther’s day.
The term “suitability” in para. 35(1) is probably a reference to the need for careful coordination between liturgical texts for Mass and the Church’s calendar of Incarnation and Redemption. A very good example of this kind of coordination is the selection of Gospel readings of St. John proclaimed on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent. The narratives of the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus bring home the passage to conversion and new life, not just for the catechumens but for the entire parish family’s observance of Lent and progression to the Triduum.