ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
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.
Paragraph 24 of Sacrosanctum Concilium provides an opportunity to highlight some of the controversies surrounding this year’s 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. On October 31, 1517, the Catholic Augustinian monk Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the cathedral door at Wittenberg, Germany. Although the focus of his statement is the practice of selling indulgences, the underlying core of his theological concern was his belief that over the centuries the worship and practices of Catholicism had drifted far afield from the Word of God expressed in the Sacred Scriptures. If you need a quick review of Luther’s origins and actions, The History Channel has a free three-minute clip here.
On my diocesan web page last month, Bishop Noonan of Orlando lamented that he had received negative feedback from Catholics on his ecumenical efforts to mark the anniversary with local Christian leaders of other churches. (This has been a tough month for Bishop Noonan and ecumenism: he made national news by his discipline of a Catholic school teacher who used inflammatory handouts against the Islamic faith—and made a lot of enemies. Google at your own risk.) Against this current background it is interesting to reflect upon para. 24 of SC and its great emphasis upon Sacred Scripture in worship.
One of the principles in the composition of Sacrosanctum Concilium was the openness of Catholic liturgy to Christians of other denominations. Without denial of its doctrinal heritage, the Vatican II fathers did not wish to see the liturgy as an instrument of exclusivity, like the secret rites of a male fraternity. Rather, Vatican II envisioned reform of the sacraments in a way that both Catholics and other Christians could grasp the full meaning and power of the rites. This is not foreign to Catholic Tradition. Today’s Mass is divided into the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Prior to 1970 this division was called The Mass of the Catechumens and the Mass of the Faithful, reflecting an ancient practice of inviting the unbaptized into the assembly to hear the Word of God. Reception of the Eucharist was (and is, ordinarily) reserved to initiated Catholics who are not in grave sin.
In a very real sense, the celebration of public Catholic worship belongs to the whole world and, one might say, is the primary agent of evangelization as well as its ultimate fulfillment. And in its desire for reconciliation of the full Christian family, Vatican II addressed the need for a biblical revival in numerous documents, such as the training of seminarians and the ministry of preaching. The importance of the Scripture is probably the strongest point of union between the Christian Churches; on matters of interpretation, however, there continues to be much disagreement.
The historical relationship of Catholicism and the Bible is a very complicated one. The 72 written texts that make up the Hebrew and New Testament canons were staples of the earliest worship, where selections were read in the worshipping assembly, followed by the breaking of the bread. For many reasons, the place of Scripture proclamation in the Eucharist was somewhat diminished over time, in part because of increased emphasis upon the Real Presence and the “Liturgy of the Eucharist,” and probably because of the use of Latin exclusively after the Reformation. This was certainly true in my youth; a Catholic who missed the first half of the Sunday Mass (Scripture and sermon) was guilty of only a venial sin; if a worshipper was in his pew by the Offertory, he had technically met his obligation to attend Mass and avoided mortal sin.
That said, the Church venerated the Scripture; it was long believed that St. Matthew’s Gospel had been narrated to him verbatim by an angel. A more enduring witness of faith was the first full Bible translated into Latin, the “Latin Vulgate Translation,” (from vulgus, common), the work of St. Jerome around 400 A.D. The Vulgate was the official text for the sacraments until 1970, and this translation enjoyed a quasi-sacramental status for nearly fifteen centuries. The Catholic Renaissance scholar Erasmus (1466-1536) was widely criticized for attempting an improved Latin and Greek translation, so much was the Vulgate revered despite its linguistic imperfections.
One of Luther’s major contributions to western Christianity was “the democratization of the Bible.” Put another way, everyone could have easy access to a bible in his own language. It did not hurt his efforts that in his prime the industry of printing and bookbinding were now established for mass production. He himself translated the Scripture into German so that the newly affordable texts would be easily available to the laity; other vernacular translations would soon follow, including English translations. It should be noted here that successive generations of Protestant reformers became more radical in establishing the Bible as the ultimate authority of church life and the center of public worship, in some cases to the exclusion of a communion rite altogether. Post-Reformation Catholicism, not surprisingly, developed a certain caution about the Bible. My family had a Bible, of course, but we used it exclusively to record the family genealogy (Catholic bibles were marketed with family charts in the center, which says a lot) and to store valuable documents.
In 1943 Pope Pius XII gave permission to Catholic bible scholars (a hardy bunch) to work with Protestant scholars and newly developed methods of analysis of Biblical texts, but the Vatican’s change of attitude did not percolate to the pastoral level until Vatican II (1962-1965). Para. 24 is one of the most radical articles of change of the entire Council, particularly its phrase “it is from the scriptures that actions and signs [of the sacraments] derive their meaning.” Every Catholic sacrament is now understood at its heart as a celebration of God’s Word. There would never be another time where slipping into church after the scripture/preaching event would constitute attending Mass.
The impact of para. 24 was immediate, audible, and visible after the Council. The 1970 Missal expanded the number of texts from two to three, made possible their proclamation in the local language, developed a three-year lectionary to expand exposure to the Hebrew Testament, and mandated preaching on Sundays and feasts, at the very least. I still have to smile as I recall complaints from Catholics who did not like the Vatican II changes, complaining that “they made the Church too Protestant.”
That might not be all bad. Two of America’s most influential Catholic lay evangelists—Scott Hahn and Jeff Cavins—came to the Catholic Church through their Biblical awakenings in Protestant assemblies. Cavins, as some of you may know, was Mother Angelica’s TV replacement on days when she was ill. One day he asked her why she had selected him. She said it was because he was thoroughly Catholic but sounded like a Protestant, and she liked that. To which he replied, “I’m bilingual. I can speak Catholic and Protestant and don’t have an accent in either.”
The Bible, everyone’s Good Book.