ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
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.
About one year ago on this post I focused on para. 10 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which described the liturgy as “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time, it is the font from which all her power flows.” There is a two-way street, then, involving the participants who celebrate the Eucharist in assembly. Catechisms, long before Vatican II, have emphasized the “font” nature of the Mass, specifically communion: a real union with Christ with indescribable blessing in the form of the very life of God. The reception of Eucharist, with the right disposition of the recipient, is saving grace; one indication of this is the descriptive term for communion distributed to the dying--Viaticum, “food for the journey.”
The blessings of Revelation through the Word of God—Scripture—were considerably less emphasized in the teaching of the Mass. Nothing makes this clearer than the proclamation of the Scripture texts in Latin until the 1960’s, or the church law that one committed only venial sin if missing the Liturgy of the Word. This is indicative of a Catholic reserve toward the Scriptures themselves, particularly after the Protestant Reformation where a new breed of Christian Churches proclaimed the power of Scripture alone, sola scriptura, to bring redemption to the believer, without the “innovations” and “additions” of the Roman Catholic Church over fifteen centuries—such as several sacraments, indulgences, priestly celibacy, etc.
Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, promulgated on November 18, 1965, is a relatively brief but critical statement on the restoration of the centrality of Scripture in all aspects of Catholic life. Our Eucharistic Liturgy today reflects Dei Verbum; there is now inclusion at every Sunday Mass of a text from the Hebrew Scripture, three readings each Sunday instead of two, and a three-year cycle of Mass readings for greater exposure to the Word of God in worship. The directive of Dei Verbum connects every Catholic activity of worship and deed—including catechetics--to the Bible. Moreover, the Church is gifted by the Holy Spirit to avoid false or self-serving interpretations of the Word, including the practice of “cherry picking” a text to back a specific denominational action. The Church must read the Bible as it was intended to be heard; the revelation of God from Abraham through the Death, Resurrection, and Pentecost event of Jesus.
I was ordained nine years after Dei Verbum, and then as now I would sit and take in the sweep of the congregation during the First Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures—or the second, from St. Paul, for that matter. I have always wondered what, if anything, most of the congregants were taking from these proclamations. For the Old Testament is rich in meaning, but it comes from an ancient time and a much different culture, i.e., the Middle East. St. Paul is, well, St. Paul. The normal reaction to my question, which I would voice in my classrooms from time to time, was something to the effect that it is the priest’s job to explain the texts to us in the sermon. I hate to break the bad news, but full instruction in the Scripture at Mass is an impossibility.
For one thing, there is not enough time. If you recall last Tuesday’s (January 23) post on this weekend’s first reading, from Deuteronomy, you might recall that I needed about 1000 words to “set the table” for Deuteronomy and the specific text proclaimed at Mass. Multiply that by three readings and the “Mass Hour” is over before the collection. Secondly, one of the major complaints about Catholic preaching, confirmed by dozens of continuing research projects, is its poverty. The homily/sermon is not Sunday school. It is an invitation to be born again. The preacher’s actual function is to draw together the readings, the liturgical feast of the calendar, and the lives of struggling believers in a way that, at its conclusion, the listener is compelled to ask to be born again. The assumption here is that the listener is already quite familiar with the texts of the Mass.
This is a reality of the Mass overlooked: the Eucharist is a summit of effort. It is the Super Bowl, not a pick-up game on the Boston Common. The preparation, good works, study, prayer, fasting, forgiving, writing the Offertory check, and other pre-Eucharistic exercises compose the “summit” element of Mass—the totality of preparation. We believe we derive much from the Mass, but the overlooked question is how much we put in.
The “putting in” part of the problem is most evident during the Liturgy of the Word. I would break this problem into two parts: (1) Catechetics and home instruction do not sufficiently emphasize the week’s preparation for Mass. In fairness, most catechists are volunteers who have never had the opportunity to immerse themselves into anything like the training a seminarian receives—though truth be told, my seminary studies in Scripture were surprisingly limited, too [four required courses: Pentateuch, Prophets, Synoptic Gospels, and an overview of St. Paul.] Our professors were aware of this limitation, but they were very good about teaching us the methods of biblical study and professional sources that we would continue throughout our lives.
I can and should extend my concern here to the proliferation of bible study groups in parishes. I have attended a few over the years; my impression is that they are long on good will and short on content. Nor have the resources available to such groups dazzled me. This brings me to my second point, (2) the Catholic as student of Scripture. Penetration of both the Hebrew and New Testament canons is necessary to know Christ. Jesus, after all, was Jewish. His message makes sense only in the Hebrew context. I privately wonder how it is possible to worship Jesus without some inkling of how he prayed, where he studied, how he worshipped, how he identified himself.
We talk a lot about the priest shortage, but recent research indicates that the number of Catholics enrolled in the training of lay ministry programs, including catechists, has declined. Thus, there may a decline in the availability of well-read and properly disposed parish staff. Consider that American Catholicism is one of the best educated religions in the country, we have a situation now where doctors, lawyers, and other professionals of considerable reading and insight have few comparably trained Catholic catechists and staff sufficiently grounded to address a population that reads the New York Times weekend book review.
My position at this time is that every Catholic needs to own personal responsibility for knowledge of his or her understanding of Scripture and the essential theology of the Church. There is a lot of “stop-gap” material on the market, but the reliable Catholic publishers—Paulist, Liturgical, Catholic University, Boston College, along with Yale Press and Eerdmans [two publishers of general religious scholarship] provide a college educated Catholic professional of today an adult oriented discussion of Scripture and Faith in a fashion that is compelling and challenging. Consider the faithful study of the Bible and the tradition of Christian theology as a gift to yourself and your game plan for sacramental worship