ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
35 (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.
35 (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.
The insertion here of para. 35(3) is puzzling for several reasons. I do not own a copy of the official Acta of Vatican II, the record of the actual give-and-take of discussions on the floor of the Council. (Seriously, my house is not large enough to store these archives.) Para. 35(3) breaks the logical flow of this section, the celebration of the Word in sacramental worship. “Instruction which is more explicitly liturgical” can refer to everything from doctrinal explanation of Confirmation to the proper way of extending one’s hands to receive the Eucharist. In looking over the Roman Missal, there are several terse liturgical instructions written into the text, such as “Let us call to mind our sins” or “Let us offer each other the sign of peace” or “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” Since the Mass of Pope Paul VI was not completed until seven years after para. 35(3) was written, I have to guess that the Council fathers did not want the sacraments to be a “talking head experiences,” at the expense of the words that truly mattered, i.e., the Sacred Scripture; thus, the purpose of section 3.
Para. 35(4) was the first liturgical change introduced to my seminary. On a winter’s evening in 1964 or 1965 we were released from our evening study period early so that the seminary’s spiritual director could conduct a “Bible Service” in our chapel. The idea of a free-standing service centered upon the Bible was an initial effort to implement the Council’s directive on reestablishing celebration of the Word. The event we attended in seminary was the reading of several Biblical texts with accompanying psalms (sung), possibly a homily or reflection, and closing prayers. Looking back, I think the appearance of Bible Vigils in the 1960’s came about in an age where Catholics and Protestants sought to pray together in an ecumenical spirit.
There are many reasons why we no longer hear the term Bible Service or Bible Vigil very much. In the first instance, we do conduct such services of the Word under another name. For example, the Liturgical Hours, such as Morning Prayer, Vespers, Compline, etc. are Bible services with the praying of Psalms and an assigned Scripture text for each celebration. The Liturgy of the Hours is available in app form from several vendors, many listed at Catholic APPtitude, some free.
Secondly, as Pope Benedict XVI observes in Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), nearly all the sacraments are Bible services and can be celebrated as free-standing services of the Word. Benedict raises this point in an instruction on eucharistic discipline, expressing concern that at many Catholic weddings there are large numbers of participants who are not free to receive the Eucharist for any number of reasons. He recommends the use of a Bible Service without holy communion to allow for the fullest possible participation. The celebration of a full nuptial Mass is not a requirement for the sacramental validity of the marriage vows. Another instance where Bible services are common is Christian burial, particularly in the evening prior to the funeral in the funeral home chapel or parish church. My years of experience, though, have taught me that Catholic families much prefer the recitation of the rosary, which is in its own way a Scripture service. The rosary has long been called “the poor man’s bible.”
Para. 35(4) recommends free-standing Bible services on the vigils of solemn feasts, some weekdays in Advent and Lent, and Sundays (though after Sacrosanctum Concilium was written, it was common for dioceses to receive indults for the ever-popular Saturday night vigil Mass.) It goes on to address a reality that was not yet acute in Europe and the United States, the “priest-less parish,” recommending a “deacon or some other person authorized by the bishop should preside over the celebration [of the Word.]”
My guess is that the Sunday observance in the absence of the priest is the most common Bible Service in the United States. Dioceses like Boise, Idaho, have very clear directives for such services. The Eucharist is imported by the visiting deacon or lay person from the closest regional church, and reception of communion takes place immediately after the Liturgy of the Word. If the shortage of clergy becomes more acute (Pittsburgh is consolidating its 180-some parishes to less than 50) the Sunday worship around the Bible may become a frequent staple of more Americans.
In Thursday’s Catechism post, I cited from para. 103 that the Church “never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God's Word and Christ's Body.” The Mass is arranged around the two-fold presence of God in the world: Word and Sacrament. For generations, parishes have long emphasized the Eucharist as Christ’s only presence. It is common for parishes to hold perpetual adoration or Holy Hour. It is rare to see a church bulletin with a scheduled service of the Word or a Vespers service. I am not a prophet, but the imbalance of devotional sentiment here coincides with a decline in the availability of priests to offer the Eucharist. The authors of para. 35(4) had some inkling of this dilemma, albeit a dim sense of what the future may hold. We can be grateful for at least that.