By Deacon Frank Agnoli
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.
The quote above, from paragraph 24 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, probably came as surprise to many Catholics in 1963. To begin with, they would have heard very little of the Bible actually proclaimed at Mass. There were only two readings: the first almost always from the Pauline Epistles and the Gospel, usually Matthew. Almost none of the Old Testament was included. The same cycle of readings would have been heard every year.
In addition, because the prayers were in Latin and because Catholics had long been discouraged (and, at certain times, forbidden) to read the Bible on their own, I think we would be hard pressed to say that the idea of Scriptures being “of the greatest importance” to Catholic worship was part of the popular Catholic imagination.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Council Fathers called for there to be more reading from the Scriptures, and for the selections to be “more varied and suitable” (#35.1) — not just at Mass but at all the Church’s rites. Paragraph 51 further specifies:
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.
The result of this mandate was a new and greatly expanded lectionary, and not only for Mass. Each of the rites was also given an expanded collection of readings, and all celebrations of the sacraments and sacramentals — from blessings to penance — were to be accompanied by the proclamation of God’s word.
For most Catholics, however, the change would have been most noticeable at Mass. Instead of two readings, we now heard three — including a first reading usually taken from the Old Testament. A full responsorial psalm that called for the participation of the people was also included. The cycle of Sunday readings was extended over three years, with each of the Synoptic Gospels now having its own year (and John being used especially during Easter). As a result, Catholics now heard almost four times more of the Old Testament and almost two-and-a-half times more of the New Testament on Sundays. A two-year cycle of readings was developed for weekday Masses, increasing even more the number and variety of readings to be proclaimed. A comparison of the pre- and post-conciliar lectionaries is found here.
Not only was this a great success within the Catholic community, but the new lectionary had tremendous ecumenical impact. Today, a large number of other Christian communities use a variation of the Roman Lectionary. Therefore, more often than not, on any given Sunday Catholics and our sisters and brothers in other churches are hearing the same readings.
For many Catholics, this increased exposure to the Scriptures within Mass has extended to a “warm and living love” for the Bible outside of Mass, as seen in the popularity of parish Bible studies and the use of the Scriptures in both communal (see SC #35.4) and individual prayer.
The increased exposure of Catholics to the Scriptures, within and outside of liturgy, is but one fruit of the Council.
Just as important as being able to hear more of the Scriptures proclaimed is the sense, perhaps not fully realized or integrated into the life of the Church yet, that Christ “is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church” (#7). In other words, the proclamation of the word is sacramental; it mediates an encounter with God, an encounter that invites a response. As paragraph 33 also notes:
For in the liturgy God speaks to His people and Christ is still proclaiming His gospel. And the people reply to God both by song and prayer.
In addition to hearing more of the Scriptures, and hopefully realizing in that proclamation a true encounter with Christ, post-conciliar Catholics experienced another important change in the Liturgy of the Word: the renewal of the liturgical homily — which will be the topic of the next article in this series.