Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Ancient Lectionary

Reposted from May 2013, in response to the strange blog post arguing for various improvements to the Extraordinary Form, one of which is that it adopt the OF Liturgical Calendar. (There's another response here, from the excellent Fr Albert Marcello.)

The lectionary seems to many to be an obvious example of something the OF does better than the EF, but it doesn't take long to see why things aren't so simple. The brevity, and the basis of the selection, of the traditional lectionary have their own advantages. As for swapping one lectionary for another, this would produce an incoherent muddle.


Today I'm publishing a Position Paper for the Una Voce Federation on the Lectionary. Go over to Rorate Caeli to read it.

As I remark there, the claim is often made that the lectionary of the 1970 Missal is an obvious improvement on the old one, on the simple basis that more is better, and the 1970 Missal has more scripture in it. Clearly, however, there are other considerations. First and foremost, the lectionary must make sense liturgically: if we understand that, we will understand the value of the old lectionary,  in the context of the old Mass, and why it should be preserved. To replace it with the new lectionary, as if the lectionaries can just be swapped in and out of rites, would be a disaster for the Traditional Mass.

One of the five extra readings on an Ember Saturday, celebrated in Caversham
In the Traditional Mass, the readings of each Mass are connected with the other proper prayers and chants of that Mass. There is a series of Sundays (some of the ones After Pentecost) in which, for historical reasons, the gospels have got out of sync with the other propers by one week; because of the nature of the progression of texts this doesn't matter very much. What we never have, however, in the Traditional Mass is a set of readings with absolutely no connection with the chants or prayers, and that is something which is inevitable with a multi-year cycle of readings, unless it were accompanied by the multi-year cycle of prayers and chants. But, obviously, there aren't enough appropriate ancient prayers and chants to go round. (This, of course, is part of the story of why, in the Ordinary Form, the chants are a sort of optional extra, which don't seem very closely connected with the other liturgical texts.) Imposing a multi-year cycle of Sunday readings on the EF would destroy the coherence of its propers.

Another suggestion often made is that we should have a cycle of readings for the ferias outside Lent. There were, once, such cycles (though only for three days each week), so it might even seem a 'traditional' thing to do. Before trying to restore things from the distant past (in the Roman Rite, this cycle disappeared in about 13th Century), we should ask why things developed as they did. The answer is, probably (there is no record of a debate, this is one of those things which just happened), that with the rich sanctoral cycle, and the increasing use of Votive Masses, the ferial cycle didn't get much use outside Lent, so it was pretty pointless. If we want to reverse this development, we have to reverse the whole of it: we have to impoverish the sanctoral cycle, and get rid of Votive Masses. Or else render them liturgically incoherent by insisting on readings with no connection with the theme of those Masses. Is that something we really want to do?

Why not say, with Pope Pius XII, that what happened was an organic development which made the liturgy answer the developing needs of the Faithful? And that our needs are pretty well the same: we need the sactoral cycle, because we have lots of saints to celebrate, and we need Votive Masses, because we have lots of devotions to maintain. These two things, the saints and devotions, are major parts of Catholic life and spirituality, and have been since roughly the period in which the ferial cycle dropped out of use. It's not a coincidence.

Here's Pius XII, again:
Just as obviously unwise and mistaken is the zeal of one who in matters liturgical would go back to the rites and usage of antiquity, discarding the new patterns introduced by disposition of divine Providence to meet the changes of circumstances and situation. 

This is all not to say that we can't increase our liturgical exposure to the scriptures. There are a couple of suggestions in the paper which deal with this, notably that, in line with the Second Vatican Council, the recitation of the Divine Office be encouraged. The readings of Sunday Matins are, in fact, closely connected with the readings of the Sunday, and serve as a liturgically coherent expansion and commentary on them. This would be a better outlet for our liturgical zeal than reducing the ancient liturgy to a shambles in the attempt to shoehorn more Gospel passages into it.


  1. I think you need to make a distinction within the sanctoral cycle here.

    There are some saints that have proper readings, and these should be maintained. However, the great majority of saints merely derive their readings from the common.

    What ends up happening in practice is that the same dozen or so readings get recycled again and again during the week. This is particularly true in the long slog between Trinity Sunday and Advent Sunday, when the sanctoral dominates the temporal.

    Surely this repeat of a handful of readings (even if connected to the orations and chants, which is a good point by you) just won't do. Having a two-year cycle for these readings is something which makes sense both in theory and in fact.

    For those who actually attend daily Mass regularly, the overwhelming consensus I've heard is that the two year cycle is a big improvement. You point out (accurately) that this is using the Mass for what people would more properly get out of Matins. While I agree with that sentiment, I think it makes the perfect the enemy of the good.

    There's also the consideration of the vocations crisis to consider. We can't have a super long Divine Office when priests are stretched to the limit. Even the most traditional priests tend to stick to the LOTH, rather than the Traditional Office.

  2. First Question: How many people attend daily Mass in the Extraordinary Form? Does it make sense to push a big and controversial change just to benefit a tiny minority? It looks very much as though you are making the perfect the enemy of the good.

    Second Question: If these few individuals want scripture readings unconnected with the feast day why don't they just open their bibles and read it?

    What we are talking about here is a *liturgical lectionary', not a daily Bible reading scheme.

    The 1962 Divine Office is not 'super long', it is a shadow of its former length, particularly before the 1910 reform. My experience is the opposite of yours: many priests are attracted to the old Office before they take the plunge with the old Mass. However I'm unclear what the relevance of this is.

  3. I do not see how a ferial reading cycle, of any number of years, will benefit the old rite with so many saints in the calendar. One advantage the texts of the old rite has over the new is cohesion (Introit through post-communion are all very related). A novel lectionary applied to feasts, even Doubles and Semi-Doubles (or "third class" days, if you must) would disturb this congruence. And what would be the point if it only applied to ferial Masses? There are a handful a month.

    I said it on Rorate, and I will repeat it here: if we are to have "more" scripture in the old rite, it might be best to return some octaves to the calendar (like Epiphany, Ascension, Ss. Peter & Paul, Assumption, All Saints etc) and give the Masses "within the octave" unique readings. This would be an opportunity for coherence within the Masses, prevent overkill, offer some variety during the time after Pentecost, and make these feasts special. I also liked Fr. Cekada's idea of using the Masses "pro aliquibus locis."

  4. I should have been clearer in my initial comment. I would not favor any change whatsoever to the EF. At all. That form of the Roman Rite needs to be left alone for at least the next 40 years until all the liturgical belligerents (on both sides) have gone to their reward.

    I was merely looking at the pros and cons of each approach. In the EF, the pro is the integrity of the Mass texts (chants, orations, readings). The con is the repetition, which really provided for an absurd paucity of Mass texts.

    In the OF, the pro is that you get a richer amount of Scripture. The con is that this detracts from the Office, and there is a discontinuity on most days between propers and readings.

    IMHO, on balance the pro/con analysis comes down on the side of the OF. But that's just an opinion.

    1. Your EF pros and your OF cons are liturgical, and your EF con and OF pros are non-liturgical. Seems like you are objectively in agreement with Dr. Shaw.