Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Battle of the Lectionaries

Dr. Blosser writes on Pertinacious Papist about the new (new as in current missal) lectionary, working off an article in Latin Mass by Peter A. Kwasniewski, which he makes available in its entirety here.

I've seen several articles go at the topic of the lectionary before, but this is a fairly typical example, and I think it's important to look at it for the same reason that Dr. Blosser does, though my motivation is, perhaps, equal and opposite. Dr. Blosser says:
It is commonly assumed by intelligent Catholics that, whatever the disasters of the post-Vatican II era (usually associated with its "implementation") one of the strongest suits of the Conciliar reforms was the revised lectionary. The renewed emphasis on Scripture in the post-Conciliar era, so it is often said, has been one of the great achievements of the Council.
Kwasniewski's project is thus one of attacking at the point of strength, rather than weakness. The tactic is essentially, "If you thought the increased number of readings was one of the greatest strengths of the new liturgy, what leg will you have to stand on now?"

And indeed, I would tend to say (as one moderately fond of the new missal) that the move from two readings to three and to a longer cycle of readings is one of the things I appreciate very much about the current missal. The other would be the emphasis on The Word in relation to the rest of the liturgy: the fact that priests are specifically encourage to proclaim the words of the mass clearly, to be heard, and that the Eucharistic Rite is spoken out loud, rather than so quietly that it usually can't be heard -- as is the general practice (though I'm not clear if it's strictly required) in celebrating the old missal.

So I think that Kwasniewski's arguments about the new lectionary deserve to be answered -- insufficient creature though I may be to attempt such a thing. But here goes...

Kwasniewski's first complaint is on a the failure to sufficiently link the readings and proper chants (most ordinary mass-goers will not be familiar with these, as most parishes replace them with hymns pretty much all of the time) with the feast of the day. He opens with an anecdote:
One year, a friend and I had the blessing of attending two celebrations of the Feast of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, for in the old calendar her feast is October 3rd, and in the new calendar, October 1st.... [I]n the Novus Ordo celebration (which was, I might add, just about as Oratorian as could be, complete with a schola singing the chant), it was hard not to notice how absolutely unsuitable the readings were; they were simply the "readings for the day." The readings from Baruch had to do with the wickedness of the cities who reject God; the reading from the Gospel was "Woe to you, Tyre and Sidon." Admitting that a preacher with Origen's exegetical ingenuity could make any Scripture passage illustrate any mystery he pleased, the ordinary layman is left asking: Does this really have much to do with Thérèse? In the old rite, the readings always linked up with the saint whose feast was being celebrated. In the other Mass I attended, the Epistle was Isaiah 66:12-14 ("As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you"), and the Gospel was Matthew 18:1-4 ("Amen I say to you, unless you convert and become like little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven"). The abandonment of the inner unity of Scripture and feastday is one of the greatest disasters of the new rite. It makes the prayers, the readings, and the sacrifice seem like three different things, when they ought to be clearly woven together, as in the old rite, making one seamless garment.

But there was something more, and worse: the proper chants for her feastday, in the new Graduale Romanum, are, in some cases (like the Alleluia verse) irrelevant, and in other cases barely relevant -- that is, bearing no special relation to Saint Thérèse.
In the interests of space, I'll only include two of the pieces that he compares, though I've tried to pick the ones that seem most relevant to his argument. Consult the full version of the article to see more.
New Missal:
Introit (Ps. 30:7-8,2) -- I however have hoped in the Lord: I shall exult and rejoice in Thy mercy, because Thou hast looked upon my humility. V: In Thee, O Lord, I have put my hope, I shall not be confounded for ever; in Thy justice free me. I however have hoped in the Lord: I shall exult and rejoice in Thy mercy, because Thou hast looked upon my humility.

Gradual (Ps. 26:4) -- One thing I have asked of the Lord, this I shall seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord. V. That I may see the delight of the Lord, and be protected by His holy temple.

Alleluia (Ps. 116:1) -- Praise the Lord, all ye nations, and rejoice in Him, all ye peoples. Alleluia.

Old Missal:
Introit (Cant. 4:8-9) -- Come from Libanus, my spouse, come from Libanus, come; thou hast wounded my heart, my sister, my spouse, thou hast wounded my heart. V. (Ps. 112:1) Praise the Lord, ye children; praise ye the name of the Lord. Glory be. Come from Libanus, my spouse, etc.

Gradual (Mt. 11:25) -- I confess to Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to the little ones. V. (Ps. 70.5) [Thou hast been] my hope, O Lord, from my youth.

Alleluia (Ecclus. 39:17-19) -- Bud forth as the rose planted by the brooks of waters: Give ye a sweet odor as frankincense. Send forth flowers as the lily, and yield a smell, and bring forth leaves in grace, and praise with canticles and bless the Lord in His works. Alleluia.
Kwasniewski's analysis is that,
Comparing the two sets of propers, I ask: Is this an example of liturgical progress, of a "successful" reform? The Novus Ordo propers are vague and generic, ready for application to any female saint; the Tridentine propers are majestic, poetic, and exactly apropos to the Little Flower.
I'm not sure the case is nearly so open and shut as Kwasniewski claims. Certainly, the Alleluia in the old missal focuses on the rose as a metaphor, and since Therese is called the "Little Flower" and the results of her intercession are commonly called "roses" that certainly is a nice piece of concordance usage. The alleluia in the new missal does not seem particularly relevant. However, the introit and gradual in the new missal both seem fairly relevant to St. Therese's emphasis on humility, and to her desire to enter the convent at a very young age. The gradual in the old missal seems quite relevant with its talk of revealing to the "little ones" that which is hidden from the wise, but the relevance of the introit seems looser.

But I think there's a bigger question to look at here. Since the proper chants are taken from the sacred scriptures, and since the canon was closed long before the vast majority of saints were born, clearly the verses available from Psalms, and elsewhere are only relevant to the saints in a certain metaphoric, after-the-fact fashion. Certainly, we celebrate the saint whose feast day it is though the mass, but it seems to me that it is not the saint's mass, per se. The mass is always the celebration of Christ's coming into the world, both as Word and as Sacrificial Lamb, and of his suffering for us on the cross. In that sense, while we commemorate St. Therese at mass on her feast day, and the prayers specific to that day's mass are chosen to reflect that commemoration, we are not doing so because the mass that day is about her, but because those prayers reflect the eternal Christian virtues which St. Therese modelled for us, and which she found, like us, in the God's Word and the other ancient prayers, beliefs, practices and sacraments of the Church.

In that sense, while it seems to me important to pick the propers specific to a saint's feast day with care, it is not necessarily something to get deeply worked up about. But Kwasniewski now moves on to more general points, and so must we. Having discussed what he sees as a lack of suitability in the proper chants chosen for feast days in the new missal, Kwasniewski now discusses what he sees as wrong with the organization of the new lectionary in more general terms. First he lays down some general principles. There are worth looking at in detail since they tell us a great deal about his understanding of the liturgy and the place of the scriptures within it.
A first principle for lovers of liturgical tradition is that the cycle of feasts of our Lord, our Lady, and the saints must take precedence over a cycle of Scripture readings. There is no liturgy in existence that privileges a rationalistically-conceived march through books of the Old and New Testaments. All liturgies, Eastern and Western, look to the mysteries of Christ and of His Mother, and to the lives and virtues of that bright "cloud of witnesses" who incarnate, so to speak, the reality of Jesus again and again throughout history. Recitation of the text of Scripture is made decisively subordinate to the historical embodiment of Scripture's message in holy persons. The readings serve, in other words, to frame, adorn, and bring to light the face of Christ and the faces of all His imitators.
No wonder the author and I do not see eye to eye on some things, for it seems to me that he has this very nearly upside down. Rather than saying that, "Recitation of the text of Scripture is made decisively subordinate to the historical embodiment of Scripture's message in holy persons." I would say that it is through the example of the saints that we come to more fully understand God's Word, which is our mutual object as Christians. We thus do not need to "subordinate" our choices of scripture to the saints, so much as to with the saints reflect on the meaning of the scriptures.

Certainly, a "rationalistically-conceived march through books" is not ideal -- there are sections of scripture that are of far more clear and universal applicability to our lives than others. (One notes that readings from Numbers and Kings and some of the other geneology/history/soap opera books do not generally occur.) But at the same time, the tradition of having a specific cycle of readings is an ancient one. I think there's a proper balance to be struck between having readings proper to major holy days and feast days (Easter, Christmas, Corpus Christi, Annunciation, Assumption, Christ the King, Exhaltation of the Cross, Feast of the Holy Family, etc.) and allowing the calendar to become so clogged up with reading which are supposedly specific to the saint of the day that we lose the overall structure of the cycle of readings itself.

For instance, great doctor of the Church though he is, is there any particular gospel or other reading that must necessarily be read on the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas? Or St. Augustine? Or St. Theresa of Avilla? These are truly great saints, and yet as saints they drank deep from the entirety of the scriptures. Is it necessarily appropriate to set aside the cycle of readings of reading "specific" to them when in all reality none of the readings in the canon are actually "about" them, and they themselves studied the scriptures as a whole?

As it happens, this balance between stucture and specific feast days is at the center of conflicting feelings over the old Divine Office. On the one hand, I love the one week psalter and stable day hours of the pre-St. Pius X Divine Office. On the other hand, the office prior to 1910 was so clogged with special feasts that one virtually never actually covered one week psalter as laid out in one week.
The use of Scripture is iconic, not homiletic. We are not being lectured at, but rather summoned to worship, to bow down before mysteries. The readings are to function as verbal incense, not verbose information. That is why a relatively narrow selection of Scripture passages, and usually shorter rather than longer ones, is perfectly adequate and even preferable for the sacred liturgy. Not all passages are equally suited to the purpose of the liturgy per se. With all due respect to the inspired word of God, probably only about 10 percent of the Bible is liturgically suitable. The other 90 percent is fertile ground for lectio divina, the practice that all of us should be engaged upon in some of the hours when we're not at Mass.
I've heard variations on this argument before and (especially in regards to the Gospels -- and the New Testament in general) it never ceases to bother me. While I would certainly not say it is a defect of the old missal to contain only the readings that it does, I similarly cannot take it as a defect of the new one that it does contain more. Consider some of the gospels that we have now that we did not have before. The woman caught in adultery springs to mind. How is that "not liturgically suitable"? Too confusing? Too ambiguous? Then how is it that the parable of the dishonest servant is considered suitable in the old missal?

Kwasniewski goes on to lay down what he sees as the three basic problems with the new lectionary, in light of the above general principles:
First, the guiding principles were Cartesian, that is to say, mathematical order, a technical completeness (we have to "get through" the Scriptures), and a typically materialistic disregard for the organic unity of the soul-body complex which is the liturgy -- its soul being the Eucharistic sacrifice-sacrament, the dual motion of offering to the Father and receiving in communion, while its body is the surrounding prayers, readings, and chants.
This strikes me as a case of someone reading this impression into something which someone coming to it cold would not get. Yes, if you dearly love the old missal and are simply offended in principle by the idea of expanding the lectionary (or if you believe from the writings of those on the post-conciliar liturgical committees that they had rationalistic/Cartesian bents) you might look at the arrangement and number of readings and say, "See, this stems from a Cartesian need for mathematical order." But if you simply listen to, read, and pray the new cycle of readings, you won't find yourself thinking all of a sudden, "Wait a minute, what a rationalistic and Cartesian set of readings this is! I'm shocked!" The author is simply playing the same game as the progressive who looks at the old missal and says, "See, it's full of despair and superstition," when in fact it's simply that the progressive thinks of "medieval" things as despairing and superstitious, and thus reads those characteristics into the old missal. Neither game is a good one to play. Both missals provide us with beautiful and necessary scriptural readings, whatever the personal hang-ups of those who picked them may or may not have been.
Second, there is the basic human problem of having more than one year's worth of readings. A single year is a natural period of time; it is healthy, pedagogically superior, and deeply consoling to come back, year after year, to the same readings for a given Sunday or weekday. This has been my experience. You get to know the Sunday readings especially; they become bone of your bone. You start to think of Sundays in terms of their readings, chants, and prayers, which stick in the mind all the more firmly because they are both spoken or chanted and read in the missal you are holding (more senses engaged). In this way the traditional Western liturgy shows its affinity to the Eastern liturgies, which go so far as to name Sundays after their Gospels or after some particular dogma emphasized. In the old days, the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost had a distinctive identity: Protector noster was the introit, you knew its melody, and the whole Mass grew to be familiar, like a much-loved garden or a trail through the woods. Nowadays, who knows what the "tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time" is about! It's anyone's guess.
This is probably the most-used complaint against the new lectionary, and I do certainly appreciate the value of having a single natural cycle. (I do, after all, find the old Divine Office interesting for that reason.) But I think that people rather over-play it. In all honesty, I doubt that you could have gone up to someone in 1930 and said, "So what is the gospel and general theme for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time?" and got any sort of a clear answer. People don't think of things in terms of "fifteen weeks after Easter we have the Sunday with gospel X". Rather, people think in terms of "the Sunday we hear about the dishonest steward" or "the Sunday with the prodigal son". This remains the case with the new cycle, except that we get to hear more readings. Having been attending mass for nearly ten three year cycles now, if you name just about any incident in the gospels I can retell it for you fairly exactly, and maybe get a few lines exactly. And since I think the gospels are pretty all much all very important, I consider it a very good thing that a layman who goes to church every Sunday will eventually have virtually the whole of the four gospels at hand, or at least in the middle reaches of his memory.

I appreciate the stability of the old missal, but I can't see the three year cycle as a bad thing by any means, and I'd lean towards considering it superior in this respect.
Third, the men who chose the readings were a committee of "experts," biblical scholars with sociological leanings, who should be distrusted when it comes to spiritual matters. The only reverent way of augmenting a missal would be to entrust to contemplative monks the task of proposing new readings and propers for certain saints' feasts, for the weekdays of Advent, and so on -- to entrust it to traditional Benedictines, Cistercians, Carthusians, whose daily bread (after the Eucharist) is lectio divina, whose every thought is permeated by the words, the rhythms, the doctrine of Sacred Scripture. For these men and women, Scripture is not a "project," a book to be divided and conquered; it is their food and drink. Feeling the spiritual weight of what they read, they would be able to recommend readings that are most fitting for a given saint, or for the ferial days in Advent and Paschaltide.
It's been pointed out elsewhere in the blogsphere that an expert writing an article criticizing other experts for being experts is perhaps a slightly circular argument, but I actually do rather like this idea of entrusting the revision of the liturgy to those who make it their life's work to celebrate liturgy throughout every day. Maybe if that approach had been taken we'd have an even better cycle of readings than we do today. However, that does not necessarily mean that the one we have is bad.

Being of a conservative sensibility, it seems to me that too much was attempted too fast in the years directly after Vatican II. Widespread confusion resulted, and we are still paying the price for that. But although things certainly could have been done better (both from an implementation perspective, and in not making so many changes, and so quickly) we now have had this missal for some forty years. A blink of an eye on the timescale of the Church, certainly, but long enough that many of us have known nothing else in our time as Catholics. The very last thing we should want to do at this point is suggest sudden changes, or to pummel the missal which is the spiritual daily bread of most of the world's Catholics.

I'm glad that the old missal has finally been fully liberated by the recent motu proprio, and I hope that the trend towards more solemn celebration of the new missal continues. In time, I would hope that there will be a blending of elements of the old that we have lost (and missed) into the new. But if that is to happen, the arguments present by lovers of the old must be a little better than what we see here. To present unsupported (and in some cases rather subjective and debatable) principles and then move on to make sweeping pronouncements on the basis of those principles is not to make an argument, it is to make noise.


Jim McCullough said...

Good work.

Anonymous said...

Great thoughts...but regarding this I'm still unconvinced:

We thus do not need to "subordinate" our choices of scripture to the saints, so much as to with the saints reflect on the meaning of the scriptures.

I think the saints, being the embodiment of the Scriptures, are superior to Scripture in the sense that Scripture is text, a text that can be misinterpretated or at least by its very nature, cannot be as multidimensional as a human being.

Text was king in the Old Testament, shown first in the tablets. The tablets of the law became Flesh in the New Covenant, showing us the more perfect way. ("The letter killeth, the spirit giveth life.")

Saints preceeded the Scriptures, after all. Jesus made apostles, not books. He gave us friends, not just words, although I don't in any way mean to demean the Scriptures.

Darwin said...


I can follow you to a point here. I do think that the lives and writings of the saints certainly provide us with a very important example, which is in many ways more specific (and varried) than scripture. However, I'd hesitate to call them the "embodiment" of scripture, in part because I'm not completely sure what one would mean by that.

Certainly, the Church preceded the scriptures -- that's why we're Catholic after all. And in the liturgy we find the direct words of Mother Church as well as some readings from and allusions to scripture.

However, when picking readings, I'm not sure how much fuss one can make about how specific a reading is to a saint. Like any other younger Catholic, I occasionally got CCD assignments of "go find scripture verses answering each of these questions" and while it's certainly possible to do this punchily with a good concordance, it doesn't necessarily mean a great deal in my opinion.

If you want to talk direct learning from the saints, I think you want to actually read their lives and their works -- which is one of the great benefits of Matins/Office of Readings. For instance, the reading (second selection in the Office of Readings) for the feast of St. Monica a month or so back was from Augustine's confessions, talking about the last days of her life. It was inspiring and heartbreaking in the way that the example of the saints so often is, and no amount of digging through scripture is going to find anything nearly so apropo

Peter Kwasniewski said...


As author of the article being critiqued, I enjoy seeing the arguments on the other side, and can sympathize with a lot of what is being said. The new lectionary is not hopelessly off target; it's a good thing to spread out a table of Scripture for hungry listeners. The main problem I have is that the old liturgy simply has a much deeper UNITY to it, and, while it may sound terribly subjective, this is something that has to be experienced through daily attendance of the liturgy.

I was born in 1971 and therefore have no "nostalgia" for the old liturgy; I grew up with the Novus Ordo and, in fact, it is still the liturgy that I mainly attend, because where I am living now there are no alternatives.

However, for a blessed few years, I attended a daily Tridentine Mass and got to be intimately familiar with that Missal. I also subsequently regularly attended the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom with Greek Catholics. In both cases, I experienced liturgies in which every single aspect -- the propers, the readings, the fixed portions of the liturgy -- felt like harmonious wholes. In most cases they had been fused together over a period of centuries, and it simply seemed "right." There were no jagged edges, speed bumps, noticeable committee seams. It was all of a piece -- and peaceful.

The Missal of Paul VI, on the other hand, with the new Lectionary, does really seem to me a pastiche of committee elements; the schematism of the liturgy is so visibly and painfully evident. A natural "flow" is notably absent; in its place you have discrete blocks of liturgical action. The specific content of the lectionary is, in that sense, less significant than the fact that the lectionary proceeds on its merry way regardless of what saints are being commemorated -- unless the celebrant chooses to use the supplementary sanctoral readings, which happens rarely enough, namely on Feasts and Solemnities.

All this may sound completely subjective; it IS, in the sense in which experience is always subjective. I have no problem saying that my arguments are based on experience. The challenge I make is this: I wager that those who come to have a long-term exposure to the old Mass will likewise come to see its tight inner coherence in all elements, and will, proportionately, recognize the lack of coherence in the new Mass.

Thanks for taking time to read and respond to my article. I appreciate that.

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski

Darwin said...

Dr. Kwasniewski,

Thank you for your thoughtful and irenic response -- I'm flattered that you came across my post about your article and took the time to respond to it.

Like you, I was born in the 70s, so my experience of discovering both the old missal and the Eastern Rites has also been one of trying to figure out what exactly it was the previous generations had put over on us.

Certainly, I will agree with you that the old missal gives the feel of having been smoothed and polished into a unity by its 1000+ years of use -- though in places it also strikes me as showing signs of an old house in which little is ever thrown away: a triffle cluttered in places. (Be assured, my own house is cluttered, this is not necessarily a mentality with which I have a problem.)

At the level of feeling things to be appropriate, I guess I just don't quite see the need for the readings to reflect the day's saint -- I don't have a problem with them doing so, but I don't see it as a necessity.

But again, thank you for the response.