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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward an STL in sacred liturgy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing—direct murder by the mother herself. And we read in the Scripture, for God says very clearly: "Even if a mother could forget her child, I will not forget you: I have carved you in the palm of my hand."
— Mother Theresa (11 Dec 1979)

Are the Readings at Mass Meant to Be Didactic or Doxological?
published 17 July 2016 by Fr. David Friel

OTA IX International Liturgy Conference was held last weekend in Cork City, Ireland. The annual Fota conference is a project of the St. Colman Society for Catholic Liturgy and is supported strongly by His Eminence Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke.

The three-day symposium offered a tremendous line-up of 13 speakers, each of whom delivered a scholarly paper on a topic related to this year’s theme, Verbum Domini: Liturgy and Scripture. One may find a list of speakers and their paper titles below. One may also expect the full proceedings to be published in a forthcoming volume.

The conference featured, moreover, Pontifical Vespers (led by Cardinal Burke) on Saturday evening and Pontifical High Masses on Sunday (Cardinal Burke) and Monday (Bishop Peter Elliot).

INCE the theme of the conference centered on Sacred Scripture in the liturgy, it should be no surprise that parts of the various talks overlapped and enriched each other. Several of the presentations dealt with the lectionary or some aspect of the intra-liturgical reading of Scripture. One of the issues that seemed to arise over and over again is the question of the purpose of the Scripture readings at Mass.

Generally, it is assumed that the readings serve one of two purposes (or both). First, the readings are sometimes seen as didactic, intended to offer instruction to those who hear them. The second approach to the readings understands them as doxological, meant simply to honor and praise the Lord. Is one of these understandings more appropriate than the other? Allow me to share with you insights from two of the conference speakers to help answer this question.

First, Rev. Stefan Heid gave a fascinating lecture on the opening day of the conference about the role and direction of the ambo in both the East and the West. Both the role and direction, interestingly, seem to have changed over time. Those familiar with the Missal of St. Pius V know that the Gospel is traditionally read while facing north, symbolically addressing the Good News to the Goths and pagans needing to be evangelized in north central Europe. What I learned from Professor Heid is that the earlier tradition in the West (as determined through archeological evidence) was actually to read the Gospel facing south.

The placement of ambos on high platforms outside the sanctuary, in the nave, serves both the practical purpose of aiding the acoustics of the space and the spiritual significance of the Word of the Lord descending upon the faithful from on high. One might presume from this placement that the readings would have been proclaimed in the direction of the people; “otherwise,” Fr. Heid explains, “one would not have bothered to construct an ambo in front of the sanctuary.” But this is not necessarily the case.

In such a case, though, the lector or deacon would have his back to the clerics. In addition, most ambos with two sets of stairs are constructed on the West-East axis. The parapets of the ambos and therefore the directions point to the north and the south. One may suppose that the ambos were used to proclaim readings across the nave.

Thus, the historical study of ambos shows that, when it came to the readings at Mass, the first consideration was not that they be read “to” the people. First and foremost, they were to be read toward God. That the readings might be heard by the people was an ancillary benefit.

Secondly, Msgr. Michael Magee (a former professor of mine at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Overbrook) spoke about the reform of the lectionary, evaluating the successes and limitations of the new three-year cycle and hypothesizing about prospects for the future of both lectionaries. Without a doubt, the three-year lectionary prizes highly the didactic potential of the readings at Mass. The wider selection (“richer fare,” SC 51) of Scripture passages included, coupled with the explicit preference for lectio continua, indicate a more didactic approach than in the old one-year cycle. Msgr. Magee’s sense is that the readings ought to serve both purposes, such that primacy is given to their doxological character without precluding the full exercise of their didactic power.

In my opinion, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council constitute a marked shift with respect to the understanding of the readings at Mass. Whereas the readings in the Mass codified at Trent (and still celebrated as the Extraordinary Form) seem to highlight the doxological aspect without obliterating their ability to instruct, the readings in the modern “Liturgy of the Word” appear to operate almost exclusively from their didactic nature. The primary evidence for this shift is the reformed practice of reading the Scriptures facing the people and almost always in the vernacular. This can be seen, also, from the heavy emphasis placed on homilies that draw their life from the readings, in place of the pre-conciliar tendency toward sermons that were frequently disconnected from the Epistle and Gospel passages of the day. None of this eliminates the possibility of the readings serving also a doxological purpose, but the reformed liturgy nevertheless requires special effort to be made in order to preserve and safeguard this important (and historical) nature of the readings.

Ideally, this should probably be a case of “both-and.” The readings, in both Ordinary & Extraordinary Forms, should be both doxological and didactic, but with primacy given to the doxological. Is this happening in our parishes?

Here is a list of the speakers and topics at Fota IX, in the order in which the papers were presented:

Bishop Peter Elliot – “The Heritage of Israel in the Roman Rite”
Fr. Joseph Briody – “Rediscovering the Septuagint: Text, Reception, Significance, Canon”
Dr. William Mahrt – “The Propers of the Mass”
Fr. Thomas McGovern – “The Eucharistic Liturgy and Scripture”
Fr. Paul Mankowski, SJ – “Latet Novum in Vetere: Old Testament Tributaries of Catholic Worship”
Professor Rev. Dr. Dr. Stefan Heid – “Function and Direction of the Ambo in the Byzantine and Roman Traditions”
Mr. Gregory DiPippo – “The Ambrosian Rite and the Reform of the Roman Lectionary”
Dr. Ann Orlando – “The Unity of Scripture and Liturgy in Augustine’s Homilies on John’s Gospel”
Fr. Kevin Zilverberg – “The Neo-Vulgate as Official Liturgical Translation”
His Eminence Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke – “The Process of Receiving Recognitio for Liturgical Texts”
Fr. Sven Leo Conrad, FSSP – “Observations on the Theology of the Liturgia Verbi with Reference to the Forma Extraordinaria
Msgr. Michael Magee – “The Reform of the Lectionary: Evaluation and Prospects”
Fr. John M. Cunningham, OP – “The Oldest Christian Sermon”