HOSE INVOLVED in preparing the Holy Week liturgies must reference several books and documents, of course beginning with the Roman Missal. Also required are the Lectionary and the RCIA ritual book. One lesser-known document that ought to be consulted is Paschalis Sollemnitatis, also known as the Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts, published by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1988. (The full letter is available here.)
The purpose of this Circular Letter is “to recall certain elements, doctrinal and pastoral, and various norms which have already been published concerning Holy Week” (#5). It makes clear in the Preface that all the norms of the liturgical books for Holy Week retain their full force. The authors’ clear focus is “that the great mystery of our Redemption be celebrated in the best possible way so that the faithful may participate in it with ever greater spiritual advantage” (#5). Inspired by the same worthy motive, those who prepare the Holy Week liturgies should certainly be familiar with Paschalis Sollemnitatis.
The various liturgical references all highlight the reading of the Passion as a central feature of this Sunday, which, in the third edition of the Roman Missal, is known as “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.” In the words of the Circular Letter, “The Passion narrative occupies a special place” (#33). The letter goes on to say this:
[The Passion narrative] should be sung or read in the traditional way, that is, by three persons who take the part of Christ, the narrator, and the people. The Passion is proclaimed by deacons or priests, or by lay readers; in the latter case, the part of Christ should be reserved to the priest. (#33)
Sacred musicians should be pleased to read that the CDW encourages the Passion to be “sung or read,” giving first priority to singing. There is also a clear priority in terms of who should proclaim the Passion, as this statement indicates. As always, the proclamation of the Gospel is proper to the deacon, when one is present. In the absence of a deacon, the role of proclaiming the Gospel falls to a priest. Why?
Because, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, sacred ministers “have the primary duty of proclaiming the Gospel of God to all” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, #4). Surely this is accomplished in more varied ways than simply the liturgical pronouncement of the Gospel text, but fulfilling this “primary duty” must begin there. (The nature and purpose of ordained ministry has been a matter of discussion on these pages in the past, especially here and here.) This reality is demonstrated visibly by the added rubric that “only the deacons ask for the blessing of the priest” (#33) before proclaiming the Passion. Why? Because only ministers have been ordained in a unique fashion to proclaim the Gospel.
The same levels of priority are given in the Roman Missal:
The narrative of the Lord’s Passion is read without candles and without incense, with no greeting or signing of the book. It is read by a Deacon or, if there is no Deacon, by a Priest. It may also be read by readers, with the part of Christ, if possible, reserved to a Priest.
That the proclamation of the Passion, like all other Gospel texts, is proper to the deacon (or priest) is again very clear. In many places, though, the standard practice has become to schedule lectors to assist with the reading of the Passion without any special effort being made to provide for deacons or other priests. Without a doubt, the documents establish that it is licit and permissible to involve lay readers in the reading of the Passion, but it is just as surely not preferable.
While having laymen proclaim the Passion is clearly meant to be an exception, I wonder if the permission exists as a way of especially encouraging the chanting of the text. If this is so, it would be similar to the case of the Exsultet, which is proper to the Deacon, but may be proclaimed by a priest or lay cantor. The Circular Letter states: “In case of necessity, where there is no deacon, and the celebrating priest is unable to sing [the Easter Proclamation], a cantor may do so” (#84). The same is also true of the Kyrie.
The Circular Letter teaches that the Passion ought to be sung or read “in the traditional way” (#33). Almost nothing could be more removed from the liturgical tradition of the Church than the proclamation of a Gospel text by a lay reader. The Book of the Gospels even allows for the Passion to be proclaimed by the deacon or celebrant alone, without the use of parts, which would seem preferable to involving lay readers.
Many parishes only have one priest, perhaps without a deacon, but there are also many places with additional clergy. In these parishes, it is commonplace for priests and deacons to appear during the Communion Rite to assist with the distribution of Holy Communion. In parishes where such ministers are available, on this one Sunday of the year, would it not be reasonable to have those deacons or priests appear also during the Liturgy of the Word to assist with the proclamation of the Passion?