The document that governs the liturgical reforms of the Mass, sacraments, and sacramentals of the Church is Sacrosanctum Concilium, which was promulgated (published) in December 1963. After that, the Church began to put together commissions to work on the various reforms that the council called for, and the work of these commissions was ultimately overseen by the Holy Father, Pope St. Paul VI, and the bishops. One of the biggest changes was to the cycle of Bible readings used in the Mass. The Council wrote, “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” (SC, 24).
The Mass comes from the Bible and the Bible, in turn, is infused in every part of the Mass, from the prayers to the very structure of the Mass, and this has always been true. However, in the course of the centuries, the number of readings at Mass was reduced. In the early Church, it wasn’t uncommon to have many readings at every Mass, like the Easter Vigil still does (it has 9 readings plus the psalms). Before Vatican II, there was a one year cycle of readings with only 2 readings at each Mass, with few readings taken from the Old Testament. Also, most weekdays simply repeated the readings from the Sunday Mass, except during Lent and on Ember Days.
The Council Fathers of Vatican II called for an expansion of the readings used at Mass, “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” (SC, 51). That’s why we now have three readings every Sunday, with one from the Old Testament, one from the Epistles, and one from the Gospels. Weekdays got their own readings, although they only have 2 readings with one from either the Old Testament or Epistles and the other from the Gospels. The Sunday readings follow a three year cycle and the weekday readings a two year cycle. These readings are often arranged to point out the connections between the Old and New Testament and the faith of the Church. For example, the readings for next Sunday all concern the gentiles and how even foreigners are called to faith in God.
Not all of the changes were good, however. The new lectionary (the book of Mass readings), often gives long and short versions of readings, where the short version sometimes leaves out a challenging part of the readings, and the new lectionary entirely leaves out certain challenging Bible passages, like St. Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 11 not to eat the Body of the Lord unworthily, which before was read twice every year. I point this out to encourage everybody to pick up your Bibles and read them or join a good, Catholic Bible Study. The new lectionary is very good, and, I think, an improvement on the old, but it was still put together by flawed human beings. Many of us use our Bibles to hold space on a book shelf, but God has treasures stored up for us in the Holy Bible. Don’t neglect them.
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.