Faithful granted larger role in Mass over the ages

Father John A. Kiley

Pope St. Pius V was a member of the Order of Preachers who continued to wear his white Dominican habit during his pontificate, a custom continued by popes even to this day. Pope St. Pius served the church during the challenging years that have become known as the Protestant Reformation.

His significant contribution to the Catholic Counter-Reformation was the publication of the Roman Missal which mandated the once familiar Tridentine Latin Mass for use throughout the Catholic Church, an instruction which was to remain inviolate for four hundred years. Protestantism was, and is, basically a lay movement. By elevating the Sacred Scriptures as the supreme rule of faith and by promoting private interpretation of Scripture as the sole instrument for their explanation, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli and others effectively did away with the Catholic priesthood. Protestant ministers were to be presiders, facilitators and moderators letting the Word of God alone transform hearts. Clearly, the mission of Pius V was the restoration of the Catholic priesthood as the sacramental instrument of God’s grace, and to return the Scriptures to their communal role as instruments of revelation read in the light of Christian tradition. Undeniably, the old Latin Mass lionized the priesthood while soft-peddling the Scriptures.

In the Tridentine rite of Pius V, the priest did everything at Mass from the introductory sign of the Cross to the final dismissal. The priest offered all the prayers, read the assigned Scriptures, delivered the sermon, prepared the gifts, consecrated the Sacred Species, distributed Communion and cleaned up the altar. Even parts of the Mass assigned to other sacred orders like deacon, sub-deacon and lector were always assumed by ordained priests. The faithful were more witnesses than participants. This ceremonial exaltation of the priesthood was undoubtedly intentional. Similarly, the lesser role of Scripture in Catholic life, as opposed to Protestant practice, was quite evident in the former Roman liturgy. The Scriptures were always read in Latin with only the Gospel occasionally rendered in a modern tongue. The old Mass had no Sunday readings from the Old Testament. The Sunday sermon, as opposed to a daily homily, was most often inspired by doctrinal or moral topics rather than the Biblical text. The Sunday Scriptures, read on a one-year cycle, were consequently quite limited. Daily Masses, usually offered for the dead but occasionally for the saints, were extremely repetitious. Weddings and funerals had fixed readings – no options!

The new Roman Rite, sanctioned by Vatican Council II, and periodically revised over the last fifty years, in no way lessens the importance of the Catholic priest who acts uniquely in the person of Christ at every Mass. But the new rite correctly and significantly recognizes the baptismal dignity of the Catholic laity by welcoming them as active participants in the liturgy, while at the same time literally re-opening the Bible before Catholic congregations for their instruction and inspiration. In the Mass of Paul VI, God is addressed and lay persons respond in the local language throughout the Mass. The laity may read the Scriptures, lead the sung responses, participate in the General Intercessions, bring the gifts of bread and wine to the altar, prepare the altar, audibly respond after the Consecration, join in the Lord’s Prayer, exchange the sign of peace with each other, receive Communion under both species — when offered — and even, by way of exception, assist with distribution of Holy Communion.

The Scriptures, too, have an augmented and appropriate prominence in the new rite. The Bible is read on a three-year cycle on Sundays and on a two-year cycle on weekdays. A daily homily on the Scriptures is a regular practice. The laity may read from the Old and New Testaments and an ordained deacon may proclaim the Gospel passage and preach.

There was a strong and effective message in the old Latin rite of Pius V that placed the priesthood and the Scriptures in their proper perspective for that era. Now, the new Roman rite of Paul VI is instructive for the modern world in affording the laity their long neglected role in public worship and in presenting the Scriptures as God’s revealed Word entrusted to the Church to be read and understood in her ecclesial light. Holy Thursday, commemorating the institution of the Eucharist, is the ideal time to reassess both the perennial and the periodic messages contained in the Mass.