Our liturgy recognizes the vital role of the Bible and central task of the laity in Catholic life

Father John A. Kiley

Pope St. Pius V (1566-1572) was a Dominican friar before his elevation to the papacy. Loyal to his mendicant heritage, the pontiff continued to wear his white Dominican habit during his time on the Chair of Peter. To this day, following his precedent, the Holy Fathers continue to wear a white cassock, now emblematic of a pope’s distinct prerogatives with the Church. But a white robe was not Pope Pius’ most significant contribution to Church life. Pius V’s primary bequest to the Catholic Church was the Roman Missal, the so-called Tridentine Mass, that many readers of the Rhode Island Catholic may recall from their youth and that today many devout Catholics still seek out under the label, the old Latin Mass.

St. Pius wisely understood that Protestantism, then an upstart reformation within Christianity, was clearly an attack on the Catholic priesthood and on the priesthood’s chief work, the Eucharist. The Roman Rite as celebrated in St. Pius’ era was truly an exaltation of the priesthood; lay participation was negligible. This stood in direct contrast to Protestantism which was clearly and almost exclusively a lay movement. The Roman Rite at that time certainly did not promote the Scriptures; the two Sunday readings, proclaimed in Latin, were taken only from the New Testament with most Gospels from St. Matthew. This practice diverged deliberately from the reformers’ celebration of Scripture in the people’s tongue as the sole rule of faith and the focus of Sunday worship. For four hundred years, the conflict of the Eucharist and the priesthood versus the Scriptures and the laity separated Catholicism from Protestantism.

Pope St. John XXIII in 1962 happily convened the second Vatican Council which, with full solemnity and complete authority, revised the Roman missal of the Church precisely with an eye toward expanding the limitations, however understandable, of the missal of St. Pius V. The new missal, now in effect for over fifty years, clearly promotes the Scriptures to their rightfully prominent place in the Catholic liturgy.  Proclaimed in the language of the laity, the Gospels are now more completely read over a three-year Sunday cycle. Daily liturgies also promote the Scriptures over a two-year cycle. Scripturally based homilies are greatly promoted. Lay persons are encouraged to participate in several aspects of this new Service of the Word, not only through spoken responses but also through competent readings of the Scripture passages.

The fathers of Vatican II also wisely encouraged the active participation of the lay community in the Service of the Eucharist. The action of the Holy Sacrifice, now made visible to the lay assembly on an altar placed in their midst, begins with lay persons presenting gifts of bread and wine, the work of their human hands. The congregation then responds vocally to the priest who invites them to pray that Lord will accept “my sacrifice and yours,” a true acknowledgment of the priesthood of the laity. The priest’s solemn words of consecration are vocally affirmed by the laity who proclaim the “mystery of faith” and who also ratify the priest’s work by their great “Amen!” The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, the exchange of the sign of peace and reception of the Eucharistic Body and Blood with another resounding “Amen” affirm that Mass is truly a communal banquet, emphasizing Christian unity with one another as well as unity with Christ himself.

At Mass this coming Sunday, St. Peter invokes his readers, both ordained and lay, to let themselves “be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And St. Peter continues, “You are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises” of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” The priesthood of the laity, the activity of the laity in Church life, was gravely amplified by Protestant reformers at the expense of the ordained priesthood. Now the priesthood of the laity is opportunely restored to its divinely appointed role in Church life and liturgy.  The Roman Catholic liturgy, as currently outlined in the Church’s sacramental books, appropriately and providentially recognizes the vital role of the Bible in Catholic life and the central task of the Catholic laity in community worship as well as in Church life.

The Roman Missal of St. Pius V had a four hundred year run and did an admiral job of protecting the Eucharist and the priesthood from bitter Protestant opposition. The current Missal, dating mostly from Pope St. Paul VI’s era, is relatively new to the liturgical scene. Properly understood and devoutly celebrated, this new Mass should answer the needs of modern times just as the old Mass met the call of its era.