The Problem With Non-Liturgically-Vested Laypeople Reading at Mass, Part 1: Vatican II Itself

Dedicated in Filial Affection to that Lovely Tabernacle of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, both the Lord’s Mother and ours


My dear friends,

Assuming you’ve gone to Mass since 1969, you’ve undoubtedly noted the prevalent “Liturgy of the Word” custom of today. During the Liturgy of the Word, it is very frequent for laypeople to read the first two readings, and typically, it is women who step up to this role. These laypeople usually come to the sanctuary from the pews, dressed however they came to church, that is, not wearing liturgical vestiture. I’d like, perhaps, to give a slight warning. What I’m writing here is no doubt going to cause a certain level of controversy and is going to step on some toes. But I think it’s a topic that deserves consideration. Ultimately, that topic is this: that there might be legitimate liturgical problems with having non-liturgically-vested laypeople, particularly women, who do not remain in the sanctuary, read the readings during Mass, and that certain solutions should be adopted to remedy this issue. (NB: Most of the main arguments will be given in future postings, rather than here. This post is for a preliminary consideration based on a principle found within Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium).

Now, for some, these may come as an unimportant details to consider. People hear all the time about the need for liturgical reverence, sure, or the problem with Communion in the hand, or the problem of Mass with the priest facing the people, but this topic is hardly dealt with and seems, likewise, to be hardly important. But I would argue that the now-common practice of having laypeople merely come up from their pews, as they are, to read (and then return to their pews when finished), constitutes a genuine obstacle to a true liturgical spirit, and also goes directly against many of Vatican II’s statements on the Word of God and the Sacred Liturgy (one of which will be used here, in Part 1; more to follow later). Why would I think that? Well, please read on. But I do want to make some preliminary comments first.

The Motives are Praiseworthy…

The reasons that laypeople read are commendable. On the part of those who try to get laypeople involved in this role, they almost always do so with a desire to better fulfill the Second Vatican Council’s call for an “active participation” of the laity, as they understand it (i.e., as a literally “active,” or external, function). In fact, as Pope Pius XII laid out in 1947’s Mediator Dei, and as numerous Pontiffs have reiterated since, active participation is primarily of the mind and the soul. Nevertheless, the fact is, the common parish-level definition of active participation has been that of external activity; and so, if someone reads Vatican II with this frame of reference, and sees that this “active participation” is “the aim to be considered before all else” (SC 14), then he should at least be praised for attempting to make it happen as he understands it, even if his understanding is incorrect or, at best, incomplete.

On the part of those who volunteer to read and frequently do so, they deserve a degree of praise, too. Getting up in front of a crowd is not a pleasant thing. Being willing to do so frequently is not a pleasant thing. Contrariwise, desiring to serve the Lord by reading the Sacred Scriptures at Mass is a laudable thing, and my aim in the following post is not to belittle or deny any of these facts. More to it, considering how prevalent it is for women to do the reading at Mass compared to men, women should also be praised for their comparative courage in doing so when men won’t. So again, my goal is not deny or obscure the legitimate motives or competence that lay readers might possess. The argument takes place on different grounds.

The First Consideration: Loyalty to Vatican II’s Mandate of “Organic” Change

As a stage-setter, it can be agreed by everyone that, whether it’s a fine or a problematic thing, having a “person from the pews” get up from his or her pew to read during Mass, and then return to the pew afterward, is a definitively “new” practice for the Catholic liturgy. In the older form of the Mass, the epistle and the Gospel (there was not an Old Testament reading) would be read either by the celebrating priest (if a Low Mass), or by the priest and then the deacon, respectively (if a High Mass). In any case, one would not find a lay man or woman entering the sanctuary to read, nor would he find an altar server doing so. Such has been the custom through the centuries in the West. I can’t comment on the Divine Liturgies of the Eastern Churches, but, in my limited understanding, they have never had a custom of lay people reading from the Scriptures, either. So, stating it merely as a historical fact and without any controversy involved, having the laity read readings at Mass is a definitively modern practice, however one feels about it, and, for a 2000-year-old Church, is young, having its genesis in the late 1960’s.

Lest I be considered shallow, my argument against the practice is not that it is “new.” Many liturgical developments are new at one point or another. But there is a general principle, reaffirmed by Vatican II itself (see quote below), that in order for liturgical progress to be considered good, it must be a true elevation of what is already there, must serve to further demonstrate the reality of whatever the liturgical element in question is, and, (I’m borrowing from ideas of Cardinal Ratzinger here), must be “organic,” that is, natural, sensible, and not a form of notable discontinuity and rupture with what has preceded it. In its Constitution on the Liturgy, Vatican II itself affirmed this basic principle: “[T]here must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and [my emphasis] care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (SC 23).

I’d like to pause here just a second to make one point. Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium is, in many ways, a vague document, and it’s difficult many times for anyone to clearly pinpoint what it wanted. I get that. But there are a couple sections of it that present a clear directive, with no ambiguity, and this is one of those cases, which means it merits special attention on our part. So let’s think about the bolded section of that quote from Vatican II. In the case of Mass readings and the Liturgy of the Word, it’s not evident to me that the way things are done now organically developed from the former practice. Let’s compare the way readings are read in the older form of Mass to the way things are done now, and see how well the Reform has applied this mandate.

Element 1:

—In the older form, the one doing the reading was a cleric or a man in minor orders.

—In the newer form, the one doing the reading is almost always a layperson, and is many times a woman.

Continuity or discontinuity? Discontinuity.

Element 2:

—In the older form, the reading cleric would always be vested for a liturgical function; you’d never see a priest or a deacon reading in his clerical suit or cassock.

—In the newer form, the lay man or woman is almost never vested to read, but rather, performs this role in regular clothing; no liturgical vestiture is required.

Continuity or discontinuity? Discontinuity.

Element 3:

—In the older form, the reading cleric remained in the sanctuary; he was obviously not considered “one of the people,” but was instead a clearly designated minister, set apart for the role he was performing and unable to be confused with “just anybody.”

—In the newer form, the lay man or woman does not remain in the sanctuary, but instead enters into the sanctuary for a brief time, reads, and then exits the sanctuary again; there is, then, no clear differentiation between those who have a specific liturgical function to perform and those participating in the Mass from the congregation.

Continuity or discontinuity? Discontinuity.

Element 4:

—In the older form, on a rubrical level, the reading cleric needed to read (or chant) the Scripture with his hands joined, bowing his head at the name of Jesus, Mary, or the saint of the day.

—In the newer form, the rubrics for laity doing readings are essentially non-existant, beyond bowing to the altar—which, in the older form, would usually be not a bow to the altar, but a genuflection to the Tabernacle—upon approaching and departing.

Continuity or discontinuity? Discontinuity (but easily fixable with training).

Element 5:

—In the older form, with the exception of the Gospel at a High Mass (where a deacon would chant the Gospel, outside the sanctuary, typically facing sideways, and not toward the people), the Scriptures were read on the altar itself, with the priest facing the same direction as the people. They could be read, afterwards, at a lectern facing the people and in the vernacular, but it was required that they be read at the altar, ad orientem and in Latin, first.

—In the newer form, the readings are always read at a lectern or ambo, never on the altar and always facing toward the people.

Continuity or discontinuity? Mild continuity with the use of a lectern, but mostly discontinuity.

I have listed here five primary differences. Now, if you would, please look at the Vatican II quote again. In all of these elements between “old” and “new,” there are marked contrasts, such that if a person compares the two methods, he won’t see the new one as a development in continuity with what preceded it, or as a natural evolution. He’ll see it instead as a notable series of changes, a series which does away with or alters basically all the elements of the former way of doing things. The only continuous element throughout is that Scripture, at least an Epistle and a Gospel, is being read. Everything else has been changed to such a degree that, if a person who knew only the older form could be transported to a present-day Mass, he might not recognize (or at least not immediately) that the part of the Mass was the same.

If we really consider the matter, and if we really hope to use Vatican II to bolster our arguments, can we honestly say this reform has followed Vatican II’s directive that the change in question “flow organically” from what already existed? Or, as a preliminary consideration, might we be justified in saying that this reform, ultimately, has contradicted one of the Council’s clearer directives, and has resulted in a radical reshaping of the liturgical cloth?


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