The Problem With Non-Liturgically-Vested, Lay Readers At Mass, Part 2: The Nature of Liturgical Reading

Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, that Mother whom none but the Lord deserves, but who nonetheless graciously receives us as her own children

J.M.J.

My dear friends,

In my previous post on this topic, I began the discussion by sharing the clear requirement from Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium that “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church certainly requires them” and “care must be taken that any new forms adopted should, in some way, grow organically from forms already existing” (SC 23). Then, keeping this principle in mind, I gave five key elements of the way readings are performed in the older form of Mass versus how they’re performed now, and attempted to demonstrate that, due to numerous and glaring differences, the current method does not constitute an “organic growth” from the previous practice (you can read that over HERE).

But that was meant to be merely a preliminary consideration. Now, I’d like to begin sharing with you several reasons that I believe we would do well to amend our present practice and bring it more in line with the former way of doing things. These can be divided into four main arguments, with this post dealing with the first of them: 1) having laity, male or female, perform the readings results in a muddled view of what is proper to the baptized priesthood and what is proper to the ordained priesthood, and obscuring the roles of each doesn’t exalt either one; 2) having non-vested laypeople read makes the liturgy ceremonially inconsistent; 3) splitting up the reading duties, so that the Gospel is reserved for the priest while the laity can read the other readings, makes it so that nature of the written Divine Word is obscured; 4) basing itself in large part on the ideas to be presented in argument #1, there are general problems with having females perform liturgical roles in the sanctuary (please, in charity, read this argument carefully, when a future post comes containing it, before immediately declaring me sexist!).

So let’s take these arguments one at a time and see if they afford any content worthy of reflection.

Main Argument 1: An Obscured Understanding of the Two Priesthoods

If my own thinking in the past can be any indication, I think there’s a common idea among Catholics nowadays, even among those who have an orthodox differentiation in their minds between the “baptized” and “ordained” priesthood, that as long as it is not required that the laity perform any liturgical roles directly related to confecting the Sacrament of the Eucharist, it should not be considered a problem to have laity doing other things in the Mass — like read the readings. After all, anyone can read, right? There is no special power or authority required from God to get up, proclaim a text, and sit back down again.

To an extent, that’s true. Anyone can read the Bible, and ultimately, the text is going to be no different whether it’s read by a cleric or a layperson, a man or a woman. But I would suggest, perhaps, a different outlook. That is this: reading at Mass is not just reading so that the text gets read, which anyone can indeed do, or reading with the aim of better moving the souls of those present toward God. Rather, the reading of the Scriptures at Mass is an essentially ministerial function, an essentially shepherding function, which — as can hopefully be shown as we progress  — ultimately ties it to the ordained.

In having this first line of thought brought to my attention, I have to credit Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, who is the author of the book Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church, as well as a frequent contributor to the New Liturgical Movement blog. In the book just mentioned, he first of all attempts to put to bed any misconceptions that the baptized priesthood is somehow less interesting or an inferior bargain compared the ordained priesthood. He writes (pp. 105-106; emphasis original, except where noted): 

Nothing is inherently more important, more weighty and decisive, than the sacramental character received in baptism, with its eternal consequences for good—or for ill, if the vows that bind us to our merciful Savior are found to be broken at death. Not even the priest’s special sacramental character, as necessary as it is for the common good of the Church . . . , is as decisive for his final destiny, since he will be saved or condemned as a Christian . . . . [N]othing that a Christian can ever do or become will equal, in supernatural dignity, the gift of divinization and conformity to Christ he received at the baptismal font. We can see, then, how tragically mistaken are the desires and efforts of lay people to perform the functions that more properly belong to the clergy, [emphasis mine] as if doing so were somehow a greater, more important exercise of their baptismal priesthood than receiving the sacraments devoutly, striving to live a holy Christian life, and converting the world outside the church doors.

The author then goes on to describe the defining characteristic of the baptized priesthood and the defining characteristic of the ordained priesthood. He writes, borrowing from the sacramental theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Roman Catechism, and Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Council (LG 10), that “the priesthood of the faithful, which encompasses all Christians, has to do with receiving divine things; the ministerial priesthood, which is proper to those who have received Holy Orders, has to do with giving divine things” (106).

This is worth considering. Yes, anyone can read the Scriptures. Many laity will undoubtedly read them with great competence and piety, often to a greater extent than some clergy. You’ll get no dispute from me about that much. Firstly, however, given that the Sacred Liturgy of the Mass is a sacramental action, and, further, that the Mass, both in the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (or, to use the older distinction, the Mass of the Catechumens and the Mass of the Faithful) constitutes one comprehensive whole, and not two separated functions, then it belongs to the sacramental domain of the ordained to read at Mass. Secondly, if, in the Church’s traditional theology, it belongs to the ordained to give divine things, then surely we can treat the inspired Word of the Lord, being given, not just in isolation, but in this sacramental context, as a “divine thing” par excellence, one to be generally administered by the ordained. 

Even if the readings cannot, in practice, be always handled by an ordained minister, the one who reads should nevertheless be (borrowing from Professor Kwasniewski again) “conformable to the priestly office” (106). This will form the basis for some of  argument four above (concerning women performing liturgical roles within the sanctuary), to be given more fully in a future posting.

But for the moment, to be “conformable” to the priesthood means that those with a liturgical role “should be male and should be properly vested, because the things they are doing are priestly in nature, even if not always reserved to priests” (106-107). A young man is conformable to the priesthood, and could potentially be ordained. Even a married man is conformable to the priesthood, and could potentially be ordained. A woman, however, not denying the dignity of the female and the indisputable equality and complementarity of the sexes, is not conformable to the priesthood. More will be said about that as we progress, but this seems like a reasonable stopping point for the first argument I’ve laid out.

God bless you all, until I post again!

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