The Priest and the Liturgy of the Word at Mass

Continuity Seen Between the Two Forms of the Roman Rite

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Father Mauro Gagliardi

ROME, FEB. 5, 2010 ( In this article we will not be looking at the Liturgy of the Word in itself, about which we would have to provide an historical, theological and disciplinary panorama. In continuity with the preceding articles in this column, we will focus instead on the role of the priest in the Liturgy of the Word in the Mass, taking into account both the ordinary form (that of Paul VI) and the extraordinary form (that of St. Pius V) of the Roman Rite. [1]

The Extraordinary Form

In the “Low Mass” (a simple celebration for daily use) of the extraordinary form, the priest reads all the readings, that is, the Epistle [2], the Gradual and the Gospel. In general, he does this while assuming the same position that he does when he will later offer the holy sacrifice. Using a misleading but common expression, we might say that the priest proclaims the Liturgy of the Word “with his back to the people.” The language of the proclamation is the same as the whole rite, that is, Latin, or sometimes the vernacular, as section 6 of the Motu Proprio “Summorum Pontificum” recalls.

After the Epistle is read there follows the Gradual, which receives its name from the steps (in Latin “gradus”) that the deacon ascends to read the Gospel from the ambo in a solemn Mass. After the Gradual, the Alleluia is read with its verse. (The Tract, however, is substituted for the Alleluia during the period between Septuagesima Sunday and Easter and at Masses for the dead.)

On some occasions, before the Gospel, the priest also proclaims a “Sequentia.” [3] Once this is done, while the server carries the Missal (which also contains the biblical readings) from the right side of the altar (called the “cornu epistuale”) to the left side (“cornu evangelii), the priest, who is standing at the center of the altar, asks for the Lord’s benediction before passing to the left side (or northern side).

Having said “Dominus vobiscum” and having received the corresponding response, then having announced the title of the Gospel book from which he is about to read, and having traced the cross with his thumb upon the book and three times upon himself (over his forehead, lips and heart), he proclaims the Gospel from that side of the altar. When he reads the Epistle, the Gradual and the Alleluia, the priest rests his hands on the Missal or the altar, but always in such a way that his hands are touching the book. However, in proclaiming the Gospel, he folds his hands at chest-level.

After the Gospel is read, he lifts the book off the stand and kisses it, silently saying the formula “Per evangelica dicta, deleantur nostra delicta.” During the proclamation of the different readings, the priests bows his head at every mention of the name of Jesus. In special circumstances a genuflection is made during the reading. At the end of the reading of the Gospel, those assisting the priest say “Laus tibi Christe.”

After the Gospel, above all on Sundays and holy days of obligation, there can be, according to what is appropriate, a brief homily. [4] Finally, after the possible homily, the Symbol of Faith is recited when it is prescribed: the priest returns to the center of the altar and intones the “Credo,” extending his arms and joining his hands again at the chest and bowing his head.

At the moment of the “Et incarnatus est” he genuflects and remains in this position until the “et homo factus est.” He bows his head again at the “simul adoratur.” Finally, concluding the «Creed,” he makes the sign of the cross. All the parts of the Liturgy of the Word, except for the prayers that the priest recites before and after the proclamation of the Gospel, are said aloud.

Limitations of space prevent us from going into detail here about the way that the biblical readings are proclaimed at the solemn Mass.

The Ordinary Form

The Liturgy of the Word in the Missal of Paul VI kept different elements of the Missal Pius V, even if others have been suppressed and some added. The language of the proclamation has not been changed since Latin has remained the proper language of the Roman liturgy even in the post-conciliar reform, the reason for which the new lectionaries (now printed in books separate from the Missal) were published in Latin in 1969 and 1981.

On the other hand, the “editio typica” has been translated into the various national languages and these translations are what are generally used. The “Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani,” The General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM) sets down the general norms of the Liturgy of the Word in sections 55-71.

A first difference between the two forms of the Roman Rite we see in the fact that, even in the daily Mass, celebrated in a non-solemn form, the possibility of other readers proclaiming the biblical passages — except for the Gospel — is foreseen [5], even if it remains possible for the priest to read all the texts of the Liturgy of the Word [6].

A second change is in the fact that, on Sundays and solemnities, there are three readings (first and second readings and the Gospel) besides the responsorial Psalm, which takes the place of the Gradual. The selection of biblical texts has also considerably increased in the ordinary form. [7]

A third element that is new is the reinsertion of the Prayer of the Faithful, which takes place after the Gospel and homily. The homily is recommended for every day of the year and is obligatory on Sundays and holy days of obligation. [8] It is significant that in the norms established by the GIRM there is a section on silence:

“The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as to promote meditation, and so any sort of haste that hinders recollection must clearly be avoided. During the Liturgy of the Word, it is also appropriate to include brief periods of silence, accommodated to the gathered assembly, in which, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, the word of God may be grasped by the heart and a response through prayer may be prepared. It may be appropriate to observe such periods of silence, for example, before the Liturgy of the Word itself begins, after the first and second reading, and lastly at the conclusion of the homily.” [9]

The GIRM dictates that the biblical readings are always read from the ambo [10], so even when they are read by the priest, it is never done “with the back to the people.” In the ordinary form too the priest recites a silent prayer before he proclaims the Gospel. In the rite of Paul VI, at the end of every reading a formula is said to which the faithful respond. [11]

The Psalm is called “responsorial” because a response is said by the faithful after each strophe. Even if it does not often happen, the norms allow for the singing or reciting of the Psalm without a response, or for it being substituted by a Gradual. [12]

The Missal of Paul VI continues the use of the “Sequentia” on some occasions. It is only obligatory on the days of Easter and Pentecost [13] and, furthermore, it is recited before the Alleluia verse rather than after.

The Gospel is proclaimed with the same gestures as those used in the Mass of Pius V although the GIRM does not specify where the priest should place his hands or similar things. [14] This is also the case for the recitation of the Creed, although the norms say that there is no genuflection but a bow of the head at the words “Et incarnatus est.” [15]

In regard to the Prayer of the Faithful, the GIRM says that “[i]t is fitting that such a prayer be included, as a rule, in Masses celebrated with a congregation.” [16] “It is for the priest celebrant to direct this prayer from the chair. He himself begins it with a brief introduction, by which he invites the faithful to pray, and likewise he concludes it with a prayer. […] The intentions are announced from the ambo or from another suitable place
, by the deacon or by a cantor, a lector, or one of the lay faithful.” [17]

Some Annotations

From what has been said, one sees the substantial continuity between the way of celebrating the Liturgy of the Word in the two Missals, unity and changes, some enriching, others more problematic. The continuity has different aspects. The first and principal is that the Liturgy of the Word of the Mass gathers into itself only biblical texts (Old and New Testament).

It is thus a denaturing of this part of the celebration to insert non-biblical texts, even if they are taken from the Fathers, from the great Doctors and Masters of Christian Spirituality. There is all the more reason then not to read from profane texts or the sacred writings of other religions. [18] The second aspect of continuity is the structure of the Liturgy of the Word, which is similar in the two forms of the Roman Rite.

There are also various aspects that are evidence of change. In the Rite of Paul VI the selection of biblical passages is much richer than in the older Missal. This fact is undoubtedly something positive and responds to the indications of “Sacrosanctum Concilium.” [19] Nevertheless it would be appropriate to shorten many passages that are too long. [20]

The norm that specifies that the readings are proclaimed from the ambo and therefore that the readers face the people is also something positive. This position is also more suitable for the Liturgy of the Word. [21]

The norm that prescribes homilies as obligatory on Sundays and holy days of obligation is likewise beneficial. Here the priest has an important and delicate role. Recently, his excellency Monsignor Mariano Crociata, secretary general of the Italian bishops’ conference, has observed that “it is decisive that the homilist is aware of being a listener himself, indeed of being the first hearer of the word that he pronounces. He must know that the word that he is about to speak to others is above all, if not only, addressed to him.” [22]

The careful preparation of the homily is an integral part of the role of the priest in the Liturgy of the Word. Benedict XVI reminds us that the homily always has both a catechetical and exhortative purpose [23]: It cannot therefore be a lesson of biblical exegesis, because it must also express the dogma and because it must be a catechetical and not an academic discourse; nor can it only be a paraenesis that recalls certain vague values, perhaps taken from the current mentality without any evangelical filter (which would be a separation of the exhortative part, which regards the good to be done, from the catechetical part, which regards the truth believed).

With respect to the office of readers, the ordinary form permits that not only ministers expressly instituted by the Church for this task read but also other lay faithful. The priest’s role, in this case, is no longer that of reading the biblical passages in first person, but that — more distant — of assuring that these readers are truly qualified. No one can just ascend to the ambo and proclaim the Word of God in the liturgy. If there are no persons who are adequately trained, the priest should continue to assume in first person the role of reader when truly qualified readers cannot be found.

Because of limitations of space, we cannot reflect here on the theme of the Prayer of the Faithful.

Finally, an element of change that represents an impoverishment is the lack of precise indications about the bodily dispositions that the priest should assume in the act of reading (especially the Gospel). Nevertheless, this represents a fundamental decision on the new Missal, which is much less precise than the older one about these aspects, leaving the field open to different celebrative attitudes.

One can remedy such a deficiency by applying the usages of the old rite to the new one, there where it is possible, though those indications that are not explicitly excluded by the current rubrics, such as folding one’s hands at chest-level during the proclamation of the Gospel. That contributes to the dignity of the celebration of the Liturgy of the Word and can represent an example of the reciprocal influence between the two Missals hoped for by Benedict XVI, when he wrote that “the two forms of usage of the Roman Rite can mutually enrich each other.”

In this way too “[t]he celebration of the Mass according to the Missal of Paul VI will be able to demonstrate, more powerfully than has been the case hitherto, the sacrality which attracts many people to the former usage.” [24]

* * *


[1] For an historical panorama see, for example, M. Kunzler, “La liturgia della Chiesa,” Jaca Book, Milano 2003 (2nd expanded edition), pp. 297-309, with a bibliography on pp. 309-310.

[2] In some cases the Epistle is preceded by other readings.

[3] In the Missal of John XXIII there are only 5 sequences: “Victimae paschali” for Easter, “Veni sancte Spiritus” for Pentecost, “Lauda Sion” for Corpus Christi, “Stabat Mater” for the 2 feasts of the Seven Sorrows, and “Dies Irae” for the Masses for the dead.

[4] “Post Evangelium, praesertim in dominicis et diebus festis de praecepto, hebeatur, iuxta opportunitatem, brevis homilia ad populum.” “Missale Romanum,” 1962, “Rubricae generales,” VIII, no. 474.

[5] Liturgical reading is the role of the instituted lector (cf. GIRM, no. 99), nevertheless, “[i]n the absence of an instituted lector, other laypersons may be commissioned to proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture. They should be truly suited to perform this function and should receive careful preparation, so that the faithful by listening to the readings from the sacred texts may develop in their hearts a warm and living love for Sacred Scripture” (GIRM, no. 101).

[6] Still, as the GIRM evinces (cf. no. 59), this second possibility is an option only in the absence of proper lectors. So also in no. 135: “If no lector is present, the priest himself proclaims all the readings and the Psalm, standing at the ambo.” No. 176 prescribes that, if a deacon is present, he will be the one to read in the absence of a lector.

[7] There is no doubt about the greater wealth of biblical selections in the post-conciliar lectionary. One should recognize, nevertheless, that sometimes the passages are too long, which, together with the reinsertion of the Prayer of the Faithful and the ordinary practice of the homily, often makes the Liturgy of the Word longer than the Eucharistic Liturgy, giving place to a theological-liturgical imbalance and an imbalance in the ritual.

[8] Cf. GIRM, nos. 65-66. Unlike the norms set down in the 1962 Missal, the GIRM does not specify that the homily must be “brief.”

[9] GIRM, n. 56.

[10] Cf. GIRM, no. 58.

[11] Cf. GIRM, no. 128.

[12] Cf. GIRM, no. 61.

[13] Cf. GIRM, no. 64.

[14] Cf. GIRM, no. 134.

[15] The genuflection is only retained for the Annunciation and for Christmas (cf. GIRM, no. 137).

[16] GIRM, no. 69.

[17] GIRM, no. 71.

[18] “It is also illicit to omit or to substitute the prescribed biblical readings on one’s own initiative, and especially “to substitute other, non-biblical texts for the readings and responsorial Psalm, which contain the word of God.” (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, “Redemptionis Sacramentum,” no. 62).

[19] “In sacred celebrations there is to be more reading from Holy Scripture, and it is to be more varied and suitable.” (Vatican Council II, “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” no. 35).

[20] Other defects in the post-conciliar lectionary are noted by A. Nocent in “Scientia liturgica. Manuale di liturgia, III: L’Eucaristia,” Piemme, Casale Monferrato, 2003 (3rd ed.), pp. 195-200.

[21] Cf. J. Ratzinger, “Introduzione allo spirito della liturgia,” San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo, 2001, p. 77.

[22] M. Crociata, Homil
y for the Mass of the Liturgical Conference for Seminarians, Rome, December 29, 2009:

[23] Cf. Benedict XVI, “Sacramentum Caritatis,” no. 46.

[24] Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops on the occasion of the Motu Proprio “Summorum Pontificum.”

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

— — —

Father Mauro Gagliardi is a consultor of the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation