Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Our Catholic workplace has begun the practice of having “Liturgies of the Word” which consist of an opening prayer, Scripture reading, psalm, Gospel, intercessions and closing prayer. My initial thought was that the Liturgy of the Word was always a component of another liturgy and did not exist on its own, because on its own it lacks certain other liturgical features. If we are gathering out of a desire for common prayer, the Church seems to have other appropriate practices and devotions that meet that need without severing the Liturgy of the Word from a broader liturgical action. So should it exist on its own? — M.C., Toronto
A: I would say that a distinction is in order. There are two modes in which a celebration of the Word may take place. One is a strictly liturgical form in which the celebration of the Word takes place on Sunday (or far more rarely, weekdays) in churches where Mass cannot be celebrated due to a lack of priests. Within these celebrations Communion is sometimes also offered.
Another mode, which appears to be that of our reader, is a devotional exercise which is inspired by the liturgy, may use liturgical models, but is not in itself officially a liturgical act. These devotional acts are not necessarily carried out in churches.
Many bishops’ conferences and dioceses have issued directories that make concrete applications of the general norms issued by the Holy See. For example, the Canadian ritual has the following to say about Sunday celebrations of the Word:
“A true celebration of the Word
“The Canadian ritual for Sunday celebrations which has developed in these circumstances is not an adapted form of Mass, but an authentic celebration of the Word of God, with its own proper features. It is characterized by an enthronement of God’s Word, the full use of the Sunday readings and psalm, a homily that reflects upon the Word, intercessions that arise from having heard it, and a great prayer of praise to God in thanksgiving that comes normally from the Scriptures. This Sunday celebration of the Word is truly liturgy. It celebrates and makes present the saving action of Christ the Head among his people, and gives strength to the work of his Body, the Church. Gathered on that day when the Church throughout the world keeps memory of the Risen Lord, the faithful of a particular community proclaim the Father’s glory, through the Son, in the communion of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, a particular assembly that gathers to celebrate God’s Word always celebrates this liturgy in union with the Church universal. The assembly shows its veneration for the Word of God, the same kind of veneration, the Church teaches, that is due to the Body of the Lord, for in both cases it is Christ himself who is venerated. In the proclamation and hearing of the Word of God Christ becomes truly present to his people, for the Church teaches clearly that Christ is present in his Word, since it is always He himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church. Thus, even without communion, the presence of Christ is realized in both the assembly that celebrates and the Word that is proclaimed.”
Regarding the possibility of weekday celebrations, the bishops are not in favor:
“Whatever may be the considerations relative to Sunday worship, nothing in the relevant documents justifies applying to weekdays the liturgical provisions regarding the absence of a priest on Sunday. This would be the case for urban and rural areas equally. The Directory, for example, quite clearly envisages only the situation of Sunday, where people would otherwise be deprived of the opportunity to celebrate the Lord’s Day liturgically. The Directory‘s provisions for Sunday are based on the assumption of a real and serious need, not on convenience. Again it should be said that what is of paramount importance here is that the celebration of the Word is not presented, nor does it come to be regarded, as an alternative to the Eucharist. On weekdays in urban areas, daily Mass is usually readily available in nearby parishes. If it is not, or if for any reason there is a need to provide a liturgical service other than the Eucharist on weekdays, Morning or Evening Prayer will always be fitting, whether the situation is urban or rural. Indeed, the daily parish Liturgy of the Hours is fully appropriate even when the Eucharist is celebrated.”
Although these documents do not refer to the kind of devotional act to which our reader refers, they do throw light on some aspects of the question. The first text clarifies that a celebration of the Word can exist on its own and not just as a part of another liturgical celebration. The second text shows a marked preference for the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours over a celebration of the Word.
This does not mean that a Catholic group cannot celebrate the Word of God in a private ceremony. But it reminds Catholics that we already have, in the Liturgy of the Hours, a fully approved celebration of God’s Word which forms an integral part of the Church’s liturgy. A Catholic who individually or with others celebrates a part of the Divine Office actively participates in the prayer of the entire Church.
There are some documents, however, above all the Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults (Nos. 85-89), which propose celebrations of the Word of God and propose models which could be used by other groups:
“For the celebrations of the word of God that are held specially for the benefit of the catechumens (see no. 82), the following structure (nos. 86-89) may be used as a model.
“86. Song: An appropriate song may be sung to open the celebration.
“87. Readings: One or more readings from Scripture, chosen for their relevance to the formation of the catechumens, are proclaimed by a baptized member of the community.
“88. Homily: A brief homily that explains and applies the readings should be given.
“89. Concluding Rites: The celebration of the word may conclude with a minor exorcism (no. 94) after the homily or with a blessing of the catechumens (no. 97) or with both […].”
This scheme clearly presupposes the presence of an ordained minister so some adaptations would have to be made in a workplace environment. The scheme mentioned by our reader’s question could also constitute a valid outline, and there are probably several other models as well.
However, I would personally recommend to this Catholic workplace to consider instead taking up the practice of praying the Divine Office.
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