Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: My question is about feasts of apostles celebrated as solemnities. Feasts normally have only two readings, for example, St. James on July 25. However, if St. James is the titular feast of the parish, it then becomes a solemnity. Whence does one get the third reading since the Common of Apostles only provides two? — J.G., Gilroy, California
A: The principal criteria to be observed in this case are elucidated in the introduction to the lectionary. To wit:
“b) THE ARRANGEMENT OF THE READINGS FOR SUNDAYS AND FESTIVE DAYS
“66. The following are features proper to the readings for Sundays and festive days:
“1. Each Mass has three readings: the first from the Old Testament, the second from an Apostle (that is, either from a Letter or from the Book of Revelation, depending on the season), and the third from the Gospels. This arrangement brings out the unity of the Old and New Testaments and of the history of salvation, in which Christ is the central figure, commemorated in his paschal mystery.
“2. A more varied and richer reading of Sacred Scripture on Sundays and festive days results from the three-year cycle provided for these days, in that the same texts are read-only every fourth year.
“3. The principles governing the Order of Readings for Sundays and festive days are called the principles of ‘harmony’ and of ‘semicontinuous reading.’ One or the other applies according to the different seasons of the year and the distinctive character of the particular liturgical season.
“67. The best instance of harmony between the Old and New Testament readings occurs when it is one that Scripture itself suggests. This is the case when the doctrine and events recounted in texts of the New Testament bear a more or less explicit relationship to the doctrine and events of the Old Testament. The present Order of Readings selects Old Testament texts mainly because of their correlation with New Testament texts read in the same Mass, and particularly with the Gospel text.”
With respect to the celebrations of saints we have the following:
“70. Two series of readings are provided for celebrations of the Saints.
“1. The Proper of Saints provides the first series, for solemnities, feasts, or memorials and particularly when there are proper texts for one or other such celebration. Sometimes in the Proper, however, there is a reference to the most appropriate among the texts in the Commons as the one to be given preference.
“2. The Commons of Saints provide the second, more extensive group of readings. There are, first, appropriate texts for the different classes of Saints (martyrs, pastors, virgins, etc.), then numerous texts that deal with holiness in general. These may be freely chosen whenever the Commons are indicated as the source for the choice of readings.
“71. As to their sequence, all the texts in this part of the Order of Readings appear in the order in which they are to be read at Mass. Thus the Old Testament texts are first, then the texts from the Apostles, followed by the psalms and verses between the readings, and finally the texts from the Gospels. The rationale of this arrangement is that, unless otherwise noted, the celebrant may choose at will from such texts, in view of the pastoral needs of the congregation taking part in the celebration.
“5) The Celebrations of the Saints
“83. When they exist, proper readings are given for celebrations of the Saints, that is, biblical passages about the Saint or the mystery that the Mass is celebrating. Even in the case of a memorial, these readings must take the place of the weekday readings for the same day. This Order of Readings makes explicit note of every case of proper readings on a memorial.
“In some cases, there are accommodated readings, those, namely, that bring out some particular aspect of a Saint’s spiritual life or work. Use of such readings does not seem binding, except for compelling pastoral reasons. For the most part, references are given to readings in the Commons in order to facilitate choice. But these are merely suggestions: in place of an accommodated reading or the particular reading proposed from a Common, any other reading from the Commons referred to may be selected.
“The first concern of a priest celebrating with a congregation is the spiritual benefit of the faithful and he will be careful not to impose his personal preference on them. Above all, he will make sure not to omit too often or without sufficient cause the readings assigned for each day in the weekday Lectionary: the Church’s desire is that a more lavish table of the word of God be spread before the faithful.
“There are also common readings, that is, those placed in the Commons either for some determined class of Saints (martyrs, virgins, pastors) or for the Saints in general. Because in these cases several texts are listed for the same reading, it will be up to the priest to choose the one best suited to those listening.
“In all celebrations of Saints, the readings may be taken not only from the Commons to which the references are given in each case but also from the Common of Men and Women Saints, whenever there is a special reason for doing so.
“84. For celebrations of the Saints, the following should be observed:
“1. On solemnities and feasts the readings must be those that are given in the Proper or in the Commons. For solemnities and feasts of the General Roman Calendar, proper readings are always assigned.
“2. On solemnities inscribed in particular calendars, three readings are to be assigned, unless the Conference of Bishops has decreed that there are to be only two readings. The first reading is from the Old Testament (but during the Easter season, from the Acts of the Apostles or the Book of Revelation); the second, from an Apostle; the third, from the Gospels.
“3. On feasts and memorials, which have only two readings, the first reading can be chosen from either the Old Testament or from an Apostle; the second is from the Gospels. Following the Church’s traditional practice, however, the first reading during the Easter season is to be taken from an Apostle, the second, as far as possible, from the Gospel of John.”
Therefore, in the celebration of a feast such as St. James as a solemnity, the two readings found in the proper on June 25 (2 Corinthians 4:7-15 and Matthew 20:20-28) are to be used.
For the first reading, one can choose the most suitable reading. In Spain, where St. James, as national patron, is celebrated as a solemnity, the first reading is Acts 11:19-21; 12,1-2.24, with the responsorial psalm being 67:2-3, 5, 7-8. The other readings are as above. This would seem to be the most appropriate choice in this case.
As mentioned above, the introduction to the lectionary allows leeway in the choice of the non-prescribed reading. It is sometimes possible, as in the case of Spain, to make a shortcut for solemnities of apostles, as well as other saints, by trying to discover the selection made in places where the saint is regularly celebrated as a solemnity. It does not always work but can help.
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.