The Risen Lord is encountered in the Sunday assembly at the twofold table of the word and of the Bread of Life. …it is Christ who speaks, present as he is in his word when Sacred Scripture is read in the Church. [Pope St. John Paul II, Dies Domini ]
Looking out over the ambo with the large-lettered text of the Old Testament reading spread out before me, I see the faces of hundreds of worshipers expectantly waiting. I am to proclaim the sacred text without affectation and allow God to speak to the assembly. My finger works down the margin as I slowly proclaim the sacred words.
The Church has walked many miles to reach this place. A breathtaking change began with a single sentence. In 1963 the Second Vatican Council affirmed that “The liturgy of the word and the Eucharistic liturgy, are so closely connected with each other that they form but one single act of worship.”
It was not always this way. Prior to the Council, reading of scripture, often recited quietly in Latin by the priest, formed part of an amorphous “Mass of the Catechumens” — a portion of the service considered preparatory to the actual “Mass of the Faithful.” Through the 1950s, children were taught in catechism class that only the “Offertory, Consecration, and Communion” were required for valid attendance at Mass. The sacrifice of Christ was the primary focus. “The altar, and not the pulpit…is the center of worship,” Bishop Fulton J. Sheen had written, “for there is re-enacted the memorial of His Passion.”
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, approved by Pope Paul VI on December 4, 1963, was therefore a major milestone in liturgical development.. For the first time, the place of Scripture in the Eucharist was broadened, a decision made more meaningful by allowing the Mass to be celebrated in the “vernacular (local languages). In the decades follow Vatican II the “Liturgy of the Word” was further advanced. The Book of the Gospels, accompanied by servers with candles and ministers, became part of the entry procession. The use of the ambo, a freestanding lectionary from which Scripture is proclaimed, became common.
The heightened attention given to Scripture also resulted in a return to an older form of prayer known as “Lectio Divina” or “Divine Reading.” Dating back to the earliest days of the church and refined by the Benedictine and Dominican monks in the early Middle Ages, “Lectio Divina” involved a quieting of the soul and a prayerful meditation on the liturgical readings of the day. Whereas the spirituality of many Catholics had previously been based on devotional exercises, it now became more Scripture-centered. Pope St. John Paul II encouraged priests and laity to pray the scriptures daily, and in 2005 Pope Benedict XVI noted that “the ancient tradition of “Lectio Divina” will bring to the Church – I am convinced of it – a new spiritual springtime.”
The renewed emphasis on the prayerful reading of Scripture also brought about a new appreciation of the liturgical homily. For centuries, Catholic preaching after the Gospel reading was limited to Sundays and holy days of obligation. Many priests saw the homily as an occasion to deliver a moral lesson or to share pious stories that were at times far removed from the message of scriptural text. But the liturgy itself often contributed to this state of affairs: the Scripture passages were limited (there were no readings from the Old Testament). The instructions for celebrating the Eucharist gave little importance to the homily, treating it as an interruption to the liturgical action. “The celebration of the Mass,” priests were told, “must be suspended during the sermon and resumed afterward.”
Pope Francis has given powerful momentum to renewed homiletics in his words and actions. “The Liturgical proclamation of the word of God,” Pope Francis writes, “is a dialog between God and his people, a dialog in which the great deeds of salvation are proclaimed and the demands of the covenant are continually re-stated,” To emphasize this, Pope Francis converted the chapel of the Vatican’s Santa Marta guesthouse, into his own “small parish” where the reading and the homily are an integral part of his daily Mass. In his public statements he has challenged priests to speak from and through Sacred Scripture. The homily, he recently explained to a large group of young priests, is not meant to be a conference, or a theology lesson. He decried a sermon in which a pastor spoke “on the anti-Christ, the loss of faith in Europe, and also ecumenism — a panorama of absolute confusion. How painful!” the Pope exclaimed, “what a waste of time!” Instead, he urged them to speak of God’s abiding love.
In his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of The Gospel, Pope Francis beautifully summarizes the place of Scripture in the lived life of the Church. “God’s word,” he writes, “listened to and celebrated, above all in the Eucharist, nourishes and inwardly strengthens Christians… We have long since moved beyond that old contraposition between word and sacrament. The preaching of the word, living and effective, prepares for the reception of the sacrament, and in the sacrament that word attains its maximum efficacy…. We do not blindly seek God, or wait for him to speak to us first, for “God has already spoken, and there is nothing further that we need to know, which has not been revealed to us”. Let us receive the sublime treasure of the revealed word.”
When the Old Testament reading comes to a close. I pause for a few moments, and then say in a loud, clear voice: “The Word of the Lord.” The congregation replies “Thanks be to God!” Together we sing a psalm echoing the scriptural theme of the day, and then in succession another reader comes forward to proclaim a letter from the New Testament, and then the homilist to read the Gospel. Together we were doing the wondrous work inspired by the Vatican Council II by which the “table of God was to be lavishly prepared for the faithful by opening …the treasures of the Bible.”