The Word of God in Liturgy and the Church

One of things that I thank God for is that I was born within an observant Baptist family, if for no other reason that when I became a Catholic, the grace for which I thank God the most for, I already had a tremendous foundation in the Bible that made my experience of Catholicism richer. I have often in these twenty years since I left for the land of milk and honey looked back upon the onions and leeks of Nashville with fondness, so much so that I took the spoils of the Canaanites with me into the Promised Land. I received from them, not only knowledge, but a method of how to study Scripture and apply it to my life. It also has made me think a lot about the place of Scripture in liturgy and the life of the Church.

Evangelical Pedagogy

As most of you know, for the evangelical, there is only the Word. There are no sacraments. And in 500 years, the evangelicals have developed a pretty effective pedagogy by which their people learn the Word of God. It is direct, simple, and free of unnecessary theological speculation. The idea is to let the Word speak for itself to the person. This is done by private reading of Scripture in the home, Bible study at home and in the church, and preaching.

One of the most interesting things you will note is that almost the whole of an evangelical Sunday or Wednesday night service is taken up by the sermon. And that sermon can take well over an hour, and more in some places. A pastor’s sermons are collectively referred to as his “teaching” and it is clear that those who hear him are there to learn. Everyone brings their Bibles and a pen, and it is not unusual to see people taking notes in their Bible or in a separate notebook for that purpose.

Often the teaching is centered around a small passage of Scripture which is usually read by the preacher at the beginning of the sermon. Evangelicals do not try to preach on the entire Bible in a year, even if some encourage everyone to read through the Bible in a year at home. The idea is simple: short passages of Scripture which are the central focus.

But the sermon is much more than a simple exegesis of one tiny passage. A good evangelical sermon will illuminate that passage with numerous other Biblical texts and relate the whole very directly to the Christian life of faith and morals. Stories, jokes, passages from other literature are often weaved in seamlessly as the preacher brings about a point. Often, however, his point will go on over a series of successive Sundays. The point evolves over time, and gradually becomes clear, all through the preaching on the text. Sometimes a preacher will take his hearers through an entire book of the Bible, and it is not unusual for him to take months or even a year on one book of the Bible. I still remember a vivid series on the Book of Revelation when I was a kid that took a year. But at the end of that year, I knew the book backwards and forwards and can still remember much of what I learned.

Does any of this have anything to teach Catholics? I think it does. As much as some older adults complain that, before Vatican II, no one read Scripture, Scripture reading and study is a large part of our Tradition that only needs to be recovered. The problem we are grappling with is: how? No contemporary Catholic would dream of having one hour long sermons on Sunday morning (although no one seemed to have a problem listening to St John Chrysostom in the 4th century or St Francis de Sales in the 17th century for hours on end). But is there something in the evangelical pedagogical method that is useful? Yes. We have to let the Word of God speak for itself in its own power and might. But we also have to get Catholics to understand that this will happen only to the extent that private Bible reading (guided by the Magisterium of the Church, of course!), study and prayer are part of it. Also, our presentation of the Bible has to be direct, simple, free from unnecessary theological speculations, and related to actual Christian life and practice today.

The Readings

When Catholics think of the Word of God, we automatically think of the Scripture readings at Mass. We think that the only objective of the homily is supposed to explain those readings. But in our Tradition, the Word did not become a Book, but Flesh. The Word of God is seen in Scripture and Tradition. It is celebrated, not only by the readings during a Eucharistic celebration, but in the life of the Incarnation in the world and most especially by the Word Made Flesh in the Real Presence of the Eucharistic species. The Incarnational aspect of the Catholic’s engagement with the Word of God is visible, in part, in the way in which the Church celebrates the Word. The ritual accompanying the reading of Scripture underscores its importance: singing the Word, carrying the Gospel Book in procession, incensing the Word. The way in which we engage the Word at Mass through the senses is inspiring and beautiful, and should be celebrated as well as possible always.

But strip away all of the externals surrounding the proclamation of the Word, and what do we have? The readings are not proposed willy-nilly, but according to a plan in conjunction with the Liturgical Year. The Catholic Church has always had such a plan, even though it has differed from place to place and time to time in parts. And that plan consists, not only of the readings at Mass, but also the special Antiphons which come at the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion, as well as those parts of the Scripture which make up the Ordinary of the Mass. The current plan which most Latin Rite Catholics follow was designed as part of what we now call the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. This plan was a response to the call of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council to offer richer fare at the Table of God’s Word.

It is true that, quantitatively, at least, more Scripture is read, during the Readings, at Mass in the Ordinary Form of the Mass than at the Extraordinary Form of the Mass which was most Latin Rite Catholic’s experience of the Mass before Vatican II. The organizing principle of the Plan behind that is for almost the entire Bible to be read on Sundays in a space of three years, and weekdays in a space of two. So the pericopes chosen are shoehorned into that scheme. Those responsible for making the Plan a reality sought to establish as many connections as possible between the Readings. Sometimes, however, the connections are forced. Also, the fact that the celebrant may often choose between an option to have a continuous reading on weekdays or choose another set of special chosen readings according to the liturgical calendar brings about the occasional odd juxtaposition of themes within one liturgical celebration.

What is the pedagogical method behind this Plan? Often the Ordinary Form is criticized for being too “didactic.” Even the arrangement of the readings according to a two and three year set of cycles is dismissed as being too pedagogical in and of itself. But, as we have noticed, our evangelical brethren, who do not have a ritual liturgical proclamation of the Readings, for pedagogical reasons, choose very short passages of Scripture as their central theme, around which other passages are used to illuminate it.

It is not clear if according to the Plan for the OF Lectionary, the same pedagogical method, which as we have seen, has its benefits, is employed. It would be understandable if, for example, the Gospel was always considered to be the main passage and the other readings proclaimed at Mass illuminated that Gospel pericope in some way, as through typology, for example. But it seems that the principles for the selection of the readings are the following: 1) we need to fit as much of the Bible into a cycle of two or three years as we can. 2) we need to arrange them so we have an Old Testament reading, a non-Gospel New Testament reading, and a Gospel reading, as well as a Psalm thrown in there too. 3) we will arrange them in such a way as that there seems to be a connection between them somehow.

The establishment of a connection across the readings comes at the end of the reasoning process, not at the beginning. It is for this reason, I contend that the Plan for the Lectionary in the OF is not pedagogical at all, or at least not pedagogically sound. The mere proclamation of more Scripture does not translate into greater understanding. Greater understanding can be had, without resource to explanation, only to the extent that a sound pedagogical method takes as its first principle one reading and the second principle the other readings which are connected with it by theme, typology, or theological verity. Such it is that Our LORD was able to illuminate words of the Hebrew Bible by His own Word.


Often Catholics think of preaching as the homily which explains the readings at Mass. Priests attempt to explain what the readings mean. Often they will ignore one or more of the readings appointed for any given day because he can find no obvious connection between them, or he forces a connection between them all. Each Sunday is seen as a discrete unit all to itself, and no attempt is made to set the appointed readings in the context of the other readings in previous or subsequent Sundays. He also attempts to do all of this in five or at most ten minutes. He might tell a joke or share a story, but because it is in Mass, he will generally respect the formal nature of the homily as a part of the Mass. And he will almost never preach outside of Mass.

I content that this situation is an unintended byproduct of Vatican II. Before Vatican II, the homily was not considered a part of the Mass. In fact, it was not considered essential, even on Sundays, although warmly encouraged. In some places, the priest took off, not only the maniple but also the chasuble, as a cue that this sermon was not a part of the Mass. But what has happened is that, the emphasis on the homily as an integral part of the Mass has led some priests to limit their preaching to Mass. It also has led many priests to preach when they probably should have not, because of illness, lack of preparation, lack of knowledge, or just plain lack of ability to speak clearly and properly.

The time issue is the first thing that must be addressed if the Word of God is to richly inform the homily. We are told that, because people’s attention span is getting shorter and shorter, we must preach less and less. Yet the same teenagers in our pew who can’t string two consecutive sentences together that have a logical connection between them can watch a two and a half hour movie rapt at attention. We often skimp on the homily because of fear of our own limitations. That, and the fact that the next Mass is in five minutes and the parking lot has to clear. So we do not teach our people the Word of God with calm and with a sure pedagogical method because of practicalities which could be re-arranged if we only have the courage to re-arrange them. We also have to spend time with Scripture and prepare our homilies well and in advance, as well as practice them. Composing them in our heads on the way to the ambo from the chair is not a way to preach!

Also, we must revisit the idea that the homily explains the readings at Mass. Often, this can become little more than an exercise in exegesis, with no application to the actual lives of people. How is the Word of God living and effective through a homily if it is little more than an academic exercise? Is that all it is, or something much more?

Also, there is precedent in Catholic Tradition for preaching outside Mass. Some priests will say, “I can’t even get them to Mass, how am I going to get them to another sermon?” But there have been other times in history when Catholics, who were not bound to come, did come, and sometimes in great numbers, to sermons held outside of Mass. Some Catholics would even come to Mass just to go to the sermon afterwards, especially during the Catholic Reformation and Patristic periods. If you preach well, they will come!

Sunday School

Often we give the Mass the burden of reading and explaining Scripture. Before Vatican II, for Protestants, religious education consisted of Sunday School for the whole family and for Catholics, the Baltimore Catechism for children preparing for sacraments. Sometimes there was more, but not often. In the Catholic Church, we have so closely linked religious education with the reception of the sacraments, that we have produced now generations of Catholics who are only barely catechized. And some are beginning to ask, Are they even evangelized?

I contend that the pastoral priority for the Catholic Church is to develop in every parish and diocese Christian formation for the whole family, for all the Church’s children of every age, and that this be, if not as important as Sunday Mass attendance, certainly next to it. In many places religious education, which once was memorizing the Baltimore Catechism, is now arts and crafts and self-esteem lessons.

Christian formation has to integrate the Scriptural and the catechetical, and be for all Catholics of any age, not just kids preparing for sacraments. There are various ways to do this: 1. adopt a primarily Scriptural model, into which is integrated the full catechetical program, for all ages. 2. adopt a primarily catechetical model, into which is integrated as much Scripture as possible. 3. a liturgical model, which integrates Scripture and catechesis into the liturgical year and celebrations. My preference is for the first. It was the way the Church Fathers did evangelization and catechesis and does not suppose such a huge gap between Scripture and Catechesis.

The Church Fathers, the evangelicals and the pre-Vatican II Church did have one good pedagogical method common to all of them: memorization. There is no reason why Catholics of all ages cannot memorize Bible passages and the Baltimore Catechism (which is a model of pedagogical soundness) in the context of a wider Christian formation which teaches Scripture, Catechesis, as well as spirituality and moral life. What has been separated out into distinct spheres for learning theology must be reunited together for Christian formation of all people.

Often Bible Studies for adults have been started in parishes. But they, along with the homilies, often do little more than repeat well-worn theories of Biblical scholars about how the text isn’t really the text or about the socioeconomic situation of the time period. They also get lost in theological speculation, much of which is difficult to square with the teaching of the Church. At any rate, much of what passes for Bible Study in the Catholic Church, particularly in canned programs, is not direct, simple, and free of useless theological speculations. It doesn’t help people get in touch with Scripture. But is there a way that can?

Lectio Divina and Collatio

In the seminary, every Monday night we gathered in the Chapel and sang the Veni creator spiritus. We would then hear the readings for the following Sunday proclaimed just as they would be proclaimed the next Sunday, ritually. Then, one of the seminary staff or a guest would give a conference on those readings. The speaker would often do a careful exegesis of the readings, bring in Church Fathers and theologians, and relate it to the life of the community. The seminarians would then go to their rooms and spend an hour praying over the readings. We would work with the Greek and Hebrew, use commentaries, write out the Scriptures in our hand, whatever we wanted to study those Scriptures.

Every day in the seminary we had a Eucharistic Holy Hour. Seminarians would often bring down their missals, Bibles and commentaries. Sometimes they would bring breviaries, rosaries or other spiritual books. But often part of that time in the Holy Hour was spent studying the Word of God, especially as it would be celebrated on Sunday. But some of us also used it to read the readings for the next day. On Fridays, we gathered in small groups, with a man from each year of the seminary, to discuss the readings and pray together. On Saturdays, the deacons would then meet with the Rector and do the same with him, often sharing what the other seminarians had come up with.

Many of the graduates of the Roman Seminary brought these traditions of lectio divina and collatio into their parishes and schools, often combined with a Eucharistic Holy Hour. Think of what it could bring to our American parishes: the lay faithful and clergy together studying the Scriptures for next Sunday, silently praying before the Blessed Sacrament, sharing in small groups the fruit of their prayer, and learning under the guidance of their pastor? Much better than canned programs of dubious orthodoxy that are boring and don’t feed the soul!

The Mass and Music

The new corrected translation of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Missal is important for many reasons. Perhaps the most important is that it returns many of our prayers, not just to the original Latin, but closer to the words of the original Scripture from which the prayers are taken. I have often remained stupefied at the fanciful interpretations for and against certain aspects of the new translation, none of which go back to the Scriptures. (Matthew 8.8. and Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof comes immediately to mind).

The corrected English translation is not the only thing which will help the Word of God to be more visible within the life of the Church. There is a move afoot to replace man made hymns with the proper (mostly) Scriptural antiphons appointed in the Roman Missal at the Entrance, Offertory and Communion of the Mass. For those who are always looking out for increasing richer fare at the table of God’s word, I ask: Why then promote man-made hymns when the people can sing the actual words of Scripture which are appointed by the Church for those times? For the Word of God to be powerful in one’s life it is not sufficient merely to hear it. For the faithful, not only to say the words of Scripture in the Ordinary of the Mass every time they go to mass, but also sing those words as the appear in the Proper of the Mass: that’s a real way of offering richer fare at the table of God’s word, instead of just random songs composed by others.

The Divine Office

Finally, I would like to note that, if we are to offer the faithful more of the riches of Scripture, as well as offer them tools for Christian formation, there is no better way than the Liturgy of the Hours. The Psalter, the other scriptural readings and the texts from the Fathers, saints and other ecclesiastical writers complement the Liturgy of the Mass. Opening the treasures of the Scriptures to the faithful also entails involving them in the public prayer of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours. How many parishes offer centering prayer, yoga, devotions, novenas and Perpetual Adoration, but not Lectio Divina and the Liturgy of the Hours?


It is often charged that Church musicians of a certain stripe only care about a certain type of music, and that they do not take into account the consequences of Vatican II’s call for a Church embued with Scripture. In this view, these musicians actually are an obstacle to that vision, because they propose music of a certain type, or in another language. It is also often charged that the postconciliar liturgical reform has been a tremendous success in bringing Catholics closer to Scripture. I think both charges need to be analyzed more closely.

For the Church to implement the desire of Vatican II to restore Scripture to its rightful place of honour in the Church, as well as the call of Pope Benedict XVI in his latest Apostolic Exhoration Verbum Domini, several things need to happen. First, the Church needs to discover what is the best pedagogical method by which the Church arranges her Plan for Scripture during liturgical celebrations in such a way as to be fruitful. Simply by asserting, “There’s more now than there was before” is not sufficient. We also must find ways to re-envision both preaching and Christian formation in such a way, not only to be pedagogically fruitful, but also to more effectively initiate believers into Scripture. Finally, we must take advantage of the riches of the Missal (in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms) and Liturgy of the Hours to assist Catholics not only to be present at, but feast at the table of God’s Word.

Our own time, then, must be increasingly marked by a new hearing of God’s word and a new evangelization. Recovering the centrality of the divine word in the Christian life leads us to appreciate anew the deepest meaning of the forceful appeal of Pope John Paul II: to pursue the missio ad gentes and vigorously to embark upon the new evangelization, especially in those nations where the Gospel has been forgotten or meets with indifference as a result of widespread secularism. May the Holy Spirit awaken a hunger and thirst for the word of God, and raise up zealous heralds and witnesses of the Gospel. – Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini