Sense and Nonsense: Reading at Mass

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A friend informed me that a decree has gone out in her local parish that henceforth the reading of missals at Mass is no longer allowed. Instead, we are to pay rapt attention to what goes on in the sanctuary. Actually, I doubt if many people have missals anymore. I have always hated the various “leaflet” varieties that come out weekly or monthly only to disappear into nothingness after they are used. The old well-thumbed, leather-bound missal that one carries with him every Sunday seems to me, in retrospect, to be an invention of genius.

Just how to enforce a decree forbidding missals baffles me. Would a verger with a stick come along to tap hapless readers on the head? Would we confiscate all printed material of liturgical significance as people come in the front door of the church? Would we fine those who are so uncooperative as to read what is prohibited? Would we have armed guards politely escort intransigent readers out of church before irate parishioners could attack them for such heinous lectionary crimes? Perhaps if we allow only illiterates in our churches, we would have an ideal environment for this decree.

If I were a priest celebrating Mass in some sort of unorthodox fashion, the last thing I would want would be an informed congregation, who could read what it is that I am supposed to be doing. In fact, I think the congregation has both a duty and a right to insist that what goes on in sanctuaries does conform to what the Church teaches about how the sacraments are to be performed.

Actually, one of the greatest boons to freedom in the Church today would be for the Vatican to insist that everyone have the same missal with the same texts and the same rubrics—maybe Latin on one side and vernacular on the other—so that we could know just what it is that we are supposed to be hearing, seeing, and praying. That would release us from the tyranny of the Now, the chic, and the up-to-date, which become obsolete so quickly.


Having what seems like 50 different texts and an infinite variety of gestures has introduced a kind of chaos into our worship. We can no longer be sure that what goes on from week to week or from parish to parish or from this year to the next will be the same. Our memories of the ritual become blurred. We have few lifetime recollections of doing the same things that our parents, grandparents, and ancestors did before us. They were not “modern.” But on the same principle, we will not be able to recognize the rituals of those who follow us.

I cannot understand what on earth could be wrong with reading the same text that is being spoken, or is supposed to be spoken, at the pulpit or altar. In every way, I find it a help to have the text before me. Is the priest, on the same grounds, also to be forbidden to use a text? I may or may not use it when I say Mass, but I like to have it there. In half the churches I know, few can ever hear more than half of what is being said, even with the best sound systems.

Why am Ito be deprived of knowing clearly what is going on by some decree that takes me away from my normal and habitual way of praying? This smacks of what I call “liturgical fascism.” Human beings are different. The idea of making them all follow one specific way of singing, praying, or paying attention flies in the face of the evident variety of human nature and how it does things—including pious things. Are there not still “varieties” of spirit, as St. Paul said?

But, we might object, is this not a “congregation?” Shouldn’t we be focused on the same thing? After all, we cannot all sing different hymns together. Catholics, of course, are famous, or infamous, for not being able to sing at all. One diocese apparently has solved this problem by limiting the number of hymns to be sung to six or seven. What this system does to the great tradition of liturgical music is obvious—it ignores it.

Yet, I am the first to praise the account that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger gave to the Italian bishops about the famous visit to Constantinople of the diplomats from Kiev. They were amazed by the Byzantine liturgy—its music, its majesty. It is precisely this sort of solemn liturgy we do not have with the present system, in no small part because we do not have a stable missal like theirs, though we once did.

Fr. James V. Schall


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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