Mar 15, 2008

Gospel Readings in Lent: Who Reads What — and When?

Online Edition: March 2008, Vol. XIV, No. 1

Gospel Readings in Lent: Who Reads What — and When?

Several readers have inquiries about Gospel readings during the season of Lent; especially concerning 1) the roles for laity and clergy in reading the Passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday — specifically, whether the priest or deacon may refrain from any participation in the reading; 2) if the words of Christ may be read by a woman; 3) whether “dramatic readings” of the Gospel may be given on all the Sunday Masses throughout the season of Lent.

One reader wrote:

During this season of Lent at our parish, the Gospel readings at Sunday Mass will be done in the form of dramatic readings performed by members of the laity. What I find troubling is that the priest and deacons will not be participating in the Gospel readings. Instead, the Gospel readings will be read in dramatic fashion by members of the laity. Even more troubling is that at some of the Masses, the words of Christ will be read by female members of the laity. Is this permissible?

Another reader queried:

Our pastor is recruiting teams of three lay people to proclaim the Passion/Palm Sunday Gospel, with deacons to be involved only “if asked”. Is this a licit substitution — that no ordained person will be involved in the proclamation?

Our letter-writers asked for documentation to substantiate their intuition that the Passion may be read “in parts”, that clergy must participate, and that the words of Christ are always to be read by the priest; furthermore, that this reading is to be a solemn proclamation of the Passion only, not other Gospel readings during Lent, and is not to be a “dramatic reading” or anything resembling a “performance” by assorted members of the congregation. (It would make no sense — not even for a dramatic production outside of Mass — to have a woman assume the role of Christ.)

The documentation is found in several places, including the Lectionary for Holy Week; the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM); and the 1988 document from the Congregation for Divine Worship on Easter celebrations, Paschalis Sollemnitatis.

Reading the Passion

The Lectionary for Holy Week indicates that the Passion (on Palm Sunday and Good Friday) may be read by more than one person — the priest taking the part of Christ, a narrator and another reader (which could be a deacon, another priest, or even a lector or lay reader), with the congregation responding as the crowd. (This last part — that of the congregation — appears in the current edition of the Lectionary.)

Paschalis Sollemnitatis states:

33. The Passion narrative occupies a special place. It should be sung or read in the traditional way, that is, by three persons who take the part of Christ, the narrator, and the people. The Passion is proclaimed by deacons or priests, or by lay readers. In the latter case, the part of the Christ should be reserved to the priest.

In the section on Good Friday, the same document states:

64. The order for the celebration of the Lord’s Passion (the Liturgy of the Word, the adoration of the cross, and Holy Communion) that stems from an ancient tradition of the Church should be observed faithfully and religiously and may not be changed by anyone on his own initiative.

And it says that the Passion on Good Friday can be read as described for Palm Sunday:

66. The readings are to be read in their entirety. The Responsorial Psalm and the chant before the Gospel are to be sung in the usual manner. The narrative of the Lord’s Passion according to John is sung or read in the way prescribed for the previous Sunday (cf. n. 33). After the reading of the Passion, a homily should be given, at the end of which the faithful may be invited to spend a short time in meditation.

The Newsletter of the US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, Jan.-Feb. 1999, comments on the presentation of the Passion in parts, and makes this point:

While it has a dramatic quality, the Passion is not so much a drama enacted as a narrative proclaimed solemnly and simply, without candles, incense, greeting, or signs of the cross. (Original emphasis.)

The article urges that “careful consideration should be given to the effect which this practice may have” — does reading in parts mean that everyone in the congregation is watching the “script”? Does it “allow each individual to meditate effectively on the word proclaimed?” (Thirty-Five Years of the BCL Newsletter, USCCB, 2004, pp 1625-26.)

Gospels on Sundays of Lent

Reading the Gospel in parts (by several readers) is restricted to the reading of the Passion of the Lord on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and is not permitted on Sundays during Lent. This is made clear in the GIRM, paragraph 109:

109. If there are several persons present who are able to exercise the same ministry, nothing forbids their distributing among themselves and performing different parts of the same ministry or duty. For example, one deacon may be assigned to take the sung parts, another to serve at the altar; if there are several readings, it is well to distribute them among a number of lectors. The same applies for the other ministries. But it is not at all appropriate that several persons divide a single element of the celebration among themselves, e.g., that the same reading be proclaimed by two lectors, one after the other, except as far as the Passion of the Lord is concerned. (Emphasis added.)

This is emphasized also in the 2002 commentary, “The Theological Vision of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Roman Missal” (Liturgy of the Word – How is this enfleshed in the GIRM), also on the USCCB web site,which says:

The division of any readings into parts, except for the Passion, is prohibited by the new Instruction [ref GIRM] (109).


GIRM (on the USCCB web site):

Paschalis Sollemnitatis

“Theological Vision…”



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