Nov 15, 2010

From the Bible to the Lectionary of the Holy Mass

Online Edition: November 2010
Vol. XVI, No. 8

From the Bible to the Lectionary of the Holy Mass
Norms and Principles

by Monsignor Michael K. Magee

Monsignor Michael Magee is chairman of the Systematic Theology department at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, where he is associate professor of both Scripture and Systematic Theology. He completed graduate studies in theology and scripture at the Pontifical Gregorian University and at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. From 1998- 2007 he was an official at the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW). This essay, published in the CDW’s journal, Notitiae (Vol XLVII, Jan-Feb 2010), and in Ephemerides Liturgicae, was originally presented at the CDW’s Study Day in 2008. It appears here with permission from the author and the CDW.


Shortly after the publication of the Fifth Instruction on the Right Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy — that is, the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam — a vigorous interest arose from an unexpected quarter regarding the section of the Instruction concerning the translation of the texts of the Bible for proclamation in the Sacred Liturgy.

Specifically, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW) received inquiries from organizations whose membership was almost exclusively comprised of individuals from non-Catholic Christian ecclesial communities, and whose work was primarily focused on the translation of the biblical text into vernacular languages and on the diffusion and effective use of the written Word of God.

Some of these devoted individuals had come only recently to the discovery of the Lectionary as a tool that assured the unfolding of the whole Bible for the benefit of those for whom they labored, many of whom were in developing countries. Without a Lectionary, they had noticed, the presentation of Sacred Scripture to the people would be in danger of being reduced, at best, to the dozen or so passages most prized by a given minister of the Word. The Lectionary fostered the people’s familiarity with the treasures of the Bible on the wider scale, and challenged preachers of the Word to focus on many passages that they might otherwise have forgotten, especially under the pressure of pastoral responsibilities.

Apart from this obvious benefit, the Lectionary revealed its value for another reason. Through its orderly exposition of the treasures of the Bible, the written Word of God came to be known by the Christian people as their faithful companion on their earthly pilgrimage, illuminating by the Lectionary’s wholesomely repetitive cycles the unfolding of the Christian mystery through the course of the liturgical year. By means of the Lectionary, the relevance of the sacred texts to the lives of the faithful was thrown almost effortlessly into relief; the preacher was provided a rich source of material for preaching, and the hearers of the Word were invited to look forward to certain readings and to ponder them anew with each recurrence of the celebrations in which they were read.

This experience makes manifest something of the treasure that the Catholic Church has in the Lectionary that has developed in our history to facilitate the exposition of the Bible for the benefit of the faithful. The history of the various ancient ecclesial traditions, furthermore, shows that Lectionaries have always been among the most effective witnesses not only to the unity of the two Testaments and the relevance of the biblical word to Christian life, but even to the integrity of the biblical text itself. Because of the familiarity of the readings that the people heard in the liturgical celebrations, Lectionary texts throughout most of the Church’s history have been among the biblical manuscripts most resistant to alteration, so that with the exception of liturgical incipits [opening words] that sometimes became textual variants in the biblical manuscripts themselves, biblical readings in ancient Lectionary texts — especially those of the Gospels — could be counted upon to provide the textual critic with a reading far older than the age of a given manuscript itself would otherwise suggest.1

Concern for Accuracy of Biblical Texts

The Church’s continual concern for the accuracy of the biblical texts proclaimed to the people in the Liturgy could be seen already in the concern of Pope Saint Innocent I at the beginning of the 5th century to delimit precisely the biblical canon,2 in the decree of the 14th century of the Council of Vienne concerning the teaching of the Bible’s original languages in Catholic faculties,3 in the decree on the reception of the Vulgata Editio and its use for public reading, disputation, preaching and teaching as ordered by the Council of Trent,4 and in the great encyclicals on biblical studies published by Popes Leo XIII, Benedict XV, and Pius XII.5

To these could also be added the work begun in the 20th century by Pope Saint Pius X, namely a revision of the Vulgate, which — in conformity with a desire already expressed by the Fathers of Trent — would reduce the existing textual variants “to a form more definitively in accord with the original texts”.6

This great work proved in turn to be of invaluable assistance for the completion of yet another important project initiated by Pope Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council, culminating in the promulgation of the Nova Vulgata Bibliorum Sacrorum by means of the Apostolic Constitution Scripturarum thesaurus of the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II, in 1979, and the publication of the current editio typica altera in 1986.7

The Present State of Lectionaries

When the same Holy Father, in 1988, in his Apostolic Letter Vicesimus quintus annus §20, called for a review of all translations of the liturgical books in order to remedy certain defects or inaccuracies and “to publish liturgical books in a form that both testifies to the stability achieved and is worthy of the mysteries being celebrated”,8 it may not yet have been immediately evident that the preparation of the vernacular Lectionaries after the Second Vatican Council merited the same scrutiny as other liturgical texts, and also stood in need of improvement. Versions of the Sacred Scriptures enjoying ecclesiastical approval had long existed, at least in the most widely spoken vernacular languages, so that the allotment of texts from those same versions according to the relevant prescriptions of the Ordo lectionum Missae might not have seemed at first glance to present any difficulties. Upon closer examination, however, it did prove worthwhile to inquire how effectively the result- ing Lectionaries actually fulfilled those functions already mentioned: opening up for the faithful a richer fare from the Word of God, doing so in a manner that would allow and encourage them to ascertain its relevance to their own lives, and transmitting faithfully and accurately the content of the biblical text so carefully guarded and transmitted by our Holy Mother, the Church.

Most successful was the new Lectionaries’ accomplishment of the first task, accomplished by means of the publication in 1969 of the Ordo lectionum Missae, which in turn was revised in 1981 after the promulgation of the Nova Vulgata Editio. While it would not be unthinkable that further refinements — probably of a relatively minor nature — could still be made at a later date, the Ordo lectionum Missae, if its prescriptions are faithfully followed, already accomplishes quite effectively the goal of ensuring that the faithful attending Mass will hear the most significant passages from all parts of the Sacred Scriptures over the course of a three-year cycle of Sundays and a two-year cycle of weekdays.

As regards the other two functions of a Lectionary that have been mentioned — namely, the manifestation of the enduring relevance of the biblical Word to the liturgical and spiritual life of God’s people and the preservation of the integral text of the Bible itself — the success of a given Lectionary depends on the qualities of the vernacular biblical version that is used in its composition.

The Liturgical Suitability of the Translation

Even if a given text of the Sacred Scriptures could be seen as a plausibly accurate rendering of the biblical text in the original language, this has proved to be no assurance that the resulting vernacular text will resonate with other elements of the Sacred Liturgy or of ecclesial Tradition in the manner that was experienced when the Liturgy was celebrated in Latin. And the matter is certainly complicated further whenever two or more different versions are used in different parts of the Liturgy for the same vernacular language.9

A good illustration of the mutual resonance of different parts of the Sacred Liturgy where the same biblical text recurs can be found in the liturgical use of Psalm 45:6:

Deus in medio eius, non commovebitur; adiuvabit eam Deus mane diluculo.

The psalm from which this verse is taken, praising God as the source of strength for the City where He dwells, is very appropriately prescribed by the Ordo lectionum Missae for the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica and more broadly in the Common for the Anniversary of the Dedication of a Church, and also on Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent, where it occurs in the Responsorial Psalm after the reading taken from Ezekiel 47 describing that prophet’s vision of the heavenly Temple. However, the second part of the verse, transposed into the past tense — Adiuvit eam Deus mane diluculo — occurs also as an antiphon in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In the Liturgy as celebrated in Latin, the hearer is immediately struck by the fact that the words spoken of God’s favor to the City of God at the dawning of the day are spoken also of His incomparable grace given to Mary at the dawn of her life. Our Lady’s role, seen by the Fathers, as archetype and image of God’s City — that is, of the Church — is eloquently suggested by this combination of liturgical usage of the same text.

The translation of this text in a manner that allows for the same happy resonance in the vernacular does not occur automatically when the text is translated without deliberate attention to this quality. It is true that the same kind of resonance may occur effortlessly in the Romance languages or in German, where the noun “city” has the feminine gender as in the Hebrew. However, the same will not be true of languages such as English, where the feminine gender is not normally used for a city or a fortress unless the translator is particularly attuned to the writings of the Fathers or the manner in which this text has been prayed traditionally. The Grail Psalter and the New American Bible both have “God will help it at the dawning of the day”.

In fact, since the English language sometimes does use personification in which feminine pronouns are used of antecedents that would otherwise call for the neuter gender, the translator of the English-language text of the Psalm is able to facilitate the evocation of the same imagery; it is simply necessary to be aware of the importance of doing so. There is no question at all here of altering the sense of the original text. Instead, it is a question of the translator’s awareness of those elements within the original text that have been highlighted in different ways within the Church’s tradition, and his respect for this dimension of the ecclesial reception of the text.

Of course, different vernacular languages will have differing means at their disposal for facilitating the same type of interplay between occurrences of the text that are revealed only by a familiarity with the Latin Liturgy. For example, in the same verse of the psalm as found in the Polish translation of the Bible prepared for the Jubilee Year 2000, the use of the feminine pronoun does not seem possible, and, taken by itself, the verse “Bóg mu pomoze o brzasku poranka” (that is, “God will help it at the dawning of the day”, as in the English version cited) would not seem to lend itself to any use in reference to Our Lady. Even so, this translation provides a remedy for the lack in a different way, as the masculine pronoun here refers back to the familiar noun “przybytek” (i.e., “abode” or “sanctuary”), which would be very familiar to Polish Catholics accustomed to the Litany of Loreto, where the same noun recurs in several of the titles of Our Lady.10

Even though different languages will thus have different means for facilitating such typological connections by their choice of wording, the value of doing so will need to be recognized by any translator, in any vernacular, of a biblical text intended for liturgical use.

The Lectionary translator’s attentiveness to the Latin biblical text is important for many other reasons as well. Since the Ordo lectionum Missae prescribes the biblical readings for the Lectionary by reference to the Nova Vulgata Editio of the Bible, a failure to refer to this edition in locating the text for Lectionary use may result in the omission of parts of the prescribed text, while these very parts may be quite relevant to the choice of a given passage for its liturgical context.

For example, if one were following the New American Bible in English, the Einheitzübersetzung in German, or the 1994 edition of the Conferenza Episcopale Italiana when parts of Sirach 24 are prescribed — to cite just a few modern versions as examples — one might inadvertently omit in the reading for the Second Sunday after Christmas the parts of verse 3 containing Wisdom’s self-description in as “the firstborn before all creatures”, saying “I made that there should arise light that never fades”, and also Wisdom’s words in verse 12, “in the company of the holy ones do I linger”.

Where these texts are prescribed, it is necessary to find the best possible ancient textual witness. In fact, there are even a few such verses, especially in the deutero-canonical books, for which the best witness to the prescribed Roman liturgical reading may be a text of the Vetus Latina Bible rather than one in Hebrew or Greek.11

In many of the Latin euchological texts [i.e., ritual prayers, such as the Eucharistic Prayer] of the Holy Mass, words and phrases are used whose biblical provenance would have been recognized readily in an era when the Vulgate text was more widely familiar than it is today. This quality will easily be lost if the translators — of the Lectionary as well as the Missal — fail to foster consciously in these passages as well the same kind of mutual resonance in the vernacular texts. In the Roman Canon, for example, the expressions sacrificium laudis [sacrifice of praise], reddunt vota [fulfilling their vows], and Calicem salutis [Chalice of salvation] either duplicate precisely or clearly evoke the language of the psalm numbered 116 in the Nova Vulgata.

While a faithful rendering of the original biblical text must be paramount, it would be negligent for a biblical translator or editor of a Lectionary text to fail to consider at least how the mutual interaction of the biblical and liturgical texts might best be facilitated.

The Integral Transmission of the Sacred Text

Regarding the question of whether contemporary Lectionaries could still be characterized as faithful witnesses to the integral biblical text, without alterations due to ideological or other reasons, the examination of several modern biblical versions for such use has brought to light a number of concerns in recent years.

Though undoubtedly motivated by irenic intentions, attempts to sanitize the sacred text by altering its references to “the Jews” in passages such as John 7:1 and 9:22 signal the abandonment of the traditional conservatism of Lectionary versions and an attempt instead to produce a new and supposedly improved biblical text. In some languages, an attempt to produce a “gender inclusive” text resulted in interventions such as those excluded by Liturgiam authenticam 31, namely “the transition from the singular into the plural, the splitting of unitary collective terms into masculine and feminine parts, or the introduction of impersonal or abstract words”.

Whenever the translators intervene in such ways to alter the biblical text, it is not always foreseeable what qualities of the text may unwittingly be affected thereby. Certainly it is necessary to recover in our own day the exemplary and healthy textual conservatism that characterized Lectionaries in earlier centuries.

Even while it is necessary to avoid such interventions upon the text for ideological reasons, the fact remains that the work of translation is by nature a work of interpretation. Nevertheless, the primary criteria for such interpretation must be provided by the Church’s tradition. Of all of the norms for biblical translation found in the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam, the aspect that has certainly encountered the most vigorous criticism from some quarters has been the role assigned to the Nova Vulgata Editio as an “auxiliary tool” in the translation of the texts from the original biblical languages.12

Apart from relying on this version for the delineation of the text to be rendered, the Instruction calls for the translator to be assisted by it in choosing from a variety of possible translations that may arise: for example, being guided by the manner in which the Latin biblical text has maintained anthropomorphic images such as brachium [arm] or vultus Dei [countenance of God], concrete expressions such as ambulare in reference to one’s conduct of life, or the preservation of distinct terms for the various dimensions of the human person such as anima [soul], spiritus [spirit], and caro [flesh].13

Often vividly concrete images such as these in the Latin text have served also to shape the euchology of the Roman Liturgy, so that their attenuation within the biblical translation would weaken the unity between these euchological texts, on the one hand, and the liturgical readings, on the other.

According to the opinion expressed by some, the renewed assertion of a certain normative status for the Latin biblical text seems to be at odds with the encouragement given by Pope Pius XII in his Encyclical Letter Divino afflante Spiritu for the use of the original-language biblical texts for study and as a basis for translation.14 It is also argued that this norm denigrates the science of textual criticism that now has more resources at its disposal than ever before for the sake of ascertaining the reading that is most likely to be original.15 Sometimes forgotten in the articulation of these concerns, however, is the fact that it is precisely the criterion of a Latin biblical text in conjunction with the original-language text that leaves the textual critic a freedom that he or she would not have had if the Holy See had instead conferred normative status on a specific edition in the original biblical languages. Admittedly, there is a limitation placed on the textual critic by this norm in the case of a Lectionary translation; often, however, this does not pertain so much to individual variants as it does to the choice between distinct textual traditions that diverge on a broader scale: for example, in books such as those of Samuel, Esther and the deutero-canonical books, especially Sirach.16

The existence of such divergences of textual tradition and the discovery of manuscripts testifying to a certain period of fluidity of the text prior to the stabilization of the canonical text are factors that complicate the task of the textual critic. At the same time, they give rise to a new question that is receiving increased attention today under the umbrella of “canonical studies”. As one writer has expressed the question: “Is the text in its original and earliest form the focus of authority and exegesis for the Church, or rather the later canonical or ‘received’ form of the biblical text?”17 The critiques of the Instruction already mentioned seem to presuppose an option for a text identified purely and simply as the closest attainable to a presumptive “original text”. Yet it is precisely the elusiveness of this ideal that is increasingly coming into view today in the fields of textual criticism and canonical studies.

Indeed, an absolute preference for a supposed “original” text might have resulted in such patently unacceptable measures as the omission of the pericope [passage] of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11, and perhaps even the whole of chapter 21 of that Gospel. It is not any ascertainment of any supposedly “original” text that argues for the inclusion of these passages, but rather the Church’s retention of them within the biblical canon in the locations where they occur. In this landscape of biblical research, the norm expressed by Liturgiam authenticam 37, namely that the Nova Vulgata Editio is “the point of reference as regards the delineation of the canonical text”, can be seen to provide an answer that the science of textual criticism cannot supply for itself, and one that it needs in order to know what text should be the object of its study with a view to a biblical version for use in the Sacred Liturgy.18

Apart from serving as the criterion for the delineation of the text, the official Latin version of the Sacred Scriptures may also provide the translators with clues that the Church has traditionally read a given text in a manner that diverges from the Hebrew Masoretic text — perhaps even if only by virtue of a different vocalization of the same consonantal text. An important example of this occurs in Psalm 109 (110):3, where the Latin verbal expression genui te (i.e., “I begot you”) suggests a different reading from the Masoretic text, which would have suggested instead the noun and pronominal suffix interpreted to mean “of your birth”. Here, as in similar cases, there is no question of setting aside the original text in favor of the Latin. Instead, it is a question of being guided by the official Latin text in determining precisely what the Church regards the original text to be, and translating accordingly. In fact, here, as in many other instances, a traditional Christological or otherwise typological reading may sometimes be at stake.

The norms of the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam, then, do not constrain the translators of a Lectionary version in any way that would diminish the importance of the original biblical text. Rather, they facilitate setting before the Christian faithful a Lectionary that transmits the same Divine Word whose content can never be ascertained purely by any amount of academic study, being grasped in its fullness only within that one context that has always been its true home: namely in the living proclamation of the Divine Word during the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy.


1 Ernest Colwell, “Method in the Study of Gospel Lectionaries”, in Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the New Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1969 (New Testament Tools and Studies 9), pp. 84-95; Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, Oxford University Press, New York, 3rd edition 1992, p. 31; and Vincent Taylor, The Text of the New Testament: A Short Introduction, Saint Martin’s Press, New York, 1961, pp. 25-26. Cf. also, Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1964, p. 66.

2 Pope St. Innocent I, Epistola Exsuperio episcopo Tolosano, cap. VII, PL 20: 501A. Found also in Alfio Filippi & Erminio Lora (eds.), Enchiridion Biblicum: Documenti della Chiesa sulfa Sacra Scrittura, Edizioni Dehoniane, Bologna, 1993, nn. 20-2l.

3 Concilium Viennense, Decretum de studiis linguarum, found in A. Filippi & E. Lora (eds.), Enchiridion Biblicum, nn. 41-43.

4 Concilium Tridentinum, Session IV, 8 April 1546, Decretum de vulgata editione Bibliorum et de modo interpretandis. Scripturam: Heinrich Denzinger & Adolf Schonmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, Herder, Friburgi Brisgoviae, editio 36, 1976, n. 802. nn. 1506-1508. Also found in A. Filippi & E. Lora (eds.), Enchiridion Biblicum, nn. 61-64.

5 Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Providentissimus Deus, 18 November 1893: Acta Sanctae Sedis 26 (1893-1894), 269-292; Pope Benedict XV, Encyclical Letter Spiritus Paraclitus, 15 September 1920: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 12 (1920) 385-422; Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Divino afflante Spiritu, 30 September 1943: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 35 (1943) 327-35l.

6 Mariano Cardinal Rampolla, Secretary of State, Lettera con la quale viene affidato all’Ordine Benedettino l’incarico di raccogliere le varianti della Volgata, 30 April 1907: Acta Sanctae Sedis 40 (1907) 446-448. Found also in A. Filippi & E. Lora (eds.), Enchiridion Biblicum, nn. 185-186.

7 Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Scripturarum thesaurus, 25 April 1979: Acta Sanctae Sedis 71 (1979) 557-559.

8 Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Vicesimus quintus annus “on the 25th anniversary of the Conciliar Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Sacred Liturgy”, 4 December 1988: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 81 (1989) 897-918.

9 This issue of the unity and stability of the version employed for use in the Sacred Liturgy is addressed by Liturgiam authenticam 36.

10 Pismo Swiete Starego i Nowego Testamentu, Widawnictwo Palottinum, Poznan, 2000, p. 704. This text seems to provide a useful example of the principle being discussed even though it is not the one that is employed in the current edition of the Polish Missal.

11 Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Liturgiam authenticam 37. A useful guide for the translator regarding the choice of original texts employed in the compilation of the Nova Vulgata Editio is to be found in the Praenotanda of that edition.

12 Liturgiam authenticam 24. Cf. also 37.

13 Liturgiam authenticam 41a, 43.

14 Pope PIUS XII, Encyclical Letter Divino afflante Spiritu, 30 September 1943, 15, 20-22.

15 An example of both critiques is found, for example, in Joseph Jensen, “Liturgiam authenticam and the New Vulgate”, in America 185 n. 4 (13-20 August, 2001), pp. 12-13.

16 Several specific guidelines regarding the issue of individual textual variants are to be found in Liturgiam authenticam 38, while the issue of more broadly divergent textual traditions is treated in n. 37.

17 Lee Martin McDonald & James A. Sanders, “Introduction” in the work edited by them, Lee Martin McDonald & James A. Sanders (eds.), The Canon Debate, Hendrickson, Peabody, Massachusetts, 2002, p. 6.

18 Evidently because of its status as a body of norms, the text of Liturgiam authenticam cannot have been expected to bring to light some of the more complex dimensions of canonicity, such as, for example, the fact mentioned in the Praenotanda of the Nova Vulgata Editio, editio typica altera, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, [Citta del Vaticano] 1986, p. xvii, that the Book of Esther “legitur secundum duas formas canonicas”. What is clear from the norm of Liturgiam authenticam 36, however, is that the form of the text that is to be the object of translation for the Lectionary is the one that finds expression in the text of the Nova Vulgata Editio.



Monsignor Michael K. Magee