As we move beyond COVID-19-induced cancellations of public Mass and their replacement by more regular domestic prayers, it is worth a look back to see what good has come of it all. While the participation in the Eucharistic Prayer and the reception of the Blessed Sacrament were not options for most families, the reading and praying with the Sunday scriptures became a regular means to engage, albeit imperfectly, with the Word heard behind closed parish doors.
Indeed, “Sacred scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 24). Given the intimate relationship between the scriptures and the signs, actions, and words of the liturgy, it seems fitting to paraphrase St. Jerome and claim that ignorance of scripture is ignorance of the liturgy.[i] Hence, for the future restoration and progress of the sacred liturgy, it remains essential to promote a “warm and living love,” as Sacrosanctum Concilium notes, for sacred scripture. And it is the family, the domestic Church, that plays an indispensable role in stimulating knowledge of and love for the word of God. Thus, a solicitous regard for the role of sacred scripture in the family is essential to the ongoing restoration of the sacred liturgy.
Recatholicising the Liturgy
Among the general norms guiding the reform of the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium named the importance of sacred scripture: “To achieve the restoration, progress, and adaptation of the sacred liturgy, it is essential to promote that warm and living love for scripture…” (24). Since the liturgical books were revised in the wake of the Council with this principle in mind (cf. SC, 25), and often with greater attention given to the use of scripture in the rites (SC, 35.1, 51, 92), it might reasonably be asked what further restoration and progress of the liturgy remains.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion argues that there have been in fact five distinct postconciliar approaches to ongoing liturgical reform.[ii] I offer here a consideration of Msgr. Mannion’s own proposal, which he calls “recatholicising the reform.” This agenda “is primarily committed to a vital re-creation of the ethos that has traditionally imbued Catholic liturgy at its best—an ethos of beauty, majesty, spiritual profundity and solemnity.”[iii] It seeks to appropriate more fully the revised liturgical books within a liturgical reform that is primarily spiritual: “It seeks a recovery of the sacred and the numinous in liturgical expression which will act as a corrective to the sterility and rationalism of much modern liturgical experience.”[iv] Msgr. Mannion identifies three areas of renewal within this liturgical agenda: the eschatological, cosmological, and doxological characters of Catholic worship.[v] I believe that it is within this threefold framework of still-needed liturgical renewal that promoting a love for sacred scripture remains an essential task.
First, an eschatological liturgical sense had been roused prior to the Council in the 20th-century liturgical movement: “[T]here developed a growing awareness that the Christ who is present in the eucharist is also the Christ who stands above and beyond the liturgy, drawing the church forward into the amplitude of eternity. In this vision, the worship of the church is not self-enclosed, complete in itself, as it were, but always has a dimension of reaching forward—of being pulled ahead of itself into the Kingdom to come.”[vi] Liturgical eschatology in the period after the Second Vatican Council, however, suffered a collapse into a secularized concern for the present world, resulting in secular culture setting the agenda for the liturgy, rather than vice versa: “The task of the Church is not to remake the human city according to the more progressive insights of the age, but to remake it in the light of the new and eternal Jerusalem, the glorious city of God.”[vii]
The second area for liturgical renewal is the cosmic sense of the liturgy: “Cosmology involves the whole created arena of salvation, not only the earthly and the heavenly, but all the unknown regions of God’s creativity. The cosmic includes the world of angels, principalities and powers, the corporeal, the material, the spiritual, and the energetic. It incorporates the mysterious regions of the heavens and of distant space.”[viii] Just as the eschatological was swallowed by the secular, the cosmological was likewise replaced in the liturgy by concern for the anthropological: “As transcendence became domesticated, the sacramental life lost its moorings in creation and become interiorized. The sacramental life was no longer viewed as a sanctification of creation, but as nourishment of the individual soul.”[ix]
Finally, the doxological focus of the liturgy gave way to more pragmatic concerns. A liturgy suffering from a poverty of doxology mutes the celebration of the divine glory, resulting in a liturgy that “has lost its former ethos of glory. The Roman liturgy since Vatican II, it is often said, lacks beauty, awe, majesty and splendor. Liturgy has become trivial, commonplace, without exuberance, pale, lifeless and uninspiring. An absence of depth and significance appears to characterize liturgical celebration at the practical level. A sense of cultural weightlessness has set in, so the rites have taken on a superficial and inconsequential quality.”[x]
Thus, the ongoing restoration and progress of the liturgy includes a renewal of its eschatological, cosmological, and doxological characteristics. For this continuing task, “the warm and living love” for scripture spoken of by Sacrosanctum Concilium remains essential. In short, worshipers must be capacitated for liturgy,[xi] which includes adopting what might be called a biblical worldview, imagination, or consciousness.
A biblically-inspired worldview offers a corrective to the secularism, anthropocentrism, and pragmatism which have crept into the liturgy. The liturgy itself is imbued with a biblical vision, which it also presumes of the worshiper if the texts prayed and the symbols employed are not to require much explanation (cf. SC, 34). Indeed, Sacrosanctum Concilium describes why sacred scripture is of the greatest importance to the celebration of the liturgy: “For it is from scripture that lessons are read and explained in the homily, and psalms are sung; the prayers, collects, and liturgical songs are scriptural in their inspiration and their force, and it is from the scriptures that actions and signs derive their meaning” (24).[xii] Hence, intelligent worship—an understanding of the rites and prayers that facilitates a fully active and conscious participation (cf. SC 21, 48, 59), and yet avoids an unnecessary liturgical didacticism—requires that worshipers possess a biblical consciousness and are at home with biblical images and idioms. Such a worshiper knows the biblical narrative and senses himself as inserted into the drama of salvation.
Take, for example, the eschatological dimension of the liturgy. The worshiper is asked to see beyond her merely quotidian existence and to enter into the heavenly liturgy as a foretaste of a future and eternal reality in which Christ is all in all. Such a vision, seen with the eyes of faith, must be supplied to her, and the most fitting source is certainly the Apocalypse of John. As Msgr. Mannion says: “At the beginning of a new millennium, the Christian imagination should be grasped anew by the Book of Revelation. This interest can serve to bring back into Christian focus the heavenly liturgy as the model for the earthly.”[xiii]
The book of Revelation is equally rich as a model of the cosmic nature of the liturgy, in which all of creation is involved. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the celebrants of the heavenly liturgy, borrowing imagery from the book of Revelation: “‘Recapitulated in Christ,’ these are the ones who take part in the service of the praise of God and the fulfillment of his plan: the heavenly powers, all creation (the four living beings), the servants of the Old and New Covenants (the twenty-four elders), the new People of God (the one hundred and forty-four thousand), especially the martyrs ‘slain for the word of God,’ and the all-holy Mother of God (the Woman), the Bride of the Lamb, and finally ‘a great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and tongues’” (CCC 1138).
The twelfth chapter of Hebrews also resonates with these cosmological themes, asking the reader to see beyond the mundane and terrestrial to something much broader: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24).[xiv]
If worshipers were to appropriate as their own this scriptural vision of reality, in which the liturgy participates as a foretaste in heavenly eschatological glory and moves beyond the individual or even the congregation to encompass the worship of all creation, this would spontaneously issue forth in doxology. The noble and weighty praise found, for instance, in the Psalms or woven into the writings of Paul would form the imagination of the worshipers and become connatural to them, and thus expected and welcomed in liturgy. Thus, it is clear that, in the words of Louis Bouyer, “the basis for any initiation into the liturgy is an initiation into the Bible.”[xv] If the ongoing restoration and progress of the liturgy involves adopting a biblically-inspired worldview or imagination, few environments are better suited to this goal than the family.
The Family and the Word of God
The family as the domestic Church plays a unique and indispensable role in promoting that “warm and living love” for scripture called for by Sacrosanctum Concilium. The family is where our imagination is initially shaped, and our worldview first formed. This leaves open the truly radical possibilities of parents handing on either a biblically-inspired worldview, or one completely void of reference to the sacred scriptures. The stories we tell in the family, both implicitly and explicitly, create a shared narrative which in turn shapes personal identity. Beyond merely knowing biblical stories and characters, then, individuals learn in the family to perceive themselves as personally involved in the biblical story of salvation from creation to eschatological fulfillment.
The papal magisterium of the last several decades has frequently highlighted the family’s role in promoting a “warm and living love” for scripture. In Familiaris Consortio, for example, Pope St. John Paul II described parents as “the first heralds of the Gospel for their children” who “become fully parents,” in part, “by reading the word of God with them,” thus giving not only bodily life, but also “the life that through the Spirit’s renewal flows from the Cross and Resurrection of Christ” (39). The family shares also in the life and mission of the Church and “fulfills its prophetic role by welcoming and announcing the word of God” (FC, 51). There is a sense, then, that parents and families only find their true identities and vocations through their appropriation of the biblical word. John Paul II also makes a connection between the family’s devotion to scripture and capacitating worshipers for the liturgy: “As preparation for the worship celebrated in church, and as its prolongation in the home, the Christian family makes use of private prayer” that includes “reading and meditating on the word of God” (FC, 61). Hence, the family’s regular contact with scripture fosters a vision of the liturgy, not as an isolated weekly event, but as part of the fabric of life.
Again, in Dies Domini, Pope John Paul II renewed the call of Sacrosanctum Concilium to foster a warm and living love for scripture. “In considering the Sunday Eucharist more than thirty years after the Council, we need to assess how well the word of God is being proclaimed and how effectively the People of God have grown in knowledge and love of Sacred Scripture” (DD, 40). The Holy Father highlights the indispensable role of the family in the personal appropriation of the scriptures: “If Christian individuals and families are not regularly drawing new life from the reading of the sacred text in a spirit of prayer and docility to the Church’s interpretation, then it is difficult for the liturgical proclamation of the word of God alone to produce the fruit we might expect” (DD, 40).
Pope Benedict XVI, reflecting on the word of God in the family in his exhortation Verbum Domini, wrote: “Part of authentic parenthood is to pass on and bear witness to the meaning of life in Christ: through their fidelity and the unity of family life, spouses are the first to proclaim God’s word to their children. The ecclesial community must support and assist them in fostering family prayer, attentive hearing of the word of God, and knowledge of the Bible. To this end the  Synod [on The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church] urged that every household have its Bible, to be kept in a worthy place and used for reading and prayer” (VD, 85). For Pope Benedict, the family’s engagement with the Bible is an element of handing on the meaning of life in Christ. To pass on and bear witness to the meaning of life in Christ is to initiate the family into a worldview—the biblical vision or imagination of which we spoke above.
Most recently, Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, has said that “pastors have to encourage families to grow in faith.” He then turns to the scriptures as a source of help for families: “[T]he word of God is the source of life and spirituality for the family. All pastoral work on behalf of the family must allow people to be interiorly fashioned and formed as members of the domestic church through the Church’s prayerful reading of sacred Scripture. The word of God is not only good news in a person’s private life but also a criterion of judgement and a light in discerning the various challenges that married couples and families encounter” (AL, 227). Again, members of the family don’t simply learn biblical stories. They are “interiorly fashioned and formed” through the reading of the scriptures. The scriptures become for them “a criterion of judgement and a light.” They take on a biblical consciousness and view the world differently—they see reality, we might say, as participating now in eschatological hope, sharing in a cosmic drama, and ordered toward doxological praise of God.
Thus, if the ongoing restoration and progress of the liturgy relies on promoting “a warm and living love” for scripture, and if the family plays a unique and indispensable role in fostering such a love for the word of God, it then follows that those concerned for the liturgical life of the Church should have a solicitous regard for the role of scripture in the domestic Church. We can turn briefly to the liturgy itself for some indications of how to foster this love for scripture in the family.
Principles of Incorporation
The liturgy provides principles that may be adapted as means for incorporating the word of God into the family. Here I will mention only four, drawn from the General Introduction to the Lectionary.
1. The Working of the Holy Spirit
First, the family would do well to develop a devotion to the Holy Spirit in relation to the reading of scripture. The Lectionary states: “The working of the Holy Spirit is needed if the word of God is to make what we hear outwardly have its effect inwardly. Because of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and support, the word of God becomes the foundation of the liturgical celebration and the rule and support of all our life.”[xvi] Hence, families could be encouraged to begin the reading of scripture with a prayer to the Holy Spirit, perhaps along with an image of the Holy Spirit in the space where the scriptures are read.
2. Signs of Reverence
The Lectionary speaks of various outward signs of reverence given to the Gospel during the liturgy: “Of all the rites connected with the liturgy of the word, the reverence due to the Gospel reading must receive special attention.” The Book of the Gospels is carried to the ambo, preceded by servers with candles and incense while the faithful stand. Such signs of reverence are ways “of bringing out the importance of the Gospel reading and of stirring up the faith of those who hear it.”[xvii] The place for the reading of the biblical word is also to be “of a suitable design and nobility. It should reflect the dignity of God’s word….”[xviii] Since liturgical books themselves “serve as signs and symbols of the higher realities, care must be taken to ensure that they truly are worthy, dignified and beautiful.[xix]
Hence also in the domestic Church, a special place can be set aside for keeping and reading sacred scripture. Such a sacred space could include a family altar, on which is enthroned a Bible, along with appropriate decorations or other sacred images. Also, while other Bibles in the home may serve personal use and study, such a family Bible would fittingly be larger, of finer quality, and more beautifully ornamented than a common paperback. Families could create their own traditions surrounding the special times and customs of using the family Bible for the reading of scripture.
3. The Selection of Readings
How might the scriptures read in the family be chosen? The Lectionary presents several criteria by which the liturgical order of readings was determined, including “the principles of ‘harmony’ and of ‘semicontinuous reading.’”[xx] Harmony arises between the Old and New Testaments “when the doctrine and events recounted in texts of the New Testament bear a more or less explicit relationship to the doctrine and events of the Old Testament.” Harmony also exists “between texts of the readings for each Mass during Advent, Lent, and Easter, the seasons that have a distinctive importance or character.”[xxi] Hence, it would certainly be fitting for families to pray and study texts according to both a typological approach—where persons and events of the Old Covenant find their fulfillment in Christ and his sacraments—as well as one suited to the liturgical seasons.
At other times, such as Sundays in Ordinary Time, “the text of both the apostolic and Gospel readings are arranged in order of semicontinuous reading….”[xxii] Such an arrangement followed by the family would stress the narrative context of the individual scriptural pericopes. Of course, such a selection of texts according to the principles of harmony and semicontinuous reading would be easily achieved by the use of the Lectionary’s own order of readings as the family’s pattern.
Finally, the words from the Lectionary regarding silence could be adopted directly into the family’s devotion to scripture: “The liturgy of the word must be celebrated in a way that fosters meditation; clearly, any sort of haste that hinders recollection must be avoided. The dialogue between God and his people taking place through the Holy Spirit demands short intervals of silence, suited to the assembled congregation, as an opportunity to take the word of God to heart and to prepare a response to it in prayer.[xxiii] Being silent and praying in silence are skills to be acquired. Pope John Paul II recognized that formation in silence must be taught: “Why not start with pedagogical daring a specific education in silence within the coordinates of personal Christian experience? Let us keep before our eyes the example of Jesus, who ‘rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed’” (Mark 1: 35) (Spiritus et Sponsa, 13). What better place than the family to learn the fruits of silence?
Families are increasingly becoming “islands of Christian life in an unbelieving world” (CCC, 1655). It seems unlikely that renewal and progress in the Church’s liturgical life will come about without the intimate participation of the domestic Church. The family, therefore, as it shares in the life and mission of the Church, must form its own identity in light of the revealed scriptures. Pastors of souls and those involved in the liturgical apostolate would do well, also, to consider these words of Sacrosanctum Concilium and adapt them to the variety of pastoral work on behalf of families in their care: “The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word” (SC, 51).
[i] Or as Louis Bouyer contends, “…the Council is certainly correct in emphasizing, far more, the absolute necessity of an initiation to the Bible. Not only because the Bible provides us with the readings given in the liturgy, but because it has directly inspired the whole of it, the liturgy will never again become the familiar prayer of the Christians if the Bible remains for them as a sealed book, which it still is, unfortunately, not only for the majority of them, but for too may priests.” The Liturgy Revived: A Doctrinal Commentary of the Constitution on the Liturgy (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964), 97.
[ii] M. Francis Mannion, “The Catholicity of the Liturgy: Shaping a New Agenda,” in Beyond the Prosaic: Renewing the Liturgical Movement, ed. Stratford Caldecott (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 11-48.
[iii] Ibid., 27.
[iv] Ibid., 28.
[v] Msgr. Mannion returns to these themes in “Rejoice, Heavenly Powers! The Renewal of Liturgical Doxology,” Pro Ecclesia 12, no. 1 (February 2003): 37-60.
[vi] Mannion, “Rejoice, Heavenly Powers!”, 40.
[vii] Ibid., 42.
[viii] Ibid., 43.
[ix] Ibid., 46.
[x] Ibid., 49.
[xi] In Mannion’s words, “a deepening of the liturgical competence of congregations.” “The Catholicity of the Liturgy,” 30.
[xii] Cf. CCC, 1145.
[xiii] Mannion, “Rejoice, Heavenly Powers!”, 54.
[xiv] Consider also the cosmological portrayal of Christ contained in the hymn of Colossians 1:15-17.
[xv] Bouyer, The Liturgy Revived, 98.
[xvi] Lectionary, General Introduction, 9.
[xvii] Ibid., 17.
[xviii] Ibid., 32.
[xix] Ibid., 35.
[xx] Ibid., 66.3.
[xxi] Ibid., 67.
[xxiii] Ibid., 28.