“Bad habits are like a comfortable bed, easy to get into, but hard to get out of.” Isn’t that true? Bad habits abound in all of our lives and are not just the downfall of gambling-chain-smoking-foul-mouthed nuns! As Catholics we have always been susceptible to having bad habits encroach upon the way we celebrate Eucharist. And now with the restrictions and protocols thrusted upon us during this pandemic time, it is even easier for us to slip into bad liturgical practices. For the sake of everybody’s safety, we have had to refrain from singing, refrain from handshaking, refrain from personally saying “Amen” while receiving communion, refrain from sitting close to the other members of the Body of Christ, etc. None of these makes for good liturgy, and all of them can become habit forming in a detrimental way.
One of the “bad” habits that has haunted us, long before COVID-19 hit, concerns the attentiveness or lack of attentiveness we give to the proclamation of God’s Word, the readings. Every week I still see some people in the pews who have their noses in their personal missals (St. Joseph Missal or Living with Christ) following along, word for word, while the lector is proclaiming the reading. What the Church teaches is that this is a “proclamation” of God’s word; it was never meant to be multiple, simultaneous readings of God’s word. I suspect personal missals were in vogue during the time when Eucharist was celebrated in Latin. Not understanding Latin, people needed a participation aid, a booklet that had the Latin words in the left-hand column and the translation in English (or French) next to it in the right-hand column. This served a purpose given the circumstances. This is no longer the case, though, and has not been the case since March 7, 1965. That was the date when the first Mass was celebrated in the vernacular (the language of the people rather than Latin).
There are two main reasons why we do not encourage people to follow along the Mass privately. Firstly, we are at public prayer; this is not a time for me and my private devotions (some people are even praying the rosary during mass!) nor for private reading. Nothing during liturgy, the public prayer of the Church, should draw us into our own personal space. Public prayer should draw us outward toward God, toward our brothers and sisters assembled in faith, and toward the world. The second reason we do not encourage people to follow along doing private readings during mass is because the Scripture readings are meant to be proclaimed not simply read. The Church teaches that when the Word of God is proclaimed, it is God speaking to us. Our attention, therefore, should be focused on the one proclaiming for he or she is not speaking their own words but God’s. Before newspapers, television, radio, personal computers, and cell phones, the way people received the news of the day was through a proclamation. People had to focus their attention on the proclaimer, the town crier, if they wanted to get the news. If we want to receive the Living Word of God, a Word that has the power to change our lives, we too need to focus our attention on the proclaimer, the lector. If our lectors are poor proclaimers, then we need to train them to become better. As for the rest of us, the hearers of God’s word, we can prepare our hearts and minds ahead of time by reading over the Scripture readings listed in the parish bulletin.
Fr. Phil Mulligan