The Mass Lectionary: A Flawed Gem

Occasionally one gets to review books, and thankfully they are normally very interesting books. Usually it is in our Magazine, but it is no bad thing to review books here as well.

One book that has been sent my way is Index Lectionum: A Comparative Table of Readings for the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite. Written by Matthew Hazell and published under the imprint of the Lectionary Study Press this year, it is envisaged as the first volume in a series, Lectionary Study Aids. Matthew will be known to those interested in the liturgical reforms in the wake of Vatican II, through his website Lectionary Study Aids, and his contributions to the New Liturgical Movement, a collaborative website of high quality that has become the online meeting room of those with a serious liturgical interest.


Continue reading “The Mass Lectionary: A Flawed Gem”

The New Lectionary is Dead – † RIP

The silence over the last year on the new lectionary’s progress has been unsettling. We had it from the Chairman of ICPELL himself that the new lectionary would make use of the ESV Bible, a revision of the RSV originally authorized for vernacular worship back in the mid-60s, and that things were advancing to the point that we might even this year see a first volume published. Then he, and everyone else, went quiet.

Br Tony Jukes SSS has discovered the reason for the silence. He has come across a statement from the Education Officer for Liturgy of the Archdiocese of Brisbane (Australia), Mrs Elizabeth Harrington, that explains all. It can be trusted as the Archbishop of Brisbane is (oops! was)  the Chairman of ICPELL. She gives a valuable and balanced summary of the dynamics of the process over the last decade, and comes to this climax:

After 10 years of unsuccessful efforts by ICPELL, it became apparent that the whole lectionary project was in serious jeopardy. It had proved impossible to find a lectionary that suits the Holy See, the copyright holders of the scripture translations, and bishops’ conferences. Another issue was that the Revised Grail psalms, which were planned to be part of the revised lectionary, have also lost support in some quarters.

At the end of 2013 the decision was made to dismantle ICPELL and leave each conference of bishops to make its own decision regarding a lectionary for Mass. Consequently, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference agreed to discontinue its involvement in the international lectionary project and to reprint the existing lectionary. It would contain a slightly modified version of the Jerusalem Bible currently in use and the Grail translation of the responsorial Psalms.

The general opinion is that some poor translations in the Jerusalem Bible are easily remedied and that other required changes to the text can be made fairly quickly.

So the cat is out of the bag. ICPELL is dead. Each bishops’ conference will make its own provision. For a start, we know now what the Australian bishops propose to do. The often unsuitable Jerusalem Bible will be retained, though with some attempt to remedy its “poor translations”. The New Grail Psalms are to be abandoned and the old Grail retained. Finally, they hope to have the new lectionary ready for the end of 2014 (the First Sunday of Advent I presume).


Most probably the bishops of England and Wales will not depart much from the Australian plan.

This will be something of a blow to some in the Reform of the Reform movement. For liberals and traditionalists, to use those sweeping labels for brevity’s sake, this development is probably welcome. The former tend to like the current lectionary as it is; the latter have their eyes firmly on the Vetus Ordo and its vastly different lectionary.

One factor in the demise of ICPELL might be the desire of Pope Francis to devolve as much as he can to local bishops’ conferences. ICPELL was not a curial body as such but it did represent centralization of sorts, and that is no longer encouraged.

It would have been nice to have heard it from someone more responsible in this matter than a diocesan education officer (though we must be grateful to her).

We could always Revive ’65.

**NB: the new lectionary was never envisaged for North America. Both the USA and Canada already have their own lectionaries in place. The new arrangement has at least the virtue of being consistent with what has happened in North America.**

Fears confirmed: no ESV lectionary

Face to face contact is usually superior to the written variety. This was proved yet again upon reading that from the archbishop’s mouth my worst fears about the proposed new ESV lectionary were confirmed.

It’s off. There will be no ESV lectionary. It is not yet known what there will be in its place.

In the previous post and others earlier, were listed some reasons why the ESV (English Standard Version) was so promising as a translation for the lectionary. So much work had been put into it that introducing the Sundays volume next year had been mooted. On this point I can sympathize with those who were so disappointed by the shelving of the 1998 draft of the new missal – it had been drafted in its entirety after much work. While the 1998 translation was undoubtedly a vast improvement on the previous translation of the missal, it failed to satisfy the reformed priorities for liturgical translation, not least that of replacing the paraphrasing of dynamic equivalence with the more explicitly faithful principle of formal equivalence. For that reason I could see the point of shelving the 1998 text, and could agree with it, disappointing as it must have been for those who had worked on it.

In the case of this proposed lectionary I can discern no similarly compelling principle. The ESV combines formal equivalence with clear English that never sinks to banality. It reflects the best scholarship, and allows a sound ecumenical involvement while avoiding imposing dubious nuances on the text. In fact the only principle I can discern is a retrogressive one. More likely, it is the victim of the incessant power games in curial corridors. Some might accuse me of mere pique at now being on the losing side (though until the last papacy I was always on the losing side), and I cannot rule out an element of that. Yet my main grievance is that this development marks a significant loss for the anglophone Church. Perhaps something better will take its place – let’s pray so.

This development, not surprisingly, makes it more and more unlikely the publication of the other document/s (I am not now certain if one or two documents had been intended), directed at priests, in particular their celebration and concelebration of Mass. The instructions they were intended to contain are much needed. In many places there is a generation (or two) of priests formed to see their celebration of Mass determined by a need to please people rather than to please God. The rigid rubrics of the old Mass had passed; but the new, gentler rubrics of the new Mass suffered the fate of most other teaching, becoming subject to popular approval. In an age of “liberation” from authority in general the new rubrics were quickly discarded except on the occasion when they happened to suit the new mood. The same happened with concelebration, originally conceived of as being an infrequent practice, except maybe in some religious and monastic communities. Now in most communities it has become the norm, and in a minimalist form.

The prospect the new instructions offered was that of ensuring that such deficiencies in formation could be overcome and that all priests would thus have been enabled to sing the from the same missal, as it were. It would probably have contained a restatement of liturgical theology that would have allowed the principles informing the new English missal to be more comprehensible and coherent to those priests formed under a different mindset. So, in the wake of these instructions, we might have been spared the sight of celebrants making a gesture of offering to the people with the host and chalice as they said the words of consecration, as if they were speaking to the people rather than to the Father (admittedly, facing the people has been the biggest cause of this absurdity). Likewise we might have seen the demise of the equally absurd practice of concelebrants speaking the people’s part before the Prayer over the Gifts, “May the Lord accept the Sacrifice at your hands”, which rather negates their own role as concelebrants offering the Sacrifice together with the celebrant (though some would argue that the whole idea of many priests standing in place of the one Christ at any one Mass was equally problematic).

An authoritative document (or documents) which clarified such areas of confusion would have rescued many priests from liturgical absurdity and enabled them to embrace more fruitfully the revised English missal, so the better to lead their congregations to share more effectively and peacefully in the liturgy.

However, the ESV lectionary having now bitten the dust, even after so much work, there is little hope that these liturgical instructions will now emerge. A pity – we all would have been winners.

Trouble at (Vatican) mill?

**After reading this, do go to the UPDATE here, where there is a little more news**

One cannot help but wonder if the gales of change sweeping through Vatican corridors are causing some unforeseen damage in their progress (unforeseen by me at least). Some things seem to have been blown out of curial in-trays.

Over a year ago I asked Archbishop Coleridge about the progress of the touted new English lectionary, and he was gracious enough to answer in some detail. A few months back I wrote to him again in his new diocese to ask about any progress. So far there has been no answer. To be fair, I have not emailed him again since I am loath to be pestering him. But it coincides with a deafening silence around the traps about the lectionary and its progress. Which raises the question: is there still any progress?

This is not an unreasonable question if you keep in mind some other possible casualties of the gales of change.

A Vatican document, planned for a July release, concerning concelebration at Mass has not eventuated. And word is that it is unlikely to appear at all. It would have given some authoritative interpretation for a practice introduced after the Council and for which the Church was ill-prepared, and some guidelines to ensure its effective and consistent use in the Church’s liturgy. I must admit, though I do concelebrate, there are times when I would be grateful for stronger rubrical guidance for concelebration. Too often in various places it seems an occasion for a priest to don an alb and stole, and then doze quietly for the rest of the Mass, though hopefully waking in time for the Eucharistic Prayer. Does this form of concelebration really equate to celebrating with the principal celebrant, or is it little more than a muted reinforcement of clerical identity? Some magisterial guidance would have been very welcome.

Another document being prepared for release this summer was a manual for priests on how to say Mass being prepared also by the Congregation for Divine Worship. It seems to have been intended as a separate document to the concelebration one. Yet regarding this one too there is silence as summer slips away (nothing much happens in the Vatican in the furnace-like conditions of Rome in August). Has it bitten the dust? One Roman contact had no idea, having heard nothing about it for some time.

Perhaps the reform of the reform is over. Or maybe the Vatican has learned to plug leaks during the preparation of documents. Let’s pray it’s the latter.


UPDATE: New Lectionary & ESV: Some official clarification

Given the time we have devoted recently to the proposed new Lectionary based on the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible, including a brief comparison of an ESV sample text with other translations, and given the lively and interesting comments it has elicited, I made so bold as to email directly to the Most Reverend Mark Coleridge, the Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn and Chairman of the International Commission for the Preparation of an English Language Lectionary (ICPELL), seeking some authoritative clarification on some of the questions raised in our discussions.

With admirable speed for a busy diocesan bishop, he very kindly sent a concise but richly informative reply which answers the questions I asked him, and also one I failed to ask him! Apart from chopping the head and the tail of the email which were brief and directed to me, I shall quote him in full:

…  In answer to your questions, the facts are these.  The ESV was chosen over the RSV because the ESV, in its 7% modification of the RSV, seeks to incorporate the fruit of more recent biblical scholarship, i.e. since the publication of the RSV.  In other words, the RSV is out-of-date.  We were looking for a more up-to-date version of the RSV; and when the NRSV proved impossible, we chose the ESV.  Unlike the copyright holders of the NRSV, the copyright holders of the ESV have shown themselves quite open to the kind of changes we would need or want to make for Catholic lectionary purposes; and the copyright arrangements for the project are now in place.  What will appear in the lectionary will be a modified form of the ESV.  This may in time look to the production of a Catholic edition of the ESV, though that is not decided.  I know too little of the permission given to the English ordinariate, but I doubt that it will have an effect on the lectionary we are producing.  That would depend on the Holy See.  It is very hard to say when the ESV lectionary will be ready for publication.  We have all but finished work on the first volume (Sundays and Solemnities), and it may be that the first volume will appear before the others.  But it depends on how quickly the bishops of the five Conferences get back to us within the process of consultation.  Many of them are keen to have a new lectionary as soon as possible, so it may be that we will have the entire new lectionary by 2014…


So the rationale behind the choice of the ESV is made clear. The ESV is a revision of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) that takes into account the latest insights of biblical scholarship and textual criticism, and only 7% of the RSV is actually revised in the process. Moreover, using the NRSV (New RSV) was not a viable option due to the copyright holders not being open to the Church making the necessary modifications to the text for our use. The ESV’s copyright holders are amenable to our need to edit texts for the purposes of the Lectionary, and to bring certain passages into line with Catholic tradition.

Answering a question I wished I had asked (but didn’t!), given comments made by Theophrastus in another post here, it is conceivable that a full-blown, standalone Catholic edition of the ESV could be produced, though no decision has been made on that. As suggested yesterday, given the international, large-scale diffusion of the Catholic Lectionary, a Catholic ESV should be a viable proposition, at least economically. This would address the concerns raised over not having a Bible edition that matched the the texts of the Lectionary.

Archbishop Coleridge also kindly gave us some sort of ballpark figure for when the Lectionary might be implemented, given the variables of the time needed to revise the texts and for the necessary episcopal consultation process: 2014. This is sooner than I had expected, and is very heartening. Given that these processes often take longer than first envisaged, perhaps 2015 might be a safer bet, but still that is much sooner than I had expected. 2014 would be just wonderful, even if it were only the first volume.

The Archbishop’s reply has addressed the major questions and concerns so far raised here, and filled in a few gaps as well. The speed and informativeness of his reply has left me feeling even more encouraged about the proposed new Lectionary. One gets the feeling that ICPELL is getting on with the task without fuss, and with a strong sense of service to the Church. The fact that ICPEL has a relatively low profile rather supports the intuition that its members are more interested in the work than in publicity. May God prosper their work, that it might bear much fruit to God’s glory.

UPDATE here – 6 August 2013

Comparing the texts: the ESV and friends

While waiting to see if an enquiry regarding the ESV and the proposed new Lectionary bears fruit, we might take a look at the ESV text as it stands in comparison with some other established texts. As it stands, that is, because it seems sensible to expect that the texts used for the Lectionary will be revised and edited by one or more Catholic scholars so, if only (though, surely, not only) to ensure the approval of Rome.

By way of an aside, it was interesting to find that a Baptist (holding that the King James Version is the one ordained by God) arguing – here and here – that the ESV (and other translations like the NIV) are actually Catholic translations already. His line of argument, detailed as it is, is not convincing, it has to be said, but it does rather suggest that the ESV, even prior to any Catholic editing, is not an intrinsically un- or anti-Catholic translation. We do well also to remember that the wonderful RSV itself originated as a Protestant work, which was later edited by Catholic scholars to produce a Catholic Edition. A precedent for the ESV is thus clearly established.

If you would like to read a detailed comparison of ESV and RSV translations on certain topical texts then the work has already been done over at Bible Researcher. As a taste, some examples provided include Isaiah 7:14, part of which in the original Protestant RSV was rendered “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son”; in the ESV it is translated “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son”. Even before a Catholic team has revised the text we have a translation that is fully consistent with Catholic tradition, and with the original reference to a “maiden”. In the study version of the ESV there is a lengthy and informative note attached to this verse explaining the preference for “virgin”.

Another example provided is Genesis 22:17, which ends in the RSV (including the Catholic edition), “And your decendants shall possess the gate of their enemies”; whereas in the ESV it is “And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies”. The ESV notes give the reason: the logic of Genesis, especially as illuminated by the New Testament, is that God is preparing from among Abraham’s descendants a line from which a new King, a new Adam, a Messiah, will emerge. This is confirmed by St Paul in Galatians 3:16, who equates “offspring” with the “Christ”. This restores the proper Christological perspective to the text and is quite consistent with Catholic interpretation. Indeed, it is a real improvement on the RSV.

The Bible Researcher site also adverts to instances where it thinks the RSV is superior. It is not offering apologetics for the ESV.

For our purposes, we might consider the second reading at Mass today, 1 Corinthians 1:22-25. In the Catholic RSV it reads:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In the ESV, as untouched by Catholic revisions, it reads:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

As can be seen, the ESV (which takes as its starting point the RSV) has seen fit to leave the RSV unaltered.

By comparison, the New American Bible (NAB) in use in the USA’s lectionary reads:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

It is an inoffensive translation and quite dignified, though it has made the effort to remove the reference to “men” and so meets the demands of inclusive language, without, it must be said, making a song and dance about it.

In the Jerusalem Bible (JB), used in most lectionaries used outside the USA, we find:

While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here are we preaching a crucified Christ; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

More liberties have taken here than in the other translations so far. “Here we are preaching” has the gratuitous addition of a temporal/ spatial adverb, adding nothing to our understanding. The JB also feels the need to elaborate on “obstacle” as something the Jews “cannot get over”. That may be true, but it is another gratuitous addition that might almost appear to be labouring the point. The “pagans” as a translation of “nations” is fair enough, though saying that for them the Cross is “madness” again oversteps the Greek original text, which calls it “folly”, or foolishness, or even we might say, silliness. It is not wildly inappropriate, but I wonder if yet again the JB is labouring a point too long. And lastly, the JB too avoids reference to “men”, which is clearly present in the Greek (anthropon).

Moving now to a traditional Catholic translation, we find in the Douay-Rheims (DR) version:

For both the Jews require signs, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

This accurately accords with the Greek text, and really only differs from the RSV/ESV in a slight archaism of style. “Stumblingblock” is a picturesque synonym for “obstacle” (skandalon in the Greek, whence our “scandal”). Despite its relative antiquity, the DR provides an easily understood and accurate translation of our text.

Lastly, the Knox (K) version, at one time approved by the English bishops, renders our text thus:

Here are the Jews asking for signs and wonders, here are the Greeks intent on their philosophy; but what we preach is Christ crucified; to the Jews, a discouragement, to the Gentiles, mere folly; but to us who have been called, Jew and Gentile alike, Christ the power of God, Christ the wisdom of God. So much wiser than men is God’s foolishness; so much stronger than men is God’s weakness.

K, like the DR, is a translation of the Vulgate, though with reference to the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Monsignor Knox was working far more in the tradition of what is now called dynamic equivalence. He elaborates and adds in parts, uses synonyms, and generally seems to seek for a more rhetorical effect. Thus he replaces “wisdom” (sophia[n] in the Greek) with “philosophy” which is of course the “love of wisdom”: rhetorical, but no damage done to the sense. More difficult to accept is his use of “discouragement” for “obstacle”, or “stumblingblock”. K strikes me as too weak here, and conveys a mood that does not match the stridency of “obstacle”, “stumblingblock”, or even (literally) “scandal”. He transforms the “those” who are called to “us”, which is not faithful to the Greek (tois kletois – “the called ones”) and becomes just a little too smug in its self-reference. Lastly, the double use of “so much” is an elaboration and addition to the original text for rhetorical effect. Again, K seems to take a few too many liberties with the text, though it reads quite well.

From this little comparison of translations available or projected for Catholic use, it seems that the ESV emerges well, reflecting as it does the RSV. The example scripture was provided by the liturgy for today, and used for convenience. Perhaps a more controversial text could be found if desired.

[UPDATE] I should have mentioned that Timothy has provided a useful brief comparison of 12 interesting translations in the NRSV and ESV. You can read it here.

Updates: the Ordinariate lectionary and Fr Paul Gunter

Two small updates on recent topics.

The first is that Fr Paul Gunter OSB has a new short essay out on Zenit, on the Church’s liturgy as being located in the life and activity of the economic Trinity. In other words, it is first and foremost God’s work for us and in us, more than it is our work. Or put another way, the liturgy is our work insofar as God is at work in us as we perform it. The implications are clear if you dwell on it. If God works through his Church to establish a liturgy that, in giving Him worthy worship, furthers the work of our salvation, then we tamper with it at our peril. When it ceases to be identifiably the liturgy of the Church, I would venture, then it ceases to be a liturgy that contributes to our salvation. God works through his Church and not through cliques of the self-enlightened. But I am going way beyond what Fr Paul writes, which you can read on Zenit right now.

The second update concerns the Ordinariate’s newly-approved RSV lectionary which was mentioned yesterday. The question was raised as to whether the Ordinariate had negotiated their way through the copyright minefield to the point where they could publish anew a RSV lectionary. The answer is, no. Instead one of the other possibilities mentioned was closer to the mark. Monsignor Burnham has confirmed to me that the remaining stock of the Ignatius Press edition of the RSV Lectionary has been bought up in America on their behalf, and each Ordinariate group has been given a set. If the demand proves heavy enough, consideration will be given to trying to get a hand-missal produced for the faithful. But for now, each Ordinariate church having an Ignatius RSV lectionary is sufficient to get the liturgical ball rolling. Strength to their arm!

So it seems the wider anglophone Church will be getting the ESV as originally announced. Soon I will post some examples of ESV passages of scripture as we will find them in the new Lectionary when it comes.