By Father Mauro Gagliardi
ROME, 5 FEB. 2010 (ZENIT).
In this article we will not be looking at the Liturgy of the
Word in itself, about which we would have to provide an
historical, theological and disciplinary panorama. In continuity
with the preceding articles in this column, we will focus
instead on the role of the priest in the Liturgy of the Word in
the Mass, taking into account both the ordinary form (that of
Paul VI) and the extraordinary form (that of St. Pius V) of the
Roman Rite. 
The Extraordinary Form
In the “Low Mass” (a simple celebration for daily use) of the
extraordinary form, the priest reads all the readings, that is,
the Epistle , the Gradual and the Gospel. In general, he does
this while assuming the same position that he does when he will
later offer the holy sacrifice. Using a misleading but common
expression, we might say that the priest proclaims the Liturgy
of the Word “with his back to the people.” The language of the
proclamation is the same as the whole rite, that is, Latin, or
sometimes the vernacular, as section 6 of the Motu Proprio
“Summorum Pontificum” recalls.
After the Epistle is read there follows the Gradual, which
receives its name from the steps (in Latin “gradus”) that the
deacon ascends to read the Gospel from the ambo in a solemn
Mass. After the Gradual, the Alleluia is read with its verse.
(The Tract, however, is substituted for the Alleluia during the
period between Septuagesima Sunday and Easter and at Masses for
On some occasions, before the Gospel, the priest also
proclaims a “Sequentia.”  Once this is done, while the server
carries the Missal (which also contains the biblical readings)
from the right side of the altar (called the “cornu epistuale”)
to the left side (“cornu evangelii), the priest, who is standing
at the center of the altar, asks for the Lord’s benediction
before passing to the left side (or northern side).
Having said “Dominus vobiscum” and having received the
corresponding response, then having announced the title of the
Gospel book from which he is about to read, and having traced
the cross with his thumb upon the book and three times upon
himself (over his forehead, lips and heart), he proclaims the
Gospel from that side of the altar. When he reads the Epistle,
the Gradual and the Alleluia, the priest rests his hands on the
Missal or the altar, but always in such a way that his hands are
touching the book. However, in proclaiming the Gospel, he folds
his hands at chest-level.
After the Gospel is read, he lifts the book off the stand and
kisses it, silently saying the formula “Per evangelica dicta,
deleantur nostra delicta.” During the proclamation of the
different readings, the priests bows his head at every mention
of the name of Jesus. In special circumstances a genuflection is
made during the reading. At the end of the reading of the
Gospel, those assisting the priest say “Laus tibi Christe.”
After the Gospel, above all on Sundays and holy days of
obligation, there can be, according to what is appropriate, a
brief homily.  Finally, after the possible homily, the Symbol
of Faith is recited when it is prescribed: the priest returns to
the center of the altar and intones the “Credo,” extending his
arms and joining his hands again at the chest and bowing his
At the moment of the “Et incarnatus est” he genuflects and
remains in this position until the “et homo factus est.” He bows
his head again at the “simul adoratur.” Finally, concluding the
"Creed,” he makes the sign of the cross. All the parts of the
Liturgy of the Word, except for the prayers that the priest
recites before and after the proclamation of the Gospel, are
Limitations of space prevent us from going into detail here
about the way that the biblical readings are proclaimed at the
The Ordinary Form
The Liturgy of the Word in the Missal of Paul VI kept
different elements of the Missal Pius V, even if others have
been suppressed and some added. The language of the proclamation
has not been changed since Latin has remained the proper
language of the Roman liturgy even in the post-conciliar reform,
the reason for which the new lectionaries (now printed in books
separate from the Missal) were published in Latin in 1969 and
On the other hand, the “editio typica” has been translated
into the various national languages and these translations are
what are generally used. The “Institutio Generalis Missalis
Romani,” The General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM) sets
down the general norms of the Liturgy of the Word in sections
A first difference between the two forms of the Roman Rite we
see in the fact that, even in the daily Mass, celebrated in a
non-solemn form, the possibility of other readers proclaiming
the biblical passages
— except for the Gospel
— is foreseen
, even if it remains possible for the priest to read all the
texts of the Liturgy of the Word .
A second change is in the fact that, on Sundays and
solemnities, there are three readings (first and second readings
and the Gospel) besides the responsorial Psalm, which takes the
place of the Gradual. The selection of biblical texts has also
considerably increased in the ordinary form. 
A third element that is new is the reinsertion of the Prayer
of the Faithful, which takes place after the Gospel and homily.
The homily is recommended for every day of the year and is
obligatory on Sundays and holy days of obligation.  It is
significant that in the norms established by the GIRM there is a
section on silence:
“The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as
to promote meditation, and so any sort of haste that hinders
recollection must clearly be avoided. During the Liturgy of the
Word, it is also appropriate to include brief periods of
silence, accommodated to the gathered assembly, in which, at the
prompting of the Holy Spirit, the word of God may be grasped by
the heart and a response through prayer may be prepared. It may
be appropriate to observe such periods of silence, for example,
before the Liturgy of the Word itself begins, after the first
and second reading, and lastly at the conclusion of the homily.”
The GIRM dictates that the biblical readings are always read
from the ambo , so even when they are read by the priest, it
is never done “with the back to the people.” In the ordinary
form too the priest recites a silent prayer before he proclaims
the Gospel. In the rite of Paul VI, at the end of every reading
a formula is said to which the faithful respond. 
The Psalm is called “responsorial” because a response is said
by the faithful after each strophe. Even if it does not often
happen, the norms allow for the singing or reciting of the Psalm
without a response, or for it being substituted by a Gradual.
The Missal of Paul VI continues the use of the “Sequentia” on
some occasions. It is only obligatory on the days of Easter and
Pentecost  and, furthermore, it is recited before the
Alleluia verse rather than after.
The Gospel is proclaimed with the same gestures as those used
in the Mass of Pius V although the GIRM does not specify where
the priest should place his hands or similar things.  This
is also the case for the recitation of the Creed, although the
norms say that there is no genuflection but a bow of the head at
the words “Et incarnatus est.” 
In regard to the Prayer of the Faithful, the GIRM says that
“[i]t is fitting that such a prayer be included, as a rule, in
Masses celebrated with a congregation.”  “It is for the
priest celebrant to direct this prayer from the chair. He
himself begins it with a brief introduction, by which he invites
the faithful to pray, and likewise he concludes it with a
prayer. […] The intentions are announced from the ambo or from
another suitable place, by the deacon or by a cantor, a lector,
or one of the lay faithful.” 
From what has been said, one sees the substantial continuity
between the way of celebrating the Liturgy of the Word in the
two Missals, unity and changes, some enriching, others more
problematic. The continuity has different aspects. The first and
principal is that the Liturgy of the Word of the Mass gathers
into itself only biblical texts (Old and New Testament).
It is thus a denaturing of this part of the celebration to
insert non-biblical texts, even if they are taken from the
Fathers, from the great Doctors and Masters of Christian
Spirituality. There is all the more reason then not to read from
profane texts or the sacred writings of other religions. 
The second aspect of continuity is the structure of the Liturgy
of the Word, which is similar in the two forms of the Roman
There are also various aspects that are evidence of change.
In the Rite of Paul VI the selection of biblical passages is
much richer than in the older Missal. This fact is undoubtedly
something positive and responds to the indications of
“Sacrosanctum Concilium.”  Nevertheless it would be
appropriate to shorten many passages that are too long. 
The norm that specifies that the readings are proclaimed from
the ambo and therefore that the readers face the people is also
something positive. This position is also more suitable for the
Liturgy of the Word. 
The norm that prescribes homilies as obligatory on Sundays
and holy days of obligation is likewise beneficial. Here the
priest has an important and delicate role. Recently, his
excellency Monsignor Mariano Crociata, secretary general of the
Italian bishops' conference, has observed that “it is decisive
that the homilist is aware of being a listener himself, indeed
of being the first hearer of the word that he pronounces. He
must know that the word that he is about to speak to others is
above all, if not only, addressed to him.” 
The careful preparation of the homily is an integral part of
the role of the priest in the Liturgy of the Word. Benedict XVI
reminds us that the homily always has both a catechetical and
exhortative purpose : It cannot therefore be a lesson of
biblical exegesis, because it must also express the dogma and
because it must be a catechetical and not an academic discourse;
nor can it only be a paraenesis that recalls certain vague
values, perhaps taken from the current mentality without any
evangelical filter (which would be a separation of the
exhortative part, which regards the good to be done, from the
catechetical part, which regards the truth believed).
With respect to the office of readers, the ordinary form
permits that not only ministers expressly instituted by the
Church for this task read but also other lay faithful. The
priest’s role, in this case, is no longer that of reading the
biblical passages in first person, but that
— more distant
of assuring that these readers are truly qualified. No one can
just ascend to the ambo and proclaim the Word of God in the
liturgy. If there are no persons who are adequately trained, the
priest should continue to assume in first person the role of
reader when truly qualified readers cannot be found.
Because of limitations of space, we cannot reflect here on
the theme of the Prayer of the Faithful.
Finally, an element of change that represents an
impoverishment is the lack of precise indications about the
bodily dispositions that the priest should assume in the act of
reading (especially the Gospel). Nevertheless, this represents a
fundamental decision on the new Missal, which is much less
precise than the older one about these aspects, leaving the
field open to different celebrative attitudes.
One can remedy such a deficiency by applying the usages of
the old rite to the new one, there where it is possible, though
those indications that are not explicitly excluded by the
current rubrics, such as folding one’s hands at chest-level
during the proclamation of the Gospel. That contributes to the
dignity of the celebration of the Liturgy of the Word and can
represent an example of the reciprocal influence between the two
Missals hoped for by Benedict XVI, when he wrote that “the two
forms of usage of the Roman Rite can mutually enrich each
In this way too “[t]he celebration of the Mass according to
the Missal of Paul VI will be able to demonstrate, more
powerfully than has been the case hitherto, the sacrality which
attracts many people to the former usage.” 
* * *
 For an historical panorama see, for example, M. Kunzler,
“La liturgia della Chiesa,” Jaca Book, Milano 2003 (2nd expanded
edition), pp. 297-309, with a bibliography on pp. 309-310.
 In some cases the Epistle is preceded by other readings.
 In the Missal of John XXIII there are only 5 sequences:
“Victimae paschali” for Easter, “Veni sancte Spiritus” for
Pentecost, “Lauda Sion” for Corpus Christi, “Stabat Mater” for
the 2 feasts of the Seven Sorrows, and “Dies Irae” for the
Masses for the dead.
 “Post Evangelium, praesertim in dominicis et diebus
festis de praecepto, hebeatur, iuxta opportunitatem, brevis
homilia ad populum.” “Missale Romanum,” 1962, “Rubricae
generales,” VIII, no. 474.
 Liturgical reading is the role of the instituted lector
(cf. GIRM, no. 99), nevertheless, “[i]n the absence of an
instituted lector, other laypersons may be commissioned to
proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture. They should be
truly suited to perform this function and should receive careful
preparation, so that the faithful by listening to the readings
from the sacred texts may develop in their hearts a warm and
living love for Sacred Scripture” (GIRM, no. 101).
 Still, as the GIRM evinces (cf. no. 59), this second
possibility is an option only in the absence of proper lectors.
So also in no. 135: “If no lector is present, the priest himself
proclaims all the readings and the Psalm, standing at the ambo.”
No. 176 prescribes that, if a deacon is present, he will be the
one to read in the absence of a lector.
 There is no doubt about the greater wealth of biblical
selections in the post-conciliar lectionary. One should
recognize, nevertheless, that sometimes the passages are too
long, which, together with the reinsertion of the Prayer of the
Faithful and the ordinary practice of the homily, often makes
the Liturgy of the Word longer than the Eucharistic Liturgy,
giving place to a theological-liturgical imbalance and an
imbalance in the ritual.
 Cf. GIRM, nos. 65-66. Unlike the norms set down in the
1962 Missal, the GIRM does not specify that the homily must be
 GIRM, n. 56.
 Cf. GIRM, no. 58.
 Cf. GIRM, no. 128.
 Cf. GIRM, no. 61.
 Cf. GIRM, no. 64.
 Cf. GIRM, no. 134.
 The genuflection is only retained for the Annunciation
and for Christmas (cf. GIRM, no. 137).
 GIRM, no. 69.
 GIRM, no. 71.
 “It is also illicit to omit or to substitute the
prescribed biblical readings on one’s own initiative, and
especially “to substitute other, non-biblical texts for the
readings and responsorial Psalm, which contain the word of God.”
(Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the
Sacraments, “Redemptionis Sacramentum,” no. 62).
 “In sacred celebrations there is to be more reading from
Holy Scripture, and it is to be more varied and suitable.”
(Vatican Council II, “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” no. 35).
 Other defects in the post-conciliar lectionary are noted
by A. Nocent in “Scientia liturgica. Manuale di liturgia, III:
L’Eucaristia,” Piemme, Casale Monferrato, 2003 (3rd ed.), pp.
 Cf. J. Ratzinger, “Introduzione allo spirito della
liturgia,” San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo, 2001, p. 77.
 M. Crociata, Homily for the Mass of the Liturgical
Conference for Seminarians, Rome, December 29, 2009:
 Cf. Benedict XVI, “Sacramentum Caritatis,” no. 46.
 Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops on the occasion of
the Motu Proprio “Summorum Pontificum.”
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
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Father Mauro Gagliardi is a consultor of the Office for the
Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.