Use of a Hand Missal at Mass

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Use of a Hand Missal at Mass

ROME, 25 OCT. 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Should the congregation follow the liturgy, including the readings, by using a missal? Some bishops and priests have said that the Word of the Lord is meant to be listened to, not read. Is the missal just for the other parts of the Mass? — M.R., Greenville, Rhode Island

A: Although this is a point that is open to debate, it is true that the general preference is to discourage the use of reading as an aid to participation.

In 1998 the liturgy committee of the U.S. bishops' conference issued an excellent set of "Guidelines for the Publication of Participation Aids." With respect to the Liturgy of the Word, it said:

"By means of the word of God proclaimed at Mass, the Holy Spirit 'makes what we hear outwardly have its effect inwardly' (GILFM [The General Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass] 8). This, however, can only take place when the readings are proclaimed in 'a speaking style on the part of the readers that is audible, clear, and intelligent' (GILFM 14) and when sufficient amplification is provided (GILFM 34).

"It is clearly preferable that the word of God be clearly heard by all who participate in the liturgy, for 'In the hearing of God's word the Church is built up and grows' (GILFM 7). For this reason, the printing of readings and presidential prayers in participation aids is discouraged, unless other circumstances make it impossible for the word to be effectively proclaimed. Even in these instances, however, it is preferable that steps be taken to assure the effective proclamation of the Scriptures rather than resorting to providing a 'read along' text to the members of the assembly."

Therefore, the ideal is to participate by an attentive external and inner listening to the proclamation of God's Word and to the presidential prayers at Mass, rather than simply reading along with them.

The use of hand missals originally became popular in the early 20th century in order to follow the Mass in what is now called the extraordinary form. In this way their use marked a step forward in the Liturgical Movement as it placed the Latin liturgical texts, along with a vernacular translation, into the hands of the faithful.

The fact that the ordinary form is now usually celebrated audibly in the vernacular does not mean that the missal should be simply left aside. It is an excellent instrument for preparing active participation by meditatively going over the readings and prayers before Mass. It might also be used to grasp the inner logic of longer rites and prayers, thus helping to maintain concentration.

There is also a subjective element involved. Not a few people find difficulty in achieving the ideal of attentive external and inner listening for many justifiable reasons. I would say that if a Catholic finds spiritual profit in using the hand missal during Mass, then he or she is free to do so.

The very fact that the U.S. bishops' liturgy committee felt the need for these guidelines is proof that they had no desire to merely abolish the use of missals and other participation aids.

* * *

Follow-up: Use of a Hand Missal at Mass [11-8-2011]

Several readers wrote in asking for clarifications on the Oct. 25 piece regarding the use of hand missals.

First, let me clarify that as far as possible I try to ground my replies on some official document rather than simply give my opinion. In this case, practically the only official document that touched upon the theme was the one we quoted from the U.S. bishops. That document discouraged using participative aids for the readings. It is an official document but is admittedly fairly low level, and is more concerned with practical than with spiritual matters.

When I said that the "general preference" was to discourage the use of hand missals, I was taking my cue from the original question, which referred to bishops and priests. By "general preference" I meant the opinion of a large sector of liturgists and pastoralists. I did not refer to official documents, since the only one I found was the above-mentioned text which simply reflects the "general preference" among specialists.

Since my personal views have been requested, as a good Irishman, I will attempt to simultaneously argue both sides of the question.

First of all, we must recognize that the authentic ideal of active participation is above all an interior union with Christ's mystery. External participation should manifest interior participation but cannot substitute for it.

From the point of view of external participation the ideal situation is that the Liturgy of the Word be so well proclaimed, and the faithful so attentive to what the Lord desires to tell them, that there should be no need or desire to follow along by reading the texts. After all, if we are unable to follow the readings, how can we hope to follow the homily?

At the same time, it is fair to say that achieving this ideal is infrequent at best. Readers are often less than polished, microphones less than pristine, and even attentive priests and faithful can fail to memorize the psalm response on the first go. Besides all this there are people who are hard of hearing or who have to keep an eye on young children, etc.

Therefore, my personal opinion is that while the faithful should be formed to aspire to the ideal external situation, this situation should never be imposed. Each pastor should freely determine what participative aids are needed in his community. Each member of the faithful should freely decide as to what best helps him or her to achieve authentic interior active participation. A person who finds that following the missal helps get more out of the readings should not be discouraged from doing so.

It might not be the ideal from the point of view of external participation, but here internal participation has the priority.

Some readers suggested that one reason in favor of using the missal was to keep certain ministers in line. One reader wrote: "It was common (and still is) for lectors and priests to modify words they read — the prescribed prayers and Scripture itself — or even replace them altogether, particularly with so-called inclusive language. However, how is anyone to know if the liturgical texts being proclaimed are actually the prescribed texts? Only if the laity does in fact read along could such liturgical abuses be detected."

Our reader was not suggesting that this is a principal reason to use missals. Personally, I do not agree that this would be even a good secondary reason for doing so. I am certainly against all improper improvisation, but I would insist that the use of missals should be motivated exclusively on the basis of fostering better participation at Mass.

In other words, if abuse is detected as a result of following along with the text, then that is fine and good. But it should never be a motivation for doing so, as this would be a cause of constant distraction and impede full active participation.

I would also disagree with the suggestion made by some correspondents that the use of missals was discouraged in order to favor such ad-libbing by ministers. I believe, rather, that those who discouraged the use of these participative aids were motivated by a sincere desire to promote active participation as they saw best.

I believe it is possible to share the same goal while maintaining sincere differences of opinion as to the best means of achieving it.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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