When Reading the Passion

Author: Father Edward McNamara


When Reading the Passion


Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: The music director of our parish has some rather liberal ideas of how he uses music during Mass. Once, the reading of the Passion was stopped at the moment when we were kneeling in remembrance of Christ's dying moment. The music director then had the assembly sing three verses of "Were You There." After the music, the Passion was completed. I find this more than a bit bizarre. Is this sort of practice considered something that is allowed during a Mass? — C.S., Homosassa, Florida

Q: During the Gospel readings on Palm Sunday and Good Friday (the Passion of our Lord) the readings normally have parts assigned for the priest, the laity and other lectors. But in our parish, the choir director divides the readings in chunks between lectors and the priests and deacons without order. And the choir sings at particular places with a chorus that is not related to the Passion of Our Lord. Is that proper? — E.K., San Diego, California

Q: Until a few years ago in our parish, people stood during the reading of the Passion as they always do when the Gospel is read. However, a pastor decided that since those readings were very long, people would concentrate better if they sat. When the words of Jesus' death are proclaimed, everyone kneels, and then they go back to sitting. I personally find it makes no sense to sit comfortably while listening to the words of the part of the Gospel which proclaim the most painful moments of Jesus' life, while during all other Masses of the year, we stand. — M.P., Toronto

A: Since these three questions are closely related, I will attempt to answer them together.

In the Florida case, the music director is not doing a good job by interrupting the text of the Passion but rather shows a certain lack of knowledge of the ceremony's rhythm and tradition. The same could be said of the director in San Diego.

Likewise, neither the music director nor anyone else cooperating in the liturgy should be allowed to have the final word in organizing a liturgical celebration. It is incumbent upon a pastor to supervise and guide such participants so as to assure that the faithful receive an authentic Catholic liturgy.

In 1988 the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments published "Paschales Solemnitatis," a "Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts." Regarding Good Friday it states:

"58. On this day, when 'Christ our passover was sacrificed,' the Church meditates on the passion of her Lord and Spouse, adores the cross, commemorates her origin from the side of Christ asleep on the cross, and intercedes for the salvation of the whole world.

"64. The Order for the Celebration of the Lord's Passion (the Liturgy of the Word, the adoration of the cross, and Holy Communion), that stems from an ancient tradition of the Church, should be observed faithfully and religiously, and may not be changed by anyone on his own initiative."

Indeed, Good Friday is perhaps the most archaic of all liturgical services. For centuries it conserved elements, such as the general intercessions, that had disappeared from other parts of the liturgy.

"Paschales Solemnitatis" continues in No. 66: "The readings are to be read in their entirety. The responsorial psalm and the chant before the Gospel are to be sung in the usual manner. The narrative of the Lord's passion according to John is sung or read in the way prescribed for the previous Sunday (cf. n. 33). After the reading of the passion a homily should be given, at the end of which the faithful may be invited to spend a short time in meditation."

The aforementioned No. 33 says:

"The passion narrative occupies a special place. It should be sung or read in the traditional way, that is, by three persons who take the parts of Christ, the narrator and the people. The passion is proclaimed by deacons or priests, or by lay readers. In the latter case, the part of Christ should be reserved to the priest.

"The proclamation of the passion should be without candles and incense, the greeting and the signs of the cross are omitted; only a deacon asks for the blessing, as he does before the Gospel.

"For the spiritual good of the faithful the passion should be proclaimed in its entirety, and the readings which precede it should not be omitted."

This indication would appear to exclude any intervention of the choir; however, it is also common practice in some places, notably St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, to use a fourfold division of parts: Christ, narrator, other individuals, and the multitude. This latter role is carried out by the choir who sing phrases such as "Crucify him" in dramatic polyphony.

At the Vatican the Passion is thus sung in Italian on Palm Sunday and in Latin on Good Friday.

The fourfold division can also be used in a read Passion, with a group of readers taking the part of the multitude.

Other interventions of the choir — such as singing songs that do not form part of the Gospel text or that interrupt its reading — should be totally excluded from the celebration.

Finally, as our Toronto reader points out, most of the faithful attending the reading of the Passion expect to make the sacrifice of standing during the reading and associate themselves in this manner with the Lord's suffering. Of course, elderly people and anybody with particular physical difficulties who find it hard to remain standing for long periods can freely sit down if necessary. ZE07032028

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Follow-up: When Reading the Passion [4-3-2007]

After our remarks on different methods of reading the Passion (see March 20) a reader from Rochester, Minnesota, made some interesting observations, to wit:

"1. In the United States, Catholics observe the practices of other traditions. No matter how careful the books of these traditions are, strange practices creep into the ceremonies.

"2. These get taken home and are sometimes further distorted. So, the practice of the Episcopal Church of allowing multiple readers (for each of the individuals named) and having the 'crowd' read by the entire congregation have been adopted by Roman Catholic parishes. Since such things are usually poorly prepared the noise and confusion can be terrible.

"The same goes for sitting. In the provisions of the Book of Common Prayer 1979 the people may sit for the early portion of the Passion. They are instructed to rise at the point in the narrative when Jesus takes up his cross. A period of silence is required at the moment of Jesus' death. A genuflection or kneeling is not mentioned, although the practice is widespread. In circumstances where there are multiple services with small groups of worshippers, the Passion may begin where the people are directed to stand.

"The custom of interpolating hymns is, naturally, Lutheran. I guess it works well in Germany. I have seen it done in an Episcopal Church. The Lutheran organist did it with great sensitivity to the text and did not get in the way of the moment of silence. Even with the good work it was always on the edge of falling apart."

Our reader also recommends singing the Passion as the best means of dividing the parts. I would agree that it should be done whenever possible but recognize that it is a formidable task for a nonprofessional singer, especially the poor narrator of St. John's Gospel on Good Friday.

Several readers asked if it was permitted to incorporate mimes and dramas during the reading of the Passion. While such elements may be incorporated into extra-liturgical events such as a Way of the Cross or catechesis, they are never permitted within the liturgy. God's Word must be heard in the silence of the soul with as little interference as possible from visual or audible distractions. ZE07040321

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