Although we’ve made great progress in nearly fifty years of liturgical reform, it seems that Lent and Holy Week can be opportunities for some backsliding. Specifically, I still see practices that suggest that the Passion and Death of Jesus — which we celebrate each Sunday – is something that we need to “act out” or dramatize like it never happened, in order to make it more “interesting” for our assemblies.
A prominent example is our tendency to “perform” Gospel readings in parts, rather than proclaim them. Of course, this is an allowed option for the Passion, but have we really considered the implications of this option (as well as some of the practices which sometimes accompany it, such as costumes and props, seating the assembly, and sometimes even having the assembly read parts themselves)?
Regarding multiple readers, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (#109) says that “If there are several persons present who are able to exercise the same ministry, nothing forbids their distributing among themselves and performing different parts of the same ministry or duty…But it is not at all appropriate that several persons divide a single element of the celebration among themselves, e.g., that the same reading be proclaimed by two lectors, one after the other, except as far as the Passion of the Lord is concerned.”
So, according to the GIRM, the ONLY reading that is allowed to be read in parts is the Passion (an exception to this rule is found in Masses with Children). That said, it is not required to be read in parts. The rubric for Passion Sunday (#21) states that “The narrative of the Lord’s Passion is read…by a Deacon or, if there is no Deacon, by a Priest. It may also be read by readers, with the part of Christ, if possible, reserved to a Priest.” The rubric for Good Friday (#9) simply states that “the narrative of the Lord’s Passion according to John…is read in the same way as on the preceding Sunday.”
A few things should be considered carefully when preparing the proclamation of the Passion:
- Although the Passion may be read in parts, it is by no means required.
- Nowhere in the rubrics is the practice of the assembly taking a part (e.g., the crowd) presented as an option (except for Directory of Masses with Children, #47). I would argue that this option would be less than desirable (though not forbidden), since the Lectionary for Mass: Introduction states the role of the faithful in the Liturgy of the Word clearly when it says that “The congregation of Christ’s faithful even today receives from God the word of his covenant through the faith that comes by hearing…the faithful at the celebration of Mass are to listen to the word of God with an and outward reverence…” (#45, emphasis added). Although attempts to “act out” the scriptures at Mass may be well-intentioned, I believe that it goes beyond the principle of proclamation.
- On a related note, I would also argue that the custom of the assembly being seated for the Passion (a posture that is nowhere even suggested in any of the rubrics) puts the assembly in a passive “audience” mode, and removes the active stance of standing which sets the Gospel apart.
All that said, the Passion of the Lord is a lengthy text, with many twists and turns, and several voices. The proclaimers of these most sacred scriptures — whether a deacon or a priest, or several readers — must be the very best, and be well-prepared and practiced (but, really, isn’t that true of every Sunday?
Mark F. Hoggard is a pastoral associate at the Church of St. Thérèse in Chesapeake, VA.