Non solum: Introductions before the Readings

A Pray Tell reader writes:

Is it good liturgical practice to have, before the readings at Mass, long explanations of what the reading is about? Here, too often, they give these long explanations, and what it seems to me to amount to, is this: “You people are so stupid that you’ll never be able to figure out what the reading means, so now, boys and girls, we’re going to tell you – at excruciating length – what it means.” That really puts me off. But maybe I’m over-reacting. Maybe there are good, persuasive reasons for doing it.

For reference, no. 15 of the 1981 Lectionary for Mass say this:

There may be concise introductions before the readings, especially the first. The style proper to such comments must be respected, that is, they must be simple, faithful to the text, brief, well prepared, and properly varied to suit the text they introduce.

What do you think? Should such (optional) introductions be done? If so, how?

33 comments

  1. Helpful in theory. Doubtful in practice. “A reading from,” is a sort of “concise introduction” that helps to set the scene. A bit more scene-setting, especially for the Old Testament, could be helpful. Generic “The first reading tells us of God’s love,” is less than helpful. It should truly be an intro, not a pre-reading homily.

  2. The Assoc. Pastor at my parish of employ often uses a concise introduction to great effect – just the right middle ground between nothing at all and a mini-homily; that is, just enough context for the reading (usually O.T.) and perhaps a key phrase or two to listen for that will be expanded during the homily proper. I can see where any less or any more would be not useful and/or annoying.

    They often last maybe 45 seconds, and I imagine are helpful for congregants less in tune with the bible than others – those for whom “a reading from…” only tells hi or her it’s in the bible somewhere and nothing more.

  3. Bishop Untenner (sp?) developed and excellent set of introductions that were only two or three sentences that provided context for the readings. I received more positive feedback on these from parishioners than on anything else I introduced.

  4. “Today’s reading from John’s Gospel continues our month-long teaching on Jesus the Bread of Life. In today’s first reading, the Prophet Elijah finds strength for his long, dangerous journey in the food God sends him. So too, on our life-long journey to God’s Kingdom, we find strength in the living bread from heaven, his flesh for the life of the world.”

    During certain times of year, our cantor reads a brief introduction like this before announcing the processional hymn. It helps to focus our attention on the matter at hand. Our parishioners have found this very helpful, whether they are well versed in scripture or not. The periodical Pastoral Patterns from World Library Publications is a great resource for these.

    In communication theory, there’s an accepted principle of, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell then what you just told them.” If they hear a brief synopsis at the start of Mass, then the readings themselves (which may or may not be clear to the typical hearer) then hear a good homily, we have effectively communicated the message.

    There’s also the matter of focusing people’s attention. In musical theater, the overture collects people’s attention, gets them to their seats, and offers a preview of the main songs for people who may be unfamiliar-all before the curtain rises. Then when those tunes come up in the show, the ear is primed to hear them. Throw in a reprise of the main song toward the end of the show, and everyone goes home whistling the tune. It’s all basic communications theory.

  5. I think it can be helpful if the assembly is primarliy children and/or teens as a way to help get them to direct their attention to the reader but definitely short and to the point.

    Blessings!

  6. I spent a year in a parish where the pastor had initiated the practice before the Old and New Testament Readings, but not the Gospel. They were uniformly well prepared, and were given by the pastor, who then oddly enough would say, “A reading from…” before the lector read the text (sans any further intro). The liturgical purist in me would have preferred the deacon do this (the parish had two), but ultimately when I was up for celebrant, the deacons (both) declined. They were far more uncomfortable with stuff they didn’t do often.

    I don’t know if the deacons were licensed to preach, but the pastor never allowed them to, so I guess it makes sense that they weren’t used to departing from their standard liturgical lines.

  7. I’m opposed to this practice except in exceptional circumstances (a “teaching Mass” for example). There are several reasons why.

    First, it turns the liturgy into a classroom. Catechesis belongs either in preparation for or after the celebration. We should not be larding the celebration with explanatory notes week after week. I think this practice arises because we are trying to shoehorn everything into the one hour a week when we “have them” as a captive audience. Instead, I would propose that we need better attention to the life of the community outside Mass, the educational apostolate, and better preaching.

    Second, it foreshortens hearing and narrows the symbolic role of the Word. When hearers share responses to the Word, in lectio divina for example, it’s absolutely clear that they hear different things. Rightly so. The Word is multivalent. It is part of the symbolic structure of the liturgy. If people don’t understand everything they hear, welcome to the world of symbol. That’s how it works. You start your journey by realizing you are on a journey.

    Third, it’s terrible pedagogy. You are answering a question nobody has asked. And there is no time for dialogue or questioning back. It’s text upon text upon text. More words in the already wordy part of the Mass.

    Fourth, it’s like training wheels on a bicycle. You can do it for a time, but you have to take the training wheels off at some point or they’ll never learn to ride. If we put our assemblies into the position of being treated as though they are slow, always ignorant, they will learn that they are slow and ignorant, and that they must depend on Father or someone else to “tell them” what it’s all about.

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #8:
      You offer a key point. Making liturgy into a catechetical session can be forcing a square peg into a round hole. But I choose the lesser evil of fitting some formational material into the liturgy (the hour when we have them, if by “them” we mean the 30% of Catholics who attend Mass with any regularity) to allowing the large majority of Catholics to remain ignorant of scripture. My parish offers weekly sessions to discuss the Sunday readings. Attendance averages 10 to 12 in a parish of 3000 souls. During Advent and Lent we bring in an excellent speaker on some scriptural topic, for that attendance may rise to 100 per week. That’s still 97% of our parishioners who never attend these sessions, who may go their entire adult lives with no formation other than one hour at church on Sunday morning. How else can we reach them? Surely we should not focus only on the 3% and write off the rest.

    2. @Rita Ferrone – comment #8:
      I also oppose introductions to readings. If the lector reads with spiritual understanding and knows how to communicate, introductions will not be necessary. And as other posters have said, the passages usually have more than one interpretation. So we cannot be sure what those present will hear.

  8. P.S. The Lectionary note #15 gives the game away. Why “especially” the first reading? More people are bewildered by St. Paul than they are by the Old Testament. I believe this note is a holdover from the time when the reform of the liturgy introduced more Old Testament scriptures, and biblical literacy of the Old Testament was perceived to be lower than New Testament literacy. This is an obsolete instruction.

    Also, by the way, no churches I know of do this anymore. They may have done it decades ago, but it is no longer considered “best practice.” I’m surprised to read that so many are experiencing this in their parishes, and that the pastor is doing it.

  9. Truly concise intros when the context of a pericope is obscure might be helpful now and then. I think a far better solution to help a diverse assembly comprehend the readings would be better translations that weren’t slavish to the original languages. Many of the Pauline readings are structured more to baffle than to make clear. The syntax of these lessons proves too much save for the most dedicated of our readers. At times I will offer the readers a “translation” of the reading that they may find helpful. My bottom line is that the people are edified rather than baffled.

  10. I have been to a certain archdiocese where this is a common practice in the many of the parishes. It is read by a commentator/cantor (or in the absence of one, a lector). It is hard for me to judge the effectiveness of this practice since the introductions I’ve heard are awful. They are basically summaries of the readings that follow that even a 10 year old could come away with. Not only does this redundancy devalue the actual Word but it also has the result that people completely tune out for the actual proclamation.

    In addition, the problem with these particular introductions was linking the readings together in a very narrow theme, such that if the homilist expounded on a different aspect of the readings, it clashed slightly with the tenor after all that build up.

  11. In a parish where I was years ago the Pastor would write comments for the commentator. The commentator would read them at the beginning of the Liturgy and before each of the readings. After he left we discontinued the practice. If we want to enhance the power of the word we should focus on excellent proclamation and ridding our assemblies of missalettes. We also need to promote better homiletic training in our seminaries and continuing formation in homiletics for our veteran priests.

  12. Just to weigh in, my preference in most things liturgy is that “less is more”.
    So, in general, I think it is unnecessary, and therefore, undesirable. That said, I have seen it done well; the problem is that I have seen many more times that it was not done well and served as a minor distraction.

    Rita makes really good points. But, sometimes, just because I don’t like it, or don’t need it, doesn’t mean that someone out there isn’t benefitting from it, so I am reluctant to just say ‘don’t do it’.

  13. In making these decisions on a pastoral level, whom do we have in mind? The faithful few who attend Mass 52 weeks per year and make time for regular reading/discussion/study of scripture and church teachings? The average attendee who may come 2 or 3 times per month and gives little thought to their faith during the other 167 hours of the week? How about those guests and visitors who are unfamiliar with the liturgy, either from years of absence or perhaps never having been catechized? All of these people are with us each week. I’ve known parishes with “excellent” liturgy that focus entirely on the spiritual needs of the faithful few with no thought whatsoever for the rest. If Mass is the primary public event that we offer in our parishes, perhaps the only public event most weeks, how do we keep the needs of the unformed and uninitiated as a high priority?

    1. @Scott Pluff – comment #16:
      Hi Scott, I don’t think you are saying anything new when you point out that we have to think about everybody, including the people who aren’t there regularly or aren’t catechized. I would even up the ante and say we have to think about the people who aren’t there at all, which poses some interesting questions. I’ve never once heard of someone who didn’t come because they didn’t understand the readings. Nor have I ever once heard of someone electing to go to a parish because they explain the readings there.

      Where we differ is that you seem to think the vast majority of people need and want introductory explanations of the Word, and I just don’t agree. I think people want to hear good preaching that unpacks what they have heard rather than getting readings parsed out for them beforehand. I think people want to hear vibrant, intelligent reading, the word proclaimed. I think they want music that engages them and adds substantially to the communal quality and depth of meaning of the celebration.

      There’s a danger in over-packaging. There’s a danger in explaining too much. Let the Word speak. The Word is not boring, and it sure isn’t patronizing. It may well mystify, but that’s the point I raised earlier. Are we celebrating liturgy or teaching a lesson?

      1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #18:

        Yes, and it’s like people who try to explain symbols before they have been experienced. Leave them to speak for themselves.

        I have to confess that I bristle every time I hear someone saying “In today’s readings we will hear…” or, worse still, “you will hear…”, and always want to stand up and say “While you may, I might well hear something different”.

        It’s the same irritation that sets in during wine tasting when the well-meaning salesperson behind the bar is telling me what I will smell and taste in the wine. Wrong! Everyone’s palate is different. What it does, in fact, is distract rather than enhance, so I’m very much in sympathy with Joshua Vas when he says (#12) that introductions tend to make people tune out the actual proclamation.

        While we’re at it, can I also express exasperation with those readers who insist (incorrectly) on proclaiming the caption to the reading before they start the actual scriptural text. This is like announcing the punchline before you’ve told the joke, or giving away whodunit at the beginning of the book.

        (It’s important to remember that when the Ordo Lectionum Missae was being compiled we didn’t yet have lay readers at Mass — it was assumed that the priest would do all the readings himself, as at Low Mass in the Tridentine Rite, then still in force — so those captions were only there to provide busy priests rushing in to “say Mass” with some clue about what they were about to proclaim before they launched into sightreading the text. They were never intended to be read aloud.)

      2. @Rita Ferrone – comment #18:
        I agree wholeheartedly Rita. I also have had the experience where the well proclaimed word spoke to my heart irregardless of the very poor homily that followed. I think what is missing in this discussion is if God is indeed speaking to us in the word proclaimed, why in the world would we offer cliff notes before that proclamation?

      3. @Rita Ferrone – comment #18:
        I do know non-Catholics who find our liturgy dense and difficult to follow, some cite this as a reason for not returning. Unless one was born and raised Catholic, there is a long learning curve to following the order of service, learning the spoken responses, when to sit/stand/kneel, etc. I recently had lunch with an Evangelical-turned-Cathoilc who spent two hours outlining the ways Catholic liturgy can be impenetrable to outsiders. He came to the Catholic church through theology and spirituality, but feels that we have a lot to learn about making liturgy more accessible to seekers.

        Perhaps those churches attached to introductions are trying to make up for some deficiency in the preaching and/or proclamation of scripture. What if the homily never touches on the first and second readings? What if the preaching doesn’t even refer to the day’s readings at all? (It happens.) What if the homily is omitted to instead read a fundraising letter from the bishop? Uniformly excellent preaching would solve a lot of liturgical challenges, but it is the exception rather than the norm.

  14. The GIRM, in no. 31, speaks about “monitiones” by the celebrant and being able to “introduce” parts of the liturgy in 4 places: before the penitential act, the liturgy of the word, the eucharistic prayer (also mentioned in the Directory for Masses with Children, no. 22) and the “dismissal.” I see these points as “transitional” points in the liturgy, and sometimes it might be good to help the assembly “shift gears” (so to speak). E.g., the Directory for Masses with Children (no. 22) notes that before the preface dialog, one might explicitly mention specific things for which all present might want to give thanks. In this spirit, I have (very occasionally) given a “monitio” at Mass before the liturgy of the word, not so much to give a mini-homily on the texts themselves, but to try to focus the assembly attention on openness to God’s word to be proclaimed. In fact, the Missal contains such an introduction at the Easter Vigil (rub. no. 22). Similarly, I have offered a “monitio” before the dismissal to those bringing the Eucharist to the home-bound, summarizing the main point of the gospel in a sentence (or two). So, I think such “monitiones” can be appropriate, if done in general terms, succinctly, and occasionally.

  15. Our priests introduce the theme of the Mass and its readings after the greeting, and then explain them in the homily.
    Isn’t that enough?

  16. In multiple parishes I’ve worked in, we employed the “introductions to the sacred scriptures” that were produced in the diocese of Saginaw, Mi. They were effective because they simply offered context to the forthcoming reading (setting the place, time, scene, maybe reminding the assembly that they are in week 2 or 3 of hearing the same letter from Paul). I’ve heard them read, and I’ve seen them simply printed in the worship aid.

  17. Last Sunday I went to a Mass where a woman read a commentary before each of the first two readings (I automatically tuned out of the commentaries as soon as I realized that it wasn’t the reading yet, so I cannot repeat what she said). She also said: “Response:” after each prayer intention of the prayer of the faithful, right before we said the response. She also said: “We kneel” after the Sanctus. I tuned her out completely, which spared me from getting irritated with her during Mass. Only this post is bringing this back to mind.

    But I have been to a parish where there was a pre-reading commentary which was an opportunity for lay preaching of sorts – parishioners who had met to prepare the readings and who had a representative among them tell us their reflections. That was interesting.

  18. Rita Ferrone (#18): I think people want to hear good preaching that unpacks what they have heard rather than getting readings parsed out for them beforehand.

    This. 1000% this!

    If there something in an “introduction” that can’t be said in a homily, then it’s probably not worth saying. And if you can unpack it in the homily, do that instead!

    Paul Inwood (#19): While we’re at it, can I also express exasperation with those readers who insist (incorrectly) on proclaiming the caption to the reading before they start the actual scriptural text.

    I’ve never come across that (thankfully!), but I have come across lay readers saying “The response to the psalm is…” before reading the response. That drives me a bit potty! For goodness’ sake, we know how the responsorial psalm is supposed to go – and for those who might not, there are (hopefully!) enough people who go to Mass every week who do!

    And then there’s also the occasional (but seemingly classic) “Please stand for the Gospel acclamation” before the Alleluia starts. When I have to stifle the impulse to shout back Please stop treating us like schoolchildren!, am I just a curmudgeon before my time?

  19. I have mixed thoughts on this practice. There is much room for wrong to be done as has been stated above. However, if the intros are done well and kept brief, there could be positive results. I have the Intros by Bishop Untener in front of me, and in the intro he says it’s usefulness depends on the particular community – it will work for some and not others. He also states that it’s not meant to tell people what the scripture is saying, but only to situate the passage within a context and explain a difficult word or location. If done well, I think these could work nicely in addition to the homily. Or perhaps, with permission from Saginaw, they could be reprinted in the worship aid or bulletin? (I don’t know this for a fact, but it could be investigated.)

    Here are the intros for this weekend, when using the Year B options for Holy Family:

    Genesis 15: “In ancient Near Eastern culture, it was thought essential to have a male descendent to carry on the family line and inherit all that his parents had worked for. But the elderly Abraham and Sarah were still childless, which seemed to contradict God’s earlier promise to them. Today’s passage will tell us how this problem was resolved.”

    Hebrews 11: “The author of the letter to the Hebrews frequently held up Old Testament heroes as models of faith. He did this because he was writing to a community whose faith was wavering. Today he presents, as examples, Abraham and Sarah whose faith had survived severe testing.”

  20. I’m startled this subject is even being discussed. I thought that practice went out years ago. I never liked the idea. I think The Word can speak for itself. And of course the sermon is there to ‘open the Word’ for the faithful.there is far too much verbiage in the Mass already.

  21. I agree with Rita Ferrone’s comment that “[f]irst, it turns the liturgy into a classroom. Catechesis belongs either in preparation for or after the celebration.” This observation, however, cannot be limited to just the concept of an introduction to the readings. Creeping instruction only destroys the ritual unity of the Mass. The priest’s often extempt sayings render him as the focus, and not the sacrament.

    All opportunities for extemporaneous explanation should be removed from the Ordinary Form. Not a few priests will use the “and other words” opportunity before the confiteor for usually inchoate extemporaneous comment. These comments often turn into a few minutes of pre-sermon. The prayer Fratres, agnoscamus peccata nostra … “Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins …” is certainly enough to introduce the penitential prayer.

    Is it not sufficient for a priest to mention before Mass begins the saint’s (or saints’) day and the Mass intention? In this way, the process of the ritual need not be interrupted. Similarly, parish information and the banns can be read before the homily. This is still the custom in some liturgical Protestant churches. Instruction or secular information is thus sequestered from the ritual drama and its attendant symbolism. I understand that the conciliar reforms wished that the homily not be a sermon detached from Mass. And yet, is it better to Mass itself into a periodic homily-sermon?

    I consider the desire to parse Mass with periodic mini-homilies to display a fundamental discomfort with ritual that does not face the populus and constantly engage them. Mass is not for the engagement of “the people”, but for the eternal dance for God and towards God.

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