More Important Than It Looks

This past Sunday was the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, which Pope Francis has designated as the “Sunday of the Word of God.”

For this first-time celebration, I must admit, my expectations were not high. The roll-out of this on the level of the U.S. bishops’ conference and on the local diocesan stage was dutiful but not exactly filled with excitement. On the USCCB website, the coverage looked tired; they linked to the Holy Father’s statement and old content. I received a last-minute notice from the local diocese by email; it focused on already-existing opportunities for Bible study and formation.

Pope Francis said people have been clamoring for a day to celebrate the Word. Frankly, I wasn’t hearing a clamor. More like a murmur. A woman I know, a very experienced pastoral associate, once told me “Whenever you survey a congregation they all say they want Bible study. But then you host a Bible study and they don’t come.” This has been, more or less, my experience too.

On the other hand, when Scripture is used organically and linked to our experience — as it can be in faith-sharing groups, lectio divina, lectionary-based catechesis — and when people see that it flows from the Sunday liturgy and leads us back to it, the results have been amazing.

So although it did not seem like the Sunday of the Word of God was an automatic winner, I felt it had potential. Pope Francis is offering us something concrete to remind us annually of how the Word is a source of life, and how love for the Word is a gift we can nourish within our communities. It was in this more optimistic spirit that I approached last Sunday’s liturgy.

I was not disappointed.

In fact, I was incredibly moved by how my own Sunday worshiping community chose to celebrate. Before Mass began, there was a brief, well-worded introduction alerting us to this new observance. The hymns were fabulous, and each one was chosen to both connect to the scriptures of the day and to celebrate the power of God’s Word through the Word made flesh. The presider’s opening remarks also helped us to focus on the character of this observance. They were concise, apt, enthusiastic, and well-chosen. We knew from the start why this day was important and what the focus really was.

What blew me away, however, was a liturgical action: the Gospel procession was done up in a bold manner for this occasion. It was splendid. It was magnificent. It was inspiring. The priest and ministers walked the long way around the church, carrying the gospel book aloft in all its glory. There were banners, candles, incense. The music! An outpouring of joy. I was transported by the alleluias. Then, after the reading of the gospel, the book was enthroned. The preaching that followed was powerful.

I can’t even begin tell you what an impact this had. I came away with my heart filled with gratitude for the Word and awe for how it mediates the presence of Christ, who is in our midst “still proclaiming his gospel.” I didn’t just know it; I felt it. It was made real. The desire to go out and live the Word was amplified by this powerful experience we had together. It helped me (as I hope it helped others) to deeply remember what a privilege it is to hear, to listen, and to respond from the heart.

When Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King, he observed that liturgical feasts are of great value in engaging the heart as well as the mind, and that they reach out to everyone over time:

For people are instructed in the truths of faith, and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all; the former speak but once, the latter speak every year – in fact, forever.

Quas Primas (1925), article 21

Before this day was upon us, I was writing my column for Commonweal and I had chosen the subject of the Sunday of the Word of God. I argued that this act of leadership by Pope Francis may well be “more important than it looks.” After seeing the Sunday of the Word of God celebrated well, I am more than ever convinced that this is the case. Francis’s initiative “is a gesture with roots in Vatican II, popular movements, and the experience of how the Word can kindle light and joy among the poorest of Christ’s poor.”

It is useful to remember the important role of the Word in the Latin American experience, particularly as it is used in base communities. In the course of my research, I enjoyed finding out more about the two Argentinian missionary bishops at Vatican II who proposed the addition of an article encouraging “Bible Services” that was ultimately included in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. For most people in North America that provision in article 35.4 of the Constitution has never had much relevance, but for Latin America it has made a great difference.

The fate of the Sunday of the Word here in the U.S., of course, is still an open question. Will it flourish? Are we prepared to lean into it both liturgically and pastorally? (My community did not commission lectors or give out Bibles, either or both of which could be done, for example.) What will we do down the line to see that this initiative not only enriches and encourages the faithful who are in church, but also reaches out to the unchurched?

What was your experience this past weekend? Does it make you confident that this observance of the Sunday of the Word will take hold? What are your hopes for next year’s celebration?

13 comments

  1. Our diocese had no rollout, and though our visiting priest this weekend preached well, the observance was ignored, but for the usual proclamation of the Word. My cynical sense is that we are stuffed full of special collections and causes, Catechetical Sunday, Catholic Schools Week, Respect Life Sunday, and the like. I think particular communities will observe it and celebrate well.

  2. It was not observed in any open way at 8AM on Sunday at Boston’s Cathedral.

    I do not have confidence that it will have durable legs.

    Even Divine Mercy Sunday, which had and has a core posse of devotees (unlike Word of God Sunday), has not had the legs of, say, the Sacred Heart or Immaculate Heart devotions. Even on the starboard side of St Blog’s, annual reminders for DMS are less broadly shared as the earth spins forward and other matters grab attentions.

    I would be happy to have my non-confidence confounded.

  3. Our diocese is holding a Year of the Word, with talks and study days in different places through the year.
    Our parish has just started a bible study group – lay led – which is going to work its way through Matthew. About a dozen attended, which isn’t bad for a blustery winter evening. The parish has provided copies of the gospel for the group.
    The book of gospels is being processed in at the start and is “enthroned” after the gospel is read.

    1. It can be watched here, around minute 25: https://youtu.be/o5e8zIFU4Pg.

      The commentator says it was a Book of the Gospel and not the lectionary. (Little did I know that either book existed in the form we know them from today. I assumed most people just read right from the Missal, moving it from one of the altar to another.)

      Of course, while it may be The Book of the Gospels used during the Second Vatican Council, they clearly had to flip around to find the proper pericope for the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle A. All the more so, because Matthew 4: 12-23 didn’t appear in the Tridentine Mass. So it probably wasn’t a liturgical book that was used this past Sunday, but literally a book with the four gospels in it. And definitely not a lectionary.

      But in terms of the “traditional one”, that’s true if defined from the 16th century and later–What existed for the first 1500 years must not be traditional.

      1. Just because the book was enthroned doesn’t mean it was also the one USED for the readings.
        Joseph Jungman says it took many years before the Tridentine Mass was adopted in some countries. The NO has the same experience.
        I believe we need to allow time for the WoGS to take root. Traditions will develop. Even the Tridentine Mass was new once. And I imagine it met resistance from some for its innovations. And it was tweaked over the centuries. Remember when they added St Joseph to the Roman Canon?
        People will share ideas. Some will be accepted, others rejected. Practices become customs become traditions.
        Perhaps someone will find something from the past that can be used. Or from the Eastern Rites?
        We blessed Bibles at our parish. First time I saw so many Bibles in a Catholic Church.
        Looking for other ideas going forward.

  4. Not even mentioned at our parish or our diocese.

    Hey, Peter, same scripture, tho, correct? Yeah, readings may be different – so what? Your point? Possible conspiracy theory behind this?

  5. I am a weekend supply priest. I preached on it, but I do not know if the parish priest did. The music was attuned to the Gospel reading of the call of the disciples. There was no mention of it in the parish bulletin or the introduction to the Mass read by the lector. I know our diocese provided lots of materials for use several months ago.

  6. I’ve taken Cantalamessa to accompany me through the Liturgical year. And so, following the Baptism of the Lord, Cantalamessa offers two preached “retreats”. Part 1 The Mystery of God’s Word and Part 2 Jesus Began to Preach. As Cantalamessa preaches to the Papal Household it is possible that the celebration of the Sunday of the Word of God is the fruit of that preaching. Neither text is a speedy read though they lead easily to Lectio.

    Thru Amazon Part 2 was available thru Prime delivery, making it quick and convenient to send copies to local communities in praise and thanksgiving for the Celebration of the Sunday of the Word of God. The Sunday of the Word of God was on calendar collision course with the launching of the Annual Bishop’s Appeal. Pews littered with golf pencils and forms to fill out or tba. Sometimes, one can only sow a seed and pray for rain.

    My own reading of the texts moves slowly with surprising ponder-ables. As I am not as roadworthy as I once was – often, it is the streaming of Mass from St. John’s Abbey that is my Sunday observance. I’ve not missed a ‘monk Mass’ in some years. Once – their homilies were Yes, and to my parish experience. Of late, it is all about the music, the choice of hymns, and the cantor — don’t touch the mic for it is positioned for the cantor.
    There was in this Sunday’s homily – a sentence that stood out that wove together OT and NT praising of the Word of God. I will leave you to find it while it is available there.
    More and more, I am finding that it is for me to do what I can do, in this then to Celebrate the Sunday of the Word of God, and leave others to do what they can do.
    So perhaps a follow up question to be raised is How did/are we – Beloved Disciples – to celebrate the Sunday of the Word of God (and the Mondays through Saturdays that follow)?
    Some how I don’t believe the invitation was a one-off with a better luck next year option.

  7. I didn’t notice anything in particular at our parish, but let me mention a practice in one synagogue service I once attended that I’m sure is widespread in these. When the scroll of the Torah was brought into the sanctuary many including me came to touch it and be blessed. Now we Catholics are not encouraged to do this in our liturgies, neither at Rita’s parish nor elsewhere, nor at one liturgy conference I once attended at which the book of the Gospels was lifted in a dance before us. I say add the tactile to the visual and auditory experience.

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