For the Season of the Word: A Biography of the Lectionary

I have mentioned a number of times in posts for the Pray Tell blog that I was privileged for a number of years to work with Lucien Deiss, CSSp (1921–2007), who was part of the group appointed after the Second Vatican Council to assemble the Lectionary for Mass. Fascinated to be with someone who was (to use a phrase that emerged years later) in “the room where it happened,” I would often ask him questions about the Lectionary and its creation—the psalter in particular. A man of genuine humility (who also had as one of his greatest fears speaking uncharitably about others), I was not successful in prying loose many stories or much information from him.

So nothing Lectionary-related could have delighted me more than to learn that Paul Turner had written a “biography” of the Lectionary. Within the hour, I had secured permission to do a review for the blog. (Full disclosure: the prospect of receiving a free copy of this book was no small incentive!)

The introductory section gives a thorough background of the project beginning with the Council itself, and then progressing through the personnel and more than three hundred schemata that eventually were approved by Paul VI in 1969. The overarching criteria used were encountering Christ in the liturgical year (especially through a larger offering of Old Testament passages), the influence of early twentieth-century advances in scripture scholarship, and a concern for catechetical effectiveness. The organization was around the principles of harmonization (especially Old and New Testaments), semi-continuous reading/proclamation, and giving certain pericopes “pride of place,” retaining them for special Sundays and feast days.

As you might imagine, the bulk of the book consists of a presentation (and bit of analysis) of the readings as they are presented through the course of the liturgical year. Where an original proposal or plan was later altered, it is noted—and only rarely with any sort of speculation as to why the change may have occurred. This restraint contributes to the sense of solid research and scholarship that permeates this book. A section on weekdays follows, with much helpful correlation made between weekday liturgies and the conciliar revisions to the liturgical calendar. Though not as in-depth a presentation (which would have likely doubled the book’s size), the same care is taken as in the “Sundays and Solemnities” section.

In eight pages of “concluding observations” there is a treasure trove of insights which flow from the author’s work on this book, as well as from his years of ministry as a preacher and musician. Included are some honest presentations of ways in which the Lectionary has been critiqued over the years. A “dossier” of the studies on lectionaries from the members of the original working group concludes the book.

For a work in this genre, the absence of indexes seemed, at first, a curious omission. Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that aside from the enormity of the task, it would have again increased the size of the book substantially. The price for a softcover book may seem high, but for a resource like this that can be turned to again it is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a fair price to ask.

Fortunately, this book arrived near the beginning of the new liturgical year, and so I have already had three weeks to discover that it makes an excellent Sunday-by-Sunday spiritual companion, and would be well worth offering to parish lectors. Though the scholarship is—as one would expect—important and exemplary, it may be as a partner in formation with the Lectionary and the liturgical year that its greatest contribution might be made.

Turner, Paul. Words without Alloy: A Biography of the Lectionary for MassCollegeville: Liturgical Press Academic, 2022. $34.95. 296 pages. ISBN: 9780814667637, 6763.

REVIEWER: Alan Hommerding

2 comments

  1. I finished my first reading within days of its arrival. I posed my questions to Father Turner who was not able to answer them, so I publish them here:

    1) I am so grateful for the mention of Sister Maria Philippa Schurmans twice in the book; she seems to have made the essential connection between the readings and the Eucharist that we see in paragraph 3 of the Introduction to the Lectionary. Alas I do not have access to Schemata 165, p. 30. And I didn’t find her listed in the index to the Italian edition of Bugnini. Can anyone tell me anything about her?

    2) I was hoping to learn from page 41 who wrote the 100 additional paragraphs to the Introduction to the Lectionary.

    3) I too miss an index. Adobe InDesign has had an indexing feature since at least 2008.

    4) And, regarding page 201, who deleted 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 from Corpus Christi and Holy Thursday? I continually get flak from my more conservative students about this.

  2. @Paul Ford:

    The relevant section of Schema 165 is as follows:

    «Missale romanum, in dominicis et maioribus festis, aliquando etiam in diebis ferialibus (Quadragesimae et Adventus), quasdam antiphonae ad Communionen praebet stricte cum Evangelio vel Epistola connexas. Soror Maria Philippa Schurians huius dispositionis momentum theologicum et pastorale apte demonstravit: unitas enim celebrationis extollitur et insimul evidentius apparet realismus eucharisticus, que mysterium, a verbo Dei proclamatum et praesens factum, a sacramento novam “actualitatem” et efficacitatem acquirit. Quod non impedit usum antiphonarum, iuxta rubricam Gradualis simplicis, sensun eucharisticum et indolem potius generalem prae se ferentium, ita ut omni tempore adhiberi possint.»

    As for your question about 1 Corinthians 11, the “who” is Coetus XI and, ultimately, Paul VI. My own hypothesis as to the “why” can be found in an article I wrote in June 2021. Absent any other documentation (possibly contained in various archives, yet to be discovered), I think this is the most that can be said about the omission itself.

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