Books are Wonderful Things, But Not in the Liturgy

One of the oldest things I own is a book. It is a printed copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost from 1678. 333 years old! Older even than this country. It was printed only 11 years after Milton first published it. It’s still in good condition too. Printed in London in 1678 and somehow, by miracle, on my shelf in Washington DC after all these years. I often pick it up with reverence and read passages, wondering how many other eyes, eyes of men and women long gone, have passed over the very same text, it lighting up their mind as it does mine now. How many hands held it? On what shelves did it rest? Did George Washington or Ben Franklin ever hold it? Who is to say?

Ah yes, the book. A wonderful thing. Yet some are predicting the death of the book as we know it. Recently an article appeared on this topic at the Los Angeles Review of Books, by Ben Ehrenreich. Just a brief excerpt here:

Last I checked, Googling “death of the book” produced 11.8 million matches. The day before it was 11.6 million. It’s getting unseemly. Books were once such handsome things. Suddenly they seem clunky, heavy, almost fleshy in their gross materiality…..

Last summer Amazon announced that it was selling more e-books than the paper kind. The time to fret had passed. It was Kindle vs. kindling. MIT Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte—whose name is frequently preceded by the word “futurist”—declared that the demise of the paper book should be written in the present tense. ”It’s happening,” Negroponte said, and gave the pulpy artifacts just five years to utterly expire.

All of our words for book refer, at root, to forms no longer recognizable as such: biblos being the Greek word for the pith of the papyrus stalk (on which texts in the Greco-Roman world were inscribed); libri being Latin for the inner bark of a tree, just as the Old English bóc and Old Norse bók referred to the beech tree. Likewise “tome” is from a Greek word for a cutting (of papyrus) and “volume” is from the Latin for a rolled-up thing—a scroll, which is the form most texts took until they were replaced by folded parchment codices. … The printed, paper book, as we know it, dates only to the mid-fifteenth century, but those early Gutenberg exemplars were hardly something you’d curl up with on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The book as an affordable object of mass production—as something directly kin to the books that line our shelves—was not born until the 19th century, just in time for the early announcements of its death. [1]

But I refuse to accept the predicted death of the Book. I like my Kindle, and there are some things I prefer to read in that format. I can also travel lighter. But in the end it doesn’t beat the book for quick sequential access and beauty. I don’t care what they say, moving back and forth through a text quickly just isn’t that simple on an electronic reader. Lots of clunky keystrokes and guesswork is still required. True, one can search the text and copy and paste text with ease, but quickly flipping through an electronic book is not an easy thing.

Books are also in their special glory when it comes to combining art and illustrations with text. I just bought Dennis McNarama’s Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy and the splendidly illustrated and colorful book just doesn’t work on a Kindle or other portable reader.  You just have to get the hard copy, it’s magnificent in the way it brings art and word together. Yes, the trusty book, and I love being able to dog-ear a page!

Yes, I think books will be with us for a while yet, but more an more they will need to do what books do best: present not only word, but picture, illustration, and quick access to the text.

So, I like books!

But, paradoxically, when it comes to books in the liturgy, I say, “Away with them! Clearly the clergy need the sacramentary and the lectors, the lectionary. Musicians too most often need some printed reference materials. But in the end, the faithful, if you ask me, should strive to worship without books, other than a hymnal. The liturgy is meant to be seen and heard. Some claim they cannot follow without the books and “worship-aids.” But I suspect the problem, then, is poorly presented liturgy, poorly trained lectors and clergy, if you will. The goal is to go “hands-free”and to allow the liturgy to unfold. Incessant references to texts and the “order of service” steal away some of the mystery, and cause us to look down at texts, rather than up and outward at the liturgy before us.

I once had a Protestant visitor who expressed concern that we did not announce chapter and verse when we proclaimed the Scripture. For her, the Bible was the physical book she carried. I explained that the Catholic tradition stretched back long before books were affordable and literacy was presupposed. In the Catholic Tradition the Word of God is what is proclaimed, more than what is printed. Even today, in many parts of the Catholic world, literacy is low. So the Church proclaims God’s Word, in the Liturgy, but also in the stone carvings, stained glass, music and the art of the Church. The Word is proclaimed and heard more than being thought of as a printed page. Yes, the liturgy is older than newsprint missalettes and widespread literacy.

Protestantism, on the the other hand emerged at the time just after the invention of the printing press and grew up with the rise of literacy in the West. The Bible, as a printed book, thus came to the fore and their liturgy turned more from a sacrifice to a kind of Bible Study. Chapter and verse (a Catholic invention, by the way) became more central when the Book is the main point. Now, I love Bible Study and the Protestant tradition has made quite an art of the preached word. This is commendable and worth imitating, but the often single focus on the printed book can short-change worship and certainly sacrifice.

Liturgically the Word is to be proclaimed, explicated and celebrated largely as a listening event. Then, the Word must become Flesh in the Eucharist. And as Christ, our Word, becomes flesh for us.  And as we receive that flesh, He becomes one with us, and enables us to live his Word. All of this is so much more than a printed page or a physical book. The proclaimed Word is experienced and transforms us and we receive its power not only through the spoken Word but also the Sacrament of the Word made flesh.

I realize that, whenever I suggest going largely “book-less” in the Mass I often get push-back. I understand the controversy I create, and also the laments over poor acoustics, lectors and clergy.  But what do you think of the goal? Books are wonderful things, but I wonder if the pew is the place for them? As we go to the new translation, some cards and printed material may need to make a brief reappearance.  But in the end, a good listening ear, hearts open to obedience, and eyes in search of glory (rather than the right page) are the greatest “worship aids.”

How say you?

Here’s an old classic video on the invention of the book.

81 Replies to “Books are Wonderful Things, But Not in the Liturgy”

  1. I think this is spot-on, at least for vernacular liturgies (or for the parts of liturgies in the vernacular). But what of liturgies done in the language of the Roman Rite, Latin? After all, hand missals came about as a result of the old liturgical movement wanting people to “pray the Mass.” Might your anti-book sentiment lead away from a re-grafting of liturgy to our inherited Tradition without meaning to do so?

    A second point–today is the optional memorial of St. Damien de Veuster (of Molokai, the Leper Priest, etc.) He is recently-canonized, so his feast day appears in few printed books. It seems rational that electronic versions of liturgical texts will become quite handy in this century to incorporate new saints, changed prayers, etc. Rather than “bookless” here, the improvement would be to move toward dynamic, electronic books. I suspect few seminarians and younger priests use anything but Universalis anymore to pray their Office.

    1. You touched on something that I was wondering about: what about the EF? Otherwise I agree with everything the good Msgr. said. Way back around 2000 or so they took our missals away from us (I was only 12 so I didn’t care) but I remember my father being upset about it. They would keep a few missals in the back of the church for the hearing impaired (seems like a reasonable thing to do).

      Now that I’m thinking about the whole thing, maybe they should start putting missals in the pews that are Latin only 🙂 or even imitate the EF missals and have the Latin on one side and the English on the other to facilitate the incorporation of Latin into the liturgy.

      1. Thanks for sharing your experience. To be clear, I do not advocate “taking away missals” Rather my point is to encourage people to make less use of them and to grow away from the tendency to be buried in a book. The last thing I want is for “nazi”-liturgists to be re-empowered to impose things.

        My points are really two-fold:

        1. The extensive use of books by the faithful is relatively new. Twas not always so, for widespread literacy is recent.

        2. There is a vision of liturgy to be recapture: attentive listening and visual experience which attachment to books can hinder.

    2. Yes, I suppose if translation is an issue there may be some value in having them near at hand. But, having done more than a few Traditional Latin Masses for various congregations on a first-time or one-time basis, I actually encouraged them not to get buried in the notes for the mass but to look up and experience more fully what is actually happening and the beauty that is unfolding. A quick look at the notes was more the idea and then set them aside and behold the glory. The priest, after all is talking primarily to God so it isn’t essential that the people know every Latin word at the very time it is chanted. Further, the priest whispers a good part of the canon, so it’s better to be prayerfully attentive rather than to be anxious about “what is he saying now and what does it mean.” The readings are surely good to have in translation, though, there too, we proclaim them again in English at the homily moment. At any rate, your point still hold that it is important for people to have references when language is other than vernacular.

  2. How say you?

    I say that we do whatever best facilitates our being one with the Word. If for some that is best accomplished by listening, by all means, but down the book. But if for others, that is best accomplished by having a missal and reading the readings, and having to only listen is a hinderance to uniting with the Word, then do that.

    No need to set up a bunch of rules that put form before substance, at least with respect to the readings. Whatever works best, do that.

    Now, as far as the various prayers of the Mass are concerned — Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, Agnus Dei — I should think that folks would have those memorized at least after the first 100 or so Masses they have attended. With respect to such prayers, I agree that having to read them, rather than pray them from the heart, would tend to be a hinderance to being fully engaged in the liturgy.

    However, Ryan bringing up the Liturgy of the Hours — if the laity are to pray it at all, since we long ago stopped having to memorize the entirety of the Psalms (as they did in the days when Jesus walked amongst us), then they will necessarily have to have a book in hand to read them and the other various prayers aloud.

    1. Yes, although I was not speak of the LOH just the Mass. In the end, you are right, whatever is best for the individual, I am more proposing a vision than trying to impose a “no books” agenda

  3. I disagree with you Msgr. Paper books are doomed. No doubt also, 300 years from now no one will know what a Kindle was or how to turn it on. To that extent books will outlast present day digital. But, the future is clearly marching away from paper and toward something else. You may like them, but they are dust. Horse and buggy anybody?

    As to you second point, I’ve met very few priests who could pull off what you do on your homilies. Most, need a script! Extemporaneous speaking and great memory are real gifts. And I think a lot of men considering the priesthood would simply shy away from such a demand. Our parish priest reads his homily. I’m not distracted by that. But, I wish he had an ounce of your zeal! Don’t let any of that go to your head! 🙂

    1. Ok thanks, though going bookless was more a matter of the pew than the pulpit. Also, regarding a priest who reads the sermon Fulton Sheen once said, “Glory be to God, I he can’t remember it, how does he expect me to remember it?” But I DO understand that some priests struggle with the “public” aspect of public speaking.

      1. Monsignor, Blessed John Henry Newman used to read very long sermons written out word for word to chapel-packing nearly silent congregations consisting of Anglican students at Oxford who were soon having to miss Sunday dinner to come listen to his unexpressive voice.

        Archbishop Sheen made a good point, but not everyone has his particular talents.

    2. John, do you suppose that faculty of memory has anything to do with dependence or independence of electronic memory?

  4. Books are proper at Mass, not only since Scriptures is part of the Word of God but also because some people need braille, other people need to read to concentrate, and still others are completely new to the sacrament. Contemplation is no stranger to action, nor is understanding a stranger to prudence.

    1. I only object to your use of the word “proper” since my point is that they are largely a modern addition to the Mass in terms of their use in the pew.

      1. I was under the impressions books were always used at Mass. How modern are we talking? Ten years? Fifty years?

        1. Well, it wasn’t until the late 1940s that the use of missals was promoted and it was through the 1950s that they became quite insisted upon by the clergy. But remember, prior to WWII the number of Catholics who were literate was must less than today, go back fifty years and the number was even less, compounded by the fact that we were a peasant Church of largely foreign born immigrants prior to 1920. So when I say recent we are talking about the last 100 years really. But widespread use of missals was not promoted until after WWII.

          1. That’s pretty new compared to over 2,000 years in the Age of the Church.

  5. Sorry, I like my books. I want to follow along with the readings. Some audio systems are not exactly kind to the ears and some lectors……well, I’ll be kind and say they are lacking in reading skills. I’m a visual person.

    1. OK, fine, but I would like to challenge you and others (including me) to be better listeners. It is actually a skill that can be developed. We moderns are terrible listeners and have poor attention spans. As for being a visual person, I am actually seeking to engage that aspect for my point is that the liturgy isn’t in a book, its in the action before and around us.

      Further, People who watch TV don’t demand to have the script ahead of time and then read along because they are “visual types” There is more to this question than, “this is just how I am.” That said, I am not trying to forbid was is clearly allowed, just issue a challenge to accept a balancing vision.

      Lectors et al. do need more training, we can always improve.

      1. “We moderns are terrible listeners and have poor attention spans.” – Yes, we are, and the first is a direct result of widespread literacy, while the latter is a result of the rapid-paced, ever-changing media world to which we have become accustomed.

        We may bemoan this, but it is true. People can be trained to listen, yes – but not in a few minutes a week. Listening and retaining was natural to the non-literate societies of the past – it was essential not only at Mass but in all forms of information-transmission, from directions for preparing food to chronicles of times past and everything in between. It is not natural to us – we print out directions from the internet and use recipe cards and history books and all kinds of written transmission of information. People decried the slide rule because using it caused people to lose the ability to do mental math. Our brains adapt to the world around us. Should the Church force people to re-acquire an otherwise unnecessary skill, or should she adapt in order to be “all things to all people”? Why did Pope Damasus have the Bible translated into Latin?

        “People who watch TV don’t demand to have the script ahead of time and then read along because they are “visual types” Actually, television is both visual and auditory. Although I’m sure there are people out there who think we should have video for all the readings . . .

  6. Perhaps there is no need for books at the Novus Ordo.
    Indeed, I have trouble reading or praying at the Novus Ordo (which I find very noisy – there’s always a guitar being strum or something being said aloud).

    But at a Tridentine (Latin) Mass, I find my 1962 hand missal invaluable.
    It enables me to “pray the Mass” with the priest – and is chock full of supplemental prayers that really enrich Mass.

    This is especially well suited to the LatIn Mass, which contains so many moments of blessed silence, where one can really meditate and pray.

  7. If your comments are directed at the use of “missalettes” or even personal missals, I think it is an act of kindness to provide these aids to the many (at least in my experience) who are hearing-impaired, especially as most parish congregations tend to be older. Furthermore, in a multi-ethnic church such as the Catholic Church is in much, if not most, of our country, the variations in accents both of readers and clergy, not to mention the familiarity of many listeners withe American’s accented reading, makes the missalette a good pastoral tool.

    1. Yes, true enough Msgr. I wouldn’t want to be unkind or to aggressively insist that missals not be used. What I am trying to do is offer a vision that the use of these materials has a down side and, if possible, using them less, not more, is worth considering by the individual. But, as you point out there are reasons for a parish to provide these materials.

      As an interesting note about the ethnic quality of Masses today, I do not speak Spanish fluently, so when, at large diocesan Masses, one of the readings is in Spanish, I am tempted to take up the worship aid and read the English translation. But in recent years I have stopped doing that, other than, a quick glance at the text prior to mass. What I have found is that just hearing a word here or there is a fascinating experience of God’s word, often it is just that word or phrase that God wants me to hear. It kind of leaps out if you will. I don’t say everyone will experience the Word this way, but for me, I have taken the challenge of taking my own medicine, and I find it is a fascinating experience.

      Thanks Msgr. for your reminder about Charity in such matters.

  8. I, too, thought that there should be no books except hymnals so the people can fully participate in the liturgy by ‘actively’ listening. Our parish had no missalettes up until this year with our new pastor. We had been paperless for about 2 years and then there was an idea to just print the readings in a little booklet form for those who kept requesting the missalette. The booklet morphed into readings and major prayers and seriously took up a lot of time and labor to produce. Thus the return to the purchased missalette with hymns, prayers and readings.

    Since ordination and working with the liturgy committee, I have since been made more conscious of concerns by the congregation. It seems the attention span of some requires a handheld item that they can focus on to remain on task within the liturgy. My questions are, “Do they still remain on task?”, “Is it a TASK to worship?”, “Is the congregation fully catechized on how to worship anymore?” and “What can we do to turn this around?”

    The new translation may be a mixed blessing. We will have to concentrate more on the words we speak and read them with more intensity to say them correctly, so we may bring our minds more into contact with worship. But we still will have paper in our hands and everyone will stumble for a while making worship frustrating for some.

    The answer is obvious as you have already stated. More vibrant and alive liturgy! Prayers said with meaning and fervor, Songs sung with passion. And homilies delivered as if the Resurrection happened yesterday! These elements will help lift the eyes of the people off the page and up to the altar to see what all the excitement is about. Lots of work to do, lots and lots. Holy Spirit, give us strength and endurance!

  9. There should be Bibles in the pews for those who have not memorized the scriptures. In this Bible would be a listing of all readings from any possible Liturgy.Don’t take away the active participation of those who are aided by the written word.Let us empower the people in the congregation! Let it be encouraged.

  10. Using my missal, even in the ordinary form, helps me pray the Mass. I will have to respectfully disagree with the good Father!

  11. No. You’re not the first priest that I’ve heard say this, but … no.

    The problem is that many of us do not process aurally very well. If you take away our ability to read along with the readings, you may as well skip them entirely.

    1. OK fine, but thanks for considering my challenge. I am not trying to take away anything, just instill a vision and a challenge.

      In the end, please also consider that aural skills can be developed, like other skills. Awkward at first, but poised later on. I am seeking to instill a vision here more than a rule. Collectively we are poor listeners today and more visual, but twas not always so. Our attention spans and patient listening need development if you ask me (and even if you don’t) 🙂

  12. What do the Orthodox do?

    I understand that America is a Protestant country, and that even American Catholicism is in a certain sense a kind of Protestantism, but I would be interested to see these comparisons extended to the Orthodox, as they are theologically much closer to Catholics, and liturgically in possession of their inheritance in a way that American Catholics no longer appreciate with regard to our own.

    1. Not sure, the Orthodox liturgies I have attended (and some unitate as well) did not well lend themselves to books since it was largely a sung, Call and response format and they just seemed to know what to sing and say.

  13. As a young man I saw my parents using St. Joseph missals during the Latin Mass. That way they could follow the Mass in English versus Latin. So the old saw about needing to have a vernacular Mass is bunk.

    I say get rid of the trendy Novus Ordo and bring in the Novus Ordo with Latin for the Liturgy of the Eucharistic. Leave English for the Liturgy of the Word. Sometimes I wonder if the homily should be an insert in the bulletin. At least that way when words of wisdom are being passed on the people have a second chance to weigh their merit.

      1. So few of our Catholics know the real teachings of the faith and are reluctant to open our CCC to find answers. When a homily includes specific articles of faith, not just words of consolation or explainations about how great God’s love is for us, it would be a kindness to put the actual words in a handout. If people are hard of hearing the gospel read then think of how much harder it is when they are hearing a homily that is unique and unpublished. If people have trouble staying on task, so to speak, when the readings are being proclaimed then I can olny imagine that when a homily is being delivered those people are running a mental checklist of what they are going to be doing after Mass etc.

        Love your blog.

  14. I learn best by reading, and I remember what I see. I can quote scripture that I have read but a few times, yet I can’t remember the lyrics to songs I’ve heard a hundred times. And what about Holy Week and the reading of the Passion and the participation of the parishioners, how many people know the text verbatim? Do you?

    On a more humble note, when I teach PSR and my students begin to glaze over I have to ask myself, why is the Word not reaching them? In other words, where have I failed in my delivery? It has nothing to do with acoustics obviously, but the book sometimes helps immensely, especially with strange words and unusual names.

    Give me a book I say, or at least give me something to follow along with. I’ve been to services where the readings (and sometimes the songs) are printed on a sheet or two and handed out at each Mass. I particularly like this format, because I can take it home to reread and meditate on the readings. I’ve even taken notes from time to time as thoughts come to me.

    1. Note sure what PSR is, so, perhaps I am missing your main point there.

      But anyway, your comments are similar to others in that you say you are more visual and I understand that, but want to continue to raise the challenge that it is not simply an answer to say “I’m visual” for all of us can and should grow in our abilities. A lot of people in our culture need to read more and develop those skills along with learning to spell, grammar etc. But others need to develop better listening skills. So, while understanding that we all have preferences and strengths I hope we can also accept the challenge to develop and not simply say, “this is the way I am.”

      I know that I need to learn to listen more, for I too am a book learner.

  15. Father, I could not disagree more. Without the missalette, liturgists are free to modify prayers and readings with no one the wiser.

    1. qwertyuiop,

      anyone being the wiser has not stopped liturgists from modifying the prayers and readings so far.

      What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.

  16. About 20 years ago I attended a funeral Mass for a member of a community band in which I played. I had been fond of this older gentlemen, with whom I would trade quips during rehearsals, and I was saddened by his death. His intelligence and humor also endeared him to many others in the band, and thus a good number of us were in attendance at his funeral.

    I knew, of course, that I could not take Communion but I expected to fully participate otherwise.

    My first hint of trouble was when I looked at the program. The hymns and the readings were noted, but there were no page numbers for the various parts of the liturgy and associated music.

    I managed to find the Gloria near the front of the missalette (sp?) but I soon realized that what I was hearing had nothing to do with the music printed on the page. I thumbed forward through the pages, hoping to find whatever setting was being used. Those standing around me were no help because they were fellow band members in the same boat as I. Most gave up, and settled for standing up, sitting down, and kneeling as appropriate. Because as a regular Lutheran churchgoer I at least knew the liturgical text, I faked my way through the music as best I could.

    By the end of the Mass I was furious. By failing to provide any guidance to the Mass, the parish made it clear that my participation, and perhaps my very presence was unwelcome. I wouldn’t expect the grieving family to take into consideration the many non-Catholics who likely would be at the Mass, but certainly the priest should have known better.

    The “figure it out for yourself, doofus” attitude is by no means unique to the particular event nor to the particular parish. I find that attitude unwelcoming, uncaring, and extremely off-putting. Even my in-laws, who faithfully attend Mass every week and are active in their home parish, need our assistance when they visit us because they’re not familiar with the setting my parish uses nor with the missal used by the Washington Archdiocese.

    The parish I’ve found to be most welcoming is St Vincent in Berkeley Springs, WV. There the cantor announces the celebrant, the Mass setting used, and the page on which it can be found. That announcement, which takes so litter time or effort, makes such a huge difference.

    1. Hmm…. I have been to protestant and orthodox services and was not provided a blow by blow description either, but like you I faked it. But in the end, I am not sure I wasn’t furious or anything and didn’t think I was being considered a doofus. I guess I just expected to have an experience of something different and was interested in the similarities and differences. For me the experience was more important than what page or what is my response. The mystery was fascinating, especially in the Eastern Liturgies, creating a kind of wow factor.

      For a lot of new converts and also frequent visitors, I often advise that osmosis is a great way to learn too and that knowing all the responses and prayers today isn’t always the most essential thing. Letting it sink in and come together has a place in the way we learn and enter the mystery more fully.

      Even when I used to go to Alanon meetings we often encouraged newcomers or visitors not to try and figure out exactly what we were and how it all worked but to try six meetings and after about six meetings they would “get it.”

      But anyway, all this is light years from what you are expressing, I realize. It’s just a different approach that invites one into an experience rather than has one get involved right away.

  17. I think you make some great points Mgsr. I like my Kindle a lot but should the world continue on it’s path more Katrina’s, Japan’s, Christchurch’s, Australia’s floods, Pakistan’s floods, the middle America floods will occur, but on an even larger scale; the West will become more like it once was, and more like a lot of the Earth still is.

    I eargerly wait a book from a deceased author that has been written posthumously and will be published this fall that I will definitely buy the day it comes out in hardback, simply because I prefer a large book, the smell and feel of it, as opposed to the Kindle. Nevertheless the Kindle is awesome for taking on trips.

    Regarding the Liturgy. I would point you to Fr Stephen in his blog Glory to God for All Things. He made an excellent post last year about how Protestants (he used to be one), emphasize the Bible too much and relegate it to the same argument that Muslims and Mormans do. An argument about a book. Christianity cannot be reduced to Bible versus Koran versus Book of Morman. Whereas if you’re Catholic, your argument is in the Risen Christ, the Real Presence of Christ among us, and not an argument about a book. The Tradition and Mass are much, much more. Christianity is much, much more than “just a book.”

    Pointing out that the West has operated under false pretences and forgotten its history and what the rest of the struggling world deals with is a good start.

    1. Yes, your remarks take the discussion to the next level. Pope Benedict and also the Catechism remind us that we are not MERELY a religion of the book. Our Scriptures are part of something bigger, and something (someone) living: the Body of Christ.

  18. While I’m not opposed to people using books if it enhances their experience of liturgy (hearing issues, visual learners, etc.) I agree that the ideal is bookless. I would even take it further though. I had a priest friend who always made a point to memorize the prayers for each mass as part of his preparation. Granted, he had a remarkable memory, but he also made a great effort, and the result was a priest speaking to God, not reciting from a book to God.

    1. Yes, I have also experienced some of this in that large parts of the Mass (though not the Changeable prayers) are committed to my memory and I largely focus on God when I am praying them. The New translation will alter some of this for a while, But, no doubt, they’ll be in my memory before long. I personally dislike being too tied to a printed text for the same reasons you state.

  19. Dear Monsignor Pope:

    I quibble with you. Yes, one can be too buried in his book at Mass, but the idea that the only good way to adequately assist is by listening and watching, is too narrow. After all, the priest offering the Mass has his nose in one book or another through out the liturgy.

    My Latin is pretty good having been a Classics major, but i still like the Missal for the EF. In fact, I find that varying my approach to the Mass is a guard against day dreaming or sleeping. Sometimes, I hardly use the missal. I privately pray things appropriate to the different parts of the mass (offering at the Offertory, thanksgiving/adoration at the Canon, unworthiness/hope-for-eternal life–prayer-for-others at Communion. Other times, I follow along word by word. Still other times, I flip back and forth and sometimes will fall into one of those terrible condemned private devotions like the rosary or the Jesus prayer.

    Oh and, in addition, having the text of the propers really helps one enter into the liturgy. If I had been exposed to the old mass as a boy, I am sure it would have been memorized in no time as kids are sponges. Other times

    Attending OF, which I do much more frequently than the EF, the missalette is really not neccessary given how thin the prayers are, though I llike it handy if I mishear one of the readings, etc. or one of the show tunes. My parish of origin where my parents remain and one of my brothers, just heaped an additional wreckovation to the tune of 4 million which features screens where side altars should be upon which are projected the words for the show tunes. My agnostic/atheistic 16 year old had, at least, the sense to realize that such a thing should be restricted to Scientology Halls.

    Finally, an anecdote. I was living in Paris and it was 1988. Even then, the churches in Paris were empty and the modern liturgy there particurarly anemic. On the metro I noticed a pretty girl with a beautiful missal on her lap. So, confiteor, I followed her from a discrete distance in to the church of St. Nicholas du Chardonet and experienced for the first time what an organic, traditional liturgy was. Incidently, the congregartion there participated in most impressive manner. So missals are wonderful things to own, to carry, to follow, or just to fall back on. And as one person remarked above, the preparation and Thanksgiving prayers in them are abosolutely to be valued.



  20. Pope Pius XII does not share this opinion and explicitly stated the opposite in his encyclical Mediator Dei.

    1. Well, OK, but to be fair a lot has changed liturgically since 1950. I do not quibble with using a missal for a Latin Mass, though, even there, some limits can be observed. As for the New Mass, it seems to me that a missal is less necessary and so a gentle nudge from me to consider a less bookish Mass may not be to reject Pius XII of happy memory.

  21. As always I have learned something new. I grew up being admondished (mostly by my Mom) to follow the Mass in the Missalette, especially the readings. Following along in the St. Joseph’s Missal was helpful when we attended the Latin Mass. When I married my husband we sometines went to services in Polish and I found even if I didn’t know the exact words I was pretty sure I knew where we were in the Mass (universality!). At HCSC the Mass is a vibrant and beautifully celebrated. The time has come for me to put down the book and just listen to the readings. I am liberated from yet another spiritual push-up!

    1. Thanks. I am glad that you find liturgy celebrated in such a way as to make that possible. Here at our parish the lectors are quite skilled and proclamation of the Word well above average!

  22. I like my hand missal because it let’s me not look at the pretty girl in tight jeans.

  23. We use the Missalette for two things: The Responsorial Psalm because I can’t always remember the whole response or somtimes the cantor chanting it, and secondly the hymns because I don’t have them all memorized either.

    1. Yes, you are right, sometimes the chanted response is harder to hear or understand. Though I have to say, musically, the notes in the missalette are almost never the ones sung.

  24. I go to church to hear the word of God proclaimed and heard. I glance at the readings before the mass but then put the book away. The power of the Gospel read aloud goes to the heart, it is meant to be heard!
    What a marvel and what grace it is to hear it during the Holy Mass!

  25. For the EF, English translations of the readings are needed – the old St. Joseph Daily Missal comes to mind. Exception: the Last Gospel in the EF is always the first dozen verses from the Gospel of John – that can sort of be memorized; one just listens for “Et verbo carno factum” (or something like that) so you know when to genuflect.

    My wife & I try to get to Mass a few minutes early, so we can go through the readings in the missalette before Mass starts. Then we can focus on listening to what the lector (or the homilist) reads, rather than reading at the same time. But we still need the missalette for this purpose, which does work on Sundays.
    For weekday masses, we do have some familiarity with the texts used for the readings. But how many adults, even those involved in occasional liturgies or Christian education, have read entirely through the Bible. E.g., do you know where to find the story of Susannah and the elders? (Daniel). Do you know about Esther? About Tobit, and the appearance in Scripture of the archangel Raphael? We are among the small percentage of adult Catholics who do; but we did this after our children were grown, and while taking a course at our diocesan catechetical center.
    Somehow the concept of a Presider reading the prayers of consecration out of a Kindle bug me. I may just be old-fashioned, but in the absence of an ongoing persecution, where one does not want to be found possessing a “Christian Sacred book”, the use of electronic aids instead of the written word for sacred liturgies just seems wrong.

  26. With respect, I disagree with you Monsignor. It is wonderful to think that we should challenge people to listen more at Mass. Unfortunately, I do not believe that will happen. The attention span of the average person has grown shorter and is continuing to do so. I have actually begun strongly to advocate the opposite of what you propose. I think we should go back to everyone in the pew having their own missal (as opposed to a disposable “worship aid” or missalette). Expecting people to come to Mass and participate fully without the use of a missal and hymnal just contributes to the idea of the Mass as an entertainment. People come into church and sit like an audience. Many, then, can’t help but be distracted at Mass and are actually a million miles away rather than immersed more fully into the liturgy.

    I understand your point that this is a relatively recent innovation at Mass but so is the use of electric light. Would you propose that everyone in the pews read by the light of candles instead of using the “modern” innovation of electricity? Of course not.

    As we move ever closer to the implementation of the revised English translation of the Roman Missal I’m one of those who would prefer to see a return to everyone having his or her own personal missal which they use to follow the Mass. On a practical level it will help with the revised responses people will have to make. However, in the long run it may once again help to foster a notion that using their own personal book to pray the Mass (filled with holy cards, notations in the margins, glossings, etc.) contributes to making the Mass feel like something they themselves are doing not merely observing someone else do “for them”.

  27. Just a few reasons why we need books:

    1. People who are hard of hearing NEED to SEE what is being said or read.
    2. Teachers know that learning and understand take place more easily when many
    senses are engaged e.g. sight AND hearing.
    3. However good and enthusiastic and vibrant the reader is, the info goes by too fast to grasp well.
    4. I don’t want a reader’s interpretation of the scriptures. I want to see where the punctuation is. I want
    to see for myself how the words are supposed to be pronounced.
    5. Teachers know that being engaged through two senses helps us pay attention for more that 2 or 3 minutes.
    6. I, unfortunately, have become accustomed to attending Mass “defensively.” Put simply that means that
    a lot of stuff goes on on the altar, or around the altar that’s not in the book. We need to know who’s playing
    by the real rules, and who’s making up the rules as they go along.
    7. There are people who, for whatever reason, need help in taking in concepts. They need the book AND the
    oral presentation.

    1. This is true. But is learning the central point at Mass? Surely it is a part of the whole, but worship and experiencing the Lord are the first point of it all. Just a balancing thought to your points, not a negation of them.

      1. Maybe not “learning”, but in the readings, definitely information.

  28. I grew up Protestant and we were expected to read along. Most sermons in our tradition were not explanations of only one text, but were arranged around a subject and referred to many different passages. The most respected church members were able to follow along, flipping from passage to passage. In the children’s bible classes we did what we called “sword drills” in which the teacher would call out a book, chapter, and verse, and whichever child found the passage first won the privilege of reading it aloud. Countless times I have heard Christians from other traditions mocked for not taking their bibles to church with them. We practically worshiped the bible rather than God Himself, and it was inconceivable to us to separate the physical book from worship. This was not all bad – it’s good to be able to navigate a bible – but it was excessive.

    Now as a Catholic I sometimes read along and sometimes don’t. The determining factor tends to be my own state of mind. If I feel reading along will help me focus and pay attention, then I do. But if I’m not too tired or distracted, I prefer to just listen. I do use the missalette to follow the music. Usually, I can’t remember the response without looking until the last time through it, even when reading. And at our parish, the music usually follows what’s written in the book. Also, even if a song is one I’ve known for years, the words may be slightly different than those I sang growing up. I keep up better if they’re printed in front of me. (I do also wish the missalette would have harmonies printed – not just the melody, but I guess that’s a different subject.)

    I do think the Catholic liturgy lends itself well to those who don’t read. Everything that the congregation is expected to say/sing is either memorized or repeated after a cantor. (There’s a good case to be made for simple melodies for the responses, BTW. I’m quite musical and sometimes can’t keep up without written music.) At my husband’s PCA church, the admission of guilt at the beginning of the liturgy is different every time. Someone (I assume the local pastor) writes a new one each week. The proclamation of faith (where we recite the creed) is different. They may recite the shorter creed, or read responses from the Westminster Confession of Faith, or recite the 10 commandments. To me, this is a kind of subtle snobbery – if you can’t read, you can’t confess your sins or proclaim your faith. I don’t know what other churches do, but I greatly prefer our way, where if you come to mass a few times, you know exactly what’s expected of you – what to say and when to say it.

    1. Yes, I have admired that technique of looking up passages with the congregation. I even tried a little of it with my parishes. But I’ll tell you it just doesn’t work very well in Catholic settings. Just too much of a culture shock. The other problem is that there are so many different translations in use and this makes it harder for people to keep up. Lastly, as I state in the article, the Protestant service in many ways is fundamentally a bible study. This is just not the main purpose of the Catholic Mass.

      I am in agreement with the rest of your observations and share your valuing of the blessing of fixed texts committed to memory.

  29. This is an old arguement from the 60s, some people are audio types they need to hear
    the Word but there are many that are tactile they need to feel the book in their hand, read the words
    in order for it to mean something to them.

    Some children you can tell them to do something a million times but unless they read the words
    on the bulletin board in the kitchen or the post a note in their binder it does not compute.
    God made both types to use the missal or not, that should be their choice,not another commandment.

    1. I swear I’m such an old fuddy-duddie. Imagine 1960s! Me ! How have I gotten so old. As for your less ad hominem point, you are saying what many others have said, and I’ll just repeat, while that may be so, all of us are still challenged to grow beyond whatever “type” we are. The “I was born this way” or “this is just the way I am” has its place, but so does the challenge to grow and become better listeners.

      People who watch TV don’t demand to have the script ahead of time and then read along because they aren’t “audio types.” There is more to this question than, “this is just how I am.” That said, I am not trying to forbid was is clearly allowed, just issue a challenge to accept a balancing vision.

  30. Good post. My children and I tend not to use missals. We sit up front and watch and listen. Often they are serving so they need to be attentive to the priest. But my husband likes to read. He says it helps him to concentrate. We have excellent lectors and psalmists and I get something different from hearing the Word than reading it myself (I usually read the night before).

    Even for the Latin Rite, I prefer to listen and soak in all the beauty. If I find myself getting distracted, I will follow along (the prayers are beautiful) or pray my private prayers. I went to a Bat-Mitzvah and again, it’s great to experience the prayers.

    I have picked up some Latin and am able to follow some of the chants because we’ve been to it a dozen times. We’ve also invested in the missals so that we can study them at home. I cannot emphasize the value of memorizing favorite Scripture passages and various beautiful prayers of the Saints. They are a treasure to hold in your heart.

    ps: Thank you to the commenter who recommended the Book of Psalms for singing. I love it.

  31. I stopped using the missalette when I became a lector at my parish. I originally felt that as one who is charged with proclaiming the Word I should listen to it proclaimed as well. But over the last two years I have found that by listening instead of reading I participate more directly in the Mass. When I am reading along I often find that I am really doing my own thing while the priest is doing his. Even though we are doing the same thing at the same time it does not necessarily mean that we are doing it together. We are just doing parallel tasks and only timing keeps us in sync.

  32. Thank you monsignor for a cut through the nonsense lesson on the mass. ” a good listening ear, hearts open to obedience, and eyes in search of glory ” you list as the worship aids. The last, the eyes in search of glory struck me as essential to awareness of being in God’s presence, in His house which is a house of prayer.
    How often I’ve been less reverential when Jesus is in the tabernacle, than when He is in a monstrance, as though He doesn’t see me in front of Him.

    1. Yes, ultimately we are invited to see. At Emmaus he too them bread, blessed, broke it and gave it to them, with that their eyes were opened and they recognized him in the breaking of the bread. I do not say there is no place for reading, but would just encourage less of it.

  33. This article and these many comments give me much to think about. As I look about my house, there are few rooms that don’t have a few stacks of books meant for spiritual reading. As I gaze at these stacks, I wonder how much of each book I’ve actually read. I realize, there are few I’ve actually finished before losing interest and moving onto the next bright, shiny, promising spiritual title and thought. I realize I have them because they make me feel closer to God, they make God seem more present in my life.

    Yes, reflecting on these many partially read and unread books stacked on the coffee table, the night stand and dining table I wonder if don’t suffer from some kind of gluttonous disordered attachment to spiritual books. I understand that spiritual reading is, no doubt good, but it occurs to me there’s something wrong about all these partially read and unread books laying around.

    I wonder why I lose interest so quickly and need to move on the next. I wonder how much of this material I internalize, absorb and actually allow to change me. I wonder why I’m so reliant on these books for the perceived presence of God in my life. I wonder if I wouldn’t be better off experiencing God’s presence and God speaking to me without the use of books. Most of all, I wonder how this possibly disordered reliance on books and spiritual reading might be affecting how I approach the Mass. I especially wonder how having my nose buried in a missalette could interfere with my experience of God, Persona Christi, in the Liturgy at Mass.

  34. Monseignor I think I understand what you are suggesting…I have been purposely putting away the misselette during the reading of the Gospel…to train myself to LISTEN to the Word …As someone here has said some of
    us are more visual people…have need to see as well as hear the spoken word…it seems to register better. But
    I think we can re-train ourselves also to be better listeners by setting aside the book from time to time during the readings. But there are readers…those who speak slowly and clearly…easy to listen to…and those who rush
    through and not enunciating carefully. Troubles with sound systems also can be a problem. Sometimes I
    am less distracted by following the printed word…if there are babies talking, crying, etc. But overall you make an
    excellent point. I suppose to carry this one step further if one were to be really proclaiming the Word one should not be reading it at all…but that is a bit of a stretch in this imperfect world! I hope those who say that books are
    going to go the way of the buggy whip are wrong! I gave my Kindle away…hated it! Give me a hardcover book
    any day …where I can turn the pages back and forth as it suits me….and especially art books…how can you
    have the same experience with a Kindle …no! Even young people tell me they hate having their text books
    on e-books form…all sorts of problems not associated with books. Long live the printed page!!!

  35. Dear Msgr. Pope,
    I surely agree with you. I look forward to the changes coming in Advent, and love your “osmosis” comment.
    Re your comment on being able to listen and understanding Spanish. It’s indeed fascinating.
    I do that too when I listen to the Holy Father saying the Mass in Italian or EWTN’s Spanish translations,
    and of course Latin. All related to one another, and I don’t speak any of these but know German and French.
    You made my day again.

  36. I think one challenge is that people have lost the skill (and I think it is a skill) of listening to the spoken word. Once upon a time, entertainment was poetry read aloud, plays read aloud, speeches given aloud, etc. People had to learn to listen. Now, listening and retaining information is not something people do on a regular basis.

    This is why I think it is very important in RCIA (and other settings) to celebrate Liturgies of the Word and yes, ban the use of missals etc. In our case in RCIA, after the deacon concluded the Gospel, we went around and asked everyone to mention a word or phrase that struck them from the readings. If they couldn’t remember anything, they could say “Amen.” It was more difficult for some than others but in the end, they all learned to listen to the spoken word. If we don’t provide these opportunities, who will??

  37. The use of books should be encouraged in the liturgy. I find that following along with a missal helps even with the vernacular liturgy. Not only does it help me contemplate what is being said, but by learning to use the missal, I take part in the liturgical year. Were it not for my missal, I wouldn’t partake in the patient yearning for our Christ’s coming that occurs during Advent, the joyous celebration of his birth during Christmas, the sorrow for his suffering during Lent, or the exultation of his resurrection during Easter. Following along with a missal, instead of simply listening to the words helps me appreciate what is being said. I am not just a spectator, but a participant.

  38. Monsignor Pope,

    I have to respectfully disagree, especially with the Liturgy of the Word. Perhaps it comes from being brought up at a parish with bad acoustics, or maybe I’m not a very good listener, but I always find that I get much more from the readings when I am able to read them to myself both before and during the mass.

    You might feel that the books are unnecessary because, as a priest, you have a chance to reflect on the readings beforehand as you write your homily. Perhaps this is my deficiency (I do have ADD), but when I go to daily mass (where the readings are rarely provided) or I attend a parish that does not provide the readings in print, I often completely miss what the readings are. I genuinely feel that the missalette helps me to more actively participate, although I can understand how it might seem like a distraction.

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