Changing views on vernacular readings

It is interesting to note for historical purposes how the acceptability of vernacular readings during the Mass of Bl. John XXIII seems to have radically changed in the last few years. In fact, a marked change in the praxis of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” (PCED) can be seen starting in 2009. Since the practice of the Roman Curia is canonically relevant when resolving lacunae and doubts of law (see cann. 17 & 19), I trace below the development and change in the PCED’s practice with regard to the use of vernacular readings and post-conciliar lectionaries in masses using the 1962 Roman Missal.

The Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei”, established by John Paul II’s motu proprio Ecclesia Dei adflicta at first advanced a very accepting view. Writing to the American bishops in 1991, the president of the PCED, Card. Mayer, suggested that “the new lectionary in the vernacular could be used as a way of ‘providing a richer fare for the faithful at the table of God’s Word’ in masses celebrated according to the 1962 missal” (Origins 21:9 (July 18, 1991) 144–145). These were only “guidelines and suggestions”, as Card. Mayer wrote, and so their adoption and, indeed, legal permissibility depended on the local bishop. I believe a few bishops did adopted the practice for their usus antiquior communities.

This twofold permission — readings in the vernacular and the use of the post-conciliar lectionary in the 1962 mass — seems to have also been the idea behind Summorom Pontificum, art. 6, which reads:

In Masses celebrated with a congregation [lit. people] according to the Missal of Bl. John XXIII, the readings may also/even [etiam] be given in the vernacular, using editions recognised by the Apostolic See.

Following the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, there was much debate how to translate etiam and to what exactly did “editions recognized by the Apostolic See” refer. In light of PCED’s earlier understanding — evidenced by Card. Mayer’s 1991 letter — a strong argument could be made that art. 6 allowed for the post-conciliar lectionary — which carried the Vatican’s recognitio — to be used. Additionally, it indeed seemed that past PCED practice pointed to an understanding of etiam to mean “also” in the sense of either Latin or English.

This understanding is confirmed by a private reply given by the PCED in response to proposed doubts. In a letter to Card. Hoyos dated 24 March 2008, an American asked:

      (1) Can readings be given in the vernacular in the context of the Liturgy? Does Article 6 uphold the practice of duplicating the readings reading them in the context of the Liturgy in Latin, then before a homily in the vernacular, or does it allow them to be read from the Altar in the vernacular?
      (2) Also, can local editions of the Missal that refer back to the 1962 Missal could be used for this purpose (i.e. the one that came out in the US in early 1964. For example, a Missal faithful to the rubrics of the 1962 Missal, but with a vernacular proper. This was given approval for use in the US by the Holy See.

The PCED replied on 11 April 2008 (Prot. N. 14/2008) as follows:

      1. Article 6 of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum foresees the possibility of proclaiming the readings in the vernacular without having to proclaim them first in Latin.
      2. The readings may be proclaimed in English according to translations approved for liturgical use by the Holy See and the Bishops of the United States.

This reply seems to give blank permission for the use of the vernacular and post-conciliar lectionaries. The phrase at the end of question 1 referring to reading from the altar indicates that the writer was envisioning, at least, a sung mass, in which the celebrant reads both the epistle and the Gospel from the altar. At a solemn mass, the epistle — by the subdeacon — and the Gospel — by the deacon — both are done away form the altar. Given the lack of any qualification in the PCED’s reply to a question which referred to a sung mass, it must be concluded that as of 2008 the PCED had no problem with vernacular-only readings as sung masses, and presumably also solemn masses. Additionally, the reply makes clear that any translation of scripture approved by both the Holy See and the US bishop’s conference can be used the 1962 mass. This certainly includes post-conciliar translations. One issue that is not addressed in the PCED’s reply to question 2 is whether the post-conciliar lectionary three-year cycle can be substituted in for 1962 missal’s one-year cycle as suggested in 1991 by Card. Mayer.

By 2010, however, the PCED had changed its views on the acceptability of vernacular-only readings. The diocesan moderator for the extraordinary form of a certain Polish diocese wrote to Ecclesia Dei with several questions. His letter of 5 January 2010 contained a question relevant to this discussion. He asked (my translation of the German text):

      (5) May a simple layman or a minister proclaim the readings in the vernacular during the Holy Mass in the extraordinary form after the priest (who also speaks the vernacular) has read the texts in Latin?

The PCED replied back in Italian on 20 January 2010 (Prot. N. 13/2007) as follows (my translation):

      5. The reading of the epistle and the Gospel of the Mass should be be done by the same priest-celebrant, or by the deacon as envisioned by the liturgy [rubrics]; after their reading, the translations may be done by a layman.

This reply, I believe, reflects an view of vernacular readings closer to the 2011 instruction Universae Ecclesiae than to the PCED’s earlier practice, though I admit it is not clear cut. The question is as much concern with vernacular in place of Latin as with who should read the vernacular, hence the comment about the priest being equally capable of reading the vernacular. The reply follows by stressing that the epistle and Gospel should be read by the priest — not a layman — and that the translation may be read by a layman. The priest certainly can as is common in many places. This is all that can be said with any certainly about the reply.

The PCED’s comment about the deacon reading the Gospel is, however in my opinion, important because it clearly indicates that this response is equally applicable to solemn masses, in which the epistle is read by the subdeacon and the Gospel read by the deacon. This was not what the questioner had in mind because he indicates that the texts (plural) have been read by the priest. In any case, I think this reply implicitly reflects an understanding of vernacular readings that would be made explicit in the instruciton Universae Ecclesiae just one year later, namely that at high masses and sung masses the readings must be done as envisioned by the rubrics, and only afterwards may translations be included.

In 2011, the PCED published the instruction Universae Ecclesiae. The instruction directly bears upon the permissibility of post-conciliar lectionaries and vernacular-only readings at 1962 liturgies. Stating in no. 26 that in the extraordninary form, the readings may be done in Latin alone or in Latin followed by a vernacular translation. Only during a low mass, did the PCED allow for readings in the vernacular alone. Additionally, the instruction states in no. 24 that the 1962 liturgical books stand as they are and that these liturgies must be executed according to their rubrics in full. This latter paragraph completely rules out any use of the post-conciliar three-year cycle lectionary in place of the pre-conciliar one-year cycle.

As should be evident from the above, the 2011 instruction is a radical shift in the practice of the PCED, which as late as 2008 still reflected its 1991 practice. It is only since 2009, at the earliest, that the present PCED practice, as contained in the instruction Universae Ecclesiaea, began. It is interesting that in July 2009, Cardinal Hoyos was replaced by Cardinal Levada. To what degree, if any, did the change in praxis have to do with the change in the presidency of the PCED in 2009 is interesting question to contemplate.

A recited vernacular Epistle at a Sung Mass

Recently, someone pointed out to me that the rubrics for the 1962 missal allow the epistle at a sung mass to simply be read by the celebrant (see Ritus Servandus VI, 8 and Rubricas Generales 514). I had been under the impression that only the low mass allowed for non-chanted readings, but given this new caveat, the question was raised whether the epistle could be read in English during such a sung mass rather than in Latin, as the rubrics presume.

The question stems from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which in Article 6, specifically, allowed the readings to be read in the vernacular, rather than in Latin, during masses with a congregation using the 1962 missal.

The question is fairly easy to answer, I believe, in light of the 2011 instruction by the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” (PCED) entitled Universae Ecclesiae. Paragraph no. 26 of the instruction reads (this is a fairly literal translation of the Latin text):

Regarding that which is established in article 6 of the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, it must be said that the readings for Holy Mass, which are contained in the Missal of 1962, may be pronounced either in Latin alone, Latin with a vernacular version following, or in read [low] masses even in the vernacular alone.

The nature of an instruction is to clarify the law and direct how it is to be observed (can. 34, §1). The provision of an instruction must be in accord with the law, and if an instruction cannot be reconciled with the law, it loses all force (can. 34, §2). In this instance, there is no conflict between the law (Summorum Pontificum, art. 6) and the instruction (Universae Ecclesiae, no. 26). Since Summorum Pontificum is an exception to the law (the liturgical law of the 1962 Roman Missal — the rubrics) and Universae Ecclesiae narrows down the exception, art. 6 and no. 26 must be read narrowly (can. 18). Therefore, since no. 26 only allows vernacular readings at low masses, the exception to the rubrics allowing for vernacular-only readings cannot be extended to sung masses or solemn masses.

While the above settles the canonical question, I was curious why Universae Ecclesiae only allowed for vernacular-only readings at low masses. After some reflection and looking around various liturgical blogs, the most likely explanation, I believe, is the non-existence of any Gospel or epistle chant tones suitable for proclamations of scripture texts in English. All the chants of the 1962 Roman Missal were designed to fit the syllabic structure of Latin, so they do not work well in English. Because much of the beauty of solemn masses and sung masses stems from its rich musical patrimony, it makes sense that the non-existence of chant tones for English scripture readings prohibits English-only readings at these masses. To jettison the chanted Latin readings in favour of recited English ones would do damage to the liturgical action. If this is indeed the rationale, it seems like an exception could be carved out for any sung mass in which the celebrant takes advantage of the above-mentioned rubric allowing for the epistle to be recited in Latin.

While researching this question, I realized a clear change in the praxis of PCED regarding vernacular readings in the 1962 mass in last three years. Since the practice of the Roman Curia is canonically relevant when trying to resolve lacunae (can. 19) or doubts (can. 17), I will cover this in a subsequent post.