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.


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