For a long time I was critical whenever the choice was made to use the “shorter form” of a reading at a Mass. This coming weekend there are two opportunities to use “shorter forms”, in fact: for both the second reading and the gospel. (In case the link expires, I’m referring to the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time in Cycle ‘C’.) This does not happen every week; it doesn’t even happen all that often. But sometimes a shorter form is given.
Yes, I took a sort of cynical/suspicious view: those who opt for the shorter form are part of “the problem” (whatever that is). I certainly was not alone in thinking this way; I know many people still think that way or similar.
Well, my mind has changed — mostly. Many times, now, I am glad to “embrace” the shorter form when it is given as an option. Allow me to explain.
The document on the sacred liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, called for a “more lavish” sharing of the Word of God in the sacred liturgy. To wit: “51. The treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word. In this way a more representative portion of the holy scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years.” No. 35 said that scripture selections should be “more varied”. No. 35 also called for additional types of scriptural services (that have never really caught on), such as “bible vigils” before great feasts.
It’s clear that Vatican II wanted us to have greater exposure to scripture. Thus, a change was made from a one-year cycle of Sunday readings to a three-year cycle. Moreover, an extra reading was added at Mass. Yes — in the older form of the Mass, there is a first reading, a gradual and alleluia (with scriptural verses), and the gospel; no second reading.
The result has effectively been a “more lavish” exposure to scripture, but not merely in the sense of a greater variety of readings covering a more extensive amount of the bible, but also, generally speaking, by a greater quantity of scripture at each Sunday Mass.
(Aside: several scholars have done great work over the last few years to analyze what was left out of the new scripture cycle — i.e., things that used to be read that are now omitted. This has taken place not only in terms of certain passages that are now omitted altogether, but also with passages that are read but with certain verses excised from them. See especially the writings of Dr. Peter Kwasniewski on this theme — for example, HERE.)
Now it does happen sometimes that the “shorter form” option seems to have been set up so as to leave out a part of a passage that may be more controversial for those of a politically-correct mindset. For example, the passage from Ephesians 5, about how wives should be subordinate to their husbands, has, if I am not mistaken, a “shorter form” option that downplays the subordination part whenever it occurs in the Sunday cycle of readings.
But there are also times when the passages given are just so long. It’s too much – too much to retain; too much to narrow down for preaching purposes. Look at the readings for this Sunday: after hearing that long gospel proclaimed in its longer form, who would still remember what the first and second readings were about — especially if the longer form of the second reading was also used!? We can only handle so much. (Sometimes the “longer form” option includes more than one pericope, as well — and it’s not always clear why, when it would have made more sense only to have one.)
One of the things that has gotten harder for me as a priest as the years pass is the sheer amount of words that are spoken out loud (often amplified) during our worship. One begins to yearn for silence, for contemplation. The Holy Father has often criticized priests for generally preaching too long: in one document he encouraged a homily that goes no longer than 10 minutes, I believe. Yet I regularly hear of priests who preach longer — after a string of rather long readings! Can we really retain all of that? Is more always better?
I have begun to prefer opting for the “shorter form” (whenever it is not evidently trying to save us from being politically incorrect…) to make Mass more manageable and digestible. The Church wants us to participate “actively”, in the sense of listening attentively, uniting ourselves to what is happening, meditating on it, etc. But we can only absorb so much in one sitting. Between the readings — even when they are shortened — and the prayers of the Mass, there is always ample material upon which to preach. It is laudable for us to read the readings at home and meditate on them more deeply — that is where we can read longer passages if we wish. That’s how I see it, at least. I know many will disagree.
And this brings to a final point. In the newer form of the Mass there is an almost infinite number of options. One parish uses the long form, another the short. One parish uses Eucharistic Prayer II, and another uses Eucharistic Prayer 5-C (yes there is one called that). One parishes sings contemporary songs such as “Gather Us In” (that says the words “we” or “us” about 25 times…), another opts for the ancient chants. There are so many options, and the outcome is a diversity that tests the limits of reason. Is our worship really “catholic” (universal) when it can be just so different from parish to parish? Many concerned priests and laypeople hope for some sort of consolidation of options in the future, to help us all to be more fully on the same page.
For when you get into all these options, you cannot avoid the realm of personal taste. Hence the carefully-chosen title of this post, about what “I” like. At the end of the day, whether we use the long form or the short is basically up to the local celebrant and his personal reasons for doing so. However, true worship is not of our creation, but is given to us by God. The scriptures show that it is he who tells us how to approach him; in fact, there are notable passages where personal initiatives had rather disastrous outcomes.
Until any eventual consolidation or reduction of options occurs, it is best for us to choose those options that are most in continuity with our tradition. That is a very fine way to detach them from the celebrant’s ego and caprice! This is why I use the simple greeting, “The Lord be with you”, at the beginning of Mass instead of one of the various other options listed in the Missal — because in the Extraordinary Form, only “Dominus vobiscum” is used by priests, not other forms. This is why I often use Eucharistic Prayer I (the Roman Canon) at Mass on Sundays, which is the only Eucharistic Prayer in the older form — instead of the other more recent compositions. Etc.
But when it comes to this longer/shorter form business, we don’t really have a clear link with tradition. In the Extraordinary Form there were not shorter forms given for the readings: they were what they were. Sometimes they did go longer. Often they were rather compact. The decision of what to do in this case really does seem to rest with the priest-celebrant’s personal philosophy. Or — I don’t know — how he feels that day. And that is problematic!