Vatican II and the Destruction of the Western Liturgy

Vatican II was the last straw that swept away the elegant construction that was the western liturgical tradition. But not how you think.

It has nothing to do with the vernacular or even with the move away from the Tridentine Mass. It’s about the final destruction of the balance and the mutual relationship between the Mass and Office, the links between the missal and the breviary. Because the classical Office is so little known these days, what happened is not fully known or understood. Here’s my take on things.

The western liturgical tradition is about the whole-body experience of the liturgical year. The seasons teach us and train us in the Christian affections. They do this through the rhythms of the Mass and Office. The way that this formerly worked was intimately connected to the use and application of Scripture. To remind, there were three biblical readings that really shaped things. One was the Gospel at the Mass. This was the primary key of the cycl. These readings were both selected to fit the season and, in turn, actively shaped the season. In connection with this was the Reading, also at Mass. (We’re used to calling this the Epistle because it predominately came from the Pauline or Catholic epistles but fasts had readings appointed from the Prophets.) The third was the reading at the Night Offcice. There, the whole of the Bible, excepting the gospels, were read every year. Again, these were keyed to the seasons. These were the main building blocks but interweavings happened from that point. The various texts of the Mass like the prefaces, collects, and benedictions incorporated elements from the Gospel and the Reading. During the week elements from the Gospel and Reading from the Mass of the Sunday would appear in the propers of the Offices. Bits of the Epistle would show up as Little Chapters; verses from the Gospel would appear as antiphons for the Gospel Canticles at Lauds and Vespers. Thus, the theological messages that grounded the seasons as found in the Sunday Masses were interlaced through the rest of the week in the Offices. The Scriptural content created the lived reality of the seasons as interpreted by the surrounding versicles, hymns, etc.

Hence, I repeat my charge: Vatican II was the last straw that wrecked this. It wasn’t the vernacular that did it in but the three year lectionary… Formerly the Mass and Office were on a common one-year calendar. No longer. The current ’79 BCP shows how the aftershocks effected protestant liturgies: We now have a three-year mass lectionary that is completely disconnected from our two-year office lectionary.

If the motu proprio does come out (yeah, here’s how this is connected to the previous post…) and restores a Tridentine Mass, will it also restore the Tridentine lectionary? Because if not, even the Roman traditionalists will face what we face now, a system wherein the appointed Gospel may have resonances with the rest of the Mass texts maybe once every three years but where it has nothing to do with the Offices.

Ah well–it was an elegant structure but was fundamentally a house of cards… The three-year lectionary seems to be here to stay. I wish we could recover again thesekinds of connections. There are ways but they would be complicated. Essentially, the next revision of theBCP would have to incorporate a three-year cycle of liturgies that wouldcohere with the three-year lectionary. Too, something would have to be done with the Office and with the Office lectionary.

Actually, though, it’s the Offices where something of the old system could be recaptured… Ever read the rubrics after the Offices carefully? Antiphons for the Psalms and the GospelCanticles are permitted, especially those that come from Scripture… You know what I’m thinking? A three-year “antiphonary” that would tie the mass readings into the Offices as antiphons. It’d be another book to juggle but I wonder what it would do to recapture our sense of the liturgical year…

13 thoughts on “Vatican II and the Destruction of the Western Liturgy

  1. Chris T.

    I asked the same thing of the young fogey over at his blog about the lectionary — only the one-year lectionary is authorized for the old rite in the Roman church. So if the motu proprio liberalizes that Mass, it would effectively also liberalize the one-year lectionary (although AFAIK the one-year lectionary could not be imported into the Novus Ordo Mass).

    Although I haven’t heard anything about liberalizing the old Office (the TLM crowd couldn’t care less about the Office, by and large), and I don’t know whether the readings in the Liturgy of the Hours (the new RC name for the Office) are synced up to the old Mass, the new Mass, or neither.

    They really have made a mess of things over there. :-) The Anglican Missal and the Anglican Breviary works quite well for me, though.

  2. Caelius Spinator

    If the Antiphon is taken from Scripture, one really wouldn’t need a separate book as long as we went to a three year Daily Office Lectionary.

  3. *Christopher


    I think you are correct about the divorce of Mass and Office, but I also think given the data that most Christians in the Roman tradition did not experience the Office on a regular basis–it had mostly been relagated to priests and monastics. In fact, more RC’ers may be actually praying the Office post-Vatican II than before. Again, what is on paper, the text in prayers and rubrics, and what was actually done here are not necessarily coincident.

    Now in the Episcopal Church, things were different (and reversed in some sense); we did see the fall off of the Office which had been until that point the primary prayer (not the Mass), even on Sunday for many. I think finding a new balance as you propose is in order.

    I think both reordering of the Office cycle to three years in tune with the three year lectionary and an antiphonary are in order. I say this because honestly on most days, the minimum has to do at home, and at least if the lectionary were in sync, there would be some coincidence. I would mostly leave the interconnecting antiphons to parish use.

    And that gets to I think the greater problem. I don’t know of any parish in my area, besides the cathedral, that has regular Office or Office at all. This must be a primary place of reform, a reform, I might add that doesn’t require a priest at every, but would require a new commitment by lay leaders to keeping the rhythms alive in parishes.

  4. Derek the Ænglican

    I think the integration between the Office lectionary and Mass lectionary is of lesser importance than the reintegration of the Mass lectionary with the Office experience. That’s why I’d be for an antiphonary that connects the 3 year Mass lectionary into the Daily Office experience.

    And yes, simply going with the Anglican Missal & Breviary does solve the problem quite neatly. If the use of such things is permitted…

  5. The Anglican Scotist

    Wait a sec sonny!

    I do not buy your claim “We now have a three-year mass lectionary that is completely disconnected from our two-year office lectionary.” That seems to overreach: “complete disconnection” would have to be read in a very special, restricted sense for the claim to be plausible.

    In any–any–combination (Euch Lec A with Yr1, or C/2, or B/1, etc etc) the office and eucharistic readings harmonize. Consider Lent 4C and Lent 4/Yr.2/Thursday, respectively:
    I. 2Chron. 36:14-23; Eph. 2:4-10; John 6:4-15

    II. Gen. 49:29-50:14; ICor. 11:17-34; Mark 8:1-10

    I suppose your objection is–to be specific–the eucharistic readings of (I) DO NOT (as opposed to the unreasonably strong ‘cannot’)form on any plausible interpretation accessible to a normal congregation a framework for reading (II) on Tuesday.

    Do you recant, or need I go further?

    Aren’t you worried that your position denies an analogy of faith able–at least in principle–to encompass any set of fragments no matter how gerrymandered and exhibit properly ordered meaning therein?

    Or, to bring this to the razor’s edge, wouldn’t your position taken together in conjunction with the centrality and sufficiency of Christ endanger the unity of the canon?

  6. The Anglican Scotist

    rats: I menat “reading (II) on Thursday” above, not “Tuesday”. Ah, the crooked timber!

  7. The Anglican Scotist

    rats: I meant “reading (II) on Thursday” above, not “Tuesday”. Ah, the crooked timber!

  8. Derek the Ænglican

    I do not buy your claim “We now have a three-year mass lectionary that is completely disconnected from our two-year office lectionary.” That seems to overreach: “complete disconnection” would have to be read in a very special, restricted sense for the claim to be plausible.

    Umm… I’m not really sure where this is coming from… Scotist, it seems like you’re trying to say that I’m denying that several passages of Scripture can’t relate to one another or can’t be made to relate to one another.

    That’s not what what I’m saying at all.

    Rather, I’m mourning the loss of a relatively simple set of interconnections that has a formational purpose. That is:
    1. The liturgical year is one of the prime methods of formation in liturgical forms of Christianity.
    2. It does this by grouping Gospel lections into seasons based around both doctrinal themes and the contents of the Gospel lections.
    3. In the pre-VII system, these Gospel lections were the principle Scripture readings at Mass. They were accompanied by one other reading, the predominately NT Readings (Lectiones).
    4. During the Night Office a third predominantly OT Scripture reading came from books that coordinated with the Season.

    [So, to recap [the temporal cycle only], this is a much simpler system than the present BCP system; instead of (minus Psalms) three readings for Mass a weekly and three readings for two daily Offices, there were two weekly Mass readings, a selected Gospel and a selected NT Reading and a daily continuous OT reading.]

    5. The Mass readings made special appearances within the Offices; verses from the Gospel for the week served as antiphons for the Benedictus and Magnificat and verses from the NT Reading were used as versicles and responses in the Sunday Offices. [Yes, a slight over-simplification, but that’s the primary pattern]

    So, I’m complaining about the loss of 5, the interconnection of the Mass cycle with the Office Cycle, not making a statement about the internal unity and coherence of Scripture.

  9. Marshall Scott

    So, are we worse off – is formation more consistent – if our parisioners know better 32% of the Gospels and 30% of the rest of the New Testament and perhaps 30% of the Old Testament (if that much) or if they know less 96% of the Gospels and 90% of the rest of the New Testament and 75% of the Old Testament? I focus on the Eucharistic lectionary here, because in parallel to *Christopher’s comment, most Episcopalians did not participate in Offices (whether the Roman monastic seven or the common Anglican monastic four or the Prayer Book two) with any frequency. Even in the classically Low Church dioceses of the American East Coast, while Morning Prayer was commonly the primary service on Sunday, daily offices were not common practice, either parochially or individually.

    For those of us who do use the Daily Office lectionary, the appropriateness of the schedule of that lectionary to the season, if not the week, is still maintained. Indeed, I am often suprprised how frequently lessons on Sunday coincide with those in the Daily Office lectionary within a few weeks, if not in the same week.

    So, perhaps my thought would not be to disagree that the old pattern has been lost, but to suggest that the new pattern is an improvement for formation, and not a loss.

  10. Derek the Ænglican

    Well, I’m not saying that the new system is bad; rather, that the old system was good but that we have lost it. I do think that if we’re self-reflective we can integrate parts in the new system in a similar fashion to how the old system did it. But it will take some work.

    And, in essence, that work is work for the formation of those already doing the Offices. The *primary* task as you and others have rightly identified is helping and teaching more Anglicans (of *whatever* stripe) about the Offices. Part of the way that the task of education works for me, though, is studying the system from a big-picture view, looking at where we’ve come from and where we’re going, what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained. Rarely are new liturgies (or old liturgies) all bad. Rather, we need to have a sense of what they are up to and how they are continuing in the established traditions, what new strands of the tradition they’re working with and what new things are coming in. All of this, then, is balanced with the proclamation of the Gospel. It is when our liturgies have failed the proclamation of the Gospel that they must be altered and I think part of our task is constantly testing and, like Matthew’s scribe of the kingdom of heave, bringing out of our storehouses what is new and what is old.

  11. Adam

    The primary reason the lectionaries were altered by Vatican II is precisely to make Christian formation available to more people. Very few can read the daily office consistently, and even fewer the night office. I believe Vatican II acted to move to a three year eucharistic lectionary cycle to enable Sunday Mass to become a better formation event for the laity, particularly in places where its Christian formation opportunities were limited by the State, as they were in all communist countries uyntil very recently. And that is exactly what has happened: far more people are hearing far more scripture than ever before.

    Its second success was to bring most western liturgical Christianity into a “community of the lectionary” — a vast community of Christians on the same page every Sunday. In my opinion, this is the single most important success of the ecumenical movement.

    “A Monastic Breviary”, published by the Order of the Holy Cross way back in 1976, makes explicit use of the Sunday Gospels for its Sunday NT antiphons, as it does for the feast day office and seasonal offices as well. The great Bonnell Spencer, OHC, the guiding light behind this breviary, was well aware of the points you make. So, happily, much of the work you suggest in creating antiphons to link the eucharist and office has been done.

  12. Derek the Ænglican

    There’s no doubt that the 3 year cycle exposes more people to more Scripture [and forces clergy to go a whole three years before they start recycling their sermons… ;-)]. I have wondered if this move alters the purpose of the Mass lectionary. It seems to me that formerly the Office lectionary (especially following Ordo XIII) served a catechetical function, giving the broad scope of Scripture, enabling the Mass Lectionary with its selected readings to function mystagogically. The current system attempts to do a bit of both… I wonder–do they still function this way or does the change in form lead to a change in function as well?

    Thanks for pointing us to the OHC Monastic Breviary; I’ve not encountered that one before and will definitely look it up.

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