Pick up that missalette! (If, y’know, you want to.)

Richard Becker, who describes himself as a “God-haunted lunatic,” has an entertaining rant against the use of missalettes at Mass.

Being a God-haunted lunatic myself, allow me to counter-rant in the same spirit.

In his piece, Becker poses a number of arguments against using missalettes at Mass. Let’s take a look at them:



1) The Argument from Van Morrison

Becker’s first argument compares going to Mass to going to a Van Morrison concert, which Becker indicates would be an incredibly thrilling experience for him.

I don’t know Van Morrison’s music myself, but fair enough. De gustibus non est disputandum.

Becker then asks whether, upon going to such a concert, he would Google the lyrics and read along with the stage performance. He says:

Noooo, of course not! I’d soak it all in – a total immersion, listening to and watching a great songwriter give voice to his own compositions, himself, in person! They’re songs I mostly know already by heart anyway, but even if I didn’t, why would I waste that exquisite privilege by reading along?

That’s what I think of when I go to church and see folks with their noses in the missalettes – those little booklets in the pew that contain all the readings and parts of the Mass. Worse still is when their eyes are glued to iPhones or other gadgets as they follow along on apps while the lector drones on pointlessly up front.

Allow me to draw your attention to some of Becker’s key words: “They’re songs I mostly know already by heart anyway.”

That’s a relevant difference. Most people at Mass don’t mostly know the scripture readings by heart anyway.

And far from diminishing the experience, for many members of the congregation, reading along enhances their experience of the readings.

That’s. Why. They. Do. It.

That’s also why people, including me, sometimes Google song lyrics. I don’t know if Becker ever does that, but I do. It’s one of the ways that I help avoid mondegreens.

So I don’t have a problem if people use missalettes at Mass—or, for that matter, their electronic equivalent.

On the other hand, if someone prefers not to use one, that’s fine, too.

And, if I may ask, why should Becker be dismayed by looking around at other people at Mass and seeing if and what they’re reading? On his theory, shouldn’t his attention be focused the lector, to drink in every detail of his proclamation of the readings?

At a Van Morrison concert, wouldn’t he be watching the stage performance and not the other members of the audience?


2) The Argument from College

Becker’s second argument also involves an analogy:

It’s like every college student’s worst nightmare: A professor that flashes one PowerPoint slide after another, reading them word for word. Then, as if to purposely add insult to injury, he’ll sometimes pass out lecture notes with the slides already on them. Torture.

As a college student, I had far worse nightmares than that, but I’ll acknowledge that I’d be annoyed if a professor did nothing more than read slides for 60 or 90 minutes.

That’s not what we’re talking about here.

The readings are short, and there are no more than three, max.

It’s more like when you are in a lecture and the professor stops to read an important passage word-for-word.

When that happens, students often turn to it in their textbooks and read it along with him, and they’re unlikely to mind if he reads three short passages from slides during the course of an overall lecture. (I’d also love it for the professor to pass out his own lecture notes!)


3) The Argument from the GIRM

Becker then mounts an argument based on the General Instruction of the Roman Missal or GIRM:

“The readings from the Word of God are to be listened to reverently by everyone,” the General Instruction explains, “for they are an element of the greatest importance in the Liturgy.” Catch that? Listened to, not scanned, not perused. In the liturgy, the Word of God is meant to be uttered and received.

This argument is of particular interest to me, as the Church’s liturgical law is a subject I happen to know something about.

Unfortunately, the argument does not work because it places too much emphasis on the phrased “listened to,” as if it excludes simultaneous reading.

It doesn’t.

Consider this parallel, also from the GIRM:

The Christian faithful who come together as one in expectation of the Lord’s coming are instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together Psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles (cf. Col 3: 16) [GIRM 39].

This does not mean that we shouldn’t simultaneously read the lyrics of the hymns we sing at Mass. It would be overtaxing the text to say that hymns should be sung, “not scanned, not perused.”

Or consider what the GIRM says about the priest saying the Collect (the opening prayer at Mass, which varies from day to day):

Next the Priest calls upon the people to pray and everybody, together with the Priest, observes a brief silence so that they may become aware of being in God’s presence and may call to mind their intentions. Then the Priest pronounces the prayer usually called the “Collect” and through which the character of the celebration finds expression [GIRM 54].

Catch that? The priest is to “pronounce” the Collect. It doesn’t say he should simultaneously read it, scan it, or peruse it. There’s nothing here about him reading from a written text.


4) The Alter Christus Argument

Becker then says:

Here’s more from the General Instruction: “When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel.”

The lector thus becomes another alter Christus, parallel to the priest who will confect the Eucharist and give us Jesus to eat. Dei Verbum makes this parallel quite explicit by insisting that in the Mass, the Church “unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.”

So the lector’s job really is a vital one, but we treat it as if it were purely functional – a task that is required by the rubrics, yet largely irrelevant since we have the text so readily available, usually right there in the pew. “A reading from the First Letter of…,” the lector begins, which ought to put us on the edge of our seats. It’s Christ himself, after all, announcing his Word – the Logos, his very divine Self, enunciated for us, for me!

And yet, what’s our typical response? “Ho-hum (*yawn*), maybe I’ll grab the missalette and read along.”

I’d be rather cautious in saying that the lector “becomes another alter Christus, parallel to the priest.” I’m not familiar with this language being used in Church documents.

While there may be an element of truth here, if pressed to far, this analogy could flatten the sense in which the priest is uniquely an alter Christus.

Nevertheless, lectors—like all ministers at Mass—have an important role, though I question the characterization of people’s typical response as a ho-hum one.

My suspicion is that most people don’t read the missalette at all (though I could be wrong, because my attention is focused on the readings at this point).

To the extent that some of them do use the missalette, my interpretation would be that they are so engaged in the readings that they want to get as much out of them as possible and so they are following along in a way that they find helps them do this.


5) The Argument from Protestant Services

Becker argues:

When we’re at Mass, however, we should skip the missalette altogether lest we fall into what is essentially a Protestant approach to the Liturgy of the Word. In keeping with the Reformation precept that everyone should interpret the Bible for himself, many Protestants bring their own Bibles to church and read along as the Scriptures are read. It’s as if they’re checking up on the reader’s accuracy and precision – almost like rabbis peering over the shoulder of a young boy reading the Torah at his bar mitzvah. But if we’re reading, we’re not really listening, and the Liturgy of the Word becomes just another cerebral exercise instead of an incarnated, holistic epiphany.

“If we’re reading, we’re not really listening”? What? Sure we are! For many, that’s augmented listening.

I don’t know what Becker’s religious background is, but I used to be a Protestant, and I’m very familiar with the way many Protestant services are—essentially—Bible studies with hymns.

That’s not remotely what’s going on when Catholics read along using a missalette.

They’re not scrupulously checking up on the reader’s accuracy or precision or trying to test whatever interpretation against what the Scriptures actually say.

There is a difference between reading along so that you can get visual reinforcement of what you are hearing and taking a sola scriptura, “I’m going to interpret this for myself” approach.


6) The Argument from the Annunciation

Becker argues:

Sacred Scripture was meant to be received aurally in the liturgy, in the same way that classic iconography depicts the Blessed Mother receiving the Word of via a dove entering her ear. In fact, we call that blessed event the Annunciation because it was St. Gabriel’s “announcement” that itself realized the miracle of Jesus’ virginal conception. “Come and gaze upon this marvelous feat,” St. Athanasius attests, “the woman conceives through the hearing of her ears!” We’re called to do the same during the readings at Mass: To imitate Our Lady in receiving the Lord through hearing a proclamation, much as her cousin Elizabeth “received” an encounter with Jesus the moment she heard Mary’s greeting at the Visitation.

It’s true that Sacred Scripture is meant to be received aurally in the liturgy, but that does not mean it can’t also be receive visually.

This is a false either/or, whereas the Catholic approach is more frequently both/and.

That’s why there are missalettes in the Church in the first place, and why people have used daily missals at Mass for centuries: Because it helps some people to receive it both ways.

The appeal to the Annunciation does not disprove this. If it proved anything, it would prove too much. Why should the analogy be restricted to the liturgy? Why shouldn’t it be applied to every experience?

Bottom line: It’s hard to take exceptional events (like the Annunciation) and make universal rules from them.


A Role for Missalettes?

Becker does see some role for missalettes. He writes:

And the missalettes? Should we ditch them outright? I wouldn’t go that far, for there are circumstances when they do come in handy – and are even necessary. For instance, those who are hearing impaired have to rely on missalettes when there are no sign language interpreters or amplification devices available. Plus, let’s face it, sometimes it’s not easy to understand certain lectors, even if you want to.

I’m glad that Becker acknowledges that there is a legitimate role for missalettes, though I wouldn’t restrict it to uncommon cases like people who need a sign-language interpreter or when a lector is so bad at his job that he can’t be understood (in which case, he shouldn’t be lectoring; one of the requirements for the job is being able to read well in public).

The fact is that a lot of people find their experience of the readings augmented if they read along, and if this will help them more deeply assimilate God’s word, I say, more power to them! Read away!

On the other hand, if someone feels he’ll get more out of the readings simply by listening, more power to him, too!

It is more important that the people have a deeper experience of God’s word in the liturgy. How this happens is a secondary matter.

The fact that the Church has received the practice of the laity using missalettes or daily missals in Mass conveys an implicit blessing of the practice.

The fact that the Church has not mandated their use implies a blessing on the practice of simply listening as well.


De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

Some years ago, I had a realization: It was very easy for me to read my personal preferences onto Catholic practice.

If I didn’t find something helpful to me, or otherwise to my taste, I wanted to suppose that it was somehow contrary to Catholic practice, or at least to the way Catholics should practice their faith.

I realized that I shouldn’t do this. As St. Paul wrote eloquently in 1 Corinthians 12-14, God did not make all Christians the same. The Body is not all one part. We all have different gifts, inclinations, and tastes.

I concluded from this that I need to respect the differences that God willed his people to have, and I should not insist that everyone have my own preferences.

If the Church permits something, that should be enough for me, and I shouldn’t look down my nose at those whose preferences are different than mine.

Subsequently, I have tried to take this principle to heart and internalize it. When I am tempted to go beyond what the Church requires, I try to stop and ponder: Is this really something that the Church has a rule about? Or am I in danger of imposing a pious little legalism of my own?

If I conclude it’s the latter, I resolve to mind my own business, to practice my faith in a way that I find helps me, and to respect those with other preferences.

After all, I should rejoice that they are practicing their faith and trying to grow closer to God, even if their way of doing that is different than mine.


Implications for the Lector?

I’d like to close with a note of encouragement for lectors who may be chagrined at seeing people use missalettes or daily missals. In commenting on how some lectors are difficult to understand, Becker writes:

I know for myself that if I’m up front reading, and I see folks reaching for their missalettes, I automatically assume that I’m doing a lousy job – that my “proclamation” is not “audible and intelligible” as the Catechism says it should be.

Still, I probably shouldn’t be so hard on myself, because I know that many of us grab the missalette and open it up out of habit, regardless of how good the lector is.

I agree that Becker is being too hard on himself. I’d encourage him to take a positive and charitable view if he happens to see people using missalettes when he reads.

It isn’t that he’s doing a bad job. It’s that they want to get even more out of the readings, and this is a way that they have determined they can do that.

Good for them!

And good for Becker for his service to the Church as a lector!

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Catholic Answers.
Catholic Answers


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