Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: What are the liturgical rules concerning the reading of the religious texts/scriptures of other religions in place of the readings or the Gospel at Mass? What are the liturgical restrictions that apply (to the above) if the lector/reader is either a Catholic or an individual from another religious persuasion? — M.P., Chennai, India
A: Actually there is only one basic rule regarding the readings at Mass. Only approved biblical texts are used. Non-biblical texts, even if they are the writings of a pope or a saint, are never used as readings in the Mass — much less non-Christian texts.
Thus the introduction to the Lectionary says:
“12. In the celebration of Mass the biblical readings with their accompanying chants from the Sacred Scriptures may not be omitted, shortened, or, worse still, replaced by non-biblical readings. For it is out of the word of God handed down in writing that even now ‘God speaks to his people’ and it is from the continued use of Sacred Scripture that the people of God, docile to the Holy Spirit under the light of faith, is enabled to bear witness to Christ before the world by its manner of life.”
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal:
“57. In the readings, the table of God’s word is prepared for the faithful, and the riches of the Bible are opened to them. Hence, it is preferable to maintain the arrangement of the biblical readings, by which lights is shed on the unity of both Testaments and of salvation history. Moreover, it is unlawful to substitute other, non-biblical texts for the readings and responsorial Psalm, which contain the word of God.”
The same point is made in the 2004 instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum:
“61. In selecting the biblical readings for proclamation in the celebration of Mass, the norms found in the liturgical books are to be followed, so that indeed ‘a richer table of the word of God will be prepared for the faithful, and the biblical treasures opened up for them.’
“62. It is also illicit to omit or to substitute the prescribed biblical readings on one’s own initiative, and especially ‘to substitute other, non-biblical texts for the readings and responsorial Psalm, which contain the word of God.'”
The introduction to the Lectionary admirably explains the importance of using God’s Word in the liturgy:
“c) The Significance of the Word of God in the Liturgy
“3. The many riches contained in the one word of God are admirably brought out in the different kinds of liturgical celebration and in the different gatherings of the faithful who take part in those celebrations. This takes place as the unfolding mystery of Christ is recalled during the course of the liturgical year, as the Church’s sacraments and sacramentals are celebrated, or as the faithful respond individually to the Holy Spirit working within them. For then the liturgical celebration, founded primarily on the word of God and sustained by it, becomes a new event and enriches the word itself with new meaning and power. Thus in the Liturgy the Church faithfully adheres to the way Christ himself read and explained the Sacred Scriptures, beginning with the ‘today’ of his coming forward in the synagogue and urging all to search the Scriptures.
“2. Liturgical Celebration of the Word of God
“a) The Proper Character of the Word of God in the Liturgical Celebration
“4. In the celebration of the Liturgy, the word of God is not announced in only one way nor does it always stir the hearts of the hearers with the same efficacy. Always, however, Christ is present in his word, as he carries out the mystery of salvation, sanctifies humanity and offers the Father perfect worship. Moreover, the word of God unceasingly calls to mind and extends the economy of salvation, which achieves its fullest expression in the Liturgy. The liturgical celebration becomes, therefore, the continuing, complete, and effective presentation of God’s word. The word of God constantly proclaimed in the Liturgy is always, then, a living and effective word through the power of the Holy Spirit. It expresses the Father’s love that never fails in its effectiveness toward us.
“b) The Word of God in the Economy of Salvation
“5. When in celebrating the Liturgy the Church proclaims both the Old and New Testament, it is proclaiming one and the same mystery of Christ. The New Testament lies hidden in the Old; the Old Testament comes fully to light in the New. Christ himself is the center and fullness of the whole of Scripture, just as he is of all liturgical celebration. Thus the Scriptures are the living waters from which all who seek life and salvation must drink. The more profound our understanding of the celebration of the liturgy, the higher our appreciation of the importance of God’s word. Whatever we say of the one, we can, in turn, say of the other, because each recalls the mystery of Christ and each in its own way causes the mystery to be carried forward.
“c) The Word of God in the Liturgical Participation of the Faithful
“6. In celebrating the Liturgy the Church faithfully echoes the ‘Amen’ that Christ, the mediator between God and men and women, uttered once for all as he shed his blood to seal God’s new covenant in the Holy Spirit. When God communicates his word, he expects a response, one, that is, of listening and adoring ‘in Spirit and in truth’ (Jn 4:23). The Holy Spirit makes that response effective so that what is heard in the celebration of the Liturgy may be carried out in a way of life: ‘Be doers of the word and not hearers only’ (Jas 1:22). The liturgical celebration and the participation of the faithful receive outward expression in actions, gestures, and words. These derive their full meaning not simply from their origin in human experience but from the word of God and the economy of salvation, to which they refer. Accordingly, the participation of the faithful in the Liturgy increases to the degree that, as they listen to the word of God proclaimed in the Liturgy, they strive harder to commit themselves to the Word of God incarnate in Christ. Thus, they endeavor to conform their way of life to what they celebrate in the Liturgy, and then, in turn, to bring to the celebration of the Liturgy all that they do in life.
“3. The Word of God in the Life of the People of the Covenant
“a) The Word of God in the Life of the Church
“7. In the hearing of God’s word the Church is built up and grows, and in the signs of the liturgical celebration God’s wonderful, past works in the history of salvation are presented anew as mysterious realities. God, in turn, makes use of the congregation of the faithful that celebrates the Liturgy in order that his word may speed on and be glorified and that his name be exalted among the nations. Whenever, therefore, the Church, gathered by the Holy Spirit for liturgical celebration, announces and proclaims the word of God, she is aware of being a new people in whom the covenant made in the past is perfected and fulfilled. Baptism and confirmation in the Spirit have made all Christ’s faithful into messengers of God’s word because of the grace of hearing they have received. They must, therefore, be the bearers of the same word in the Church and in the world, at least by the witness of their lives. The word of God proclaimed in the celebration of God’s mysteries does not only address present conditions but looks back to past events and forward to what is yet to come. Thus God’s word shows us what we should hope for with such a longing that in this changing world our hearts will be set on the place where our true joys lie.”
With respect to non-Catholics reading at Mass, I cite part of a column we wrote on December 2, 2003:
“In most cases, only a Catholic in good standing should serve in any liturgical role. Likewise, before serving, each individual Catholic should be reasonably sure that he or she is in the state of grace.
“There may be some rare exceptions. The Holy See’s 1993 Ecumenical Directory states that the proclamation of Sacred Scripture at Mass is done by Catholics. In exceptional circumstances and for a just cause, the diocesan bishop may permit a member of another church or ecclesial community to carry out the function of reader (see No. 133). The homily, however, is always reserved to the priest or deacon.
“The reason should be fairly clear: because of the intimate relationship between the table of the Word and the Eucharist during the celebration. Reading the Word in this context is acting as a (sub-delegated) minister of the Church and normally only a Catholic may serve this function.”