Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Recently Pope Francis instituted the Sunday of the Word of God with the apostolic letter Aperuit Illis. In Paragraph 3 he says: “The various communities will find their own ways to mark this Sunday with a certain solemnity. It is important, however, that in the Eucharistic celebration the sacred text be enthroned, in order to focus the attention of the assembly on the normative value of God’s word.” I have three questions: 1) Should the Holy Father’s request for the enthronement of the sacred text be considered as a binding liturgical obligation or merely as an exhortation to choose a valid option? 2) Does this Sunday, and the particular call for enthronement, pertain to all the different liturgical rites of the Catholic Church? 3) What form or forms could “enthronement” take, and do you have any practical suggestions for how parishes might include this enthronement in the celebration of the Sunday of the Word of God next year? In some places, after the second reading, I have seen the sacred text carried in procession by the members of the congregation toward the sanctuary where it is received by the one who will read the Gospel. I have never seen where the Church allows or encourages this practice, but it seems quite common in some places. In my own parish for the Sunday of the Word of God, we had the Book of the Gospels placed on the altar from the beginning of Mass and then moved solemnly from there to the ambo for the proclamation of the Gospel. However, I noticed that not only was the Book of the Gospels used in that manner during the recent papal liturgy for the Sunday of the Word of God, but it was subsequently placed on a central bookstand (throne?) which was highly decorated and in the middle foreground before the altar. — J.D., Wagga Wagga, Australia
A: The text of Pope Francis’ letter, issued motu propio, says the following regarding the Sunday of the Word of God:
“3. Consequently, I hereby declare that the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time is to be devoted to the celebration, study, and dissemination of the word of God. This Sunday of the Word of God will thus be a fitting part of that time of the year when we are encouraged to strengthen our bonds with the Jewish people and to pray for Christian unity. This is more than a temporal coincidence: the celebration of the Sunday of the Word of God has ecumenical value, since the Scriptures point out, for those who listen, the path to authentic and firm unity.
“The various communities will find their own ways to mark this Sunday with a certain solemnity. It is important, however, that in the Eucharistic celebration the sacred text be enthroned, in order to focus the attention of the assembly on the normative value of God’s word. On this Sunday, it would be particularly appropriate to highlight the proclamation of the word of the Lord and to emphasize in the homily the honor that it is due. Bishops could celebrate the Rite of Installation of Lectors or a similar commissioning of readers, in order to bring out the importance of the proclamation of God’s word in the liturgy. In this regard, renewed efforts should be made to provide members of the faithful with the training needed to be genuine proclaimers of the word, as is already the practice in the case of acolytes or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Pastors can also find ways of giving a Bible, or one of its books, to the entire assembly as a way of showing the importance of learning how to read, appreciate and pray daily with sacred Scripture, especially through the practice of lectio divina.”
In the press conference presenting the first celebration of this Sunday in St. Peter’s Basilica, some helpful indications were added [my translation].
“On the morning of Sunday 26th, at 10 a.m., Pope Francis will preside at the Holy Eucharist in St. Peter’s Basilica…. Beside the Papal Altar will be placed for the occasion the statue of Our Lady of Knock, Patroness of Ireland, which will come specially from the Shrine accompanied by a large representation of the faithful, led by the Archbishop of Tuam, H.E. Bishop Michael Neary and the Rector of the Shrine, Father Richard Gibbons. The choir of the Shrine will alternate in supporting the liturgical singing of the Holy Eucharist with the Sistine Chapel Choir.
“The choice of this presence is almost obligatory for this Sunday. As we know, the apparition of the Virgin at Knock in 1879 is particularly evocative: The Virgin is accompanied by Saint Joseph and John the Evangelist, who points toward the altar on which the victorious Lamb reigns, as in the vision of the Apocalypse. The Virgin Mary in this apparition does not speak; she remains silent, almost as if to indicate the fundamental attitude before the mystery; and yet, the whole apparition ‘speaks,’ because in John it indicates the Gospel that we are obliged to make our own and the path that awaits us in view of the last times. At the center is once again the mystery of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the beating heart of evangelization. At the beginning of the Mass, moreover, there will be the solemn enthronement of the Lectionary, used in all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council.”
With the above in mind, we can attempt to answer our reader’s questions.
The literary form of Aperuit Illis, No. 3, is exhortative and, while it does not constitute a binding liturgical norm, the recommendation to enthrone the Word of God is clearly of central importance. This is also because practically any parish can do this in some form, whereas recommendations such as holding the institution of lectors would require the presence of a bishop.
There seems to be great flexibility as to the forms of this enthronement. Indeed while during the press conference it was stated that the enthronement would take place at the beginning of Mass, in fact, as our reader points out, it was done after the proclamation of the Gospel and using an Evangelarium. The throne, in this case, was placed in a central position in front of the confession — the same place that the image of the infant Jesus occupied during Christmastide.
Other churches can use any suitable location that provides visibility while not interfering with the liturgical processions and movements — for example, setting up a lectern in front of the ambo. The book used could be the lectionary or an elegant copy of the Bible or the New Testament.
However, since there is no official liturgical rite for this enthronement, my personal opinion would be that it is best carried out at the beginning of Mass. From the text of Aperuit Illis it appears that the Holy Father’s concern is that the enthronement “focus the attention of the assembly on the normative value of God’s word.” I think that this can be best achieved if it enthroned at the beginning and with a book that is different from that used in the Mass itself.
It would also be recommendable to solemnize the proclamation of the Gospel by using the Book of the Gospels and to incense at the prescribed moments during Mass.
Finally, although the Holy Father’s pastoral goal of a reevaluation of God’s Word applies to all Catholics, I do not think that the liturgical recommendation is relevant in this case. Suffice it to say that the third Sunday of Ordinary Time is only found in the ordinary form of the Roman rite.