The Roman Lectionary
the Scriptures Read in Church

Frank C. Quinn OP
Aquinas Institute of Theology
Orginally printed in the NCR, Volume 31, no. 5 (November 18 1994), pp. 6-7.
New Additions August 3, 1998


The decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to withdraw permission to use the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] of the bible in both liturgical celebrations and catechetical publications came as a surprise to many Christians in the English speaking world, both Catholic and Protestant. One would think that detailed and convincing reasons would be given for a decision that creates problems not only within the Catholic church in the United States and Canada (where the bishops have several million dollars invested in a four volume version of the revised Roman Lectionary, three volumes of which have been printed to date), but also within the community of biblical scholars who generally agree that the NRSV is one of the most faithful and literal translations of the bible. Moreover, such a move amounts to a gratuitous insult to other Christian churches who find the NRSV a superlative version of the scriptures both for liturgical proclamation and for preaching. But no such reasons are given, although there is no doubt that some on the far right have campaigned against the new versions of the NRSV and NAB as being "feminist" or as following the "feminist agenda," vague terms having more to do with political posturing then theological or liturgical precision.

While the decision of the Congregation is a crucial issue which affects the worship of millions, most Catholics are not really aware of the ins and outs of lectionary construction or choice of scriptures--and quite rightly so. This kind of thing belongs to those whose job it is: national and local worship offices, scripture and liturgical scholars, and, of course, national episcopal conferences. The person in the pew is more interested in good proclamation of the scriptures and effective and faith-filled preaching, the goal of both lectionary reform and choice of an appropriate version of the scriptures for public reading. But even the least concerned may sit up and take notice if the translation of the scriptures forced upon the American church reads anything like the New Roman Catechism, a text which in its "corrected" version is labored and inelegant. Not only will the scriptures be ill-served, but the entire liturgical movement with its renewed emphasis on well-crafted homiletic preaching will suffer.

For this reason, perhaps some words about the Roman Catholic Lectionary and its evolution in the United States might be in order.


A lectionary is a choice of readings from the Old and New Testaments appointed for specific times and celebrations over the course of the liturgical year. The word lectionary refers to either a table of readings, the reading actually being done from the bible itself, a common practice in non-Catholic churches, or to a full-text publication which includes each portion of the scriptures printed in place, a practice universal in the Roman Catholic church, especially with regard to sacramental services.

The post-Vatican II Roman Lectionary represented a profound break with the past. Not only were the readings organized according to a plan whereby a richer fare of scripture was read in liturgical celebrations, in contrast to the medieval lectionary where the choice of readings was simply helter-skelter, but for the first time in history the Sunday lectionary covered a period of three years, each year being dedicated to a particular synoptic author--Matthew, Mark, or Luke. A fourth year was not dedicated to the gospel of John because readings from this gospel permeate the sacred seasons, especially the latter part of Lent and most of Easter.

Another innovation was the re-introduction of Old Testament readings into the liturgy. Reading from the Old Testament had practically vanished from Roman Catholic liturgical celebrations, excepting such special situations as the Easter Vigil and Ember Days. One result of the recovery of the Old Testament is that preachers are becoming more and more aware of the need to grapple with the Old Testament [which includes, for Roman Catholics, both the Hebrew and the Greek scriptures] and not just the gospel. Other changes include: three readings on Sunday instead of two, a week-day lectionary which provides a one year cycle of readings from the gospel and a two-year cycle for the first reading.

The Roman Catholic Lectionary for Mass

1969 saw the publication of the Latin edition of the Roman Lectionary. American bishops approved the use of three scripture translations in the United States edition of the lectionary: the NAB, the RSV, and the Jerusalem Bible. In 1980 a second Latin edition of the Roman Lectionary was promulgated, including a much expanded introduction as well as a number of corrections and additions to the first edition. In 1994, fourteen years later, we are still awaiting the American publication of this new edition.

Since 1970, there have been further revisions of the scriptures approved at that time. Today we have the New Revised Standard Version and the New Jerusalem Bible. Newly translated versions of the New Testament and Psalter of the New American Bible have also been published. Beyond the publication of new versions of familiar translations of the scriptures, in preparing both the NAB and NRSV for publication in lectionary form further editorial work has been done in order to adapt these scriptures for liturgical proclamation.

Although the NRSV was approved by the American bishops--and confirmed by the Apostolic See--for liturgical and catechetical use in 1992, United States Catholics have not heard the text read in their churches unless a local church purchased a copy of the Canadian Lectionary, which commenced publication in 1992. The reason why the NRSV has not been allowed to be published in the United States in lectionary form at an earlier date is because the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy decided to hold off such publication until the New American Bible [NAB] version of the Roman Lectionary, which has now been languishing at the Congregation of Worship for over two and a half years, is approved by the Apostolic see. In other words, simultaneous publication offers parishes an opportunity to compare both versions of the scriptures and make informed decisions as to which version to use.

The Lectionary and Bible Translations

When they were considering the publication of the first edition of the Roman lectionary, the United States bishops decided to allow several translations of the scriptures, current at the time, to be published. These included, as noted above, not only the translation sponsored by the bishops' committee of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, the New American Bible, but also translations not under the control of the bishops, the Revised Standard Edition, used by many Protestant churches, and the Jerusalem Bible. All three of these bibles were translations made directly from the original texts and utilizing the latest scholarship, rather than, as in the case of the Douai bible, from the Latin vulgate of Jerome. Twenty four years later all three of the translations have again undergone (or in the case of the NAB, continue to undergo) thorough revision, biblical scholarship having provided even more insights into correct translation of problem passages.

When it comes to lectionary usage more is required than simply the use of a particular version of the scriptures. Such factors as anti-Semitism, the choice of language for those who might be different from others [e.g., should we speak of those who are "dumb" or those who are "mute"], and gender inclusivity are of paramount importance when it is a question of public proclamation instead of private reading. The scriptures are always addressed to the entire assembly, not some faction in the assembly. One virtue then of lectionary usage over direct reading from the bible is that the scriptures can be better adapted, as they always have been, for public proclamation. In adapting the NAB and the NRSV for lectionary usage, therefore, neither translation is exactly as it appears in a full bible.

Further Lectionary Revision

Of all the Vatican II liturgical reforms the reform of the lectionary has made the most immediate impression on other English speaking Christian churches. The Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, as well as other churches revised their own lectionarys on the basis of the Roman Catholic three-year Sunday lectionary. In the United States many Christian assemblies read and preach the same scriptures on Sundays.

Because of the success of the Roman Lectionary's Sunday cycle of readings on other Christian communions, an ecumenical task force, the Consultation on Common Texts [CCT], a group formed in the 1960's to deal with worship issues common to the Christian churches in general, began to the develop an ecumenical lectionary which might be adapted by all the churches. The basis for their revision was the Roman lectionary. For many churches one particular area of concern was the way Old Testament readings were chosen by the editors of the first edition of the Roman lectionary. The Common Lectionary was published in 1983 and began to be employed by a number of churches. Recently, the successors to CCT, the English Language Liturgy Consultation [ELLC], have published a full revision of Common Lectionary, known as Revised Common Lectionary (1992). This revised choice of readings is at present being adopted by many non-Catholic Christian churches in the United States and elsewhere. There is no doubt that the original Roman lectionary has provided an impetus to lectionary reform that, in the English speaking world, can only be looked at as the grace of the Holy Spirit working among us.

The Future

The reading of scriptures and preaching will continue, of course. But one wonders why the major successes of lectionary reform and ecumenical cooperation in English speaking countries have made so little impression on the Roman congregations. After all, it was the Roman lectionary itself that allowed such developments to take place! The decision by the American bishops to allow both the NRSV, a rather conservative translation, but one which reads very well in public, and the NAB, a slightly more adventuresome version, to be used in Catholic worship is both responsible and of benefit to all Catholic parishes. Both versions of the scriptures come with impressive scholarly credentials.

Unfortunately, as mentioned above, some have determined that the NRSV is a "feminist" translation that may not be used in liturgical celebrations. Here we would certainly locate Mother Angelica and Joseph Fessio, SJ, who make no secret of their opposition. It should also be noted that this same group repudiates the bishops' own version of the scriptures, the NAB. For example, Helen Hitchcock, in The Politics of Prayer, condemns the American bishops' guidelines for the translation of scriptures, approved in 1990, guidelines which guided the translators of the new NAB and the committee that prepared that bible for lectionary usage. In her dismissal of these guidelines the author accuses the bishops of caving in to "feminism:" "Even if it was not the bishops' intention, however, they have approved in principle the claims of the party of liturgical revision [sic] (1) that feminist ideologically 'improved' usage is now to be the lingua franca of all English-speaking people; and (2) liturgical language in the Catholic Church should conform to feminist usage" (Helen Hull Hitchcock, Editor, The Politics of Prayer, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992, p. 342.)

It appears that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has bought into some of these unsubstantiated arguments. Thus, NRSV and NAB are--horror of horrors--"feminist" and cannot be allowed to infect the minds and hearts of weaker Catholic Christians!

The problem is this: if we say nonsense to such claims, how do we respond to a Roman Congregation which seems to be depending upon them?

Update to the original Article

Since the fall of 1994 up to the present time [August, 1998], progress of a kind has been made on the lectionary "problem." With the agreement that previous efforts and approvals be entirely ignored, the agreement was made to use the New American Bible New Testament translation of 1986, along with the previously used pre-1969 versions of the CCD [Confraternity of Christian Doctrine] translations of the Old Testament and the Psalms. The readings have been rendered somewhat "inclusive." It will be noted, however, that the extensive work done on the original lectionary approved by the American bishops to make sure that the liturgical lectionary would read well and be inclusive of the entire Catholic community was not expended on the new compromise lectionary. One can only wonder what will be the result of this compromise in the future decades in the United States.

In order to place the entire lectionary process in perspective there follows a table of important dates and events in post-Vatican II lectionary revision up to the present time:

The Roman Lectionary and Its Derivatives

1967 The NCCB approves the use of several English translations of the psalmody: New American Bible, Jerusalem Bible, Revised Standard Version--Catholic Edition, Grail
1968 The NCCB approves the use of the New American Bible [NAB], Jerusalem Bible [JB], Revised Standard Version--Catholic Edition [RSV] for the United States Lectionary; confirmed by the Apostolic See in the same year.
25 May, 1969 Ordo Lectionum Missae promulgated.
1970 Lectionary for Mass [28 November 1971, official effective date for use in the USA]
1981 Second Edition of the Ordo Lectionum Missae promulgated by Rome
1983 Common Lectionary, the ecumenical lectionary prepared by the Consultation on Common Texts [CCT] and based on the Roman Lectionary
1989 New Revised Standard Bible [NRSV] printed
6 April 1992 Confirmation of New Revised Standard -- for liturgical and catechetical use in the United States of America.
1992 Publication of first volume of the revised Roman Lectionary for use in Canada, by the Canadian Catholic Conference. Three volumes have been published so far, the fourth and last is held up as of this date [9/5/96]. The text used for readings and psalms is the New Revised Standard Version -- Catholic Edition [NRSV]. Canada based its publication on the confirmation of the NRSV as a liturgical text given by the Apostolic See to the United States.
27 May 1992 Confirmation of newly translated New American Bible [NAB] psalter for liturgical and Catechetical use
1992 Revised Common Lectionary from English Language Liturgy Consultation [ELLC], made up of representatives from the churches of Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, The United States, and Wales, printed. The Roman Catholic Church is represented in ELLC by the English Language Liturgy Consultation [ICEL]
Fall 1994 Withdrawal of confirmation of NRSV and NAB Psalter for liturgical and catechetical use in the United States.
January 1995 Delegation of US bishops and scripture scholars in Rome for what is called a "productive" meeting. No results released.
July, 1996 Vatican and US officials meet to discuss American lectionary. No results released.
December, 1996 The seven active American cardinals go to Rome to ask that the lectionary project be concluded. Agree to review of lectionary by several American bishops and representatives from Doctrine [CDF] and Divine Worship [CDWS].
March 11, 1997 The American representatives who met with the Roman officials were Archbishops Hanus, William Levada, and Justin Rigali. The meeting was chaired by Archbishop Stafford. No scripture scholars were part of the process.
June 19-21, 1997 At the semi-annual NCCB meeting in Kansas City the vote on the accepting the new lectionary, composed on the basis of the confidential agreement worked out between the three US archbishops and CDF was inconclusive and depended upon mail-in ballots, which gave the proposal the necessary two-third's majority. It should be noted that the vote was not a vote to approve the new lectionary. Instead it was a vote accepting the lectionary provisionally for five years with the intent of reviewing the issue after that period.
November 10, 1997 Confirmation, by Rome, of Volume I of the lectionary, readings for Sundays.
June 1998 Vote on volume II. Mail order ballots allowed the entire lectionary to be approved for Roman confirmation.
Advent 1998 Effective date for implementation of Volume I (Sundays) of the new compromise lectionary for use in the USA. As of that date no other versions of the Sunday lectionary may be employed (excepting the already approved children's lectionary).

A preliminary judgment on the compromise lectionary, along with a number of the articles mentioned in the bibliography below may be found in the lectionary site of the Catholic Biblical Society of America it reads:

"The NAB lectionary, volume one, approved by the United States bishops and now confirmed by Rome, while disappointing in many respects, will be a great improvement over the NAB lectionary currently in use. The biggest plus will be the use of the NAB New Testament as revised in 1986; this revision is a huge advance over the original NAB New Testament of 1970, and in some ways returns to traditional diction (for example, "Magi" are back, "Astrologers" are out; "Amen, Amen, I say to you" is back, "I solemnly assure you" is out). The biggest disappointment of the new lectionary is the rejection of the revised NAB Psalter of 1991; this revised Psalter, like the revised New Testament, is a vast improvement over its predecessor; the 1991 Psalter is better in terms of accuracy, smoothness of diction, contemporary vocabulary, rhythm for singing and recitation, and inclusive language. Both the unrevised Psalter and the Old Testament readings, as employed in the new lectionary, have been made somewhat more inclusive in their phraseology than in the old lectionary. The readings from revised New Testament, too, have been rendered somewhat more inclusive than they were in the published version of that work."

Brief Bibliography

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