Monday, June 6, 2011

The Scripture-filled Worship of Catholics

Many evangelicals have the mistaken notion that Catholics ignore or have a low regard for the Bible. Is this true? One way (of many) to answer this question is to examine the core of Catholic life and worship, the Mass.

During most of the year, Sunday Masses have a reading from the OT, a psalm, a reading from one of the NT epistles, and a Gospel reading, followed by a homily that is supposed to teach from the Scriptures of the day (and that's just half the Mass). That's a lot of Scripture, much more than is read at a typical evangelical worship service.

But as if that weren't enough Scripture for one Mass, the prayers of the Mass themselves are immersed with references to Scripture.

'The Lord be with you', 'Peace be with you', 'Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth', 'Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world' - these are all not only parts of the Mass but are also quotes from Scriptures (Ruth 2.4, Jn 20.19, Lk 2.14, Jn 1.29). The USCCB's annotated Order of Mass* lists 70 Scripture references among the prayers of the Mass. Here are two more big examples:

Soon after reciting the Nicene Creed, and at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the congregation sings these praises to God:

Holy, holy, holy Lord God of power and might
Heaven and earth are full of your glory
Hosanna in the highest
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord
Hosanna in the highest

A person familiar with the Scriptures should immediately recognize that these are not just any words but praises given to God in the Scriptures. The first part is a reference to the worship occurring in heaven itself witnessed by the prophet Isaiah:

1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
   “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
   the whole earth is full of his glory.
(Is 6.1-3)

The second part is a reference to the praises given to Christ during His triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week:

8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
   “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
   “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
   “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  (Mt 21.8-9)

Here's another example: Before going up to receive communion, the congregation prays together:

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.

Again, this should ring a bell:

2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed." (Lk 7.2-7)

Catholics hear the Scriptures, are instructed from the Scriptures, and take their words of praise from the Scriptures. Far from being unconnected from the Scriptures, the Catholics's worship of God is steeped in Scripture.

*This is for the new translation of the Mass which will begin being used Advent 2011, but the references also apply to the current translation of the Mass. My quotes from the Mass in this blog post use the current translation.


  1. I wonder who is more surprised by this. Evangelicals who think they are all about the Bible with their 45 minute sermons and Bible studies. Or Catholics who let these words run past them as they kill time waiting for the Eucharist.

    To me the difference is that Evangelicals read their Bibles themselves. Catholics have it read to them. In the end (and at a very general level), I suspect that neither group really understands what they're doing.

  2. Actually I know Catholics who do read the Bible and still don't recognize more than a couple of Bible references in the Mass.

    And of course not only does the Mass contain Scripture, but the passages are in the Mass to make particular comments about the plot, so to speak.

    It's up to each Catholic to make what's Scripturally implicit in the Mass....explicit.

  3. Nice post Brantly. Those of us who pray the Liturgy of the Hours everyday have even more (a LOT more) scripture packed into our day. And so many Catholics don't even know about this ancient form of prayer.

  4. So true :)
    I'm studying Revelation right now, and it's incredible to me how our Mass is literally "Heaven on Earth". Almost every part of the Mass is a model of what the angels and saints are doing in Heaven all the time.
    So not only are the words of the Mass quoted from Scripture, but even the structure of our liturgy is based on Scripture. Beautiful.

  5. That was a great post, thank you for pointing out the parallels

  6. More scripture is one of the great improvements of Paul VI's mass. Unfortunately, that's pretty much it. The new Mass is otherwise rather poor in expressing Catholic theology when compared to the traditional mass.

    Having two forms of mass (ordinary and extraordinary) is a great treasure for Latin-rite Catholics. Convention wisdom would say that ex-Evangelicals are more likely to feel at home with the new mass, but since conservatives tend to gravitate around the extraordinary form, ex-Evangelicals end up becoming "traditional" Catholics.