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The New Lectionary:
Weighing the Words


  What's New in the New Lectionary?

  Listen or Read or Both?

  How Long, O Lord?

On Sunday, November 29, a new Word will be proclaimed in the Catholic churches of the United States. At least, some words will be new. If publishing and delivery schedules are met (and they were tight!), many parishes will be using Volume I of the new Lectionary (Sundays and Solemnities) for the first time. (Its use is not required until Volume II is also available.)

What will be new and different? What may be a throwback? Why is it happening at all? And the ultimate question: Will this book make a difference in our lives?

What's New in the New Lectionary?

Advance notices for the new Lectionary praise its extended theological introduction. The expensive, beribboned editions are obviously not for circulation. Yet the people in the pews need to know the substance of this theological and explanatory introduction. Lectors and members of parish liturgical commissions should read this explanation which readies Catholics to sit at the table of Wisdom with the same appetite they bring to the eucharistic table.

Catholics need to hear from the pulpit the introduction's themes: the ongoing search to understand the meaning of Scripture, the ongoing quest to express it well in the language of the people and the desire of our bishops to set the table of the Word with the very best offerings faithful scholarship can provide. The 1998 Lectionary is a great teaching moment.

Rumor has it that feminists dictated the terms of translation and adaptation. Not so. American culture has certainly changed as women assume a greater role in public life. That change is reflected in our language. Translators struggled to provide accurate equivalences from the original text to formal, modern English.

In 325 instances, collective words have been translated anew, harking back to the Greek or Hebrew where evidence indicates that the writers intended the inclusion of both sexes. Many women will welcome their inclusion as children (not sons) and as persons (not men) in most—but not all—instances.

It is certainly comforting that the U.S. bishops and cardinals fought to ensure that American Catholics could hear the gospel preached with a minimum of distraction by such linguistic stumbling blocks. It is distressing that U.S. biblical scholarship was not respected by the Vatican.

The Psalter actually became less inclusive. For instance, on the First Sunday of Advent, the last verse of the responsorial psalm will now use the word brothers, though the 1970 Lectionary rendered it relatives.

For lectors, a helpful change is that the readings are rendered in sense lines. This avoids the perils of hyphenation and inappropriate breaks while encouraging effective proclamation.

Listen or Read or Both?

Parishes with those beautiful, bound volumes of congregational hymns and readings (and the "old" New Testament) will join some paperback missal users in a period of confusion—or enlightenment. Not all paperback missals have elected to use the new text this year. One might well ask why.

If those who try to follow the text as it is proclaimed are forewarned, they may hear and appreciate the differences. The duality of reading and hearing may underscore the vigor and timeliness of the new edition, or the congregation will be quite confused.

This is a good time to master the eccentricities of the parish sound system, to invite full-throated proclamation by lectors and to encourage wholehearted listening to words that surely arose from an ancient oral tradition.

New translations cause discomfort: Words of comfort recast into a modern idiom don't always comfort as well. Quoting the old favorites, even looking them up through concordances, can prove difficult. Yet that very challenge can make the Word new again, touch our hearts in new and tender places and prevent us from treating it like a worn cliche or a secular fable.

A ceremony to welcome the new books themselves—like the procession and welcoming of the scrolls into a new synagogue—would be an excellent way to remind Catholics of the treasure that is ours in both Testaments.

How Long, O Lord?

From the outset, it's clear that this is not the lectionary to end all lectionaries. English is a living language, and living languages change and develop.

The book we will welcome this month is not the text the U.S. bishops first sent for approval. It isn't the book they judged best in the pastoral sense. That was clear from the heated debate at the bishops' conference last year. The compromise was an agreement to revisit their decision in five years.

By then, the revised edition of the Old Testament, including the Psalms, may be available for inclusion. Further evolution of the language may create a need for other considerations as well.

During this next three-year cycle of readings, then, Catholics should listen as though this were a first hearing. Listen—not to find fault with the translation, but to find ways to live the Good News, rising above personal faults and failures. Listen—not to be agitated by exclusion, but to be comforted by inclusion in the family of God. Listen—not to hear the struggles of translators and hierarchs, but to know the mighty struggle of God to plant the Word in our hearts.—C.A.M.

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