Why aren't there Bibles in the pews?

A young man seeking information about the Catholic faith was overheard saying: “There are no Bibles in your church.” What a great observation. The pews in most Protestant churches are filled with Bibles; not so much in a Catholic church. In fact, except for the parish library or religious education department, you might not find a Bible anywhere in the church building. An explanation was — and is — in order.

Liturgy of the Word

The first part of the Catholic Mass is known as the Liturgy of the Word. It consists of the congregation listening to the word of God. The word “liturgy” means the rites and ceremonies of the Mass. During the Mass, trained parishioners called lectors read aloud two Scripture passages to the congregation; typically one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. In between the readings, a psalm is sung or read. The readings are all found in the Bible, but the lectors read from a book known as the lectionary. This book contains Scripture, psalm and Gospel readings assigned for each day of the Church year. After the lectors complete their readings, a deacon or a priest (only an ordained minister) reads the Gospel.

On Sundays, the deacon or priest doesn’t use the lectionary but another book called the Book of Gospels, which is the book you see being carried during the opening procession of Sunday Mass; it is the same book the deacon or priest carries from the altar to the ambo and from which the Gospel is read. Neither the Scriptures nor the Gospel is randomly selected; they are set on a three-year schedule in a very regulated and assigned order (see sidebar). There are a total of four readings on Sunday and three during the weekday Masses.

The Scriptures always have been at the heart of Catholic teaching. On any given Sunday in every Roman Catholic parish around the world, the identical Scriptures, psalm and Gospel are read. This universal practice, this sign of oneness, is often a surprise to those inquiring about the Faith. The first reading on Sunday is most always from the Old Testament and tied to the theme of the Gospel for that day. The second reading is typically from the epistles of the New Testament. During the week, the one Scripture reading is from the Old Testament and, like Sundays, is connected to the Gospel.

In most every Catholic parish, instead of Bibles in the pews there are books known as Mass books (or missals) that contain not only the Sunday Mass readings but the prayers and sequence of the Mass. Weekly parish bulletins contain a list of daily readings for the forthcoming week so parishioners can use their Bible at home and prepare in advance.

No Bibles in the pews

The absence of Bibles in the pews goes back to an early period in the Church when Catholics, other than the clergy, were not encouraged to read the Scriptures because the Church was concerned that the ordinary person would not understand or would misinterpret God’s word. Additionally, especially in the Middle Ages, heretical movements against the Church resulted in erroneous and corrupt interpretations.

Until the 15th-century invention of the printing press, there were few copies of the Scriptures. Monks often manually hand-copied the Scriptures — a process that took years to complete. Consequently, each parish was fortunate if it had one handwritten copy, and that copy was secured in the church. Even if other copies were available, many parishioners couldn’t read anyway. Thus, the Scriptures were proclaimed verbally and then explained by the bishop or priest.

This situation changed somewhat with the invention of the printing press as more Bibles became available. Catholics, those who could do so, were encouraged to read the holy Scriptures, but they were cautioned to read only the Catholic version of the Bible, as there were many other versions with interpretations other than Catholic.

Today the Church hierarchy exhorts us to read and study the word of God. However, the Church remains concerned over the proper interpretation of the Scriptures and considers the magisterium — the teaching authority of the Church — the pope and bishops, as the one true teaching authority. If individual Catholics were encouraged to reach their own private conclusions on God’s word, there would be thousands of different interpretations and even splinter groups, each with their own set of conclusions — not unlike other churches today. The unity of our Church would be greatly impacted.

Different Bibles

Once it was suggested to a Protestant that he read the wonderful story about Susanna found in Chapter 13 of Daniel. He said he didn’t know the story, but he would read it. The next day he said he was confused because there was no Chapter 13 in Daniel; further, he couldn’t find the story anywhere in the Bible. Well, Chapter 13 is in the Catholic Old Testament but not in the Protestant version. Catholics use a Bible that is different from that used by Protestants and, in fact, there have been occasions when the Catholic Church has been accused of adding books to the Bible. That is not the case.

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When Martin Luther broke from the Church in the 16th century, he eliminated parts of the Old Testament that had been used by all Christians for more than five centuries. The books of Wisdom, Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Baruch, First and Second Maccabees, as well as sections of other books, were excluded by Luther. The logic, according to Bible historians, goes back to the time near the birth of Christ when there were two versions of the Old Testament Scriptures: one in Greek, the version still used in the Church, and one in Hebrew, which did not include the additional books. The Greek version, later translated into Latin, was proclaimed in fourth-century Church councils as the accepted and official Scriptures and continued in use for the next 1,000 years. The Protestants chose to use the Hebrew version because Luther allegedly objected to certain long-held Catholic beliefs, such as purgatory and praying for the dead, contained in the additional books. Consequently, Protestant Bibles have fewer books than Catholic Bibles. The same version of the New Testament, with few exceptions, is found in both Catholic and Protestant Bibles.

D.D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.

How is the Lectionary Arranged?
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The website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains the use of Scriptures at Mass. For more, visit USCCB.org/bible/liturgy.