In Praise of Having a Personal Missal

A personal missal is truly a blessing!

When Lyndon B. Johnson took the presidential oath of office in Dallas after the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy, aides were unable to locate a Bible for the ceremony. This Saint Joseph Sunday Missal was found aboard Air Force One and used for the swearing-in ceremony.
When Lyndon B. Johnson took the presidential oath of office in Dallas after the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy, aides were unable to locate a Bible for the ceremony. This Saint Joseph Sunday Missal was found aboard Air Force One and used for the swearing-in ceremony. (photo: Photo by Ruth Goerger, LBJ Presidential Library/Public Domain)

When I was in sixth grade, I had a wonderful teacher, a devout lay woman, who was an inspiration to me as a young boy to want to learn more about my faith. That year, the curriculum in the then-named Holy Name of Jesus School in Brooklyn (now known as Saint Joseph the Worker Catholic Academy) was the Old Testament, and with the help of this great young educator, we certainly knew it. It was exciting to learn all about the Bible!

One of the great moments, as I recall those years, now many years ago (really, do the 1980s seem all that long ago to you?), was checking out of our parochial school library a picture book of the Bible and then getting my own copy of the New English Bible. (I felt very special because I had this Bible purchased from Waldenbooks and the rest of the class only had the Good News Bible!) It was fun and exciting for me to actually read all about the stories of Sacred Scripture and I especially loved the maps and charts. (As I get older, I realize that I would rather at times have just charts, maps, and synopses than an actual book — give me an episode guide for a television series and I most likely will prefer that more than actually watching the show!)

As I grew older, I was permitted after Confirmation to serve as a lector at Mass, something that I really loved. It was a step-up, in my adolescent mind, from being a “kid” altar server and it offered me the opportunity to engage in the proclamation and the study of the Word of God as offered in Sacred Scripture.

Because I was a rather pious young man and a fairly good student, I was encouraged to think about attending the diocesan high school seminary, Cathedral Preparatory Seminary (now Cathedral Prep School and Seminary) in Elmhurst, New York. I grew to love my time there and I could not imagine my high school days happening in any other way. (I was blessed to be assigned to Cathedral Prep Seminary as a young priest for eight years as a Religion and English teacher, some of the happiest days of my priesthood.)

When I was a sophomore, our rector-principal gave to each of us a very generous gift — a three-volume St. Joseph Missal, one for the weekdays and one for Sundays, published by the Catholic Book Publishing Company. What a gift it was for me! To say that I appreciated it was an understatement. In my hands was a small version of the two big red books that I was helping to place on the altar and ambo in my school duty as a sacristan of the chapel — the Sacramentary and the Lectionary.

I devoured those missals, reading the introductions and the general calendars, learning what the Eucharistic Prayers (now, when is it appropriate to use Eucharistic Prayer IV?) were and what the various lectionary cycles were (Year A, B, and C for Sundays and Years I and II for weekdays). Having those little missals, one tan and one blue for the weekdays and a red one for Sunday, in my hands helped me as a high school boy to understand and to appreciate the Holy Mass even more.

It engaged me in the readings. It introduced me to the general liturgical calendar, teaching me the seasonal and the sanctoral. It taught me the difference between the opening prayer (collect), the prayer over the gifts, the preface, the Eucharistic Prayers and the closing prayer. It taught me to appreciate Holy Mass by having in my hand the readings so I could follow along. It taught me the prayers so I knew what was being said and what we were praying for at Mass.

Above all else, those three little St. Joseph’s Missals helped me to love Holy Mass! In fact, when I attended the college-level seminary after graduation from high school, having become accustomed to using my little Mass missal prepared me to understand and to love my Liturgy of the Hours. I always viewed my breviary as a logical outgrowth of having learned to use and to love my Mass missals.

As I progressed toward priesthood, I was told that the proclamation of the Word of God and the celebration of the Mass deserved full, conscious and active participation, and indeed this is true. In fact, I was told that as a priest we should discourage people from using a personal missal at Mass, because they really would not be participating as fully as they could in the Eucharistic celebration. The number of people whom I see using a bound hand missal at Mass has decreased significantly over my years of priesthood. Yes, I still see some use the pew missals like Breaking Bread to follow along with the readings (most especially the antiphons and the responsorial psalms), but the practice of people bringing to church their own personal missals has significantly decreased, if not vanished.

May I suggest that we bring the practice of having a hand missal for the laity with which they can follow along at the celebration of the Holy Mass be encouraged? As a priest involved since almost the start of my ministry in education on the high school, college, graduate, seminary and adult learning model, I know that if I provide an outline or PowerPoint presentation, it not only assists the one learning, who knows what is being said and what can be expected, but even me as a professor. I know what I have to do when I give my students an outline. There’s a lot less “free-styling” that I will do as a professor when I know that my students are aware of my goals and objectives for my individual class. Perhaps this can also be true in the celebration of Holy Mass with the People of God? For the benefit of both the celebrant and the congregation?

Yes, I know that the Mass is not primarily an educational action, but one of worship in spirit and truth, but the use of the personal missal does not discourage full, active, and conscious participation as I understand it. No, in my opinion, it only enhances it! The Mass should not have any jarring changes to it — it should be in the words of a classmate of mine from my diocese who is a pastor and a liturgist, be consistent, comforting and clear. The use of a missal will help the laity to know what the prayers and readings of the day will be, to understand the liturgical seasons and the calendar of the saints, the solemnities, the feasts, the memorial, the optional memorials, and all the options for a votive Mass.

There are many great Missals for the Mass that are published today from various book publishers like the Saint Paul Daily Missal from Pauline Books & Media and the Daily Roman Missal from Midwest Theological Forum and even my old introduction to a missal, the Saint Joseph Weekday and Sunday Missals, are available, all updated for use with the new English translation of Holy Mass introduced in 2011. There are, of course, apps on smartphones which can offer use the missal as well — but I think it best when attending Mass to not have our phones out, lest we become distracted.

Let’s get back to the use of a good permanent personal missal, even in the celebration of the Ordinary Form of Holy Mass. I am grateful every single day for my grade school teacher in encouraging me to learn and to know the Bible. I am thankful daily for my high school principal for giving us those personal missals. Having a book in my hands for prayer helped prepare me for having another book — one which I, as a cleric, am obliged to pray, the Divine Office — and, more than anything else, helped me to learn and to love daily Mass. In many ways, that gift of those little missals to me in the late 1980s help to solidify my own priestly vocation.

A personal missal is truly a blessing!

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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