On September 30, 2019, His Holiness Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter motu proprio entitled Aperuit illis, which established the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time as a day devoted to the celebration, study, and dissemination of the Word of God. Recalling the importance given by the Second Vatican Council to rediscovering Sacred Scripture for the life of the Church, Pope Francis stated that he wrote this Apostolic Letter in response to requests from the faithful around the world to celebrate a Sunday with a particular focus on the Word of God. Pope Francis invited local communities to find ways to “mark this Sunday with a certain solemnity,” and he offered several recommendations as to how this might take place:
- “On this Sunday, it would be particularly appropriate to highlight the proclamation of the word of the Lord and to emphasize in the homily the honor that it is due” (Aperuit illis, 3).
- “[P]astors are primarily responsible for explaining sacred Scripture and helping everyone to understand it. … Helping people to enter more deeply into the word of God through simple and suitable language will allow priests themselves to discover the beauty of the images used by the Lord to encourage the practice of the good. This is a pastoral opportunity that should not be wasted! … For many of our faithful, in fact, this is the only opportunity they have to grasp the beauty of God’s word and to see it applied to their daily lives. Consequently, sufficient time must be devoted to the preparation of the homily. … When we take time to pray and meditate on the sacred text, we can speak from the heart and thus reach the hearts of those who hear us, conveying what is essential and capable of bearing fruit” (Aperuit illis, 5).
- See also paragraphs 135–159 of Evangelii gaudium for additional teaching by Pope Francis on the nature and importance of the homily within Mass and the task of preparing to preach.
Prayers for Unity
- In Aperuit illis, Pope Francis states, “we are encouraged to strengthen our bonds with the Jewish people and to pray for Christian unity. … [T]he celebration of the Sunday of the Word of God has ecumenical value, since the Scriptures point out, for those who listen, the path to authentic and firm unity” (3).
- It should be noted that the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” is celebrated from January 18–25, and this observance will frequently coincide with the Sunday of the Word of God.
Enthronement of the Word at the Ambo
- The bishops of the United States have recommended the practice of enthroning the Word of God at the ambo, which may be possible when this liturgical appointment features a small shelf designed for this purpose: “Our reverence for the Word of God is expressed not only in an attentive listening to and reflection upon the Scriptures, but also by the way we handle and treat the Book of the Gospels. The ambo can be designed not only for reading and preaching, but also for displaying the open Book of the Gospels or a copy of the Scriptures before and after the liturgical celebration” (Built of Living Stones, 62).
Acts of Reverence to the Gospel Book during the Eucharistic Celebration
- The General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM] contains the following instructions for the Deacon at Mass: “When he reaches the altar, if he is carrying the Book of the Gospels, he omits the sign of reverence and goes up to the altar. It is a praiseworthy practice for him to place the Book of the Gospels on the altar, after which, together with the Priest, he venerates the altar with a kiss” (GIRM, 173).
- “During the singing of the Alleluia … having bowed to the altar, [the deacon] then takes up the Book of the Gospels which was placed on it and proceeds to the ambo, carrying the book slightly elevated” (GIRM, 175) and preceded by the thurifer and acolytes with lighted candles. Prior to the reading of the Gospel, the Gospel Book may be incensed as a sign of honor and in recognition of the presence of God in the proclamation of His Holy Word.
- In the absence of a deacon, a priest does not carry the Book of the Gospels in the opening procession, but a lector may do so (GIRM, 120). A priest may, however, process with the Book of the Gospels from the altar to the ambo in the manner described above.
- When a bishop is the principal celebrant at Mass, he may also impart a blessing with the Book of the Gospels after having kissed it (GIRM, 175).
Distribution of Bibles
- Parishes may wish to distribute Bibles or books of the Bible on Word of God Sunday, mirroring the actions of Pope Francis, who, on various occasions, has given bibles or one of the Gospels to pilgrims gathered in Saint Peter’s Square (e.g., October 5, 2014; March 22, 2015; March 12, 2016). During the distribution of bibles on March 22, 2015, for example, Pope Francis said, “Take this Gospel and carry it with you, to read it often, every day. Carry it in your purse, in your pocket, read from it often, a passage every day.”
Teaching the Practice of lectio divina
- In Aperuit illis 3 and Evangelii gaudium 152-153, Pope Francis highlights lectio divina as a practice which can be used to pray daily with the Scriptures. Clergy or other parish leaders may wish to introduce this practice during the Sunday homily or within the context of a Bible Study session.
Archdiocesan Initiatives and Resources
- In the Archdiocese of New York, the following resources have been developed and assembled by the Liturgy Office to assist parishes and families in keeping this new observance; these may be accessed by clicking on the following links: