Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
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No. 116Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study ProgramMarch 2005


by Brian W. Harrison

As is well known, a considerable number of traditionalist Catholics today can find practically nothing needing improvement in the venerable ‘Tridentine’ Roman rite of Mass, and practically nothing of any value in the post-Vatican-II changes to the rite introduced by the authority of Pope Paul VI, acting in the name of the Council itself. I should make it clear at the outset of this article that I myself am far from being an uncritical enthusiast for the way in which the liturgical reform was carried out after Vatican II. On the contrary, I have long held – and have made known in lectures and in print – a view which has also been shared in its broad outlines, and expressed publicly on various occasions, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger prior to his election to the See of Peter. This is the view that what we really need is a "Reform of the Reform" – a less radical and more exact implementation of the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which would combine more of the best features of both old and new rites.

Now, one of the things I think is a definite improvement in the new rite is the greater variety of Scripture readings now proclaimed at Mass in the course of the three-year Sunday cycle and the two-year weekday cycle. However, among our more strongly traditionalist brethren (whose opinions and sensibilities I respect but do not always share), this innovation, like the others, has usually been given a pretty chilly reception. A variety of complaints have been made against the new Lectionary. One of them is the charge that the ‘politically correct’ selectivity of the liturgical reformers has tended to sideline the ‘hard sayings’ of Scripture, especially those of our Lord Himself, in order to give more prominence than before to the more ‘pleasant’ and comforting teachings of the Gospel – those deemed more acceptable and ‘relevant’ to the ‘modern man’ who flourished in the optimistic 1960s. Recently I was sent a critique of the new Mass, claiming to be based on the views of the late traditionalist apologist Michael Davies, which alleges that the new Lectionary shows a tendency to either exclude many stern biblical warnings of God’s wrath and judgments against the wicked and the terrible reality of Hell, or at least to relegate such severe readings from Sundays to weekdays, so that at least 90% of practicing Catholics – the once-a-week Mass attenders – will never get to hear them proclaimed in church anyway.

I felt moved to investigate the truth or otherwise of this allegation by carefully comparing the old and new lectionaries; and in what follows I propose to share with you what I have discovered. I shall emphasize the Sunday readings, since those are indeed by far the most important from the pastoral standpoint of communicating the Word of God to the bulk of the faithful. However, I will also refer briefly to readings assigned to Masses for weekdays or other occasions. Also, the great majority of biblical texts on God’s judgments against the wicked, and their consequent eternal punishment, happen to be Jesus’ own teachings recorded in the Gospels. The Gospel readings, moreover, are of course those which are most liturgically prominent, and most frequently preached on, at Mass. For these reasons I will limit my analysis here to those readings taken from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, assigning a number to each reading cited, for purposes of comparison and ready reference.

Well then, is the new Lectionary in fact ‘soft’ on judgment and Hell? We can begin by considering the Gospel’s ‘big guns’ targeting finally impenitent sinners: that is, the most extensive and explicit passages wherein our Lord warns of the fearful destiny awaiting such ruined souls. Of all these, pride of place must surely be given to the mighty parable of the Last Judgment in Mt 25: 31-46. From our present standpoint, nothing in the Gospels surpasses this supremely dramatic and apocalyptic depiction of doomsday, which has played a major role in inspiring some of Christendom’s most towering poetic, artistic and musical achievements. (Think of Michelangelo’s great fresco emblazoning the Sistine Chapel, Dante’s Inferno, and the Dies Irae chanted and otherwise sung to musical masterpieces composed down the centuries.). Here are the verses most relevant for our purposes:1

1. Mt 25: 31-33, 41-46: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. . . . Then he will say to those on his left, "Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me." Then they will answer and say, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?" He will answer them, "Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me." And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

In the ‘Novus Ordo’ Mass this reading is fittingly prescribed for one of the major Sundays of the year: the Solemnity of Christ the King, in Year A.2 It also occurs every year on the first Tuesday of Lent, and is given as an option in the Common of Holy Men and Women and in Masses for the Dead.

And when does this great parable occur in the celebration of the Traditional Mass? Surprisingly, it never appears. Never on a Sunday and never on any other day.

If the aforesaid reading is the most powerful Gospel witness to the General Judgment at the end of history, then our Lord’s most detailed and harrowing warning about the Particular Judgment immediately after death is surely the grim parable of ‘Dives’ and Lazarus in Luke 16: 19-31. Hereare the key verses:

2. Lk 16: 22-31: When the poor man died he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, "Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames." Abraham replied, "My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours." He said, "Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment." But Abraham replied, "They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them." He said, "Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent." Then Abraham said, "If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead."

In the new Lectionary this parable is the Gospel reading for the 26th Sunday per annum,3 Year C, and also occurs annually on the Thursday of the second week in Lent. And when does it occur in the Tridentine rite? Again we are surprised. Never. Not on any Sunday, not on any other day.

Mark’s Gospel has a passage with one of the most extensive and graphic warnings of Hell, combining separate parallel passages in Matthew (5: 29-30 and 18: 6-9) but adding trenchantly that "their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched":

3. Mk 9: 42-484: Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.

We find this passage set down in the new Lectionary for Year B, 26th Sunday per annum, as part of a longer passage, Mk. 9: 38-43; 45; 47-48 (beginning with Jesus’ openness toward ‘independent’ disciples who were not among the chosen Twelve). Almost the same text (vv. 40-49) occurs every year on Thursday of the 7th week per annum.

Once again, however, this threat of hellfire, looming especially over those who cause ‘little ones’ to sin, never occurs in the annual Sunday readings for the traditional rite of Mass. I emphasize "annual" here, because once every seven years, when September 29 happens to be a Sunday, weekly Tridentine Mass attenders will indeed hear this dire warning proclaimed on the (first-class) Feast of St. Michael the Archangel – although not in Mark’s version, cited above, but in Matthew’s parallel pericope.5 The complete passage for September 29 in the old rite, repeated several days later for the (minor) Feast of the Guardian Angels on October 2, is Mt 18: 1-10. These verses appear to have been chosen especially with children’s angelic protectors in mind, because they begin with our Lord’s praise of the simplicity of these ‘little ones’ and end with His revelation that "their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father" (v. 10). Here, for the record, are the in-between verses, parallel to those cited in #3 above:

3a. Mt 18: 6-9. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come! If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into fiery Gehenna.

This is in fact the only ‘major’ Gospel warning of judgment and damnation that ever appears in the readings for the old Roman rite. And it appears each year just on the two aforesaid dates, when preachers at Mass are more likely to emphasize the Church’s doctrine on the reality and work of the holy angels – especially when the once-in-seven-years golden opportunity for such teaching comes round for their Sunday parishioners.

We have seen so far that the post-conciliar Lectionary presents one of our Lord’s ‘big guns’ on everlasting hellfire for a Sunday Mass in each year of the three-year cycle, when Matthew, Mark and Luke respectively are used for the per annum Gospel readings. However, there are two more passages from the Synoptics which, like the three already quoted, stand out from all the rest as ‘major’ ones on this theme by reason of their length and explicit severity. One is Mt 7: 21-27, in which the verses that include the destruction of the ‘house built on sand’ (i.e., the perdition of those who hear Jesus’ words but ignore them) is preceded by others which explicitly refute the currently fashionable sophism that while Hell no doubt exists, we’re entitled to hope that nobody actually goes there! For here the Lord not only asserts that "many" will in fact be excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven, but also issues the chilling admonition that among those "many" will be presumptuous souls who considered themselves good Christians and were fully expecting eternal glory. The relevant part of the reading for present purposes is as follows:

4. Mt 7: 21-23, 26-27: Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven. Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?" Then I will declare to them solemnly, "I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers." . . . And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.

This is the Gospel for the 9th Sunday per annum, Year A, in Paul VI’s Lectionary, and also occurs each year on Thursday of the 12th week per annum. As regards the traditional Mass readings, here we find another correspondence, even if it is once again only minimal: in the old Missal, the Gospel for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost includes just the first verse cited above (v. 21: "Not everyone . . . Father in Heaven"). It comes as the last verse in the prescribed passage, Mt 7: 15-21, which is mainly about ‘knowing trees by their fruits’, but also includes an allusion – brief and only symbolic – to the fire of hell. The relevant verses are:

5. Mt 7: 19-21: Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven.6

The last ‘major’ Gospel passage warning of judgment and eternal exclusion from the Kingdom is partly parallel to Matthew’s text in #4 above, and once again contains Jesus’ explicit warning that "many" will in fact be unable to enter the "narrow gate" that admits the righteous to eternal life.

6. Lk 13: 22-30: Someone asked him, "Lord, will only a few people be saved?" He answered them, "Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and taught in your streets.’ Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’ And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."

As with passages ##1-4 above, the ‘Pauline’ Lectionary highlights this pericope by prescribing it for a Sunday Mass, the 21st per annum, Year C. It is also designated every year for Wednesday of the 30th week per annum.

Once again, however, the traditional Missal disappoints us: this passage is completely absent from it.

We have now shown that the new Lectionary, far from omitting or soft-pedalling the ‘hard sayings’ of our Lord about the Last Things, schedules all of the major Gospel texts on judgment and damnation for ‘prime time’: two Sundays in Year A, one in Year B, and two in Year C. All five also occur annually in weekday Masses, so that daily ‘Novus Ordo’ Mass attenders will hear these substantial and severe apocalyptic warnings proclaimed on no less than twenty days over the course of three years. The contrast with the Gospel pericopes chosen for the traditional Roman rite could hardly be more stark. With the exception of #3a above, not one of these key passages ever appears anywhere in the pre-conciliar Missal/Lectionary; and even that exception occurs at Sunday Mass only once in every seven years.

Our survey so far has already presented more than sufficient evidence to rebut the charge that Paul VI and his advisers were guilty of ‘politically correct’ selectivity in deciding which Gospel readings should henceforth be given prominence at Mass. However, fairness requires that we give credit to what the traditional Missal/Lectionary does contain in regard to the topics under discussion. Its annually recurring Sunday Gospels do in fact include a number of relatively brief texts speaking of judgment, condemnation, and Hell, although all of them are found within the context of longer readings concerned mainly with some other teaching or event in Jesus’ public ministry. In what follows, they are presented in the order in which they appear.

For the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, the old rite gives us Mt 8: 1-13, the account of Jesus’ healing of the servant of a Roman centurion – a gentile with more faith than our Lord had ever found in Israel. It contains the following warning:

7. Mt 8: 11-12: I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom will be driven into outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

In the new rite, these precise verses never appear on any Sunday, only on Saturday for the 12th week per annum. However, essentially the same content from similar Synoptic passages does come through in the new Lectionary on three other Sundays: that of verse 11 in Lk 13: 28 (cf. #6 above), and that of verse 12 in Mt 13: 42 (cf. #8a below); and Mt 22: 13 (cf. #10 below).

Next, on the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, we are given Mt. 13: 24-30, the parable of the wheat and the cockles, teaching us we should not be to quick to condemn, but rather, to imitate God’s own tolerance and patience with sinners in the present life. The last verse has this reference – symbolic rather than literal – to the final judgment:

8. Mt 13: 30: Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.’

The ‘Novus Ordo’ also gives us this text, on Sunday of the 16th week per annum, Year A. Indeed, the reading here (vv. 24-43) also includes our Lord’s subsequent explanation of the parable. However, just as this explanation is omitted from the traditional reading, modern priest celebrants often delete it from the new reading – a very long one (20 verses) in which vv. 31-43 are designated in the Lectionary as optional only. The relevant verses are these:

8a. Mt 13: 39-42: The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

On the 5th Sunday after Pentecost in the traditional Roman rite the Gospel passage is Mt 5: 20-24, exhorting us to avoid, over and above physical violations of the Fifth Commandment, sins of anger and insult against our neighbor, and to be reconciled quickly after any dispute. This passage contains the following warning:

9. Mt 5: 21-22: You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, "You shall not kill, and whoever kills will be liable to judgment." But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, "Raqa," will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, "You fool," will be liable to fiery Gehenna.

This passage is never read on any Sunday in the revised rite of Mass, but does occur twice yearly, on Friday of the 1st week of Lent and Thursday of the 10th week per annum

We have already noted the traditional Missal’s Gospel for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost.7 Three months later, on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, it prescribes Mt 22: 1-14, the parable of the Wedding Feast. This refers mainly to the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles in consequence of Israel’s refusal, as a nation, to listen at the appointed time. The final verses, however, are these:

10. Mt 22: 11-14: But when the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, "My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?" But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, "Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth." Many are called, but few are chosen.

In the ‘Novus Ordo’ schedule of readings, this same complete parable is set down for the 28th Sunday per annum, Year A, but the last verses – those just cited – are marked as optional only. (This is probably because many modern biblical scholars consider vv. 11-14 a distinct parable: nothing similar is found at the end of Luke’s parallel version of this parable in 14: 15-24.) The said verses are not optional, however, when the same parable is presented for Thursday of the 20th week per annum.

The final reference to Hell in the ‘Tridentine’ Sunday Gospel readings comes on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost in the parable of the hard-hearted servant and his debt (Mt 18: 23-35), which emphasizes our duty of forgiving others, just as God has forgiven us. The final words warn us that failure to forgive can lead to eternal torment:

11. Mt 18: 32-35: His master summoned him and said to him, "You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?" Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.

The new Lectionary also gives prominence to this parable, designating it for the 24th Sunday per annum in Year A, and including also the introductory vv. 21-22, wherein Peter asks our Lord how often we should forgive the brother who offends us, and receives the famous ‘seventy-times-seven’ reply. The same passage is now prescribed for Tuesday of the 3rd week of Lent.

It seems right to add that for the traditional-rite Feast of the Ascension (celebrated always on Thursday but in some countries a Holy Day of Obligation) a brief but pungent warning of damnation occurs in the Gospel of the day (Mk 16: 14-20):

12. Mk 16: 16: "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned."

This same concluding passage of Mark’s Gospel (which also occurs annually in the old rite on December 3, Feast of St. Francis Xavier) is retained in the post-conciliar Lectionary in Year B for the Solemnity of the Ascension, which is now celebrated in many or most countries on the 6th Sunday of Easter. It also appears twice annually in the new rite: on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (January 25), and on that of St. Mark the Evangelist himself (April 25).

Before concluding with a résumé of this comparison between the old and new Gospel selections, it remains to point out several other secondary or shorter passages on judgment and Hell that occur on Sundays in the new rite, but never occur on Sunday or any other day in the old.

First, in Year A, on the 12th Sunday per annum, we are given: Mt 10: 26-33, which exhorts Christians to be courageous under persecution, while warning of God’s stern judgment on cowards. The passage includes the following:

13. Mt 10: 28, 32-33: And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna. . . . Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others I will deny before my heavenly Father.

Also in Year A, for the 17th Sunday per annum, we are given Mt 13: 44-52, the last part of which, following on from the little parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price, includes a parable very similar to that of #8a above, but with the good and bad fishes gathered in the net now replacing the wheat and cockles gathered at the harvest. Like #8a, this part of the reading is designated as ‘optional’ in the Lectionary; however, in this case it will usually be included, since without it the reading will be very short for a Sunday Gospel (only the five or six lines of vv. 44-46). Here are the key verses:

14. Mt 13: 48-50: When [the net] is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away. Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

While this passage never occurs on any Sunday in the traditional rite, it does appear annually in its entirety (vv. 44-52) on several weekdays for the feasts of Virgin Martyrs such as St. Lucy (December 13) and St. Agnes (January 28).

St. John’s Gospel contains only a few explicit references to God’s final judgment, but two of these are prescribed for Sunday Masses during Year B. On the 4th Sunday of Lent we have Jn 3: 14-21, teaching that while Jesus came to save the world, those who reject Him are condemned. The key verses are these:

15. Jn 3: 18-20: Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.

Also in Year B, the ‘Pauline’ Lectionary prescribes Jn 15: 1-8 for the 5th Sunday of Easter, presenting Christ as the true vine and believers as the branches. The following two verses imply God’s judgment on schismatics:

16. Jn 15: 5-6: I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people with gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.

Year B in the new cycle of Sunday readings includes one more relevant passage from St. Mark. The 10th Sunday per annum: prescribes 3: 23-30 dealing with Satan’s war against the Holy Spirit, in which we find the key biblical text regarding the one unforgiveable sin:

17. Mk 3: 28-29: Amen, I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an everlasting sin.

Finally, proceeding to Year C, we find one more pertinent Sunday reading, this time from Luke’s Gospel (13: 1-9), set down for the 3rd Sunday of Lent. Jesus here makes it clear that God’s judgment is not to be discerned and feared principally in the occurrence of merely temporal misfortunes. The key verses are these:

18. Lk 13: 2-5: Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all the Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did.

* * * * * * *

This completes our survey of those Gospel passages on the divine judgment and eternal punishment of the wicked which the Catholic Church has appointed to be read at Mass on Sundays – five of them ‘major’ (counting ##3 and 3a as one) and thirteen ‘minor’. Of those in the first category, all are read on Sundays once every three years in the new lectionary, while in the old, only one, namely #3a, ever made a Sunday appearance – and that only in every seventh year. Among the thirteen readings in the second category, five (## 5, 7, 8, 10 and 11)8 occur on Sundays in both old and new lectionaries, seven9 in the new lectionary alone (## 12-18), and just one (#9) in the old lectionary alone.10

If we wish to compare the actual amount of exposure of the ‘man in the pew’ to Sunday Gospel readings on these themes in the old and new rites respectively, the more frequent (i.e., annual) recurrence of those appointed for the former must of course be taken into account. From this purely quantitative standpoint, the reader can verify from the passages we have cited and numbered in this study that in normal years weekly worshippers at the Traditional Latin Mass will hear a total of 16 verses in the six pertinent readings (## 5, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 above).11 Every seventh year the total will be 20 (cf. #3a above), which makes a total of (6 x 16) + 20 = 116 verses every seven years, or an average of 16.6 Gospel verses about Hell and Judgment per year.

Analyzing the ‘Pauline’ Lectionary for Sundays in the same way is a little more complicated in that three of the pertinent passages (cf. ##8a, 10 and 14 above) "may be omitted" (as the rubric puts it). Since they have a total of 11 verses, we shall give them here half that numerical value, assuming that in parishes throughout the world they will be omitted about as often as they are included. On that basis – counting these three readings as containing 5.5 verses – readers can verify that the sixteen readings which appear in the Lectionary for Sundays over the three–year period of the cycle (namely, ## 1-4, 6-8, 8a, 10-11 and 13-18) contain a total of 72.5 verses (37.5 in Year A, 12 in Year B, and 23 in Year C)12. That makes an average of 24.2 Gospel verses about Hell and Judgment per year – a 46% increase over the average quantity read annually in the old rite.

Of course, it is true that the Scripture readings are not the only part of the Mass containing references to these unpopular themes – especially in the Traditional rite. Every time the Roman Canon – the only canon in the old rite – is recited, the invocation "ab aeterna damnatione nos eripi" occurs. This means, "deliver us from eternal damnation" (but is softened into "free us from final damnation" by ICEL’s translators). And it must be recognized that the majority of ‘Novus Ordo’ priests hardly ever use the Canon (the "First Eucharistic Prayer") in any case – mainly, it seems, for no better reason than that it is more lengthy than its newly-minted competitors. (The ‘fast-food’, ‘quick fix’ mentality of pop Western culture has apparently infiltrated even Catholic seminaries and sanctuaries.)13 And none of these new eucharistic prayers contains any comparable petition.

Also, a very well-researched opusculum by Fr. Anthony Cekada14 has exposed the extent to which the proper prayers of the old Roman Missal were ‘sanitized’ by the post-conciliar reformers, who eliminated or softened many expressions reflecting a theology they judged as being ‘too negative’ to be pastorally suitable today. Among these old prayers falling under their censorship for this reason are some expressing precisely those Gospel truths we have surveyed in this article. Fr. Cekada cites the ipse dixit of Fr. Matias Augé, CMF, one of the reformers responsible for these changes. Writing in the Vatican’s official liturgical publication in 1970, Fr. Augé seemed to assume that his readers, immediately upon learning about the content of the old Advent and Lenten collects, would simply take for granted their inappropriateness for ‘modern man’. Why (Father informs us),

Some of these collects, in fact, spoke of, among other things, the punishments, anger, or divine wrath for our sins, of a Christian assembly oppressed with guilt, continually afflicted due to its disorders, threatened with condemnation to eternal punishment, etc.15

Imagine that! Fr Cekada goes on to cite the example of the Traditional Missal’s Collect for the Second Sunday of Easter, which was moved to a weekday in the ‘Novus Ordo’ Missal and ‘purified’ of its reference to Hell. The original version pleads with God that, having saved the faithful "from the perils of everlasting death, [He may] bring them to possess eternal joys". Instead of "the perils of everlasting death", the updated version reads, "the slavery of sin".16

These examples of ‘softening’ the ancient liturgy’s salutary references to the disquieting but inescapable truths regarding the Last Things are certainly very regrettable. However the practical, pastoral effect of those specific changes on our ‘man in the pew’ should not be overestimated. After all, the impact of the traditional prayers in question was already ‘softened’ very greatly by the mere fact that they were recited in a language unintelligible to the vast majority of worshippers – and indeed, inaudibly in the case of the Canon. It is true, of course, that many Traditional Mass worshippers, before as well as after the Council, have followed the liturgical texts in the vernacular translations provided in their hand missals. But that has always been, in a sense, a little like ‘preaching to the choir’; for it is for the most part only the most committed and devout Catholics who have consistently bothered to follow that practice. So especially before Vatican II, when all Latin-rite faithful who practiced their religion had to attend the ‘Tridentine’ rite (in contrast to the tiny and generally very fervent minority who opt for it today), the very Catholics in most urgent need of hearing and assimilating these ‘hard sayings’ about divine wrath and eternal perdition – that is, the average, run-of-the-mill, Sunday-Catholic, not-especially-devout, majority – were the very ones who for the most part had little or no awareness of the severe liturgical prayers under discussion. For such as these – and indeed, if truth be told, for nearly all of us – it is what we hear and read in our own native language that has the most lasting effect.

For that reason, it must be concluded that from the standpoint of our present enquiry – the extent to which the old and new rites of Mass communicate practically and efficaciously the Catholic doctrines of judgment and damnation – the content of the Scripture readings selected for Sunday Masses (repeated in the vernacular in the old rite after being proclaimed in Latin) carries far more weight than the content of prayers found in either the ordinary or the proper. We have seen in this study that the new Lectionary for Sundays presents, year by year, 46% more Gospel verses directly concerned with the said doctrines than the old Missal: 24.2 such verses each year, on average, in the former, as compared with 16.6 in the latter. We have also seen that these sixteen or so verses occurring annually in the Traditional Mass nearly always occur within longer pericopes in which the main theme is something other than judgment and damnation as such. Finally, we found that all the five ‘major’ or outstanding Gospel passages speaking directly to those fearful themes appear in the new cycle of Sunday readings, whereas (surprisingly) none of them appears in the old cycle (with the exception of Mt 18: 6-9, which is read on a Sunday just once every seven years).

It might be objected, finally, that in any case, Catholics attending the old rite heard – and still hear – a lot more about sin, judgment, wrath and Hell than their ‘Novus Ordo’ brethren, simply because post-conciliar priests, whatever the readings of the day may be, tend to avoid those topics like the plague in their bland, vacuous, and politically correct homilies. Unfortunately this has often been all too true, although with the ‘new breed’ of younger priests ordained in the last two pontificates – generally much more conservative than their aging ‘60s and ‘70s predecessors – this tendency is gradually changing. However, the main point to be made here is that in any case, this homiletic bias has clearly been the fault of the ‘new’ priests and seminary programs, not the fault of Paul VI’s new rite of Mass as such. Indeed, if we were to find fault with either rite from the standpoint of our present query, it would have to be said that it is actually the Traditional Mass, not the ‘Novus Ordo’, which turns out to be rather too ‘soft on Hell’.


1. In this article all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Bible (Wichita, Kansas: Catholic Bible Publishers, 1991).

2. In the new rite, this major Feast occurs on the last (34th) Sunday of so-called "Ordinary Time". Many English-speaking Catholics have noted that the word "ordinary" in this context – like so much of the work of ICEL’s translators – sounds depressingly flat and unliturgical (rather ‘ornery’, in fact). Referring simply to "the (Nth) Sunday of the Year" would have sounded better, as well as being more faithful to the Latin original. Accordingly, in the rest of this article I shall use instead of "Ordinary Time" the Latin expression "per annum" (literally, "through the year") found in the editio typica of the revised Roman Missal and Divine Office.

3. Cf. note 2 above.

4. Here, vv. 44 and 46, which modern biblical scholarship commonly regards as later interpolations, are omitted from the Lectionary. In any case, these two verses are simply repetitions of v. 48: ". . . where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched".

5. This passage never appears in the new Lectionary, since Mark’s parallel version, read at Mass four times every three years, covers the same teaching amply.

6. This precise passage, 7: 15-21, does not occur in the new Lectionary, but vv. 15-20 are prescribed for Wednesday of the 12th week per annum.

7. Cf. reading #5 above.

8. It should be remembered, however, that in those relatively few regions where the Feast of the Ascension is both celebrated on Thursday and designated as a Holy Day of Obligation, the Gospel reading for the old rite (#12) can appropriately be grouped here together with these five. For the point of our singling out Sunday Masses for special attention in this article is that they – along with those on Holy Days of Obligation – are the only Masses regularly attended by the great bulk of practicing Catholics.

9. This number would be reducible to six in the regions just referred to (cf. note 8 above).

10. In addition to these eighteen ‘Sunday-and-Holy-Day’ readings, there remain in all the Gospels only four other direct warnings of final perdition (again, that is if we do not count separately a few more almost identical parallel texts in the Synoptics). None of these texts is as ‘major’ as those numbered ## 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 in this study, and while none of them ever occurs in the readings for the traditional Mass, they all appear annually on weekdays in the ‘Novus Ordo’, in the context of longer readings. They are as follows:

(a) Mt 7: 13-14: Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. (Tuesday, 12th week per annum).

(b) Jn 3: 36: Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him. (Thursday, 2nd week of Easter)

(c) Jn 5: 27-29: And [the Father] gave him power to exercise judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tomb will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation. (Wednesday, 4th week of Lent)

(d) Mt 23: 15: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves. (Monday, 21st week per annum)

11. For the sake of simplicity we will not include in this comparison the single verse cited as #12 above, since the Feast of the Ascension – depending on the decision of each Episcopal Conference – sometimes is, and sometimes is not, celebrated on Thursday; and it sometimes is, and sometimes is not, a Holy Day of Obligation. Cf. also note 8 above.

12. In making this calculation, remember to take note 4 above into account.

13. However, some tradition-conscious ‘Novus Ordo’ clerical institutes, such as our own Oblates of Wisdom and the Spanish-based order Lumen Dei, have a standing rule or policy that their priests are to give preference to the use of the Roman Canon.

14. The Problems With the Prayers of the Modern Mass (Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1991).

15. Quoted in Cekada, op. cit., p. 11.

16. Ibid., p. 14.

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