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Anyone fortunate enough to have visited the Book of Kells exhibition currently being held at the National Art Gallery in Canberra will have marvelled at the beauty of books used in worship in the middle ages.
From the earliest years of the Church, the texts used in liturgy were written down and collected, initially on papyrus scrolls and later in the form of codices. A codex consists of folded sheets of animal skin gathered into a book. Texts were copied out laboriously by hand until the invention of mechanical printing in the sixteenth century.
In fact it was the development of the printing press and the use of paper which facilitated the standardisation of the liturgy for all Roman rite churches after the Council of Trent. By this time the collections of liturgical texts were grouped together into missals (for Mass), pontificals (the rites led by a bishop), breviaries (the liturgy of the hours) and rituals (for other church rites).
The books that we use in the liturgy are issued first by the Vatican for the universal church. Then the bishops’ conferences of each language grouping and of each nation are responsible for translating and adapting these Latin original texts.
There are several key books containing liturgical rites that would be located in the sacristy of every parish church.
The Roman Missal, which was once a single, very large book, has been published in two parts – the Sacramentary and the Lectionary. A Sacramentary is a collection of prayers for the celebration of the eucharist which are sung or spoken by the priest. Such books have been in use from about the fifth century, but in the Middle Ages they were combined with other service books reflecting the fact that at this stage of history the priest had taken over the role of the assembly, singers, readers and deacon in the Mass.
The Second Vatican Council restored the basic rule that each member of the worshipping community, whether lay or ordained, should perform only those parts of the liturgy which pertain to his or her office. Hence the current Sacramentary contains only those parts of the rite of the Mass which pertain to the priest. The foreword to the Sacramentary approved for use in 1970 has this to say:
Partly because of its long tradition of use in the Church, the Sacramentary as a book has symbolic meanings. It represents the office of presidency in the prayer of the liturgical assembly – both in the prayers of petition and in the central eucharistic prayer of praise, thanksgiving, and memorial. Since these prayers articulate the action of the Church in celebrating the sacrifice of the Lord, even the book of prayer is an important sign. For this reason it is expected to be of sufficiently worthy proportions and artistic design to create respect and reverence for its content.
The texts of the Sacramentary, together with the readings contained in the Lectionary, are the starting point for those responsible for preparing and leading liturgical celebrations.
The use of visually attractive, noble books in worship says clearly to the assembly that the words they contain are important, that they are signs and symbols of the sacred.