The first major section of the mass is the Liturgy of the Word. The Introductory Rites, which begin the Mass, only take several minutes to complete and are no less important. However, the mass is now going to change focus from confession and praise to being silent and listening to the Word of God as found in Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
The Liturgy of the Word was formerly called the Liturgy of the Catechumens. This was the part of mass for those coming into the faith, preparing for the Sacrament of Baptism and not yet initiated into the Sacred Mysteries. They would attend the first part of the mass, and upon it’s completion, the Catechumens would depart with a blessing as they went to pray and learn. You may see during certain masses, especially during Lent, where those who are preparing to come into the church during the Easter Vigil, go through a series of “Scrutinies”. They will take place at the completion of the Liturgy of the Word, and the Catechumen and their sponsor will depart to discuss the readings from the Mass for the day.
While this still takes place today, in a process we call the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, it is a practice that comes from very early in the church. In fact, it was a very important tradition during periods of persecution. To protect the church from being found out by enemies, which then had some very serious consequences, the church used this practice of sponsorship. If a person wanted to become a christian they would have a sponsor vouch for them. They would come to the learn about the faith and be prepared for partaking of the Eucharist over a long period of time (up to 4 years), not only to teach them about the faith but to make sure they were not sent in to expose the christians. Scrutinies as well as excorcisms would be performed to prepare those coming in and to free them from former gods and beliefs which were held in the pantheistic religions of the day. Excorcisms, mind you, were not the faddish, demonic, and sensational events which are popular today because of certain movies. Rather they were a series of prayers, confessions, and gestures, denouncing Satan and confessing Christ.
The idea of sponsorship ties in with the practice of “god parents”. They are basically god parents for adults, or rather god parents are sponsors for those born into the faith. They have similar responsibilities to insure the bringing up of the child in the faith.
The Liturgy of the Word/Catechumens, was ideal for this task. It allowed the initiates to hear the Sacred Scriptures, which explained the beliefs and reasons for the traditions held by the church. Over the period of time which a catechumen would participate, vast sections of the Sacred Scripture would have been covered, which in those days was very important. After all there were no Bible Book Stores where you could go purchase a bible for personal use; and even if you could, chances were you couldn’t read it. Many were illiterate and because of this, even for those in full communion, the Liturgy of the Word, along with Iconography in the church brought the Word of God to the people. It is interesting that over a three year period, if you attended every mass, daily as well as Sunday, it is estimated that you would have heard over 70% of the New and 16% of the Old. While this isn’t a complete reading of Scripture, it is substantial. However, it is important to fill in those gaps with personal reading and study of the bible as well. Other devotions like the Liturgy of the Hours would also provide additional readings from Scripture.
As the Liturgy of the Word begins, the congregation will take a seat and simply listen to the Sacred Scriptures.