In spring 2002, the Vatican officially adopted, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops officially issued, certain changes intended to clarify and standardize liturgical practices. Over the past several weeks, the new requirements (read a summary) have been filtering down to parishes. The article below is excerpted with permission of Our Sunday Visitor and first appeared on Beliefnet in summer 2001.

Revised instructions for the celebration of Mass will go into effect soon,bringing some subtle changes to parish liturgies and clarifying somecontentious liturgical issues.

A new official version of the Roman Missal, which contains the prayers,directives and rubrics for Mass, is published in Latin, but an English study translation of thedocument's updated "General Instruction of the Roman Missal" (GIRM) highlightsthese changes or clarifications:

  • The priest celebrates Mass facing the people "whenever possible."
  • The altar is to be freestanding, with nothing placed on it except whatis required for Mass.

  • The tabernacle may be either in the sanctuary or a chapel ofreservation.
  • The processional cross and fixed cross on or near the altar bear thefigure of Christ crucified.
  • In the entrance procession, the Book of Gospels may be carried "slightlyelevated," but the Lectionary is not carried.
  • The homily is given by a priest or deacon--never by a layperson.
  • To avoid disruption of the rite, the priest exchanges the sign of peaceonly with those in the sanctuary; the people offer the sign of peace "onlyto those nearby."
  • Only the priest or deacon may break the bread before Communion andconsume any extra consecrated wine after Communion.
  • Sacred vessels are to be made of "noble metal." Only the priest, deaconor "instituted acolyte" may purify sacred vessels immediately after Mass.
  • Extraordinary ministers, used only when a sufficient number of priestsor deacons is not present, come to the altar "only after the priest hasreceived Communion." The priest hands them the sacred vessel from which theywill distribute the Blessed Sacrament.
  • "Lay ministers are to wear the alb or other vestment that is approved bythe conference of bishops."
  • Some voices aresuggesting that its new instruction is an attempt to clip the wings of layministers and to move the Mass back into a pre-Vatican II mode. Others areapplauding the new GIRM as a corrective for liturgical abuses.

    Father James Moroney, executive director of the U.S. Bishops'Secretariat for the Liturgy, characterized the new missal as a "refinementof a wonderful treasure." He explained that the new Roman Missal contains no majorchanges, but offers refinements of the previous 1975 edition.

    "The Church is not in the business of 'clipping wings,'" Father Moroneycontinued. "The liturgy is not a competition between 'the right' and 'the left.' The liturgy is the most sacred action of the Church through which Christ receives the praise of those whom He has called to himself and nourishes them with His Body and Blood. To apply crass political categories to such a sacred action is most inappropriate."

    Msgr. M. Francis Mannion, a liturgist and sacramental theologian told Our Sunday Visitor that he does not read the new GIRM as restricting lay roles. He said that the evident desire of the GIRM regarding lay ministers is to maintain the good order of the rite of Communion, which is generally the most disorderly part of the Mass, with clergy sometimes contributing to this disorder.

    "I would have welcomed in the instruction an admonition to clergy to bemore careful at Communion, especially at large-scale concelebrations," Msgr.Mannion said. "The part I find most impractical in the document is theomission of extraordinary ministers from the list of those who consume anyconsecrated wine after Communion. I expect that this will be modified forthe United States."

    Msgr. Mannion said he found nothing "dramatically new" in the 2000 GIRM,with the possible exception of placement of the tabernacle. "I very muchwelcome the new emphasis on the centrality of the tabernacle, which is, Ithink, the result of the experience of the past couple of decades."

    Tabernacle placement has been a hotly debated topic for many years, withconfusion being caused by some liturgical documents themselves. Someliturgists insisted that the tabernacle be removed from the sanctuary andplaced in a side chapel, and the 1975 GIRM seemed to encourage that option.Other people have been highly critical of this trend, saying that removal ofthe tabernacle from the sanctuary has diminished belief in the Real Presenceand contributed to a lack of decorum in the congregation.