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 some contentious 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 the document's updated "General Instruction of the Roman Missal" (GIRM) highlights these changes or clarifications:

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

  • The tabernacle may be either in the sanctuary or a chapel of reservation.
  • The processional cross and fixed cross on or near the altar bear the figure of Christ crucified.
  • In the entrance procession, the Book of Gospels may be carried "slightly elevated," 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 peace only with those in the sanctuary; the people offer the sign of peace "only to those nearby."
  • Only the priest or deacon may break the bread before Communion and consume any extra consecrated wine after Communion.
  • Sacred vessels are to be made of "noble metal." Only the priest, deacon or "instituted acolyte" may purify sacred vessels immediately after Mass.
  • Extraordinary ministers, used only when a sufficient number of priests or deacons is not present, come to the altar "only after the priest has received Communion." The priest hands them the sacred vessel from which they will distribute the Blessed Sacrament.
  • "Lay ministers are to wear the alb or other vestment that is approved by the conference of bishops."
  • Some voices are suggesting that its new instruction is an attempt to clip the wings of lay ministers and to move the Mass back into a pre-Vatican II mode. Others are applauding 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 "refinement of a wonderful treasure." He explained that the new Roman Missal contains no major changes, but offers refinements of the previous 1975 edition.

    "The Church is not in the business of 'clipping wings,'" Father Moroney continued. "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 be more careful at Communion, especially at large-scale concelebrations," Msgr. Mannion said. "The part I find most impractical in the document is the omission of extraordinary ministers from the list of those who consume any consecrated wine after Communion. I expect that this will be modified for the 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 much welcome the new emphasis on the centrality of the tabernacle, which is, I think, the result of the experience of the past couple of decades."

    Tabernacle placement has been a hotly debated topic for many years, with confusion being caused by some liturgical documents themselves. Some liturgists insisted that the tabernacle be removed from the sanctuary and placed 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 of the tabernacle from the sanctuary has diminished belief in the Real Presence and contributed to a lack of decorum in the congregation.

    The new GIRM settles this argument by stating that both locations are suitable, and cites previous directives that the Blessed Sacrament be reserved in a fixed tabernacle in a part of the church that is "noble, worthy, conspicuous, well decorated and suitable for prayer." The new GIRM also specifically allows for the tabernacle to be situated "on an old altar which is no longer used for celebration."

    Msgr. Mannion said other important points in the new GIRM include the clarification that vested concelebration is the normal mode of priestly participation in the Mass when more than one priest is present.

    Additionally, "The prescription that lay ministers ought to wear an alb would clean up the problem of undignified dress," he observed.

    Msgr. Mannion also likes the directive that priests should not descend from the sanctuary for the sign of peace. This practice is "rather clericalist," he said, for "the priest is not, after all, the source of the peace; Christ is."

    Catholics in the pews should start to hear about the new General Instruction soon, for they become liturgical law upon promulgation of the new Roman Missal.

    But it may be quite a while before Catholics in the United States see a new English edition of the Roman Missal.

    A revised English translation of the previous Sacramentary was in the works for years before it was approved by the U.S. bishops and sent to Rome in 1998 for review and confirmation. However, Vatican liturgical authorities have signaled some dissatisfaction with the translation, and confirmation still is pending. Meanwhile, promulgation of the new Roman Missal will mean even more work on an English translation before it can be confirmed by the Vatican.

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