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The Fuss Over the Roman Missal

No Big Surprise

What's Coming?

A revision of the Roman Missal is imminent and some people are getting nervous. A near-final step in the revision was the recent publication, in Latin, of a revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal—the definitive instructions for celebrating Roman Catholic Mass. There are some new things to note, but nothing earthshaking.

The Missal contains all of the texts and prayers used in celebrating Mass. Typically, we see it divided into two books: a Lectionary for Scripture readings and a Sacramentary for the prayers of Mass. The Instruction appears in the front of the Sacramentary.

Officially issued July 28, this is the first revision of the Instruction in 25 years. It will accompany the third edition of the Missal, which was predicted for October publication (in Latin) but has been delayed, perhaps until early 2001. When the complete Missal is published in Latin, its Instruction will be implemented by bishops everywhere.

As the Instruction’s Latin text was released for publication in Rome, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, in cooperation with Vatican officials, issued an English-language study translation of the new Instruction. It’s a kind of preview of what Mass will look like in the coming years.

No Big Surprise

News reports had emphasized some particularly sensitive points in the new Instruction that some view with alarm as steps backward from Vatican II.

For example, the new Instruction gives equal weight to permanently placing the tabernacle in the sanctuary, a practice discouraged in the 1975 Instruction, where preference was given to placing the tabernacle prominently elsewhere. It restricts to priests, deacons and acolytes purification of the vessels after Communion—a break with current practice in many U.S. parishes. It prohibits lay eucharistic ministers from assisting in breaking the bread.

Those are only a few of the more sensitive points of the new Instruction. And the changes for eucharistic ministers probably won’t apply in our country. In truth, most of the Instruction is unchanged from 1975. So why do we need a new Instruction, anyway?

The Fathers of Vatican Council II desired that the liturgy of the Roman Rite would keep up with the times. The goal is a contemporary Roman Rite, universal but flexible enough to express the liturgy well in various cultures.

After 25 years of working with the current Missal, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments decided to settle a few questions that arose.

After the third edition of the Roman Missal is published in Latin, the various bishops’ conferences around the world will develop official translations of the Missal, including its revised Instruction. Those translations will include any adaptations of the Rite for particular cultures. In the past, the U.S. adaptations have been extensive.

People care a lot about the liturgy. The U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, mindful of how abruptly the big changes of the 1960s came to U.S. parishes, is giving us time to digest even the minor changes that are coming when the Missal is published.

In the meantime, many bishops have cautioned their pastors not to make even these small changes until dioceses develop specific guidelines.

What's Coming?

The instructions for purifying the Communion vessels are a case in point. These practices can vary from culture to culture. Cultural variations are handled by a bishops’ conference seeking an exception to the rule, known as an “indult,” from the Congregation for Divine Worship. The U.S. bishops will likely receive an indult from Rome allowing a U.S. bishop to permit lay ministers to help purify the vessels in his diocese if he has reason to do so. That same type of exception will likely apply to many other actions of U.S. eucharistic ministers.

Father James Moroney, executive director for the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, explains much of what to expect in the current issue of Catholic Update.

Father Moroney states that, of all the instructions regarding participation, “perhaps the most significant is what is said of the faithful.” Sharing common gestures, postures and words is highly emphasized in the new Instruction. Personal preference—such as kneeling while the congregation stands—must yield to common worship. (There are health exceptions.)

There is an expanded and revised section on reserving the Blessed Sacrament, stating that the tabernacle should be in a part of the church which is “noble, worthy, conspicuous and worthy of prayer.” It can be permanently located either in the sanctuary (but not on the altar used for Mass) or in a chapel. We all know that in many Catholic churches the tabernacle remained in the sanctuary anyhow for a variety of reasons, while in other churches it was successfully moved to an adoration chapel.

Communion under both species is emphasized more in the new Instruction.

Among many other details, the Instruction emphasizes that the local bishop is charged with governing liturgical practices and the construction of church buildings. That’s nothing new.

In brief, the sky is not falling. Vatican II is not being reversed. As the minor changes and emphases in the new Missal are reported and perhaps amplified in media reports, let’s not be taken in.—J.B.F.


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