The Fuss Over the Roman Missal
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 Missalthe definitive instructions for celebrating
Roman Catholic Mass. There are some new things to note, but nothing
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.
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.
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.
Father James Moroney, executive director for the U.S. bishops’ Committee
on the Liturgy, explains much of what to expect in the current issue
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
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.