Friday, September 16, 2011


Seeing the title of my article today, English professors might shudder at my spelling while health care professionals might worry about the latest challenge to public health. Liturgists, however, would know that I am referring to a specific text: the General Instruction for the Roman Missal. The ordinary reaader, I imagine, simply wonders what this is all about.

A bit of history is in order. Between 1962 and 1965, the Bishops of the world gathered for a series of meetings known as the Second Vatican Council. One of their most famous decisions was to reform the liturgy, which had been practically untouched since the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. A new order of Mass was therefore prepared for Roman Catholics under the direction of Pope Paul VI. The Roman Missal of 1970 contains both the directions for celebrating Mass and the texts do be used during its celebration. Some directions are dispersed throughout the Missal, though many are gathered together in an introduction, the GIRM. It explains in fine detail the actions and postures of the various actors in the liturgy: priests, deacons, acolytes and servers, readers and cantors, and the whole assembly. It also gives pastoral and theological considerations to these roles and to the meaning of their actions. More than a “recipe book” for the Mass, the GIRM is a compendium of wisdom and insight on the meaning and enactment of the central action in the Roman Catholic liturgy.

Forty years after the beginning of the Council, in 2002, a new edition of the GIRM was published coinciding with a final revision of the texts of the Mass. At the same time, the Vatican issued new guidelines to be followed in translating these texts from their original Latin. It took nearly a decade for the English-speaking bishops of the world to direct and approve this translation, which will be implemented in Canada on November 27th of this year, the first Sunday of Advent.

Most Catholics will naturally have enough of a challenge coping with the new translation, which will require relearning the responses to the priest’s greetings and prayers. They will probably not notice the slight changes incorporated in the liturgical action as required by the new GIRM. These changes are meant to foster greater unity throughout the Roman Catholic world; to promote a more meditative and prayerful celebration; to further clarify the various roles in the Mass; and to encourage the full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful in the liturgy.

For example, the new GIRM calls for a moment of silence after each of the readings and after the homily, to give time to ponder and reflect on what has been heard. It stipulates uniformity of posture during the Eucharistic prayer: in Canada, as a rule, we will all kneel during the consecration of the bread and wine. It invites the faithful to make a gesture of respect when approaching communion: in Canada, we will bow our heads before receiving. It emphasizes congregational singing at Sunday Mass. It allows the priest to preach from whichever place in the church is best to be heard and understood. It gives more prominence to the Book of the Gospels.

These are not radical changes, but rather simple adjustments that will help all parishes achieve a common goal: to celebrate the Lord’s death and resurrection in a way that is fitting and worthy, and to so enter more deeply into communion with the Lord of Life.

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