Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Spring Brings Good News For Liturgy

by Matthew Grantham


A brief synopsis of some of the key liturgical documents, which contain changes that affect the way Catholics worship.

Larger Work



34 - 36

Publisher & Date

Women for Faith & Family, St. Louis, MO, Pentecost 2002

During the last two months, the Holy See and the American bishops have released several important liturgical documents that will affect the way Catholics worship — chief of which is the release of the new edition of the Roman Missal.

The documents emphasize the need for a sense of the sacred that has diminished over the past 30 years: as is typical of liturgical matters, however, the documents appear in a quagmire of liturgical confusion, within which the meaning of documents can easily be obscured. Printed below is Voices' brief synopsis of some of these key documents. We hope that it will help readers better to understand the liturgical reforms that will be part of Catholic worship in the upcoming months.

Third Typical Edition Of The Roman Missal Released:

On March 18, the Holy Father received the third typical (Latin) edition of the Roman Missal — the authoritative book of the prayers and liturgical regulations used in the celebration of Mass — including the norms for the proper celebration of the Eucharist, Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (IGMR, also known as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal) first released in July 2000. The IGMR is now in effect, although an official English translation has not yet appeared.

The new rules for Mass supersede those in place since 1975. A "study translation" of the IGMR was also released in July 2000 by the US Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy.

The IGMR address the problem of diminishing reverence for the Liturgy, which has plagued many parts of the Catholic Church. It further clarified the distinction between ordained ministers and the "lay ministers" that are particularly common in the American church. It also added a final chapter outlining the responsibility of bishops for regulating the Liturgy in his diocese.

Some of the most noticeable changes from the 1975 General Instruction include the following:

— The custom of the faithful kneeling from the Sanctus until after the "Great Amen" and at the Ecce, Agnus Dei is "laudably retained" (43). The faithful may either sit or kneel during the period of silence following Communion and (subject to adaptations by regional bishops' conferences) stand or kneel to receive Communion (160). This strongly confirms that the Holy See has no intention to prohibit or discourage kneeling in reverence to the Sacrament, and cancels the opinion of some liturgists that people must stand throughout the Eucharistic Prayer and Communion rite.

— "A cross with the body of Christ crucified" (308) must hang either over or near the altar, even outside of Mass. Thus other symbols, including empty crosses, are not approved.

— The tabernacle may either be in the sanctuary or in a chapel "integrally connected with the church and conspicuous to thy faithful" (315-emphasis added). Some liturgists have interpreted earlier norms (which this new rule clarifies) to mean that the Sacrament should be reserved in a separate chapel.

Changes to the Missal itself will be relatively minor. Several new Eucharistic Prayers are included, and added feasts will include saints canonized by Pope John Paul II, as well as feasts in honor of the Holy Name of Jesus (January 3) and the Holy Name of Mary (September 12).

Liturgists React / Bishops Adapt (And Re-Adapt)

After the July 2000 release of the new IGMR. a firestorm erupted among some American liturgy groups. Some influential liturgists criticized the new IGMR, claiming that, among other things, it unduly limited the role of the laity and reverted to a "pre-Vatican II" theology of the Eucharist.

Some groups, such as the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions and WeBelieve, proposed a plethora of cultural "adaptations" to the new IGMR. For example standing throughout the Eucharistic Prayer, allowing liturgical dance, establishing the "right" of the faithful to chat before Mass and permitting the use of a variety of materials for vestments and glass and pottery altar vessels.

These ideas, for the most part, did not make the list of the bishops' proposed adaptations. Despite a push by some liturgists (and a few bishops) to mandate standing where it has been the custom to kneel, the bishops reaffirmed the customary periods of kneeling from after the Sanctus until after the "Great Amen" and at the Ecce Agnus Dei, and allows either sitting or kneeling during the period of silence after Communion (IGMR 43).

The bishops originally designated standing as the normal posture for receiving Holy Communion and a bow of the head as the required sign of reverence. In response to an October 2001 letter from Cardinal Jorge Medina-Estevez, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the bishops added language specifying that no one should be denied Communion for kneeling (160). Cardinal Medina had written to the bishops requesting several changes in their proposed adaptations before the Congregation could grant the necessary recognitio.

The bishops also proposed adaptations that affected church music and architecture. One adaptation allowed for "other collections" of songs to be used in lieu of those set forth in the Roman Gradual (the official chant book of the Church) or the Simple Gradual (48, 61). All alternate songs and lyrics must be approved either by the bishops' conference or, in certain cases, by the local bishop. The amendments also allow for the mensa (top) of an altar to be made of wood (301), the use of alternate materials for sacred furnishings and vessels (326, 329) — such as glass or ceramic chalices, and the use of colored altar cloths, as long as the "uppermost cloth covering is always white" (304). The bottom line of these adaptations — and others — is that the local bishop has a great deal of authority to regulate Liturgies celebrated in his diocese as he sees fit. Most of the adaptations give the bishop plenty of leeway in regulating the celebration of Mass, and the Holy See rarely intervenes in matters of liturgical discipline when a bishop has already addressed the matter.

Authentic Translations Required: ICEL Critiqued, Vox Clara Organized

Two recent developments on the translation front were a powerful critique by the Holy See of another work of ICEL (International Commission on English in the Liturgy) : and its formation of Vox Clara, a new international committee of bishops to oversee English language liturgical translation.

The document that will govern the translation of the new Roman Missal is the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam, released last May (see Voices, Pentecost 2001: "A New Era in Liturgical Renewal", p 36). It initiated a "a new era" in both the process of translating sacred texts and the reform of the Liturgy as a whole — calling upon national bishops' conferences to revise translations that employed "inclusive language", truncated important theological concepts in the interest of "simplicity", imprudently translated sacred words in ways that do not convey their true meaning, etc. Liturgiam authenticam declared such practices detrimental to the ultimate goal of a translation: to be faithful to the original and to convey a sense of reverence and devotion. That the US bishops intend to observe this Instruction is attested by their returning, last November, an ICEL translation of the Missal's IGMR for correction according to the principles in Liturgiam authenticam.

In 1999, the Holy See had ordered the restructure of ICEL, the group that has produced most English liturgical translations since 1963.

Cardinal Medina Estevez, registered disappointment with ICEL's progress thus far in a March 16 letter to the US bishops. At the same time, the Congregation issued a detailed critique of ICEL's proposed revision of the "Sacramentary" (Roman Missal) that occupied the US bishops for most of the 1990s, and was submitted to the Holy See for recognitio two years ago. The list detailed some of the serious deficiencies of ICEL's work — one example: ICEL's use of terms for altar vessels more suitable for "ordinary kitchenware" (i.e. "cup" and "plate" instead of chalice and paten).

Because English translations of liturgical texts are used as base texts for many other translations, the Holy See has created Vox Clara, a committee of English-speaking bishops who will oversee the translation process of the Missal into English and will ensure that it remains faithful to the Latin original.

The chairman of Vox Clara is Archbishop George Pell, of Sydney, Australia. Other members of the committee include Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, current chairman of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, Archbishop Justin Rigali, Saint Louis, Cardinal Francis George, Chicago, US representative to ICEL and chairman-elect of the BCL, and Archbishop Alfred Hughes, New Orleans.

The Holy Father charged the new committee with enacting the principles set forth in Liturgiam authenticam. "Fidelity to the rites and texts of the Liturgy is of paramount importance for the Church and Christian life", the Holy Father said.

Norms For Communion Under Both Kinds

On the same day that the new Missal was received, revised norms for Communion under both kinds became effective: "Norms for the Celebration and Communion Under Both Kinds", became liturgical law in the United States on March 22.

At their November 2001 meeting, the USCCB had submitted for approval of a revision of a 1984 document on the same topic. It formed part of the so-called "American Adaptations" to IGMR. Among other things, it asked to allow extraordinary ministers to pour the Precious Blood into chalices and to purify the vessels after Communion.

The Holy See's revision of this document addressed several areas of confusion about extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. In the United States, extraordinary ministers will be permitted to purify the vessels following Communion, subject to the discretion of the priest-celebrant, but only when "grave pastoral reasons" (e.g., such as a large crowd of people, like at a Eucharistic congress) justify it, and only for a three-year period.

Citing the importance of distinguishing between the ministerial priesthood and the "priesthood of the faithful", the Holy See declined to grant permission for extraordinary ministers to pour the Precious Blood. Some other regulations in the new Norms are:

— Ministers are to receive Holy Communion before the congregation. The norms say their delaying until after the congregation is "not in accord with liturgical law".

— The priest is to receive Holy Communion first, before any extraordinary ministers: the latter are not to approach the altar until after the priest's Communion.

— Only priests or deacons are to break the Hosts and pour the Precious Blood: they must first administer Communion to the extraordinary ministers, and then give the vessels one by one to each minister.

— Extraordinary ministers are not permitted to take up the vessels themselves, and they may not give Communion to one another.

— Communion by intinction is an acceptable alternative to receiving the elements separately. Some liturgists claim that the practice is either forbidden or requires special permission from the diocesan bishop.

— Only unleavened bread may be used at Mass. (There has been a recent revival in some liturgical circles of advocating leavened bread for Mass.)

Holy See: New Documents On Confession, Popular Piety

Two more significant documents appeared in early April. In Misericordia Dei an Apostolic letter issued April 7, Pope John Paul II emphasized the theological importance of individual confession and absolution (i.e. in a confessional), and stressed that the practice of general absolution was allowed only in extremely limited circumstances. In his introduction, the Holy Father said,

"This [letter] seems especially necessary, given that in some places there has been a tendency to abandon individual confession and wrongly to resort to 'general' or 'communal' absolution. In this case general absolution is no longer seen as an extraordinary means to be used in wholly exceptional situations. On the basis of an arbitrary extension of the conditions required for grave necessity, in practice there is a lessening of fidelity to the divine configuration of the Sacrament, and specifically regarding the need for individual confession, with consequent serious harm to the spiritual life of the faithful and to the holiness of the Church".

General absolution is reserved only for cases in which there is a danger that the penitent might die before being able to receive the Sacrament by ordinary means or for cases in which the faithful might be denied the sacraments for an unduly long time (i.e. well over a month) if they do not receive general absolution. General absolution may only be validly received if the penitent resolves to receive the sacrament in the ordinary manner. (Misericordia Dei is accessible on the WFF web site, Church documents section.)

Two days later (April 9) the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments introduced a "Directory of Popular Piety and Liturgy: Principles and Orientation". It counters the misconception that certain popular devotions — such as the Holy Rosary and Eucharistic processions — detract from the "communal" dimension of the Church.

The Directory encourages bishops and liturgists "to purify [popular piety] through evangelization and education". While it cautions against devotions that border on superstition and excessive displays that mostly cater to tourists, the use of favorite Catholic devotions, such as the Stations of the Cross, the Advent wreath, the veneration of authentic relics, etc., are warmly encouraged. All devotions should enhance the mysteries expressed in the Sacrifice of the Mass, and should never serve as a substitute for the Liturgy. This 300-page document, issued in Italian, has not yet been translated into English.

Note: The Latin edition of the Roman Missal may be ordered from the Midwest Theological Forum, 1410 W. Lexington, Chicago, IL 60607.

Matthew Grantham, news editor for Adoremus Bulletin, also assists with Voices. He has just received a Master's degree in English from St. Louis University and plans to attend law school. He and his wife, Emily, are parents of a baby daughter, Elizabeth.

© 2002 by Women For Faith & Family P.O. Box 8326, St. Louis, MO 63132

This item 4556 digitally provided courtesy of