The Missale Romanum:
A Report from Chicken Little

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The General Instruction of the Roman Missal has caused a small stir in parishes.  People are standing sooner before the prayer over the offerings, noticing new procedures for communion ministers, and bowing their heads before sharing communion.  Most people are aware that something is different.

Few people are aware how many more changes are still to come.  The General Instruction is just the beginning.  It sets the table for a much larger work, the third edition of the Missale Romanum.  Our current sacramentary is the English translation of the second edition.  When the new edition comes out in English - at the risk of sounding like Chicken Little – the sky will fall on some practices people know and cherish.

But it’s not all bad news.

Most of the changes are small, like those pertaining to the editing of the book.  Others will be noticeable only to those who follow the daily calendar.  The changes governing Holy Week will affect those who prepare our most important annual ceremonies.

But the biggest changes pertain to translations.  The entire Sacramentary is being reworked from cover to cover.  Publishing its replacement is not a matter of sticking in a few new prayers.  Many of the texts people cherish will change.  That may cause a far greater stir.

But first things first.  The editing of the Missale Romanum has improved.  For example,

·                    The Masses for Various Needs and Occasions have been rearranged from four groups to three.  The two middle sections – For Civil Needs and For Various Public Needs – have been combined.

·                    The Missale is restoring two masses dropped from the pre-Vatican II missal.  In Latin, they bore the titles Ad petendum compunctionem and Ad postulandam continentiam.  You might call these the “Mass for Feeling Really, Really Sorry for Your Sins” and the “Mass for Behaving Yourself.”  The variety will be welcome, but sadly, there is no new mass for joy.

·                    All the eucharistic prayers will be found in a single book.  The prayers for masses of reconciliation, masses with children and for masses for various needs and occasions will all be there.  The arrangement is a little odd, though.  Prayers I-IV are part of the Order of Mass, but the other prayers are located in two different appendices.

·                    Prefaces for special days will be included on the page with the other presidential prayers.  So, on the Transfiguration, for example, you won’t have to set a special ribbon for the preface.  It will be right on the page after the Prayer over the Offerings.

Other changes will be noticed by those who follow the daily liturgical calendar.

·                    Several saints already on the U.S. calendar will appear in the universal books: Adalbert on April 23, Louis Grignon de Montfort on April 28, Peter Julian Eymard on August 2, Peter Claver on September 9, Lawrence Ruiz and Companions on September 28, Jane Frances de Chantal on August 12, and Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions on November 24.

·                    Other saints have been added to the universal calendar, like Josephina Bakhita on February 8, Christopher Magallanes and Companions on May 21, Rita of Cascia on May 22, Augustine Zhao Rong and Companions on July 9, Apollinaris on July 20, Sharbel Makhluf on July 24, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross on August 9, and Catherine of Alexandria on November 25.  Our liturgical year now includes a more comprehensive series of days honoring martyrs from around the globe.

·                    Several devotional days are new or restored: The Most Holy Name of Jesus on January 3, Our Lady of Fatima on May 13, and the Most Holy Name of Mary on September 12.

·                    All the foregoing days are optional memorials.  In the United States, Peter Claver will remain an obligatory memorial.  January 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, will become “a day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life” (GIRM 373).  Mass for that day will require violet vesture.

·                    Several months after the Latin Missale Romanum went to press, Pope John Paul II admitted the newly canonized St. Pio of Pietreclina onto the universal calendar as an obligatory memorial on September 23.  Although his mass texts do not appear in the editio typica of the missal, they will certainly need inclusion in the English translation.

There are also some seasonal changes.

·                    There are new vigil masses for the Epiphany and the Ascension.

·                    The mass texts for each day of Lent include a Prayer over the People.

·                    The Apostles’ Creed will be suggested as an alternative for the Nicene Creed on Sundays of Lent and Easter.

Some changes will affect Holy Week.

·                    After the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, the priest washes and dries his hands.

·                    The entire text of Eucharistic Prayer I – with the special insertions for the day – will appear on the page with the other texts of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

·                    A white humeral veil is worn for the procession of the eucharist on Holy Thursday and when the eucharist is returned for communion on Good Friday.

·                    The priest may remove his shoes to venerate the cross on Good Friday.

·                    The Stabat Mater may be sung during the veneration of the cross.

·                    At the Easter Vigil, the preparation of the paschal candle is no longer optional.

·                    The three locations for singing “Light of Christ” are at the door of the church, the middle of the church, and before the altar.

·                    At least three Old Testament readings will now be required, and the preference for using all nine scripture readings at the Vigil is strengthened.

·                    A solemn blessing is given for the conclusion of the Easter Vigil, but it may be replaced by one of the blessings from the rite of baptism.


The changes most people will notice are in the translations.  The new rules for translation require a stricter adherence to the Latin.  Every Latin word must be represented in the English translation.  The Latin sentence structure is to be maintained as much as possible.

For presiders, sentences in prayers will be more involved, the concepts more literary.  The presider’s careful preparation will help the assembly of the faithful understand the sense of the words and pray along.  If the presider’s heart is at prayer, he will more easily invite others into its mystery.

For the assembly, though, here is where the sky is falling.  The entire Order of the Mass is up for retranslation.  That includes how you respond when the priest says, “The Lord be with you,” and the texts of the Glory to God, the Creed, the Preface Dialogue, the Holy, the Memorial Acclamation, and the Lamb of God.

“Amen” will probably remain “Amen”, but you see the problem.  All the words people have said aloud at mass for 35 years may be changed.

Just to explain one dilemma, consider the memorial acclamation.  In Latin, there are three options.  There always have been, ever since the 1970 sacramentary.  In English, we have four options because the first two (“Christ Has Died” and “Dying, You Destroyed our Death”) are different translations of the same Latin text.  The new rules for translations will affect all the memorial acclamations.  Composers will need to write new settings once the translations are approved.  The acclamation farthest from its Latin original is also the most popular: “Christ Has Died.”

This raises several questions.  What will happen to “Christ Has Died”?  Will it no longer appear in the liturgical books?  Will it be grandfathered in?  What about the musical repertoire parishes have been building for the past 35 years?  May we still sing our songs?  If we no longer sing “Christ Has Died,” does that imply the mystery of faith was wrong for the past generation?  If we continue singing it, why should we not continue to use “And also with you” and the other translations from the mass we know so well?

So far, there are no clear answers to these questions, which will surely present a pastoral dilemma of some size.  People will wonder why their words and their songs are changing.  That’s the report from Chicken Little.

But it’s not all bad news.  In the end, we should have some very fine translations, but the transition from today’s words to tomorrow’s will be difficult.  Change is hard.

No one knows when we will see the English translation of the Missale Romanum.  It could take five years.  It could take longer, as these delicate questions are sorted out.

But if we do the transition with catechesis and spiritual formation, we have an opportunity to improve the spirit of prayer whenever we gather for worship.

This article first appeared in Ministry & Liturgy 31/2 (March 2004):15-16.

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