The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) has 399 paragraphs and 165 footnotes.  The preamble alone uses words like “Leonine”, “salvific” and “propitiation”.  Even if you understand that much, you’ve still got 397 paragraphs to go.

The GIRM has already stirred up a lot of conversation about posture for communion, the placement of the tabernacle, and processions with the book of the gospels.  Some have said there are lots of changes.  Others have said you won’t notice any of them.  You work in the fields of liturgy and catechesis.  What is this GIRM?  How much of it do you have to know?  What is the germ of the GIRM?

The GIRM is the official Vatican document that explains how to celebrate the Eucharist in the Catholic Church.  It has been revised several times since the Second Vatican Council.  Most of those revisions have been rather minor.  The 2002 publication in Latin that came out in English in 2003, however, was a more thorough reworking of the entire document.  It is drawing considerable attention.  Although some changes are still rather minor, others will be more noticeable.

For example:

·        45: You observe silence before mass

·        122: If the processional cross is adorned with a figure of Christ crucified, and if it remains in the sanctuary throughout the eucharist, it should be the only cross used

·        120d, 173: The book of the gospels, not the lectionary, may be carried in procession to the altar

·        277: The priest incensing objects or persons observes set patterns concerning profound bows and the number of swings of the thurible

·        146: You stand before responding, “May the Lord receive this sacrifice”

·        82: You offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner

·        160: You stand to receive communion

·        160: You bow your head each time before receiving the body and blood of Christ

·        315b: If the tabernacle is located in a separate chapel, it is preferable that the room be organically connected to the church and readily visible.

In addition, you may want to practice a new vocabulary.  Some of the terms we have been using for years are being replaced.  You may find some old terms you never really learned, and that some new terms sound even older than the old ones:







Opening song

Entrance chant

Low bow

Profound bow

Opening prayer


Penitential rite

Act of penitence


Roman Missal



General intercessions

Prayer of the Faithful

Side table

Credence table

Prayer over the gifts

Prayer over the offerings



Both forms

Both species

Blessed Sacrament

Most Blessed Sacrament


Nativity of the Lord

 Also, the word “Bishop” always appears in upper case, but “priest” and “deacon” in lower case.

If these details make you nervous about learning so many changes, it’s worse than you think.  You probably didn’t notice a few things in the old GIRM that carried over to the new, like

·        making a profound bow at the words of the incarnation during the creed

·        avoiding the use of previously consecrated breads in the tabernacle for the distribution of communion at a later mass

·        standing for the entire communion rite from the Lamb of God till all have received (now an option the local bishop may allow).

But these are details.  What does the document say as a whole?  There are some lovely themes: the centrality of the sacrifice of Christ, the holiness of the Eucharist, and the diversification of ministries.  The whole document invites us into the mystery of communion with God.

However, there have also been some developments in theology not fully represented here, like the expressive power of lavish signs and symbols.  For example, it notes more occasions when communion under both species is appropriate, but it does not simply encourage the practice at every mass.  The document has a restrictive feel to it.  Instead of setting the liturgy free, it takes the eucharist out on a leash for a nice brisk walk.

Unfortunately, the GIRM will be used as a hammer to clobber a wide range of liturgical practices, both liberal and conservative.  The same fate befell the Catechism of the Catholic Church – as it befell the scriptures.  People obsessed with making a point will cite chapter and verse of whatever document appears to back them up.  At its worst, the GIRM is an invitation to people who suffer obsessive-compulsive disorder to fret over minutiae and fail at the responsibility of communal worship.  Does it really matter whether the deacon pours a few drops of water into a carafe of wine or into a chalice?  Whether a concelebrant places his left hand under his right (and not vice versa) when taking up the body of Christ for his communion?  Whether the celebrant places his left hand on his breast while blessing with the right hand?  (I’m not going to give you those paragraph numbers because I don’t want YOU obsessed over those details.)

Some people probably see the new GIRM as a mandate to clean house on liturgical abuses, rather than an invitation into the greatest mystery in the history of the world: the Eucharist.  If so, the document has failed.  What is at stake here is the celebration of the eucharist.  Thomas Talley once wrote, “Too many communities have already been brought to despair by the discovery that, having rearranged the furniture of the sanctuary and instituted an offertory procession, they still don’t love one another.”  Let’s not lose our way.

If you have the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal, read it.  If you don’t have it, get it.  If you don’t understand it, that’s OK.  It will take a lifetime and more for anyone to do that.

If you’re looking for help in knowing what the germ from this important document is, try these resources:

Mick, Lawrence E.  “Changes in the Mass: The New General Instruction.”  Catholic Update. July 2003.

Moore, Gerard.  “The Third Edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal: An Initial Commentary.”  Australasian Catholic Record 79 (4/2002):469-482.

Smolarski, Dennis C.  The General Instruction of the Roman Missal 1969-2002: A Commentary.  Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003.

Turner, Paul.  A Guide to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.  Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2003.

Zimmerman, Joyce Ann.  Understanding the Mass and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.  Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003.

And right here in Ministry and Liturgy, this humble author is providing you with a series of bulletin inserts you may use to help the person in the pew.

More will be written by other authors.  Much more.  Don’t expect to master all 399 paragraphs at once.  But work at it.  And for Christ’s sake (literally), don’t just focus on the details.  Get the big picture.  What we are doing is prayer.  If we are all at prayer at the mass, we will overlook its blemishes, because we will be gazing at the One who is perfect in all things.  If you have ever truly placed yourself in the presence of God, you know that nothing else matters.

The presence of God: The GIRM is intended to help us get there.  It is not a distraction to keep us from there.  That’s the real germ.

This article first appeared in Ministry & Liturgy 30/10 (December)

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