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Musical Musings: Liturgy

General Instruction Basics

by the NPM Staff

This article first appeared in the December-January 2001 issue of Pastoral Music magazine. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of Gordon Truitt, editor, to aid parishes in understanding the publication of the latest Latin edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

1. What is the General Instruction of the Roman Missal?

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal is the official document explaining the basic Catholic theology of Mass and offering a description of the way a community should use the rituals, gestures, and words found in the book to which it is attached (the Roman Missal or Sacramentary) to express that theological meaning. ("Sacramentary" is actually an older and better title for the book, since the book explained by the General Instruction contains just the texts, music, and instructions needed by a bishop or priest to celebrate Mass; a "missal" - a medieval book developed for Masses at which the priest was the only minister - actually contained all the texts to be used at Mass, including those now found in the Lectionary, the Book of the Gospels, and the music resources used by a community.)

This document may be found in the front of the Sacramentary along with other important documents: the U.S. Appendix to the General Instruction, the Directory for Masses with Children, the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, and one or more calendars of feasts and observances. It is also available in collections of liturgical documents such as The Liturgy Documents, Volume One from Liturgy Training Publications, Chicago.

2. What's in the General Instruction?

The current General Instruction of the Roman Missal (often abbreviated as GIRM) contains eight major sections. Father Mark Francis describes the contents this way: "In addition to being a simple description of the structure of the Eucharist, the Instruction also articulates the 'whys' and 'hows' of this celebration by explaining doctrinal principles and by outlining how these principles give shape to the present rite of Mass."1

First, there is an introductory section that states Catholic theology about the Eucharist and the ways in which that theology has been expressed in the past. This section links that past heritage to the present Order of Mass, pointing out why our current practice has changed from the model developed and published in 1570, during "the difficult period of attacks against Catholic teaching on the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the ministerial priesthood, and the real and permanent presence of Christ under the eucharistic elements" (General Instruction 1975, Introduction, no. 7).2 The model for eucharistic worship presented in the current Order of Mass is built not only on that earlier model but also on even older traditions, using scholarship that developed after 1570, and on a "broader view" of the Church's rich tradition. It also "marks a major step forward in liturgical tradition" through a focus on the "pedagogic and pastoral character of the liturgy" (GIRM 1975, Introduction, nos. 10, 12) and on the communal view of the liturgy endorsed by the Second Vatican Council.

Second, there is a general description of the way Mass works. Chapter II of the current version of the Instruction offers an overview of the Mass as a celebration with two major parts (Liturgy of the Word, Liturgy of the Eucharist) composed of eight important elements: reading and explanation of the word of God, vocal and silent prayer, singing and silence, ritual movements and postures (GIRM 1975, nos. 7-23). The next section (GIRM 1975, nos. 24-57) describes the normal way Mass unfolds.

The third section describes the offices and ministries in Mass: the people who perform the actions, speak the words, sing the songs. It begins with the general statement that "all in the assembly gathered for Mass have an individual right and duty to contribute their participation in ways differing according to the diversity of their order and liturgical function ... All, whether ministers or laypersons, should do all and only those parts that belong to them ..." (GIRM 1975, no. 58). Then this section names the major functions of those in holy orders (bishop, priest, deacon); those who make up the majority of the assembly - the congregation, choir, and cantor; and those who perform special ministries - acolyte, reader, cantor of the psalm (psalmist), and others.

The fourth section of the General Instruction then describes in detail how all of this comes together in the normal celebration of Mass. This is the section that contains the detailed instructions about how to prepare for and celebrate Mass with a congregation, concelebrated Mass, and Mass without a congregation. Many of the arguments and problems with liturgy that arise in parishes actually concern the details found in this section.

Section five describes how the space for worship should be arranged and how it should be furnished. "The general plan of the sacred edifice should be such that in some way it conveys the image of the gathered assembly. It should also allow the participants to take the place most appropriate to them and assist all to carry out their individual functions properly" (GIRM 1975, no. 257). There are descriptions of the altar and its furnishings, the chair for the priest celebrant and other ministers, the lectern or ambo (reading desk), the places for the rest of the community, the placement of the organ and other musical instruments, the place for reserving the eucharistic elements, and images (statues and other representations of Christ and the saints). Similarly, section six deals with the requisites for celebrating Mass: bread and wine, vessels, vestments, and other furnishings required for church use.

The final two sections deal with rules governing the selection of Mass texts, with special rules for ritual Masses (Masses in which another sacrament or other rite is celebrated), Masses for various needs and occasions, and Masses for the dead.

3. Why is there a new edition of the General Instruction?

The first edition appeared in 1969, when the revised Order of Mass, mandated by the Second Vatican Council and approved by Pope Paul VI, was published. A second edition of the General Instruction accompanied the full text of the Roman Missal or Sacramentary when it was published in 1970, and subsequent editions appeared in the next three years with minor corrections to reflect changes in other rites and practices (e.g., the suppression of the order of subdeacon). A new edition of the Instruction was printed in 1975 with the revised edition of the Sacramentary - this is the edition we are currently using.

Since 1975, there have been new saints' feasts and memorials added to the calendar, along with new texts for the priest, and some feasts have been upgraded to solemnities. There has even been a new Eucharistic Prayer added to our options: the Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs and Occasions. To take account of all the changes in the past fifteen years, the Vatican prepared a new edition of the Sacramentary. At the same time, responding to questions and concerns raised around the world, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments also prepared a new edition of the General Instruction.

The structure of the Instruction remains largely unchanged from the 1975 edition, though there have been some significant additions: The size of the text has expanded in the Latin original from 340 to 399 paragraphs. There is a stronger focus throughout on the role of the bishop and the role of the priest celebrant. Chapter four has been reorganized to take better account of ritual changes when a deacon is assisting. A new ninth chapter has been added, in light of the 1994 statement on inculturation titled Fourth Instruction on the Implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy. It describes the roles of bishops' conferences and of individual bishops in overseeing adaptations of the basic Roman document.

As with the 1969 edition of the General Instruction, this text was released before the full book that it is intended to interpret. Part of the reason for this pre-release is to provide bishops and their advisors an opportunity to examine the changes made in the basic model and to see how those changes accord with the needs and expectations of their local communities. In some places, for example, where communion is distributed under only one form, or where there are only one or two Masses on a Sunday, there is not a great need for the involvement of several ministers in preparing and distributing the consecrated bread and wine; that appears to be the model described in the new document. It must certainly be adapted for many U.S. parishes that regularly offer communion under both forms and that have several Masses each Sunday. Such issues are being addressed now in many forums; no doubt there will be an American appendix to this document, as there is to the current form of the General Instruction, that will describe appropriate adaptations to the needs of Catholics in the United States.

4. What is the value of a draft English translation?

The draft translation prepared under the direction of the NCCB Committee on the Liturgy by its Secretariat allows for wider reflection and consultation on the new edition of the General Instruction. It draws on the official English translation of the 1975 text, adapting it where necessary to include the new or revised material in the Latin document. The process of preparing this translation involved both the U.S. Secretariat and the Roman Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. While some people have treated this draft English text as quasi-official, since its preparation involved high-ranking officials in Washington and Rome, the Secretariat has made it clear that this is only a study text. The final English translation of the Latin Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani will be made following the usual procedure for official English liturgical texts. A careful translation will be prepared by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and sent to all the member bishops' conferences. They will vote on this text, and it will be amended as necessary. Once the bishops' conferences have approved a translation, it will be submitted to the Roman Congregation for its confirmation of the work of the bishops' conferences. After this process is completed, a date will be set for implementation of the new General Instruction. Until then, unless Rome and the U.S. bishops decide otherwise, we follow the 1975 General Instruction which currently guides our practice at Mass.


1. Mark R. Francis, csv, "Overview of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal" in Elizabeth Hoffman et al., eds., The Liturgy Documents: A Parish Resource, Volume One (Chicago, IL: Liturgy Training Publications, 1991), 38.

2. English translation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, fourth edition (March 27, 2975) from International Commission on English in the Liturgy, Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1982).

This article is Copyright © 2000
by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.
All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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