For those not familiar with it, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) is the introduction to the Roman Missal. It is primarily “pastoral, practical, and catechetical” and not merely rubrical, legal, and doctrinal. Its purpose is to achieve a celebration that is pastorally effective by promoting the people’s participation within the parameters of official liturgical regulations. Like the introductions to the other postconciliar ritual books, it indicates the theological underpinnings of the sacramental rite and offers guidance on celebration. The new, third edition of the Missal was issued in 2002 and has not yet been published in English, though there is an official translation of the fifth edition of the introduction, the GIRM.
This book provides the text (Latin and English) of the new GIRM and a detailed commentary. It highlights positive changes and carefully notes problem areas. The twenty-five authors are scholars with pastoral concerns and do not engage in ideological ax-grinding. In the words of Bishop Trautman’s foreword, the book is “the best in liturgical scholarship” and it is “a balanced, reliable, and unparalleled resource.” It is a necessary resource that should be carefully studied before the new Missal is implemented.
Introductory essays situate the GIRM among liturgical documents (N. Mitchell, J. Baldovin), discuss liturgy and law (K. Seasoltz), and offer theological and pastoral reflections (D. Power, C. Vincie). The first two are important for context. The third is valuable for its insights into the principles of interpretation the document gives. The bulk of the book consists of text and commentary. The structure is that of the GIRM: importance and dignity of the celebration (K. Pecklers), structure (E. Foley), duties and ministries (B. Morrill, S. Roll), different forms (M. Connell, S. McMillan), concelebration (G. Ostdiek, A. Ciferni), “private” Mass (M. Shaefer, J. Pierce), general norms (M. Shaefer, J. Pierce), architecture and furnishings (M. Wedig, R. Vosko), requisites (R. McCarron, A. McGuire), selecting among options (J. Zimmerman), ritual and votive Masses (J. Pierce, R. Rutherford), adaptations and inculturation (M. Francis, G. Neville).
The overall perspective of the authors is to highlight what is helpful in achieving a pastorally effective celebration. They call attention to directives and recommendations that are often ignored in parishes; e.g., communion in both forms. They point out questionable translations, inconsistencies, and lack of clarity in GIRM. They raise questions and offer additional advice for effective celebration. They are thorough, referencing official documents (including previous editions of GIRM to identify changes) and other theological and liturgical literature.
This valuable book is the most complete commentary available and will probably not be superseded for years. It should be read and studied by every priest, seminarian, liturgist, liturgy committee, and anyone else interested in celebrating the Eucharist properly. Bishops should also study it, not only to fulfill their responsibility as presiders and pastoral overseers but also to see where they have a collegial responsibility to continue the work of reform and renewal that is, to some extent, impeded rather than furthered by elements in GIRM and other recent directives.
A related work that I can also recommend is Gerard Moore, Understanding the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (New York: Paulist Press, 2007). [ISBN 978-0-8091-4452-5. Pp. 121. $14.95 pb.] This is not a detailed commentary, but it does offer an appreciation of the underlying theological dynamics and indicates some tensions; e.g., unclear or conflicting understandings of Church, tradition, unity, priesthood, and symbol. Paul Turner, Guide to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2007) [ISBN 978-1-56854-496-0. Pp. 32. $5 pb.], provides a shorter overview that restates the theological emphases of GIRM—sacrifice of Christ, holiness of Eucharist, ministers’ participation—in accessible language.
My conclusion: the present edition of GIRM shows definite improvement over previous editions, but there are also areas of tension, some of which are even more evident in the new GIRM. Interior participation is sometimes presented as though active external participation is not important. The distinction between ordained and lay is repeatedly underlined with little attempt at integration, to the detriment of full participation. GIRM says almost nothing about the Eucharist in relation to ecclesial communion. It says almost nothing about the significance of sacramental communion. The theology of eucharistic sacrifice is incomplete and is centered solely on the priest.
This last point, a Counter-Reformation emphasis which is central in GIRM, affects the theology of eucharistic and ecclesial communion and the role of the assembly, all of which are crucial to postconciliar reforms. It has practical implications in terms of the people’s role in offering, the significance of their sacramental communion, and the continuing process of adaptation and inculturation, all of which receive too little attention in GIRM.
The primary principles of interpretation stated in GIRM do not always seem to be followed. Though GIRM uses the language of participation, the underlying sense, too often, is that people participate in the priest’s Mass, a perspective at odds with the Vatican II principles which GIRM states are primary: pastorally effective celebration and a participation that is full, conscious, and active. Problems generally arise—in my opinion—from a shift away from postconciliar trends and back to a sense of Church and priesthood and a style of worship more associated with the so-called Tridentine Mass.
The shift is in the name of continuity and reverence, both of which are key values. However, GIRM frequently shows no awareness of differences between patristic and medieval liturgy and culture. It makes historically questionable references, especially to Trent and Vatican II. It often fails to distinguish between tradition and custom. To maintain continuity and restore reverence it emphasizes Counter-Reformation customs that reinforced medieval regard for the Mass as sacrifice, the ministerial priesthood, and the real presence. GIRM at times seems to operate from a clerical rather than pastoral perspective and to overemphasize the role of central authority. The consequence is to downplay the role of the assembled community and the local Church. The commentaries note that at points the official English translation accentuates this attitude beyond what is in the Latin—curiously, the requirement of literal translation (“formal correspondence”) is not always observed! The same perspectives seem to shape intentional archaisms in the translation of the Missal now underway.
Liturgy remains the area where tensions between differing ecclesiologies are most deeply felt. While this book was not written for that purpose, it will be helpful for understanding and dealing with those realities.