With the revision of the General Instruction of the Roman
Missal (GIRM) in 2002, and awaiting the new translation of the
Roman Missal, there is much discussion over the changes within
the liturgy. We hear of the rewording of certain prayers; some of
these prayers roll off the tongue while others do not. With the
publication of the 2002 GIRM, there have been slight changes in
the posture of the assembly and in the position of the ministers
around the sanctuary.
With this in mind, Pastoral Liturgy® will look at the liturgy
through the lens of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, in
order to place in perspective the current transition. To be clear,
concerning the liturgy, the Church has never subscribed to the
adage "If it isn't broken, don't fix it." Rather, one guiding principle
for understanding the liturgy is semper reformanda, that is,
the liturgy is "always reforming." It's not that change is welcomed
for its own sake; rather, if Christian worship is to remain
vital and vibrant, it must adapt to the many cultures in which
people seek to encounter Christ in the Eucharist from one generation
to the next.
This is the challenge of "tradition." From the Latin word
tradere, tradition refers to a "handing on" of teaching, beliefs,
and customs. What was handed on by the apostles to the first
Christians continues today through the Church's teaching, life,
and worship. And this tradition, received from the apostles,
develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit as we
grow in understanding of what has been handed down (Dei
Verbum, 8). How simple it would be if the Lord had handed his
disciples a script with stage directions for celebrating Eucharist.
Instead, he gave them a model, based on a Jewish family meal,
with the command, "Do this in memory of me." For two millennia,
the Church has kept faithful to this command as the sacramental
celebration moved from a family meal at home in
Palestine, to a celebration spread throughout the world. With
such growth, change is inevitable. The challenge for the Church
is to remain faithful to the message of Jesus Christ as handed
down by the apostles. The process of tradition has been described
as taking one step backward before taking two steps forward.
A theologian will take one step backward, delving into the doctrine
and experience of the Church to prepare to take two steps
forward to advance the tradition so that Christ's presence is
revealed here and now. If we look backward only, the Church
will be mired in the past. If we look forward only, the Church
will lose its moorings and drift away. So tradition employs a tension
connecting the past and future through the present.
In this way, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is a
traditional document. It was born out of the liturgical reform
movement of the twentieth century that studied the development
of the liturgy over two thousand years and attempted to
adapt it for the needs of Roman Catholics in the twentieth century
and further. Mindful of the principle of semper reformanda, the
Council did not intend to write the definitive word on the liturgy,
but to continue the discussion. For 400 years, since the Council
of Trent and the Missal of Pope Pius V (1570), the Mass went
virtually unchanged. In 1970, the Missal of Pope Paul VI brought
radical change to Roman Catholic worship. The opening paragraph
of the Constitution states the purpose for this change:
||It is the goal of this most sacred Council to intensify the
daily growth of Catholics in Christian living; to make more
responsive to the requirements of our times those church
observances which are open to adaptation; to nurture whatever
can contribute to the unity of all who believe in Christ;
and to strengthen those aspects of the Church which can
help summon all of mankind into her embrace. Hence the
council has special reasons for judging it a duty to provide
for the renewal and fostering of the liturgy. (CSL, 1)
The new GIRM and the forthcoming Roman Missal offer
an opportunity for an evaluation of how the current practice of
worship measures up to the objectives of the Second Vatican
Council. In a series of three essays, I will discuss two of these
objectives, namely, "noble simplicity," "full, conscious and active
participation," and the renewed significance of the dismissal rite.
We begin with a discussion of the notion of "noble simplicity."
According to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,
||The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they
should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions;
they should be within the people's powers of comprehension,
and normally should not require much explanation.
The beauty of the Roman Catholic liturgy lies in its simplicity.
Here, simplicity refers to intelligibility and clarity, in the
ability to understand the meaning and movement of the liturgy
for the sake of greater participation. This sentiment was expressed
well by Edmund Bishop, a renowned liturgist of the early twentieth
century, in the essay, "The Genius of the Roman Rite." He
wrote, ". . . [T]he genius of the native Roman rite is marked by
simplicity, practicality, a great sobriety and self-control, gravity
and dignity . . . . It is precisely in this simplicity . . . that
lies the importance of the native Roman rite for the history of
However, along the way of history, the liturgy expanded
and grew complex. Pope John XXIII called attention to this
problem in his apostolic letter Rubricarum Instructum (1960).
He explained that the constant duty of the papacy, especially
since the Council of Trent, has been
||to define more accurately and arrange more suitably the
body of rubrics by which the Church's public worship is
ordered and governed. Thus many things have been emended,
changed and added in the course of time. The consequent
growth of the system of rubrics has sometimes been unsystematic
and detrimental to the original clarity and simplicity
of the whole system.
The rites should be simple yet noble. The nobility of our
worship challenges any attempt to interpret simplicity as casual
or even careless. It warns against practicing a worship of convenience
and settling for what is cheap. So we should be generous
with our symbols, such as the bread and wine, water, and oil;
these symbols should "speak." The vessels and vestments, along
with the furnishings, need not be lavish but should be dignified,
suggesting the significance of the celebration. In a word, "nobility"
reminds us of the reverence with which we approach the
eucharistic celebration. We should enter the liturgy with a
proper disposition of respect and dignity. The Catechism of the
Catholic Church, 1186, explains that we cross a threshold when
we enter the church, passing from the world burdened by sin to
a new life in which the Lord wipes away every tear and feeds us
with eternal life.
This crossing over the threshold highlights one reason for the
revision of the liturgy, namely, the concern for the biblical nature
of Roman Catholic worship. Here we enter the world of the Bible.
The liturgy is imbued with scripture. We find it not only in the
readings for the day, but throughout the prayers—the Opening
Prayer, the Prayer over the Gifts, and the Closing Prayer—as
well as with the greeting and dismissal. So the revision of the
prayers expresses a more literal translation of scripture.
For one example, at the conclusion of the Eucharistic
Prayer, the priest holds up the host and declares, "This is the
Lamb of God . . . ." This statement will be revised to read
"Behold the Lamb of God . . . ." We realize that it is not a matter
of the risen Lord being confined to the round host, but an awareness
of the One who stands in our midst. The change from "This
is" to "Behold" may prove more faithful to the scriptural account
in which John the Baptist, seeing Jesus coming toward him,
declares to those around him: "Look, the Lamb of God, the One
taking away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The change in
wording opens the meaning of the proclamation. Generally
speaking, the pronoun "this" can be problematic: it begs the
question, exactly to what are we referring? Notice, that some time
ago, the phrase ending the scripture readings was changed, from
"This is the word [or Gospel] of the Lord" to simply "The word
[Gospel] of the Lord," suggesting that the risen Lord is present to
us in the hearing of the Word. Here, "this is" has been omitted.
The response to the prayer, "Behold the Lamb of God . . ."
may generate some discussion. Currently, the congregation
responds, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the
word and I shall be healed." The suggested alteration reads,
"Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but
only say the word and my soul shall be healed." We find this
expression of faith in the account of Jesus' healing the centurion's
slave (Luke 7:1-10). While this longer phrase may be a more
literal translation of the scripture than the current one, some ask
if it will enhance the meaning of the prayer.
One of the more controversial changes arises from the
Latin phrase, pro vobis et pro multis, "for you and for many," spoken
in each Eucharistic Prayer during the words of institution.
Currently, the priest prays over the cup, saying, "Take this, all of
you and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of
the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for
all [italics added] so that sins may be forgiven." The revised
reading changes "for all" to "for many." Proponents of the
change show that the wording "for many" follows a literal reading
of the scripture, as found in Matthew 26:28 and Mark 14:24,
as well as of the Latin phrase. Moreover, Cardinal Francis Arinze
of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of
the Sacraments explains that the revised phrasing reflects the
fact that while salvation is offered to all, some may freely choose
to refuse the offer. Critics of the change claim that it sounds
exclusive, denying that Jesus died for all people (see John 11:52;
2 Corinthians 5:14-15; Titus 2:11; 1 John 2:2). Moreover, within
the biblical context, "many" is contrasted with "few" and is
equivalent to "all." For example, how should we understand
Jesus' admonition in his parable of the wedding feast, "For many
are called, but few are chosen" (Matthew 22:1-14)? Similarly,
what of Ezra's claim, "Many have been created, but few will be
saved?" (We find this statement in the collection of deuterocanonical
books, either as 4 Ezra 8:3 or 2 Esdras 8:3.) In this case,
"many" implies "all." Some catechesis will be necessary to introduce
Along with the liturgical prayers, certain practices will be
revised for the sake of noble simplicity. The liturgical reform
movement restored some practices of early Christian worship,
for example, the Prayer of the Faithful and the reverence for the
Book of the Gospels. The Prayer of the Faithful provides an exercise
of the office of the baptismal priesthood of the laity (GIRM,
69). Here, responding to the proclaimed word of God, the people
offer prayers to God for the salvation of all (John F. Baldovin, SJ,
Bread of Life, Cup of Salvation: Understanding the Mass [Lanham:
Rowman & Littlefield, 2003], 85-87). Also, the restored prominence
of the Book of the Gospels, with procession and incense,
recalls an ancient custom of reverence for this symbol of Christ's
presence. (Notice that the priest or deacon will kiss the Book of
the Gospels, not the ambo.)
In the revision of the liturgy, we should be aware of "accretions,"
that is, those elements that creep into our worship and become
regular practice. This is not to imply that we should do away
with all accretions, but we should be aware of them in order to
evaluate them according to the principle of noble simplicity. For
example, during the praying of the Lord's Prayer it is common
to see people holding hands; sometimes the assembly is invited
to join hands. And in the Communion line, it is common to find
some people, especially children who have not yet received First
Communion, presenting themselves to the minister with their
hands folded across the chest, requesting a blessing. These gestures
are fairly commonplace, yet there are no rubrics for them.
Perhaps motivating these two accretions is a felt need to foster a
sense of belonging: the joined hands form a sign of solidarity;
the blessing welcomes those not yet ready for full participation
in the Eucharist. To be clear, this is an observation—not a
criticism—of how a practice is unofficially made routine within
Other accretions are more problematic. The Sign of Peace,
for example, has been judged by some to be extravagant. The
GIRM (82) explains that it is "to be given in a manner established
by Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture
and customs of the peoples. It is, however, appropriate that each
person offer the sign of peace only to those nearest and in a
sober manner." We need to ask if the Sign of Peace distracts the
assembly from the movement toward the table of the Eucharist.
In some cases, the length of time and the expression of enthusiasm
given to the Sign of Peace overwhelm the reception of
Communion. A visitor here could think that the focal point for
the celebration is the act of sharing peace rather than receiving
the body and blood of the Lord.
Another problematic accretion is commonly heard when
the assembly joins in saying aloud the Doxology. Sometimes this
participation comes at the invitation of the presider. The problem
here is that the doxology is part of the Eucharistic Prayer
that is to be read aloud by the priest, after which the assembly
responds with the great "Amen."
The goal of the current revisions within the liturgy is to
develop the sense of noble simplicity in our prayer and practice.
They should enable the faithful to hear clearly the call of the Lord
to them in word and sacrament and to respond as one people
joined in the body of Christ. Specifically, the practice of noble simplicity
should foster a greater sense of full, conscious, and active
participation, which will be the subject of the next discussion.
1. Which changes in the liturgy have been most challenging, to
you personally, and to your worship community as a whole?
2. Are there other "accretions" in your community's liturgy that
should be evaluated?
3. Are there other ways by which we may foster a sense of "noble
simplicity" in our worship?
4. What are some of the clear signs of reverence in your
5. How much does culture or ethnic identity influence the
practice of the liturgy?
6. What would you think of moving the Sign of Peace to earlier
in the liturgy, for example, for it to be placed within the time of
the Preparation of the Altar and the Gifts?
is an associate professor of liturgical theology
at the Jesuit School in Berkeley, where he teaches sacramental
theology, liturgical theology, and presiding for ordination and for
lay ecclesial ministry. He was ordained a priest of the Society of
Jesus in 1986. He earned an MDiv from the Jesuit School of Theology
at Berkeley, an STL from the Weston Jesuit School in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, and a ThD from Boston University in 1996. Before
moving to the Bay Area, he taught sacramental theology in the
graduate school of Fordham University in New York City.
This is the third in a series of six articles reflecting on the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. Those using the study guide may find it helpful to read the document, which can be found online at the Vatican's web site, www.Vatican.va.
Part I: Why Study the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Today?
Part II: Finding the Heart of the Matter: The Spirituality of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
Part III: A Return to Noble Simplicity
Part IV: The Presence of Christ in the Assembly
Part V: The Intimate Connection between Word and Rite in the Liturgy
Part VI: Go in Peace: The Relationship of Liturgy to Justice