CREDO FOR CATHOLIC TIMES, 24th September 2000,  Fr Francis Marsden


            It is the Mass which makes a Catholic. 80% of our congregations who attend Mass are unlikely to turn up at any other Bible study, parish meeting, retreat, prayer group, Benediction, or pilgrimage. They notice what happens at Mass, and it is the way Sunday Mass is presented and celebrated which is likely to have most impact on their lives.

            The big red book which sits on the altar during Mass – or, strictly speaking, from the preparation of the gifts to the Postcommunion Prayer - is the Roman Missal. A few weeks ago the Vatican issued a new General Instruction on the Roman Missal to replace and amend that of 1969. At present it is available in Latin only.

            The General Instruction lays down the general norms to be followed in celebrating Mass, in the design and furnishing of churches, in the choice of Scripture readings. The new version, in comparison with its predecessor, reveals how the mind of the Church wishes to fine-tune our contemporary vernacular Mass. So for the next couple of weeks I propose to examine this new document in some detail, and to discuss the new points it makes.

            The Instruction begins with an explanation of the nature of the Mass, as a witness to unchanging faith and unbroken tradition. Unfortunately too many regarded Vatican II as a revolution, not a gradual development. To very many it seemed indeed that the faith had changed and tradition had been thrown overboard. It will take several decades to put right the damage.

            Because the Mass is the central action of the Church’s life, its celebration is vitally important, and it must be executed with dignity. In the Mass the people of God take part, “hierarchically assembled”, each with his or her role: priest, deacon, altar ministers, lectors, cantors, sacristan, animator, collectors, welcomers (100), and pray-ers.

The local bishop’s duty is to help the priests, deacons and laity to understand ever more deeply the genuine sense of the rites and liturgical texts, and thus to promote active and fruitful celebration of the Eucharist (22). To this end he should try to increase the dignity of his own celebrations. The beauty of the churches, music and religious art helps greatly in promoting this.

            One hopes that this instruction will put an end to the erection of bare concrete barns, brutalist and devoid of statues, icons, and paintings.

            Some adaptations are allowed in the sacred Liturgy – in songs, readings, gestures, prayers and commentary -  for the sake of pastoral effectiveness (24). However “the priest should remember that he is a servant of the sacred Liturgy, and he is not permitted on his own initiative to add, remove or change anything in the celebration of Mass.” As it is sometimes said, “The rubrics exist to protect the congregation from the priest!”

            The Mass is the formal worship of the entire Church, not the private property or stage show of any individual celebrant. There is something to be said for the ancient idea that the personality of the priest should be transparent, unnoticeable, during the Mass. After all, he acts “in persona Christi”, not in his own person.

            However, there are certain points where the rubrics allow the celebrant to add a few words of explanation or commentary during the Mass – and this means “brevissimis verbis” – a very few words. If you have been at a Mass with five different sermons: one at the beginning, one before the readings, the real homily, one before the Our Father and another before Communion -  you know how irritating it can be. “The Word became flesh, and we have made Him words again.”

            A brief introduction to the Mass, a short word to introduce the readings, a concise comment before the Preface, and a summing up of the theme of the celebration at the end just before the dismissal are in order (31). I suppose every priest has to learn that what the people want is, firstly, the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and secondly, to receive some nourishment from the Word of God. They don’t necessarily want him, particularly. Some like him, some put up with him, some go elsewhere to avoid him!

            It is when we come to the use of singing in the Liturgy that there are some surprises. “Let the use of singing in the celebration of Mass be substantial, attentive to the genius of the people and the ability of any liturgical gathering.” On weekdays it is not necessary to sing everything that can be sung. Sadly, a lot of churches sing nothing. “But on Sundays and holidays care should generally be taken that the singing of ministers and people is not lacking.” (40). “It is typical of a lover to sing” and “He who sings well prays twice.” (St Augustine)

            What are we to sing? Not just the four-hymn sandwich! “Other things being equal, Gregorian chant has first place, inasmuch as it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. Let other forms of sacred music, especially polyphony, not be excluded, so long as they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and foster the participation of all the faithful.” (41)

            This is not a new item. But it does highlight how far our English liturgy has now diverged from the Roman rite, just as doctrinally a proportion of people and priests diverge from Roman teaching. Vatican II never told us to ditch Latin chant or the polyphony of Palestrina or Mozart.  In effect even the old Instruction (1969) told us to keep them.

Unfortunately “experts” with their own hidden agenda, went round telling priests that everything which had gone before was now bad, and only the new was good. Terrible damage was inflicted upon our music and worship tradition – a tradition which nevertheless regularly re-appears on CD, Classic FM and Radio 3.

            The new Instruction repeats the admonition that the faithful should be able to sing a simple setting of the Latin parts of the Mass, especially the Credo and Pater Noster, to enable them to participate in international gatherings (41).

            One recent trend in some parishes has been to force the congregation to stand all through the Eucharistic Prayer. This is normal if you are Eastern-rite: you stand all through the Mass! The Latin practice is to kneel at the Consecration (43), unless reasons of cramped space or a very large number of people present make this impossible. In which case, the laity should make a “deep bow” as the priest genuflects after the elevations of Host and chalice.

            The new document adds: “Where it is the custom for the people to remain kneeling from the end of the Sanctus to the end of the Eucharistic Prayer [as indeed it is in Britain] this practice can most laudably be retained.”

            Perhaps in response to the increased noisiness and wordiness of the modern Mass, the new Instruction contains a recommendation for silence at certain points. “Sacred silence, as a part of the celebration” is recommended during the penitential rite. There should be a silent pause after each of the Scripture readings to allow the people to meditate on what they have heard, and after the homily. It is also recommended after Holy Communion. (45)

            There is a warning to those who chatter in church and in the sacristy before Mass: “Before the celebration it is recommended that silence be maintained in church, in the sacristy, and in places nearby, so that all may devoutly and correctly dispose themselves to  carry out the sacred mysteries.”

            Obviously word has got through to Rome about noisiness and lack of preparation in Church before the Mass. This wasn’t in the old Missal.

            Now to the actual celebration:

            Entering in procession, the priest and ministers bow to the altar (or genuflect if the tabernacle is in the sanctuary) kiss the altar, and may incense the altar and cross. The processional and/or altar cross must carry the figure of Christ. Christ-free blank crosses à la Protestante have been forbidden!

A deacon or a reader may carry in the gospel book in procession, but never the Lectionary, which always remains on the ambo. The celebrant is supposed to begin Mass from the presidential chair.  I am guilty of usually beginning at the altar, since this avoids having to carry the large Missal around. All right if you have throngs of altar servers to hold it for you . . The reduced-size Missal has very small print indeed.

The Rite of Penance at the beginning of Mass concludes with the priest’s prayer of absolution (May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins . . ) “which however lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance.”  It is to some extent a forgiveness of venial sins.

            There were priests who took it upon themselves at funerals and weddings to give an invalid and illegal General Absolution at this point, seriously misleading the People of God. Such practices gravely undermined the genuine Sacrament of Reconciliation and lacked the integrity of confession of sins necessary for full forgiveness.

            For Sundays in Eastertide the Asperges is recommended in place of the usual Penitential rite, the sprinkling with Holy Water in remembrance of baptism.

            The Kyrie eleison is a song: the mention of merely reciting it is dropped in the new Instruction. The Gloria is described as a “most ancient and venerable hymn.” “This hymn is never substituted by another text.” (53) So it looks as though we should bid farewell to the Peruvian Gloria and others which use an altered text (except perhaps at children’s Masses?)

            This first part of the Mass concludes with the “Collect” – called the Opening Prayer in English missals. In fact the priest invites the people to “recollect” their thoughts for a few moments in silence, and then on their behalf, he offers prayer to God, “expressing the character of the celebration.”

            We shall continue next week with the rest of the Mass.

Sent 15th September 2000. for 24th Sept.


Part II  1st October 2000


Last week I began looking at the new General Instruction on the Roman Missal – the directions for the celebration of Mass. The Latin version of the new Missal is due in December, but the Lord knows when the English version will arrive, given the prolonged disputes over reaching a faithful translation.

The new Instruction stresses the importance of the reading of the word of God, and of silent reflection afterwards:

“In the readings, explained by the homily, God speaks to his people, reveals the mystery of redemption and salvation, and offers spiritual nourishment, and Christ Himself is present through His word in the midst of the faithful. The people make this divine word their own by silence and by chants. Nourished by it, they pour forth prayers in the Bidding Prayers for the needs of the whole Church and the whole world.” (55)

Sundays and Solemnities have three readings (Prophets, Epistle, Gospel). “These are to be strictly adhered to.” (357) In certain countries (e.g. Germany) the Second Reading was dropped by the Bishops’ Conference, but this option has now been deleted. Feasts have two readings, but if upgraded to a Solemnity, a third reading should be taken from the Common.

On memorials of saints, the normal flow of weekday readings should be maintained, unless there is some special local affinity with the saint in question, and special readings are provided. If the weekday readings have been interrupted, the celebrant may add the omitted reading onto its contiguous text the following weekday. He should plan out the weekday readings in advance, so as to maintain continuity.

We note again here the new emphasis on silence and meditation in the Mass: “The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated so as to aid meditation – obviously any type of hurry which might impede recollection is to be avoided. This is suited by short periods of silence, accommodated to the particular gathering, by which with the help of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God may be taken to heart, and a response prepared through prayer.”

Lectors should be both capable of their task, and “assiduously prepared” (100). They should also be “veste probata indutus”, clothed with approved garments. Those mini-skirts and lycra tights will just have to go!

Any celebrant knows that a busy Sunday Mass, with restless children and crying babies is not the easiest setting for inducing silent meditation. Certain elderly persons, anxiously keeping an eye on their watches, because the bus goes home in 40 minutes, are susceptible to bursts of coughing should any contemplative silence extend beyond the ten-second mark. I just wonder – dare we really introduce these pauses after both readings which the Instruction requests?

Maybe the laity should think more deeply: How can we help Father to celebrate the Mass more reverently and attentively? Reading the bulletin or looking at your watch during the sermon doesn’t help. Knocking it with your finger as if it has stopped is even more discouraging to the poor preacher.

The Homily too is supposed to have its moment for silent absorption afterwards, which I suppose means Father sitting down, rather than hastening on into the Creed.

“The Responsorial Psalm should be sung, at least the response which pertains to the people.” Easier said than done, since learning a new Psalm tone every week requires a committed musician and singer. It can be managed at one Mass, but probably not at every Mass. Some parishes do print the response with music on a liturgy sheet or weekly bulletin.

Apparently we are allowed to sing the chant from the Roman Gradual, or a Psalm with Alleluias from the Simple Gradual (61), instead of the responsorial Psalm in the Lectionary. Since I’ve never seen any of these translated, I can’t help you. We seem to be unduly restricted in the Anglophone world by the authorities’ failure to translate accurately the wide variety of resources Rome provides.

            The Sequence – which is only obligatory at Easter and Pentecost (64), and even then is often passed over – should be sung after the Alleluia, not before it. It thus forms an introduction to the Gospel. The many other Sequences, beautiful poems like Lauda Sion Salvatorem for Corpus Christi, the Dies Irae for All Souls, the Stabat Mater, seem to have disappeared almost entirely: was this impoverishment really intended by the Council Fathers? I have a copy of the medieval Hereford Missal (similar to Sarum) in which a host of feasts and saints days had their own Sequences.

            “Care should be taken that the liturgical books, especially the Evangelarium (Gospel Book) and lectionary . . . . which are destined for the proclamation of the Word of God, and thus enjoy particular veneration, are signs and symbols of celestial realities in the liturgical action, and hence  truly worthy, fitting and beautiful.” Our ancestors, and the current Eastern rites, have beautiful bindings for the Gospel book, made of embossed metal – often with the figure of the risen Christ, the cross, and the four Evangelists. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem possible to buy these in Britain.

            The Homily does not always have to be based on the Scripture readings: it may treat of some text from the Ordinary of the Mass, or the Proper (the particular prayers) for that Day. If the Proper mentions St Maximilian Kolbe, or St Edith Stein, or Blessed Pope Pius IX, the priest presumably may preach about them.

There is a new clarification about who may preach. “The homily customarily is given by the celebrant, or by a concelebrant to whom he entrusts it, or sometimes, if opportune, even a deacon, but never at all by a layperson”(66). Addresses and appeals by laypersons for worthy causes, should really be given after the Postcommunion prayer.

As to “pulpit exchanges” the Ecumenical Directory already excludes ministers of non-Catholic denominations from preaching during the Catholic Mass, although they may speak at a non-Eucharistic ecumenical service.

The Creed must be sung or recited “in a form approved for liturgical use.” Perhaps the Congregation for Divine Worship has been hearing of way-out American versions: “I believe that there may exist some type of Supreme Being, our Parent beyond, who allowed all things to evolve,  . . . I believe in the human individual, who is beautiful and free. I believe that Jesus was a meaningful person who showed us how to love with our neighbour . . I believe in human rights and renounce all sexism, racism and homophobia. I believe in the holiness of the universe, of all plant and animals and alien lifeforms . . “    

They might purposefully have added that the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed mustn’t be missed out on Sundays or Solemnities. For the Creed recalls all the great mysteries of the Faith to the minds of the worshippers, and hence prepares us for the Eucharistic sacrifice. At the words: “He was incarnate . .” the congregation “all make a deep bow” (137). This is a gesture which the liturgical changes previously altered from a genuflection to a bow. The result: the bow is now widely ignored or given a scant nod of the head.

            The Universal Prayer, or Prayer of the Faithful follows. The intentions voiced are supposed to follow a definite order:

  1. For the needs of the Church
  2. For those who govern the civil commonwealth, and the salvation of the whole world (which is asking a lot in one prayer!).
  3. For those oppressed by any difficulty.
  4. For the local community.

The correct form is that of an invitation: “Let us pray to God for X,” not the direct prayer frequently met with at class Masses: “Dear Jesus.”

            That said, I was at a retirement Mass recently, and all six altar boys each read a Bidding Prayer which each had obviously composed himself. The retiring parish priest received prayers for a happy retirement five times over. Because of the nature of the occasion it was deeply moving, even if slightly amusing. Rules aren’t everything. They just orient us towards good practice and sometimes remind us of what we ought to be doing!

            Anybody who has been at a Mass in Italy where members of the congregation came up to the microphone to utter their Bidding Prayers, only to deliver five-minute impassioned speeches, will understand the reason for the next monition. Intentions proposed should be “sober/sensible, composed with wise freedom and few words.”

            The people do not necessarily have to have a spoken response to each Bidding Prayers. They may respond “by praying silently” after each invitation to prayer. The Hail Mary is customarily said in England and Wales, but this is not an international practice.

Those who narrow-mindedly frown on prayers and hymns to Our Lady during Mass appear to be ignorant of all the ancient liturgies of the East, where the Blessed and ever-Glorious Virgin Mother of God is repeatedly honoured and invoked, even in the Eucharistic Prayer itself.






Part III  General Instruction on the Roman Missal.  8th October 2000.



The last two weeks we have been reading through the new Instruction on the Roman Missal. Now we are ready for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which begins with the Presentation of the Gifts. The gifts can include, besides bread and wine, other gifts for the poor, which are set aside in a suitable location. We shouldn’t assume that everyone lives in a money-economy.

Missal, corporal, chalice and purificator are set upon the altar. Incidentally the altar cloth must be white, the altar must have at least two candles, but may have four or six for Sundays and holydays, on or around the altar. When a bishop celebrates, it can have a seven-branch candelabra. You can almost hear the whispers: “He thinks he’s the Chief Rabbi.”

            Chalice veils are strongly encouraged (117) – in white or the colour of the day. Again they are a colourful and reverent addition which many churches needlessly discarded.

            The Eucharistic Prayer is described as the “centre and culmination” of the whole celebration. This brings up the question of what to do if one’s home parish is priestless, and no priest is available to celebrate a regular Sunday mass. Some have advocated a Liturgy of the Word plus Holy Communion. Indeed, they even propose that such a “eucharistic service” is binding in conscience. They denounce as selfish those who would climb into their car or onto a bus and travel three miles up the road to find a Church which does have Mass, to “save their own souls”.

            It is therefore worth knowing that the Sunday obligation binds all Catholics to attend Mass (under pain of mortal sin), not to any Eucharistic Service or Liturgy of the Word. Moral theologians suggest that in excess of 60-75 minutes’ travelling time to church can excuse a person from Mass attendance, as does great or burdensome expense. The sick and elderly are not expected to travel so far.

            Even in the absence of Mass in one’s parish church, the Mass obligation to attend somewhere else is still binding in canon law, if there is a Mass-centre within reach. Catholics are not bound to stick with a particular local community in the absence of Mass. There is a “strong recommendation” that, if it is impossible to find Mass, one should attend a Liturgy of the Word, or spend time in private prayer with one’s family, or several families together.

            Could you imagine a situation where one parish never had Sunday Mass, and children grew up thinking that a Eucharistic Service was normal, even for First Communions? While three miles down the road was a parish with Mass every Sunday. If the number of priests continues to slide downhill, parishes will have to be combined. Many people travel to supermarkets, football, films, weekend excursions: they can similarly be expected to travel to Holy Mass, the most important event in a Christian’s week.

            The Eucharistic Prayer has eight main elements, which would be worth listing in any catechetics scheme:

  1. Thanksgiving (the Preface), especially for the particular salvation event the Sunday or feast celebrates.
  2. The Sanctus acclamation by all the people.
  3. The Epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, upon the bread and wine which will change into the Body and blood of Christ.
  4. The narrative of Institution and consecration
  5. The anamnesis or remembrance of Christ’s passion, resurrection and ascension.
  6. The oblation, offering Christ the immaculate victim, to the Father. The people learn to offer their own lives with Him.
  7. Intercessions for the whole Church, the living and the dead.
  8. The Doxology (“Through Him, with Him . .) concluded by the people’s Amen.


The Eucharistic prayer “by its very nature requires that only the priest, by the virtue of his ordination, offers it.” Some parishes have seen a creeping tendency for the congregation to join in the Doxology or other parts. The people rightly have the Preface responses, the Sanctus, Memorial Acclamation and great Amen for their own. As to the rest, “Let the people unite themselves in faith and in silence.”

The deacon, if there is one, is supposed to kneel from the Epiclesis until after the elevation of the chalice (179), but I have never seen this rule maintained in England.

Advice is given about when to use the different Eucharistic Prayers. The Roman Canon I is intended for major feasts which have their own special Communicantes and Hanc Igitur, and for the feasts of Apostles and Saints mentioned in it. However Eucharistic Prayer III can also be used on Sundays. Eucharistic Prayer II, the shorter one, is really for weekdays, while Eucharistic Prayer IV can be used on ordinary Sundays of the year, and any time the Mass lacks its own seasonal Preface.

According to custom, bells are used a little before and at the Consecration.

The Communion Rite begins with the Our Father. There was some talk that the Sign of Peace might be moved to before the Preparation of the Gifts, as in the Ambrosian rite of Milan, but it appears that it has not. The Bishops’ Conference can determine how the Sign of Peace is to be exchanged. “It is fitting that each in a sober manner signifies peace only to those closer to himself.” (82) 

Not officially very Roman for the entire congregation to dissolve and wander round kissing and hugging each other, although Rome is the one place where I‘ve seen it done par excellence.

The main celebrant may exchange the Sign of Peace with the altar servers, but he isn’t supposed to wander off the sanctuary any more to greet the congregation (154). I must admit, it doesn’t look right when the Body and Blood of the Lord are left abandoned on the altar, and the celebrant is somewhere near the back of church shaking hands.

The Fraction of the host is reserved to priest and deacon. Concelebrants are supposed to genuflect if they come up to receive the chalice at the altar. The principal celebrant, concelebrants and deacon distribute Holy Communion. Only if they are absent, and there is indeed a large number of communicants, should extraordinary ministers assist in distributing Holy Communion. They must not approach the altar until the priest has communicated (162). They must only receive the ciborium or paten from the hand of the priest. Presumably therefore they are not to go the tabernacle themselves, at least during Mass.

The faithful are not to take the Host or Chalice for themselves: the priest or deacon administers it. Still less must they hand paten or chalice to one another. The Episcopal Conference can specify whether Communion is to be received standing or kneeling. If people receive standing, they should make a sign of reverence (e.g. a genuflection or bow) as they process up. “The Communicant at once receives the sacred Host and consumes it wholly.”

Nothing is more worrying for a priest than when a communicant wanders off with the very Body of Christ unconsumed. Carrying the Host off to the chalice oneself for intinction is forbidden.

In Britain Holy Communion under both kinds is almost taken for granted now, but this is by special faculty, given by the bishops (286) “to allow Holy Communion under both kinds, as often as it appears opportune to the celebrating priest, so long as the faithful are well-instructed and all danger is avoided of profanation of the Sacrament, or complication of the rite due to the multitude present.” 

Not all Bishops’ Conferences have given this permission. There is a long list of special occasions when Communion under both species is generally possible, but it is not the norm.

After Holy Communion the priest or deacon (not the Eucharistic Ministers) consume the remains of the precious Blood at the altar, and cleanse the sacred vessels – either at the side of the altar or at the side table. A fully-instituted acolyte also purify the vessels. The priest returns any unconsumed Hosts to the tabernacle.

However, in Britain only men going on for the deaconate or priesthood become full acolytes (one of the two minor orders). Extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are not acolytes. Our bishops resolved not to appoint lay acolytes because they could not admit women to the Order. So unless he is lucky enough to have a deacon, Father will now have to cleanse all the vessels himself – so it stops him having a few moments quiet prayer after Communion!

The Concluding rites follow as we are customarily used to. Next week I will look at how the new Instruction is aiming to promote increased reverence in the Mass.




Part IV   General Instruction on the Roman Missal (2000).  15th October 2000.


            Our gestures in church and at Mass express our reverence for the sacred actions performed there. Unfortunately, after Vatican II, the encouragement of “noble simplicity” in the liturgical reforms, was misinterpreted as a rash destruction of time-honoured traditions.

            The New Instruction deals with many such acts of reverence which teach the holiness of what we are doing at Mass.

            Genuflections are made only before the Blessed Sacrament, and before the cross on Good Friday/Holy Saturday. The priest and altar ministers genuflect at the beginning and end of Mass, if the tabernacle is on the sanctuary, but not during Mass. If the altar servers are carrying cross and candles, they bow instead. (Mind you don’t spill that wax on the carpet!) Everyone else in Church should genuflect whenever they cross in front of the tabernacle.

            Here is an old custom returning: We should bow our heads whenever the three Divine Persons are named together (“Father, Son and Holy Spirit”), at the Holy Name of Jesus, and also at the name of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Saint in whose honour the Mass is being celebrated (275).

            The new Instruction gives detailed directions about the use of incense. Triple swings of the thurible go to the Blessed Sacrament, relics of the Holy Cross, images of the Lord exposed for public veneration, the gifts on the altar, the altar cross, the Gospel Book, the Paschal Candle,  - and those icons of Christ, the priest and the people.

            Double swings go to relics and images of the Saints, and the altar at the start of Mass. Single swings are used around the altar at other times.

            It doesn’t mention how you are to incense a coffin. When the undertaker comes in before the Requiem and tips you off, “Try and use plenty of incense, Father, I’m afraid  he’s not in a good condition . .” Perhaps as many swings as possible are in order then. . .

            We come to more contentious issues in the section on the ordering and decoration of churches. Churches are to be “worthy, beautiful, signs and symbols of celestial realities.” The treasures of traditional art must be conserved (289). Still, genuine modern art is not rejected: “Insofar as it is necessary to adapt to new needs, strive to promote new things consonant with the character of each age.” However, in choosing works of art for church, “select that which nourishes faith and piety and harmonises with the truth of the meaning and purpose for which it is destined.”

It is not the purpose of Church art to be shockingly contemporary, or to win the plaudits of modern critics for the promotion of the artist’s career. Church decoration should aim at “noble simplicity rather than ostentation.”

One line of the old Instruction (it may have been a poor translation) is dropped: “The plan of the church and its surroundings should be contemporary.”

Instead we read: “Let the arrangement of the church and its adjacent buildings be suitable, responding to the needs of our age. This requires care not only for what pertains more directly to the celebration of the sacred rites, but also consideration of what makes for the usefulness and convenience of the faithful . . (293)

The structure of the building should reflect the hierarchy of ministries: the sanctuary for the priest and ministers “should be distinguished either by being elevated, or by some particular structure or decoration.”  There should be place for the schola (singing all that Gregorian chant) or the choir. The people of God should be able to see and hear everything well. “The nature and beauty of the place and of all the fittings foster piety and display the sanctity of the mysteries being celebrated . .”(294)

The main stone altar should be freestanding, fixed and consecrated. The New Instruction insists upon blessing different items for Church use: the ambo (lectern), the presidential chair, the organ, the tabernacle, images for public veneration, church bells,  the sacred altar vessels – all should be blessed according to the Roman Ritual.

Just one problem – the Roman Ritual has not yet been promulgated in English in England. Thirty years we have waited, for a basic liturgical book to be published! I have an American copy, but where is our English version? Isn’t our Liturgy Office supposed to do all this? Perhaps they can explain?

The main celebrant’s chair should be “at the vertex of the sanctuary, facing the people.” (310). However, this may be unsuitable if it puts too great a distance between priest and congregation, or if the tabernacle is in the middle of the rear altar, and he would then be sitting with his back to the Lord.  Seats for altar servers and readers are to be distinguished from those for the clergy (who presumably get the comfy chairs!). Seriously, the New Instruction emphasises much more the hierarchical distinction between clergy and laity.

The placing of the tabernacle has been the occasion of much dispute, distress and disedification of the poor People of God, by liturgists riding roughshod over their piety.

“According to the structure of each church, and similarly the legitimate customs of places, the Most Holy Sacrament should be reserved in the place which is most noble, distinguished, prominent, beautifully adorned and suitable for prayer . . ” (314)

“It is far more suitable that the tabernacle . . should not be on the altar on which Mass is celebrated . . It is therefore preferable to site the tabernacle, according to the judgement of the diocesan bishop,

(a)               Either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration, in a manner and place most appropriate, not excluding the old altar which is no longer used for celebration;

(b)               Or also in some form of chapel suitable for the private adoration of the people, which is integrally connected with the Church and conspicuous for the faithful.” (315)

Please note that even bishops are supposed to give judgements in accord with 314: respecting “the legitimate customs of the place”, and making sure that the site chosen is “most noble, distinguished, prominent, beautifully adorned and suitable for prayer.” If the arrangement enforced by the local Ordinary did not fulfil these criteria, the parishioners or parish priest would still be entitled to appeal over his head to Rome.

Far from throwing out statues, the new Instruction is much more positive about images of the saints. “In the earthly Liturgy the Church participates and has a foretaste of that heavenly Liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city Jerusalem, towards which she strives as a pilgrim, where Christ sits at the right hand of the Father, and venerating the memory of the Saints she hopes to have a certain part and communion with them.”

“Therefore let images of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints, according to the most ancient tradition of the Church, be exhibited in sacred buildings for the veneration of the faithful, and in church let them be disposed so as to lead the faithful to the mysteries of faith there celebrated.” (318) The proviso is that there should not be more than one image of each saint, nor should there be so many as would distract the faithful’s attention from the Mass. The “piety of the whole community and the beauty and dignity of the images” are of prime consideration.

The final chapter is one of the most important: it lists the much wider range of adaptations which the local Episcopal Conference is allowed to introduce. They have the responsibility of deciding about certain gestures of the faithful and suitable dress for church. They approve the texts of chants to be used at the entrance, offertory and Holy Communion, the manner of giving the sign of peace, the mode of receiving Holy Communion, the materials used for the altar, the sacred vessels and vestments. They decide which Bible translations are approved.

They also have the duty of seeing to the translation of the Mass texts: “Let them prepare by assiduous study the version of other texts [besides the Bible] so that the sense of the original Latin is rendered fully and faithfully, while respecting the natural quality of each language” (392) It has to be borne in mind that such translations are intended for proclamation and singing, not for private meditation.  “Although the language used may be adapted to the faithful of a particular area, nevertheless it should be endowed with a noble and literary character. . . “

The Episcopal Conference approves the chants for the Ordinary of the Mass, and specified which instruments may be used in divine worship. Each diocese should have its own Calendar and Proper of Masses for local celebrations. The national calendar should indicate Rogation Days and the four seasons of the year.

More extensive variations can be introduced, with Roman approval, for newly-converted peoples and mission territories, allowing more inculturation. It will be interesting to see what happens.