Father McManus Discusses Instruction on Liturgy 

The striking new changes in the Mass made by the instruction of the Vatican Liturgy Commission aim at stressing the community nature of Christian worship and taking full advantage of the liturgy’s educational or formative possibilities.

The new changes, which go into effect March 7, 1965, the first Sunday of Lent, must be regarded as a preliminary step in the overall liturgical reform decreed last December by the Second Vatican Council.

In the Constitution on the Liturgy the council gave broad mandates for reforms to be worked out in detail by a commission drawn from all over the world. Early this year, Pope Paul VI set up the commission with the major task of revising the official missal, ritual, breviary and so forth. Although complete reform is expected to take several years, the Vatican Liturgy Commission has prepared an interim instruction concerning the Mass and other services. It was made public Oct. 16 by the Congregation of Rites, the Vatican agency which has dealt with liturgical matters since the 16th century.

Unlike the changes of liturgical texts into various languages, which are questions entrusted by the council to the bishops of each country, the new instruction is obligatory throughout the Latin rites of the Church by the expressed direction of Pope Paul. 

The instruction has simplified the beginning and the end of Mass. Psalm 42 in the preparatory prayers as said by the priest and the server will be dropped. The Mass will end at the blessing, with the last Gospel and prayers after Mass entirely eliminated.

These omissions will not shorten the Mass very much, nor is this the intention of the change. The time saved is needed for the preaching insisted upon by the council as an integral part of Mass and also for the new “Prayer of the People.” The latter brief series of invocations or petitions is to be said or sung at the completion of the Service of God’s Word (readings, homily, creed) just after the priest says: “Let us pray.”

The actual text of the prayer of the faithful, however, has been left to the decision of national conferences of bishops.

One contradiction in the rite of the Mass has been partially corrected. Three of the most solemn and public prayers recited quietly by the priest up to the present will be sung or said aloud for all to hear and to respond to. They are:

  1. 1. The prayer over the offerings, called the secret prayer, which completes the preparation of bread and win
  1. 2. The concluding doxology of canon or Eucharistic praye
  1. 3. The prayer for deliverance from evil and for peace which is added to the Lord’s Prayer.

Of the “public” prayers of the Mass which the whole congregation should read and follow, only the body of the canon, which still awaits revision, will be said quietly.

Broader changes are also indicated. On principle, the celebrating priest will no longer recite privately or quietly any text of a prayer or reading that is said or sung by others, whether by the people, or by the choir in case of chants and hymns, or by the lector in case of readings. This eliminates a curious duplication. In the past the rule prevailed that the priest should recite the Gloria, for example, even though the hymn was sung by the people.

This change, making specific a decision of the council, is not intended to relieve the priest of a small burden. It is intended to make clear the distinction of roles or parts in the liturgy, with each one — priest or minister or layman — taking his own part.

In countries where parts of the Mass are already said in the vernacular or where this change will be introduced soon, the Epistle and Gospel should, of course, be proclaimed or announced facing the people to whom the words are addressed. The new instruction goes further, however, and describes the whole new rite for this “Liturgy of Word of God.”

At low Mass, for example, it is preferable that the lector, whether cleric or layman, should read the Epistle while the celebrant listens. The same lector may read the chants which follow the Epistle unless these are sung or recited by others. The Gospel reading is reserved to the deacon, second priest or celebrant himself. Even at low Mass, the celebrant may remain at his seat through these readings, thus emphasizing his office of presiding over the service, and take his place at the altar only for the celebration of the Eucharist itself, beginning at the Offertory.

Various possibilities are provided for readings: at the lectern or the pulpit, at the edge of the sanctuary area, the railing, even at the altar. The alternatives are a step toward breaking down the rigidity and formalism of ceremonial directives or rubrics. Great flexibility is provided, according to the circumstances, so that reading to the people will be well planned beforehand and not conducted routinely according to a rigid pattern.

To help popular participation and to show that the Mass is a sacrificial banquet or meal, the instruction allows and prefers, but does not require, that the altars be arranged for Mass with the celebrant facing the people. It is made very clear that Mass may be celebrated in this way even if there is a small tabernacle on the altar.

Few directions are given on church building and planning to encourage the congregation to participate with understanding. The widest freedom is given in locating the tabernacle, which has sometimes appeared to be an obstacle to the celebration of Mass toward the people. The tabernacle may be on the main altar or on another altar (ideally in a separate chapel or other such area, according to the instruction). But it may even be, according to local custom, and in particular cases with approval of the bishop, in some other fitting place in the church.

The instruction, which contains 99 sections, deals with many details. Some are technical, such as the procedure when national bodies of bishops enact legislation on the liturgy in virtue of the 1963 constitution. The responsibilities of liturgical commissions, national and diocesan, are also spelled out at length.

Most details have pastoral value and importance: the possibility of a sung Mass with a deacon but without a subdeacon; the elimination of restrictions formerly placed upon priests in giving certain blessings; reprobation of any distinction among persons, for example, church seating arrangements in church on a basis of social or economic condition.

One welcome concession allows the faithful who receive Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil Mass or at Christmas Midnight Mass to receive Communion again at Mass on Easter Sunday morning and Christmas Day.

The instruction devotes much space to seminary training and especially to the long overdue integration of the whole spiritual life of clerical students with the liturgy. The popular Bible services are encouraged in parishes, but with their pattern left flexible. Details of Confirmation and marriage rites within the Mass itself are worked out.

Since the homily is part of the Mass and not a catechetical instruction or occasional sermon, a general statement of the council has made specific: where plans for Mass sermons are set up, they must be in harmony with the mystery of the Redemption.

In some matters the instruction is more restrictive than the council’s Constitution on the Liturgy. The altar missals and breviaries used by the clergy should contain Latin as well as the vernacular texts, even when the latter are allowed. Ordination rites must remain in Latin except for introductory sections. In general, however, the openness of the council has been preserved even in a document which necessarily deals in directives and norms.

The spirit of liturgical renewal shines through in the significant opening paragraphs of the instruction. The whole import of the reform does not lie in the novelty but in pastoral action to express the “paschal mystery” better. This mystery of the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus is celebrated in the Church “through the sacraments of faith, that is, chiefly through Baptism and the…Eucharist.” And around the celebration of the Holy Eucharist “are ranged the other sacraments and sacramentals by which the paschal mystery of Christ is unfolded in the course of each Church year.”

Some will be disappointed that this or that change has not been achieved at once. But the instruction points out repeatedly its provisional character and the necessity for gradualism mentioned in the case of liturgical education and instruction, formation and participation. This task, according to the instruction, is the responsibility of all pastors of souls, “in the words of Vatican Council II.”

Father Frederick R. McManus

Father McManus is a priest of the Boston archdiocese who is president of the National Liturgical Conference, professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, an official consultor for the ecumenical council and a member of the U.S. bishops press panel in Rome.

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