What is the Roman Missal?
Dear NTC readers, taking into consideration Pope Francis’ June 29 apostolic letter Desiderio desideravi (“On the Liturgical Formation of the People of God”), we introduce a new column that draws well-deserved attention and consideration to the liturgy of the Church. By better understanding the how and why of the liturgy, we hope to make it a “place of encounter with Christ,” as the Holy Father puts it. Our guide along this journey is Father Thu Nguyen, diocesan director of Liturgy and Worship for the Diocese of Fort Worth.
To kick off this series, we begin with a fundamental question: What is the Roman Missal and what role does it play in the Mass?
What is the Roman Missal?
Father Thu: This is a 2,000-year-old collection of how to celebrate Mass from the early days of the Apostles. In 2010, it was revised into a third edition. Prior to that, it had been 500 years since its last revision.
The Roman Missal was compiled by early Christians putting together everything [they learned] from the Apostles. It was passed down by the Fathers of the Church and included writings about how to celebrate Mass, which Jesus started with the Last Supper. He doesn’t write out a script. When He left and ascended to heaven, the disciples celebrated by memory — memory forms the base of the structure back then.
St. Justin Martyr is the first one who recorded a kind of structure of Mass because he was talking about Baptism for catechumens and how they enter the Mass. He wrote about how after the Baptism, the newly baptized disciples gathered with the elders and other Catholic Christians. They would gather at the table and bring in the gifts of bread and wine. An elder would say a prayer (that’s what the Eucharistic Prayer is nowadays). Then they would break bread and pronounce the Word that Jesus instills in us at the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.
So, the Missal began very fragmented. The Didache also contains elements of the Apostles’ teaching that are found in the Eucharistic Prayer.
Back then (before 600 A.D.) the Church was very fragmented. They had a little book (the Sacramentary) for the priest when they traveled to celebrate Mass, which included prayers and the form of the Mass.
Long story short, the Roman Missal has been compiled over many years.
Why is it important?
Father Thu: The Roman Missal consists of structure of the Mass, prayers that the priests say, and even songs already written for a certain part of the Mass, like the entrance antiphon. The Mass is right here in the [Missal].
You have rubrics also — rubrics are in red text and tell you what to do as the celebrant. For example, at the Prayer of Consecration, the rubric tells the priest what to do with his posture. Every gesture is told to you.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal explains and guides us, including the faithful, on how to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist. This includes all general postures, manners, parts requiring responses, and everything to celebrate the Eucharist fruitfully.
Furthermore, I will tell you something important that we priests have to respect about the Roman Missal. Paragraph 24 reminds the priest that “he is the servant of the sacred liturgy and that he, himself, is not permitted on his own initiative to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of the Mass.”
The pope says in Desiderio desideravi, “Let us be clear here. Every aspect of the celebration must be carefully tended to (space, time, gesture, words, object, vestment, song, music). Every rubric must be observed. Such attention would be enough to prevent robbing from the assembly what is owed to it, namely, the Paschal Mystery celebrated according to the ritual that the Church sets down.”