The New Missal and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Whenever you change a complex system, things occur that you did not foresee. This point has been made many times by critics of the post-Conciliar liturgical reforms. When you change factor A you might well expect factors B and C to be affected, but you probably don’t expect factors X, Y and Z to be affected. So you have the priest face the people, anticipating that this will lead people to be more engaged in what happens on the altar. You probably don’t anticipate that this will lead some priests to adopt a folksy demeanor.

Today at Mass an unintended consequence of the new translation of the Missal struck me. In the past at a weekday Mass about half of the celebrants did the opening rite and the prayer of the faithful from the altar and about half from the chair (as the rubrics direct). It struck me today that with one exception all of the priests since the introduction of the new Missal have been doing the entrance rite and prayer of the faithful from the altar because the Missal is now too big to comfortably hold, so they use the altar as a kind of reading stand (since there is no altar server to hold the book). The one exception to this is the priest who reads the prayers from his paperback copy of Magnificat.

It’s just a minor thing. What is one more rubric broken, after all? Maybe it’s even a good thing — refocusing attention on the altar for more of the Mass. But one thing for sure, it’s not something that anyone planned for.


  1. I have found that most of our five priests (three active, two retired) now utilize the altar for the prayers at the chair at daily Mass. I’ve considered moving the presider chair to the opposite end of our antiphonally-arranged chapel.

    This, despite our pastor’s insistence, above our associate’s suggestion, that we order the smaller of the two Missal editions. It can be handled with both hands, but orans is then not possible.

  2. It’s just a minor thing. What is one more rubric broken, after all?

    It’s kind of silly to count rubrics, but it’s actually the same number of rubrics broken. If the priest is holding the book himself then he can’t follow GIRM 127 (my emphasis):

    ” … Then the Priest, with hands extended, says the Collect, at the end of which the people acclaim, Amen.”

    In some places, a lectern at the chair is used. This is a possible comprimise, but there’s almost always someone around who can hold the book.

    The rubrics only envision a Mass celebrated without a minister (server) (GIRM 254) as an exception to an exception (Mass without a congregation already being an exception to the usual practice).

    1. @Samuel J. Howard – comment #3:
      Actually, he could extend hands and read from the Missal, but that seems more awkward.

      In my experience, a more common difficulty would be a Mass at a senior care center in which the priest must do a bit more than he might be accustomed to doing. But yes, I agree, a holder for the Missal is a good idea. It need not be a server.

  3. The chapel size missal from Catholic Book publishing Co. Is only and very slightly larger than the 1973 version and is what we use at the chair and the larger edition, again only slightly larger than its predecessor for use at the altar only for the liturgy of the Eucharist. We have adult servers at all Sunday and weekday Masses to hold it and no problem doing so. I celebrated Mass in my former parish on Sunday and their missal is from a different publishing company and the chapel size was not well designed and harder and more bulky to use, I’ve seen other missals
    that are monsters making me wonder what the publishing company was thinking.

  4. I”m glad to see more celebrants using the altar for the entrance rite and collect . I think the rubrics for the NO Mass make provision for choosing the altar rather than “presiding” from off to the side where most of the congregation in a large church would have difficulty seeing him. From the altar the celebrant is seen easily by all, even those seated in the north and south transepts, and appears clearly to be leading public worship.
    I’ve noticed some churches are replacing the chair with a sedile even though no EP masses are celebrated there.

  5. I attend weekday Mass regularly both at my parish (our Cathedral) and at our diocesan pastoral center. At the former there is always a server (youth in the morning and Sundays, adults on weekday evenings and Saturday morning) so this is not an issue. At the latter our usual celebrant presides from the altar, even when there is a server. My sense is that this was his practice at weekday Masses even before the new Missal went into effect.

    I find myself nodding with Samuel — couldn’t an effort be made to find someone to hold the Missal? This seems like an ideal opportunity to introduce people to serving, a ministry that often goes under-appreciated or cultivated more for its vocational effects than its sign value. (I for one love serving — I’m a regular server at both places mentioned above.)

    1. @Jonathan F. Sullivan – comment #7:
      Jonathan, I suspect that there are several reasons for not having servers. Two which come to mind are that some people are by nature reluctant to take more visible roles in the assembly. The second is the reluctance in some places to having people hold things for or in front of the priest since this is interpreted as a relic of clerical superiority. One of the local churches in my area does not have the book held even when there are servers aplenty and consequently the presider himself holds the book at the chair.

      1. @Joshua Vas – comment #11:
        Joshua – I had thought of the first reason you sight, but your second hadn’t even occurred to me — mainly because at every parish I’ve attended regularly the servers (whether youth or adult) have always held the Missal for the celebrant. Is the practice of the celebrant holding the book even when servers are available widespread in your area, or is this an idiosyncrasy of that particular priest?

  6. Happily, the one thing our five English-capable celebrants do agree upon (I say this based only upon observance as their other idiosyncrasies indicate that no process of deliberation or consensus is otherwise evident) is that collects are done at the chair.
    I did have an odd observance I hope was the result of happenstance, kind of off topic though the celebrant could have mitigated the situo beforehand: two of our brawnier parochial boys chose to remain on the gospel side during the EP; maybe bell ringing figures into their raison d’etre. But after Communion I noticed the little waif girl, maybe in the 3rd grade, being signaled by the deacon to retrieve the Missal for the HC collect. The poor little girl could barely carry the book, and when she arrived with it before one of our not so sensitive celebrants, he kept her holding the “TOME” whilst he searched for the prayer (uh, the ribbon, padre), and then when found, he motioned for her to hold the darn thing higher! No where have I seen more Christian resolve than that little girt! No where have seen clerical inattention more on display. God bless the child that’s got her own….

  7. “have been doing the entrance rite and prayer of the faithful from the altar…so they use the altar as a kind of reading stand”

    Deacon Fritz, Not sure how reading from the altar could be folksy, if anything it would be more formal. But how is this any different from using the altar to rest the missal on during the Liturgy of the Eucharist?

    “In some places, a lectern at the chair is used” yet another needless piece of furniture cluttering up the sanctuary. Better to have a server stand with the missal in front of the priest or read the prayers from the altar if there is no server to attend the celebrant.

    “Maybe it’s even a good thing — refocusing attention on the altar for more of the Mass” Check. And no longer pretending it has no use for the rest of the Mass unless it’s a resting place for the Oblation.

    1. @John Kohanski – comment #10:

      My remark about “folksy” was in reference to the demeanor of some priests when celebrating versus populum, not about using the altar to hold the book.

      The difference between the celebrant standing at the altar during the liturgy of the Eucharist and at other times is that he’s at the altar during the liturgy of the Eucharist because that is where the Gifts are, not because he need something to hold the book. The altar is being used primarily as a place of sacrifice, not as a holder for the book. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m standing/sitting/kneeling there seething over this. I’m just noting how minor changes can lead to results no one anticipates.

      As to the suggestion, “Why not have a server hold the book”. . . well, for good or ill, I don’t think people want to put that much planning into weekday Mass.

  8. An interesting issue which, in the UK, can be solved by using either the study edition of the Roman Missal – which is much smaller but with the same pagination – or even the CTS Daily Missal, which contains all the prayers.

  9. I have noticed a similar thing, although our Priest uses his study missal for the opening prayer. Over the Easter Triduum though we do things slightly differently, for example Good Friday when you have the long prayers of intercession one of our older servers usually holds the big missal.

  10. This seems more like a choice than a consequence. That’s the first I’ve heard of this rubric, but have seen it disregarded by far as the exception. In one Mass I frequent where the space is small, the Priest uses the Ambo instead of the altar to hold the book, even though there is an altarserver. If the priest wants, he’ll find a way to follow the rubric. If not, he’ll make a different choice.

  11. I thoroughly enjoy the Pray Tell blog. I love details and even though, on occasion, the banter seems like a church council dealing with issues as insignificant as how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, most times the specifics and depth of information is fascinating.
    However, the “detail” that caught my eye today is when a responder referred to the person who originally posted the blog as “Deacon.” Wow! I would not have known that. Granted, I’ve seen his picture along side his comments many, many times. But the picture is so small and the folds of the alb have always led me to think that a stole was draped over both shoulders. Hence, the photo led me to believe that “Fritz” was a priest.
    Well, I see a simple solution to the rubrical problem at hand. Deacon Fritz, since you are already vested, why don’t you hold the missal for the presider?
    Greg Corrigan is associate pastor at the parish of the Resurrection in Wilmington, Delaware.

    1. @Greg Corrigan – comment #16:
      Just to be fair to medieval theologians: I doubt they spent much if any time discussing how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, because they all knew that, angels, being incorporeal by nature, don’t “fit” in space….

      1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #20:
        As I mentioned, I am drawn to the Pray Tell blog because I enjoy the attention to detail. In pointing that out, however, at times the attention is extreme, hence my comment that it can be comparable to determining how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. In that comment, I was making reference to a question that cannot be answered, usually because it’s ridiculous. By the way, I never mentioned medieval theologians (watch your details!). Perhaps it would be beneficial to look up the word analogy.
        Greg Corrigan

      2. @Greg Corrigan – comment #24:
        I thought you might enjoy the deepening of the feedback loop. I know you didn’t slur medieval theologians, but often people use that analogy to show how benighted medieval thinkers were.

  12. When I go to daily Mass I am typically not vested, since I am usually between classes and meetings. Plus, these guys are Jesuits. Liturgical folderol like deacons tends to confuse them.

    When I’m in the sanctuary and vested I am more than happy to hold the book.

  13. @Dunstan Harding – comment #6:
    I believe that you are incorrect that the rubrics for the Ordinary Form make provision for the opening prayer at the altar. I also respectfully disagree that the focus should be on the altar from the beginning. As the first part of the Mass is the Liturgy of the Word the focus should be away from the altar and towards the area of the ambo.

    1. @David Anderson – comment #19:
      I think the rubrics for the Novus Ordo do make provision for the celebrant, in order to be better seen, to say the collect at the altar. Unless the GIRM has been dropped in the new missal. In which case, you’re probably right.

      The altar still remains the principle icon of Christ’s presence in the church, not the ambo, pulpit, rood screen, communion rail, or tabernacle. A worthy tradition to be maintained. It is incensed as part of the entrance rite, thus paying homage to its iconic importance. It doesn’t cease to be the center of our attention. No matter where the readings are performed.

      Some churches are using the altar for the readings, as in the EP rite, for the Novus Ordo Mass. In which case the celebrant faces the congregation for the epistle and Gospel from the top step, or from an ambo/lectern close to the altar. In a small church with a shallow sanctuary the ambo and the altar usually become inseparable visually anyway.

      I know the Council wanted to give greater emphasis to the liturgy of the readings, but the idea of rigidly separating the first half of Mass, the Mass of the catechumens, from the second half by having the lections read at the ambo, or any other place need not occur at the expense of the altar. Some churches went so far as to transfer the altar candles to the lectern/ambo, or extinguished the altar candles and lit two candles at the ambo. I think this is liturgical gimmickry of the worst kind and should be put back in the museum of 70s weird practices.

      Even in the eastern churches with a long history of having the readings and sermon sung from an ambo on a central bema or platform (East Syrian/Church of the East) either veiled the sanctuary giving a very different emphasis to the altar as the throne of God, or just left the altar in full view with candles ablaze.

  14. In a chapel designed almost as an oval with the lectioanry on a lectern in one focus and the altar in another and presidents chair in oval could the president begin the Mass not at his chair but at lectern, then go to his chair as reader approaches lectern.

  15. In my parents’ parish the weekday Masses are said versus populum and the Sunday Masses half versus populum and half ad orientem. As it now stands, the GIRM rubrics state that the chair must be used for the liturgy of the word if the Mass is celebrated ad orientem. I sometimes wonder if all Masses in this parish would be said ad orientem if the EF custom of saying the entire Mass from the altar were permitted in the OF.

    The pastor in particular says a reverent but quick (<25 min) low weekday Mass. I suspect that he does not use the chair and opts for versus populum celebration because he can remain at the altar except to proclaim the Gospel and administer Holy Communion. While I respect those who might criticize this style of celebration as minimalist, the parish is in a downtown business district. Many communicants come for the noon weekday Mass. While a more participative liturgy is ideal, pastoral care for workers on their lunch breaks necessitates that a few corners be cut from active participation.

  16. Since I am easily irked by speculation about empirical matters, when there is a solution ready to hand, the following is from the GIRM n. 256, under Mass At Which Only One Minister [besides the priest] Is Present:

    The Introductory Rites
    256. The Priest approaches the altar and, after making a profound bow along with the minister, venerates the altar with a kiss and goes to the chair. If he wishes, the Priest may remain at the altar; in which case, the Missal is also prepared there. Then the minister or the Priest says the Entrance Antiphon.

  17. Whenever you change a complex system, things occur that you did not foresee.

    As true today as it was in the fall of 1962.

  18. Well I don’t know about the rest of you all, but here most of the priests still like to adlib the Mass. Don’t ask me why that is, because if they look down their words are not what is printed. It’s just a say whatever comes to mind kind of Mass since the Novus Ordo Mass was introduced. The only priests who are not in the habit of changing the words in the Mass are the newly ordained ones. All the old guys still have problems using the new lanuage. My question would be, is it still a licit Mass when the priest does this or now should I go to Mass over and over again until they get it rite?

  19. I’m puzzled by some things in Dunstan Harding’s comments.
    1. Thank you, Ann Riggs, for bringing facts into the discussion. It should be added that (unless I’ve missed something) this toleration of priests’ conducting the introductory rites and the Liturgy of the Word from the altar applies only to Masses without a congregation.
    2. I see no encouragement in the GIRM for priests to take to the altar for the introductory rites and the common prayer because they’re not visible or audible enough at their chairs. On the contrary, section 310 says, “The chair of the priest celebrant must signify his function of presiding over the gathering and of directing the prayer.” It seems to me that if a priest feels he’s too inconspicuous at his seat and leads the collect from the altar instead, he should move his seat to a more prominent place where he won’t be tempted to gratuitous violations of the rubrics.
    3. I was raised on Msgr. Martin Hellriegel and “The altar is Christ,” and indeed the altar, as the principal inanimate symbol of the Lord in church, deserves enormous reverence. That’s why, in my view (I haven’t asked Msgr. Hellriegel about this), it should be reserved for the consecration and offering of the elements of the Eucharist and not perverted into a mere missal stand at other points in the Mass. Attention should be paid to the altar, but it needs to be the right kind of attention.

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