Reading the GIRM

Reading the GIRM

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In my first year of college, just 15 years after the close of Vatican II, I volunteered to be a communion minister at our campus ministry center. I had served as a communion minister in high school, but only at retreats and special Masses for the teens. The campus minister held a short training session, and I was then added to the regular Sunday schedule. A few weeks later, he asked me if I would lead a training session for the next group of volunteers. He also asked me to lead a training session for the lectors.

I don’t remember why I agreed. I had never done any kind of training before. I hadn’t even had much training myself. These realities began to dawn on me as the training dates got closer. I was supposed to spend an hour with each group, and I could barely think of ten minutes worth of “training” to offer.

Well, I did the best I could. I tried to remember what I had been taught and what I had learned “on the job.” I am sure I came across as jumbled and confused. Perhaps the fact that my fellow students were even more confused and mystified by what — in our childhoods — had been tasks only priests could do made me seem like some kind of expert in their eyes.

Do you know where your liturgy-teaching qualifications come from?

I didn’t feel much like an expert, however. I kept thinking I was a stopgap and the campus minister would be following up later with a more extensive training. But instead, he asked me to lead future trainings! I wasn’t sure I could handle the stress of stumbling through more training sessions. I confessed my fears to the campus minister and asked that he find someone more qualified.

He then asked me who I thought was more qualified. I suggested Fr. John, the part-time priest who presided at our liturgies. What I didn’t know was Fr. John was also the pastor of a large parish across town and assisted part-time in the diocesan tribunal office. While he might be more qualified, he had no time.

I then suggested the campus minister himself. After all, he had trained me. But the campus minister also had a time deficit. He was the only full-time Catholic minister on a very large campus. Any time he spent training liturgical ministers was time he had to take away from other duties.

Then he told me the first of two things that changed my life. He told me that I didn’t lack qualification, I just lacked confidence. He told me my biggest qualification was that, through my baptism, I was part of the “royal priesthood.” He explained to me the roles of the ministerial priesthood and the royal priesthood in the church and especially in the liturgy. He told me we are made holy by our baptism and we grow in holiness through our active participation in the liturgy. All of the baptized — both those in the ministerial priesthood and the royal priesthood — are obligated to use our gifts to the best of our abilities to make the liturgy as fruitful as possible.

You don’t have to take holy orders to dive into the GIRM

While none of this is news to you, it was a lightning bolt to me. It was the first time I heard or understood that I was a part of the “royal priesthood” and that I was called to holiness.

Still, I wasn’t convinced I was the one who should be training my peers to serve at Mass. How would I know if I was teaching them something wrong, I asked. Then the campus minster told me the second thing that changed my life. He told me to read the GIRM.

You are probably not as confused to hear that advice as I was. When we received the new translation of the Roman Missal a few years ago, there was a lot of talk about the GIRM. But 40 years ago, I doubt very many lay people had ever heard of it, much less read it.

The GIRM is the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. It is a very detailed, pastoral introduction to the Missal. It tells us how the Mass is to be celebrated including who does what and when they do it. But it is also much more than that. The GIRM tells us why we do what we do in the liturgy.

While many more lay people have read the GIRM today than was the case when I was in college, it is still an underused resource. Many lay people (royal priests) think it has little to do with their ministry. Many of us think it is an introduction to the (ministerial) priests’ book. Even those brave souls who do start to read the read the GIRM quickly get discouraged because it isn’t easy to read. The organization is confusing, and the translation from Latin to English is not the best. Finally, there is a lot of detail. It can be a little daunting to try to sort through the minutia in order to grasp the big picture.

Growing in Holiness through the Liturgy

For me, however, I felt like I’d been given the key to the secret room where the treasure was stored. At the time, the only place to find a copy of the GIRM was at the front of the big, red Sacramentary that the priest prayed from at Mass. After the campus minister told me to read it, I went to the sacristy in our campus chapel, pulled the Sacramentary off the shelf, sat on the altar steps, and started reading the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. I’ve been reading it ever since.

You should also read it. The liturgy is the province of the entire priesthood of Christ — both ministerial and royal. All of the baptized are obligated to make the liturgy as fruitful as possible. Knowing why we do what we do at Mass will help all of us fulfill that obligation. And knowing why we worship the way we do will also cause us to “[grow] constantly in holiness by conscious, active, and fruitful participation in the mystery of the Eucharist” (GIRM, 5).

All of the baptized are obligated to make the liturgy as fruitful as possible. Click To Tweet

You have two advantages in reading the GIRM that I didn’t have. First, you can find it online (click here). Second, the U.S. bishops have published a “decoder ring” of sorts in a document titled Introduction to the Oder of Mass (Amazon link). This is a much more readable document than the GIRM, but it also lacks the depth and profound insight contained in the GIRM. I suggest you read them side by side.

Whatever your role in the liturgy and whatever your level of training, always remember it is your baptism that qualifies you. You are forever part of the royal priesthood of Christ. If you want to grow in holiness and live up to your obligations as a royal priest, begin by learning why we do what we do at Mass. You can start today by reading the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

Your Turn

When was the first time you read the GIRM? How has it changed your appreciation for the liturgy? What’s one insight you would share from it with someone in your community? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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