What is the GIRM? Why is it Important?

It’s official. Joel and I are buzz kill, even among Orthodox, natural family planning-practicing, frequent confession-going Catholics. Ouch!

Last weekend we gathered together with some married couple friends to talk about Theology of the Body. There we sat — all of us with our drink of choice in hand, enjoying an appetizer, shooting the breeze, and excited to talk about Blessed John Paul II’s vision for sexuality, love, and responsibility. But somewhere along the way to the “bedroom,” the conversation took a strange turn.

The details are still very hazy, and I don’t remember how we got off track. My memory picks up with me shouting, “No you cannot substitute a SONG for the RESPONSORIAL PSALM!” I continued with a long diatribe on why the GIRM (the General Instruction of the Roman Missal) matters and my irritations with some who blatantly ignore its guidelines.

At one point during my rant I look over at Joel and he’s giving me that “What in the name of JP2 are you doing?!” look. He stepped in to try to save our collective Schmidt face. But his valiant attempts didn’t work so well, either. He ended up shouting something like, “There’s a reason Eucharist Ministers shouldn’t give blessings to non-communicants!”

Look up killjoy in the dictionary, and you’ll see a picture of us Schmidts!

kill·joy | ˈkilˌjoi = A person who deliberately spoils the enjoyment of others through resentful or overly sober behavior.

After I apologized for tanking the meeting, one wife calmly asked, “But how are we to know this stuff? I didn’t even know a GIRM existed.” Fair point. And thank you for giving me some worthy material, friend!

What is the GIRM?

The GIRM is an acronym for the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. It is the handbook for how to celebrate the Mass. While it’s not the only resource, most questions about the Mass can be answered by the GIRM.

It covers such things like the structure of the Mass, its elements and parts; postures, processions and gestures; silence and singing; liturgical furnishings; the role of the deacon, liturgical ministers, and laity, and much more.

The GIRM provides instruction for how to celebrate the Mass throughout the world. That’s why you can walk into Mass anywhere in the world and recognize certain elements . . . no matter the language, no matter the cultural norms.

Why is the GIRM important?

This sums it up: “Liturgy is a prayer like no other. It is the source and summit of our life as Catholic Christians. So let our words and actions, our prayers and music, our worship spaces and liturgical furnishings and art, be worthy of the profound mystery we celebrate.” (Source)

I’ve sat through many liturgy meetings where well-intentioned committee members made very subjective decisions about the Mass. Unfortunately, because the GIRM wasn’t being referenced (or because some were unaware it even existed), decisions made were occasionally in conflict with standards that are clearly spelled out.

When making decisions about the source and summit of our life, ought not we be obliged to explore what the Church says about the issue, and then frame our discussion and decision-making from that perspective?

Our Holy Father actually addressed this point recently. Pope Benedict XVI has announced the Year of Faith to begin on October 11, 2012 and continue through November 24, 2013. In his proclamation he states,

“We want this Year to arouse in every believer the aspiration to profess the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction with confidence and hope. It will also be a good opportunity to intensify the celebration of the faith in the liturgy …”

Let’s heed our Holy Father’s words and use this coming Year of Faith to know better about the sacred Mass. Here are five thoughts on how to do that.

  1. For Dioceses: Have online documents available for your parishes and liturgical ministers. From my experience as a parish employee, it was most helpful when I could point to guidelines made available from the “higher authority.” Here are some terrific resources made available at the diocesan level: 101 Questions about the Mass; What is the GIRM; Liturgy Library from the Davenport Diocese.
  2. For Parishes: Have a copy of the GIRM available during liturgy planning meetings and reference it. It can be found online or you can purchase the print version from your favorite Catholic retailer. I know a priest who often asks “What does the GIRM tell us to do?” when questions arise during these meetings. That redirects subjective decision making rather quickly.
  3. For Liturgical Ministers: Read the appropriate sections of the GIRM that pertain to your ministry. On the Art & Environment Committee? There’s a section for you. Eucharistic Minister? You’re covered, too. Musician? Boy oh boy, you’re in for a treat as there’s a lot covered on the music during Mass.
  4. For the Lay Faithful: All right. All right. I see you yawning. I confess the GIRM isn’t the most exciting read. But there are some terrific resources available. A Biblical Walk Through the Mass and What Happens at Mass have personally intensified my understanding of the Mass. Find a resource that engages you.
  5. For Catechists: Help plan a “teaching Mass.” There are different schools of thoughts regarding teaching Masses so take a look at these thoughts regarding how to do them properly.

Finally a disclaimer. I offer these suggestions simply as a lifelong Catholic who has served in various roles for the Church, both as an employee and volunteer. I’m not suggesting we all start walking around with the GIRM on a clipboard, evaluating every single move the priest, deacon, cantor, and Eucharistic ministers make. I simply felt called to share based on the conversation I had with friends. More importantly, the Mass is a profound mystery. Why not give it the proper attention it deserves?

What resources do you suggest for learning more about the Mass and its parts? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  1. Doug says

    So I’m curious. What is the reason that Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion shouldn’t give blessings to non-communicants? I must admit, I am an EMHC, and while it’s the custom in our Parish to do this, it makes me uncomfortable, because I’m not a Priest or a Deacon (although I’m planning to enter our Diocese’s Diaconate program next year, if they’ll have me).


    • says

      Hi Doug; thanks for stopping by and commenting. Simply, there’s no provision for such a blessing in the GIRM, so there’s no formula for how to administer it. In my experience, most EMHCs don’t know what to do, because they have received no specific training on this issue. Often, they just make up something to fulfill the expectation. Worse, you get lay people mimicking priests and deacons, trying to administer trinitarian blessings with the sign of the cross, which is totally inappropriate. I think a helpful maxim is, “If it’s not in the GIRM, don’t do it!” For a priest’s perspective, I highly recommend Fr. Cory Sticha’s recent post, Why I refuse to bless children at Communion.

      Also, please be assured of our prayers for your diaconate discernment. Pax Christi!

  2. Nick Bigelow says

    Good read, Lisa! Sing To The Lord is fantastic for any participant in music ministry. I admit I haven’t read all of it, but it’s one of many resources which will answer the “Psalm vs. Song” question.

    One issue I have had with reading the GIRM is deciphering what parts are required and what parts are strongly suggested. I’ve been told while reading the GIRM aloud among priests and deacons (also at a Liturgy meeting) that “we don’t do it that way, and that’s okay”. Nonetheless, it is the #1 liturgical guideline and worth checking out.

  3. Kasey Eoriatti says

    I love your ardent desire to always speak the truth and defend the faith. Knowing the real truth can only bring joy; never kill it. Great job!

  4. Marcia says

    Oh Lisa Lisa Lisa. I’m so sure that our husbands are nearly twins. We have a copy of this in our house. :) We might not be kill-joy, but we are fairly evaluative of what we see in the Masses we attend. I’m going to look at the “teaching Mass” part for myself with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Mass we will do next April. Thank you.

  5. Lisa Bourne says

    Kill joy? More like faithful. If upholding any aspect of the Church is synonymous with the state of being a kill joy than I’m happily guilty as charged right along with you. No, rather it really speaks to the sad state of things today in the Church. With the insufficient catechesis of the last 40 years in the U.S. it’s no wonder the laity at large have no idea what should and shouldn’t be taking place at Mass, let alone what the GIRM is. I’m praying to the saints for intercession with the Lord to pull us out of this state, stale since the 60’s.

  6. Elizabeth Seton says

    My local Catholic Church has an empty cross hanging over the altar instead of a Crucifix. I have read that masses held without a Crucifix are illicit. Many people have addressed this issue with Monsignor, but the cross has not been replaced by a Crucifix. What suggestions do you have? The Archbishop has seen the cross and has not issued a statement.


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