Sacramentary of the Roman Catholic Church

by Alice Pfeifer
A sacramentary describes all the words and gestures a priest uses to celebrate the Mass.

A sacramentary describes all the words and gestures a priest uses to celebrate the Mass.

"Say the black, do the red" has become a mantra in some Catholic circles. It calls upon priests to adhere strictly to the prayers of the Roman Catholic sacramentary. This is the Vatican-approved book containing a priest's complete instructions for celebrating the Mass. Spoken lines are printed in black and prescribed gestures in red.

Early Liturgies

Readings from the Jewish Torah were part of every early Christian Mass.

Even if a priest sometimes adds his own words to a Mass prayer, no priest can get through the entire Mass without reading from a sacramentary. This, however, was not always the case. Worshipers at early Christian liturgies needed only one written text, the Torah. Then, as now, every Mass included readings from the Jewish Bible. Priests also shared oral traditions about Jesus, chanted memorized prayers and improvised some of their own prayers. By the end of the fourth century, bound collections of Mass prayers began appearing in the Christian West. No two volumes were exactly alike and it remains unclear how they were used. Some priests at Mass may have recited these prayers directly from the book. Others may have used the prayers simply as models for their own improvisations.

Early Sacramentaries

In Istanbul a worker cleans a statue of Pope John XXIII, father of Vatican II.

By the beginning of the eighth century, the first complete sacramentary appeared. Known today as the "Old Gelasian Sacramentary," it reflected a growing trend toward standardizing the Mass. As church councils continually refined Christian doctrine, bishops began asking that liturgical prayer reflect those refinements. The ultimate act of standardization happened in 1562 at the Council of Trent. The council commissioned the pope to produce a single Catholic sacramentary in a single language -- Latin -- for universal use. The result was the Roman Missal of 1570. Its Tridentine Rite remained in effect until 1962, when the Second Vatican Council called for changes. The council's single greatest reform was requiring the translation of the old Latin Mass into the contemporary languages of Catholics worldwide.

Recent Sacramentaries

In 2002 Pope John Paul II established the Vox Clara Committee to help create a new English sacramentary.

By 1970 the Vatican gave official approval to "Order of Mass," an English-language sacramentary for use in U.S. churches. Translators tried to take from the original Latin "basic thoughts rather than words." In 1985 the Vatican approved a new expanded edition simply called "U.S. Sacramentary." Soon after that, however, a number of U.S. bishops began raising objections to both the 1970 and the 1985 Mass translations. Pope John Paul II sympathized with their concerns.

Newest Version

A priest follows the sacramentary from the Mass's opening prayers to its closing prayers.

What followed was a series of steps that led to a new U.S. sacramentary. Called "The Roman Missal, Third Edition," it was formally adopted late in 2012. Its translators reversed the direction taken by earlier translators. They favored words and sentence structures that adhere as closely as possible to the original Latin. The revised English creed, for example, expresses the belief that God the Son is "consubstantial with the Father." The former translation had called the Son "one in being with the Father." Other changes similar to this characterize the newest U.S. sacramentary.

About the Author

Alice Pfeifer holds a Master of Arts in English from Marquette University and a Master of Arts in pastoral studies from St. Joseph's College of Maine. She has worked as an editor and writer since 1988, including five years in Russia as a writer, ESL teacher and church worker. She has written for the "AHSGR Journal," "CATECHIST" and other magazines.

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