Sacramentary as a Term

Date: August 27, 2023
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University.


Q: Is the term sacramentary obsolete? While visiting the United States, I noticed a new liturgical book used by the main celebrant. It is called “Excerpts from the Roman Missal.” Checking it, I noticed that it is what we used to call the sacramentary, i.e., the liturgical book containing the prayers for the presider. But in this new format I could not find the Prayer over the Gifts. I am wondering why is it called this way now? Is there anything wrong with the previous appellation of sacramentary? I am now confused because I have been using and insisting on telling people that during Mass, we are using the sacramentary, the lectionary, and the Book of the Gospels. The three combined give us what we call the missal. Maybe the term sacramentary has become obsolete, and I have to stop using it. Thank you for the enlightenment. -- F.X.N., Ndola, Zambia


A: While not exactly obsolete, the term is no longer in official use, and it would be best to refer to the altar book as the Roman Missal, which is the current official term.


Before the reform promoted by the Second Vatican Council, the book known as the Roman Missal contained all the texts necessary for the celebration of Mass, including the readings. The priest would move the missal to both sides of the altar for the readings of the Epistle and the Gospel and to the center for the principal prayers.


The post-conciliar reform greatly augmented the prayers used in the liturgy, such as introducing new Eucharistic Prayers, many more prefaces, and Mass formulas.


The reform also vastly increased the selection of Scripture to be used at Mass and opened to the laity the possibility of proclaiming the Word of God. This also led to a re-evaluation of the role of the ambo as the proper place for the Table of the Word rather than the altar as in the previous rite.


These changes led to the separation of the book used on the altar and that of the readings. Therefore, in 1969 and 1970, the Holy See promulgated the Missale Romanum: ex decreto Sacrosancti Oecumenici Concilii Vaticani II instauratum and the Lectionarium. Missale Romanum ex decreto Sacrosancti Oecumenici Concilii Vaticani II instauratum.


These books were translated into their respective languages. In English, each bishops’ conference chose or adapted which translation of the Sacred Scripture would be used in the liturgy, and, as a result, there remains quite a variety of versions of the lectionary around the world.


Concerning the book of the altar and many other liturgical books, the world’s English-speaking bishops opted to seek a unified text even though each conference would approve the text separately. The arduous task of producing these translations was entrusted to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).


This translation was fully approved in 1974, even though the Mass was largely already in English using provisional translations. A second Latin edition was issued in 1975, containing relatively minor changes, and its official English version arrived in 1985.


Finally, St. John Paul II issued the third typical edition in Latin in 2000, with some amendments following in 2008. Since, in the meantime, the Holy See had updated its norms on translating liturgical texts, the new edition required a totally new translation which is the one we have been using since 2011.


Although the translations in use were practically identical, in the United States, Canada and perhaps in some other countries the title of the Latin Missale Romanum was translated as Sacramentary. In other English-speaking countries the term Roman Missal was preferred. Perhaps the term Sacramentary was chosen because it distinguished the new altar book, without the readings, from the previous all-embracing Roman Missal.


It might also have hearkened back to the medieval sacramentaries, which were important manuscripts which contained all the texts used by the bishop and priest for Mass and other rites but did not contain the readings or other texts not said by the celebrant. Indeed, many of the “new” texts introduced into the 1970 Missale Romanum were taken from these medieval manuscripts dating from the sixth to eighth centuries.


Apart from not containing the readings, the sacramentaries also differed from later missals in that they lacked rubrics to instruct the celebrant as to the external ceremonies. They also included many other rites such as ordinations, consecrations of the church, exorcisms, blessings and other rites later gathered into books such as the Roman Pontifical and the Roman Ritual.


During the translation process of the current edition, it was decided to abandon the use of the term Sacramentary and unify the name of the altar book as the “Roman Missal” for the entire English-speaking world. This option probably also took into account that most other major world languages, many of which are used liturgically in the U.S. and Canada, also retain the equivalent of “Roman Missal” when referring to this book.


Finally, the book our reader refers to, “Excerpts from the Roman Missal,” was published in 2018. It is also informally referred to as "The Book of the Chair." The U.S. Bishops’ Conference has approved it.


The third edition of the Roman Missal has been endowed with additional texts and a significant proportion of musical notation to foster singing of liturgical texts by the celebrant. This enrichment, however, has inevitably increased the missal’s bulk and weight, much to the chagrin of altar servers.


This slimmer and lighter Excerpts version contains only the texts used by the celebrant at the chair (hence no Prayer over the Gifts) and is about half the size and weight of the full missal. In my opinion, it is a sensible and practical option and could prolong the complete missal’s durability and avoid endangering its binding if held clumsily or awkwardly at the chair.


* * *


Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, city, state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the many questions that arrive.


Return to Liturgy

At ePriest, we are dedicated to supporting Catholic priests as they serve their people and build up the Church.

We invite you to explore our resources to help your own ministry flourish!

Sign Up Now