ROME, 9 MARCH 2004 (ZENIT).
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
Q: In my parish church the "altar servers," usually children or
teen-agers, have been instructed to prepare the altar for the offering,
right after the recitation of the Creed. They unfold the corporal on the
altar, and place the ciboria and chalice there. They also position the
Sacramentary on the altar. They then escort the presiding priest to
receive the wine and main ciborium from the offertory procession.
My questions are: 1) The task of preparing the altar
does it properly belong to the deacon or priest? Or, in the absence of a
deacon, can it be done by Eucharistic ministers rather than by altar
servers? 2) Should the water be brought in the offertory procession along
with the wine and bread, or it is not necessary/proper to do so? 3) The
presidential chair is directly behind the altar. Whenever the ministers or
altar servers must walk across between the altar and the presiding priest
sitting or standing by the chair, should they bow to the altar or to the
priest? The same question goes when the presider is at the altar, and one
must cross between the chair and the priest at the altar: To whom or what
do they bow?
— D.M., Toronto
A: I will try to answer your questions in the order in which you ask them.
The rite of offertory is described, among other places, in No. 139 of the
General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). It states: "When the
Prayer of the Faithful is completed, all sit, and the Offertory chant
begins (cf. above, no. 74). An acolyte or other lay minister arranges the
corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the Missal upon the
Therefore, the practice you describe is correct insofar as it does form
part of the server's office to arrange the elements used for the
celebration upon the altar. Extra ciboria not used in the offertory
procession may also be brought, although it is desirable that all the
hosts to be consecrated be brought in the procession by the faithful.
However, the moment of this preparation described in your question is
incorrect. This preparation should not begin until after the Prayers of
the Faithful which concludes the Liturgy of the Word and which are
obligatory on a Sunday.
Liturgically it is best that the altar not be used until the Liturgy of
the Eucharist begins.
This requires good coordination between priest, deacon and servers in
order to bring everything to the altar with alacrity while respecting
Special care should be taken in instructing the servers in preparing the
corporal (a piece of square linen upon which the chalice, paten and
ciboria are placed during Mass; any vessel containing the sacred species
must be placed upon a corporal).
The corporal is still frequently kept in a burse and laid on top of the
chalice. It is usually folded three times each way so as to form nine
equal squares and should always be opened while lying flat and never shook
In earlier times the corporal's function was to prevent the loss of even
minuscule fragments of the consecrated host which was frequently laid
directly upon the corporal itself (a rare occurrence today) and for this
reason only ordained ministers were allowed to touch the corporal.
In general the preparation of the altar should be reserved to older
servers or adult ministers. The need for special care, as well as the
weight of the books and the height of the altar, makes it very difficult
for children to handle this task.
As to your second question, GIRM 72 says: "At the Preparation of the
Gifts, the bread and the wine with water are brought to the altar, the
same elements that Christ took into his hands." GIRM 73, which deals more
specifically of the procession, says only: "It is praiseworthy for the
bread and wine to be presented by the faithful. They are then accepted at
an appropriate place by the priest or the deacon and carried to the
Thus, although the custom of bringing the water together with the wine in
the offertory procession is not specifically mentioned, it is in fact the
most common practice. Usually the cruets
vessels used for the water and wine
come in matching sets so as to facilitate their being carried in the
Finally your question about bows raises some practical questions that can
sometimes only be answered "in situ" according to the concrete situation
of the presbytery.
A bow is made to the altar whenever passing in front of it, except when in
The Ceremonial of Bishops indicates that bows should be made to the bishop
whenever servers or other ministers approach or leave him in the course of
their functions, or when passing in front of him during ceremonies.
Although these norms do not apply to priests, it is a common custom to
imitate them in the Mass celebrated by the priest.
As there are few precise guidelines regarding this aspect of liturgy, we
have to put our trust in a general sense of decorum united to a dose of
As far as possible it is probably best to avoid creating the dilemma in
the first place, by having servers, readers and any other ministers pass
in front of the altar rather than between altar and chair.
However, should this not be possible, at least during the Liturgy of the
Word, the most logical practice would appear to be to bow toward the
Once the Liturgy of the Eucharist has begun, especially after the Prayer
over the Gifts, servers avoid passing behind the celebrant. Also,
movements should be limited to the strictly necessary, or to those
foreseen by the liturgy such as the incensation of the Eucharist at the
If these movements are necessary, as can sometimes happen in
concelebrations, it is probably better to avoid any bows whatsoever so as
not to call attention to the servers. ZE04030921
Follow-up: Preparing the Corporal for the Altar [03-23-2004]
Thanks to the acute observation of a deacon from Florida I would like to
refine my response regarding the correctness of an acolyte preparing the
altar (March 9).
While I correctly quoted No. 139 of the General Instruction of the Roman
Missal, I should have added that these functions are carried out only in
the absence of a deacon. As stated in GIRM No. 178, if the deacon is
present at Mass he "prepares the altar, assisted by the acolyte, but it is
the deacon's place to take care of the sacred vessels himself" (see also
GIRM, No. 190).
Correspondents from Australia and the United States questioned the
propriety of bringing water along with the wine in the procession of the
gifts, arguing that water is God's gift to us and is not, properly
speaking, the "work of human hands."
While the argument is interesting I think that perhaps it goes too far in
fine-tuning a practical rubric which, while echoing an ancient practice,
in its present form is of relatively recent origin and from which we
cannot draw too many theological conclusions.
Even so, there is clear evidence that in ancient times many natural gifts,
such as grapes and even live birds, as well as other material objects such
as oil, candles and precious vessels were brought in the offertory
alongside the bread and wine intended for the sacrifice.
The practice of also bringing the water intended for the chalice is
recorded as part of the offertory rites of seventh-century papal Masses.
In modern papal Masses, water is always brought alongside the wine in the
Likewise, water must always be added to the wine before pronouncing the
prayer that offers it as "work of human hands."
Thus, while in overall agreement with our correspondents' principle that
active participation is carried out "by accompanying the gift bearers,
rather than having many people carry a surplus number of vessels," and
recognizing that there is no obligation to bring water along with the wine
in the procession, I personally see no practical or theological reason why
it should be excluded.
Regarding another aspect of the March 9 column, a priest from Boston
wrote: "In this parish, the tabernacle is in the sanctuary directly behind
the altar, about four strides away. There is room to move between the
altar and the tabernacle
fact, to get to the pulpit from the presider's chair, one must walk
between altar and tabernacle. My question is: Do I bow to the altar or to
the tabernacle when I cross the sanctuary? The current practice is to bow
to the tabernacle."
As we mentioned previously, in general the tabernacle does not receive
special attention during the celebration of Mass.
GIRM, No. 132, may help us. It states: "During the singing of the Alleluia
or other chant, ... with hands joined, he [the priest] bows profoundly
before the altar and quietly says, 'Munda cor meum' (Almighty God, cleanse
my heart ...)."
The GIRM also specifies that after the bow the priest takes the Book of
the Gospels if it has been laid on the altar at the beginning of Mass.
Likewise, a bow would be made by a deacon before he takes up the Book of
the Gospels (see GIRM, No. 175).
On the other hand, if the Book of the Gospels has not been laid on the
altar the deacon goes directly from the chair to the ambo after receiving
the priest's blessing, without pausing before the altar.
These directions would indicate that the correct posture in the situation
described by our reader is to bow toward the altar even though the
tabernacle is behind.
Based on the description given of the parish, however, I would say that,
unless the Book of the Gospels is laid upon the altar, it would be
liturgically preferable to make this bow in front of the altar, hence
simultaneously facing both altar and tabernacle. This may mean taking a
less direct route from the chair to the ambo. But it is usually more
elegant and would be preferred even if there were no tabernacle present in
the sanctuary. ZE04032321