Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
ROME, 8 November 2016 (ZENIT)
Q: What is the correct position for the Book of the Gospels upon the altar? I have seen some place it upon the corporal, others at one side of the altar, and even some deacons who place it vertically so that it is visible to the entire assembly. Do any norms exist regarding this topic? — D.E., Turin, Italy
A: The use of an elaborate Book of the Gospels has once more become common in Catholic liturgy following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The Book of the Gospels was always considered as a symbol of Christ, along with the altar and the cross. It was therefore accorded special veneration and liturgical honors. From the fifth century on, it was placed upon the altar, kissed, and read from a special ambo accompanied by candles and incense. It was placed on a throne to preside many Church councils, and used in the consecration of bishops and in the swearing of all forms of solemn oaths.
The books containing the Gospels were transcribed with great care, often written with gold and silver letters and bound in precious bindings. St. Ambrose (340-397) recalls the golden covers of one copy in Milan. Indeed, Milan’s cathedral still possesses an exquisitely carved ivory cover from a fifth-century Evangeliary. There are many later examples of these books up until the 12th century.
After this period, the extensive use of the full missal which contained in one volume all that was necessary to celebrate Mass, including the readings, rendered the use of a separate Book of the Gospels at Mass increasingly obsolete.
Most Eastern Churches never lost the use of a Book of the Gospels. For example, in the Byzantine tradition the Gospel book is normally kept in a central place on the altar. Among the initial rites of the Divine Liturgy is the “little entrance” in which the priest takes the Book of the Gospels from the altar and hands it to the deacon. The deacon, or the priest if there is no deacon, processes counterclockwise around the altar and through the nave of the church before coming back to the entrance of the iconostasis. Among other elements, this symbolizes Christ who walks among his people.
Therefore the restoration of the use of the Evangeliary in the Latin Church can offer a wealth of meanings and catechetical opportunities.
With respect to the precise question I would first of all suggest that it should not be placed upon the corporal because the corporal should not be opened at this time of Mass. It may be placed at the center of the altar in the same place where the corporal will be later extended during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The current norms are not overly precise. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says:
“122. When they reach the altar, the Priest and ministers make a profound bow.
“The cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified, and carried in procession, may be placed next to the altar to serve as the altar cross, in which case it must be the only cross used; otherwise it is put away in a dignified place. As for the candlesticks, these are placed on the altar or near it. It is a praiseworthy practice for the Book of the Gospels to be placed on the altar.
“172. Carrying the Book of the Gospels slightly elevated, the Deacon precedes the Priest as he approaches the altar or else walks at the Priest’s side.
“173. When he reaches the altar, if he is carrying the Book of the Gospels, he omits the sign of reverence and goes up to the altar. It is a praiseworthy practice for him to place the Book of the Gospels on the altar, after which, together with the Priest, he venerates the altar with a kiss.
“D) The Functions of the Reader
“194. In the procession to the altar, in the absence of a Deacon, the reader, wearing approved attire, may carry the Book of the Gospels, slightly elevated. In that case, the reader walks in front of the Priest but otherwise walks along with the other ministers.
“195. Upon reaching the altar, the reader makes a profound bow with the others. If he is carrying the Book of the Gospels, he approaches the altar and places the Book of the Gospels upon it. Then the reader takes his own place in the sanctuary with the other ministers.”
Other documents say more or less the same. Therefore, what I now say is in the realm of opinion and need not be taken as authoritative.
First of all, the vagueness is probably deliberate insofar as it allows for several practical solutions based on the logistics of a particular presbytery, the presence or lack of a deacon, or even the particular requirements of an individual ceremony.
That said, I think that we are on solid ground in saying that, overall, the practice that has prevailed over the last 50 years is to place the Book of the Gospels, laid flat, at the center of the altar more or less where the corporal will later be extended. This is the solution most in line with earlier practice, as far as we can know, and is the custom at practically all papal Masses since the post-conciliar reform.
This practice would also be required whenever the altar cross is placed upon the altar at the center facing the celebrant.
If the altar cross is located elsewhere, the book could be placed laid flat at the center of the front of the altar if logistics made this solution necessary.
I do not think that placing the book vertically upon the altar, something I have never personally seen, is good liturgical practice. There is no tradition supporting this practice, and it would produce a distracting third pole of attention during the initial rites and the Liturgy of the Word, when it is supposed that attention is drawn first toward the celebrant’s chair and then toward the ambo during the readings. Liturgical good sense would reserve calling attention to the Evangeliary to the moments when it is to be proclaimed.