Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
ROME, 27 February 2018 (ZENIT)
Q: I noticed in the missal for the days of Lent there is included after the Prayer after Communion, a Prayer over the People. On weekdays this is optional, according to the rubric there. Is one to assume for the Sundays of Lent the Prayer over the People is to be said, that is, obligatory? I knew this innovation of sorts was to be included in the new missal. But now I see how it is in the missal and want to be certain that I and other curious celebrants are prepared to use it. They are lovely texts! – E.F., Morristown, New Jersey
A: They are indeed lovely texts, and it was a noble intuition that has restored them to the missal.
As our reader mentions, an optional prayer over the people is offered for each weekday. On Sundays there is also such a prayer but lacking the rubric “for optional use.”
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says the following about solemn blessings and prayers over the people:
“166. On certain days and occasions this blessing, in accordance with the rubrics, is expanded and expressed by a Prayer over the People or another more solemn formula.
“185. If a Prayer over the People or a formula of Solemn Blessing is used, the Deacon says, Bow down for the blessing. After the Priest’s blessing, the Deacon, with hands joined and facing the people, dismisses the people, saying, Ite, missa est (Go forth, the Mass is ended).”
The missal also has a section following immediately after the order of Mass containing solemn blessings and prayers over the people for specific times and seasons of the year. Some special feasts and celebrations have proper solemn blessings. The overarching rule is that these may be used “at the discretion of the priest at the end of the celebration of Mass, or of a Liturgy of the Word, or of the Office, or of the Sacraments.”
It is to be noted that the missal does not contain any solemn blessing for Lent in the section containing solemn blessings, although there is one for the “Passion of the Lord.”
Therefore, I would say that since the general rule leaves the use of the prayers to the priest’s discretion, the absence of an indication that they are optional on Sundays does not translate into an obligation to use them.
It would indicate, however, a strong encouragement to use them every Sunday. Likewise, the fact that they are printed for each day of Lent also motivates their daily use.
According to eminent scholars the tradition of these orations has its roots as far back as the third century. The deacon’s invitation to the people to bow the head for the blessing is also very ancient, even though the present Latin formula does not appear before the year 800.
One characteristic of these formulas is that the personal object of these blessings is not usually designated as “us” but rather as “your people,” “your servants,” “your faithful,” “those who bow before your majesty,” “those who make supplication to you,” “those who call upon you.” Another characteristic is that the spiritual graces sought in the prayer are sought not in a general way as in other prayers but for the indefinite future with phrases such as “always,” “perpetual protection,” “constantly,” etc.
What is not fully understood is why these prayers became reserved to the Lenten season in the Roman liturgy, since many of the ancient sources contain similar prayers for all seasons of the year. Perhaps it is because Lent and the Easter triduum have usually retained the older traditions.
When the first edition of the revised missal was published in 1970, it restored the possibility of prayers over the people throughout the year as witnessed by the earlier sources of the Roman rite. But it did so in an appendix and at the cost of eliminating the tradition of specific daily prayers for Lent.
The third typical edition has happily restored the daily Lenten prayers while still offering a wide selection of possibilities for other liturgical seasons.
I believe that this is one example where a return to tradition has proved beneficial for the liturgy in its present form.
* * *
Follow-up: Prayer Over the People [3-13-2018]
Pursuant to our February 27 response regarding the Lenten prayers over the people, a Missouri reader asked: “You stated, ‘The deacon’s invitation to the people to bow the head for the blessing is also very ancient.’ I question whether the bow there is a bow of the head or a profound bow. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) No. 275b states that the deacon makes a profound bow before the priest when receiving the blessing to proclaim the Gospel, so it would seem to be the same for the assembly when they receive the final blessing from the priest at the end of Mass. Nowhere does the GIRM or missal specify that I have found. What do you think?”
The full text of GIRM 275 says:
“275. A bow signifies reverence and honor shown to the persons themselves or to the signs that represent them. There are two kinds of bow: a bow of the head and a bow of the body.
“a) A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated.
“b) A bow of the body, that is to say, a profound bow, is made to the altar; during the prayers Munda cor meum (Cleanse my heart) and In spiritu humilitatis (With humble spirit); in the Creed at the words et incarnatus est (and by the Holy Spirit … and became man); in the Roman Canon at the Supplices te rogamus (In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God). The same kind of bow is made by the Deacon when he asks for a blessing before the proclamation of the Gospel. In addition, the Priest bows slightly as he pronounces the words of the Lord at the Consecration.”
As mentioned by our reader, the GIRM does not specify the nature of the bow made by the faithful at this moment.
However, since the “bow of the head” mentioned in 275a is evidently a very brief bow lasting barely a couple of seconds, then the bow for the solemn blessing would fall naturally into the category of the profound bow. This would be like that of the deacon or that of the whole assembly during the creed.
At the same time, since nothing specific is determined, there is no particular standard as to how deep this bow should be, and each person can decide what constitutes the appropriate gesture at this moment.