Crucifixes, Bows and Celebrants' Palms

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Crucifixes, Bows and Celebrants' Palms


Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: 1) Is the crucifix essential to the celebration of the Mass? 2) When the priest comes to the altar, does he bow toward the altar? At the end of Mass, the priest venerates the altar; does he bows toward the crucifix or the tabernacle? 3) During the consecration prayer ("Take this ...") the concelebrants extend their hands, but they do not do this uniformly. Some extend the hand with palm downward, while others extend it with palm open toward the ceiling. Which is correct? — G.C., Bangalore, India

A: As there are several questions I will try to answer them in order.

1. The use of the crucifix is obligatory during the celebration of Mass. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal in No. 308 requires the use of a "cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations."

This specific call for the use of the crucifix was probably inserted into the new GIRM to counter a movement which favored the use of simple bare crosses or even images of the risen Christ.

While such symbols may have a role in churches, they may not substitute the crucifix. Use of the crucifix during Mass serves as a reminder and a sign that the Eucharistic celebration is the same sacrifice as Calvary.

Yet, there are many different acceptable forms of liturgical crucifix which may be used at Mass.

2. If the tabernacle is present in the sanctuary, then the priest and ministers genuflect toward it at the beginning (before kissing the altar) and at the end of Mass (after kissing the altar), but not during the celebration itself — even though they may cross in front of it.

It may be an approved custom in your country, India, to substitute a deep bow for a genuflection if this gesture has the same significance of adoration implied in the genuflection.

If the tabernacle is not present in the sanctuary, then the priest and ministers bow toward the altar (not the crucifix) at the beginning and end of Mass.

3. Your third question reflects a long-standing debate regarding this gesture which has occasioned rivers of ink to be spilt among liturgists — without really clearing anything up.

I would first observe that, unlike the pronunciation of the words of consecration, the gesture of extending the hand at this moment may even be omitted and is not required for the validity of the concelebrants' celebration.

The crux of the debate is to determine whether the gesture of extending the hand is merely indicative — a pointing toward the sacred species — or whether it is directly a sign of the concelebrants' power of consecration.

Those who favored the indicative meaning favor the palm pointing upward, usually at a slight angle.

Others, such as the late Benedictine Cipriano Vagaggini (who actually had a hand in composing the new rite of concelebration), favored the epicletic (invocative) gesture of palms downward in the same manner that all priests do at the beginning of the rite of consecration when they extend both hands and call upon the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood.

After a few years it became apparent that the debate was going nowhere and, absent an official declaration from the Holy See, everybody more or less agreed to disagree.

This does not mean that when some priests act one way and others another they are expressing some profound theological disagreement. It probably does no more then reflect the opinion of whoever taught liturgy in the seminary. ZE04060122

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Follow-up: Crucifixes and Bows [from 06-15-2004]

As always our attentive readers see gaps in my replies. I will try to clear up any doubts. Regarding the June 1 column, a reader asked if the bows toward the altar when crossing the sanctuary applied to servers as well as priests, or should they bow toward the crucifix.

These bows should be made by all to the altar whenever crossing in front of it, except in those cases when one is moving in procession.

The reason that the altar has preference over the crucifix is because the symbolic value of the altar as representative of Christ is theologically far stronger than that of the crucifix.

This symbolism was felt far more strongly in ancient times, before it became customary to venerate the tabernacle and place the crucifix upon or near the altar. But the altar conserves its central role as symbol of Christ himself, present in the midst of the assembly as victim and as food from heaven.

St. Ambrose of Milan says "For what is the altar of Christ if not the image of the Body of Christ" and elsewhere "the Altar represents the Body (of Christ) and the Body of Christ is on the altar" (see Catechism, No. 1383).

Some Fathers even hazard to say that the altar "is" Christ, a statement which is true in a sense but which today needs to be nuanced so as to avoid causing an erroneous parallel between the symbolic presence in the altar and the substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

This is why the gesture of respect for the altar differs from that of the tabernacle, for as indicated by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 274-275, "A genuflection indicates adoration ... while a bow signifies reverence and honor shown to the persons themselves or to the signs that represent them."

At the same time, the genuflection toward the tabernacle is made at the beginning and end of Mass only if the tabernacle is within the precincts of the sanctuary. If the tabernacle is within an adoration chapel, then only the bow toward the altar is made at the beginning and end of Mass.

Several readers asked if the different bows indicated in GIRM No. 275 were for everybody or only the priest. The text states:

"There are two kinds of bows: 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' (Almighty God, cleanse my heart) and 'In spiritu humilitatis' (Lord God, we ask you to receive); in the Creed at the words 'Et incarnatus est' (by the power of the Holy Spirit ... made man); in the Roman Canon at the words 'Supplices te rogamus' (Almighty God, we pray that your angel). 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 speaks the words of the Lord at the consecration."

Taking a cue from several questions I remark the following.

The bows mentioned in this number are made by whoever recites the prayer to which the gesture is attached. Thus, in those prayers recited only by the priest, only he makes a bow at this moment.

In prayers said in common all bow at the indicated moments. Thus, for example, everybody should make a bow of the head during the Gloria at both mentions of the name Jesus Christ but not when the priest mentions the name during the presidential prayers.

The GIRM however is not exhaustive and it is not necessarily true that everything not specifically mandated is therefore forbidden.

There are some bows which are either not explicitly stipulated, or are stipulated only for bishops but are customarily extended to the priest.

For example, it is a common practice for servers to bow toward the priest after they bring the missal to the chair, when they bring the water and wine, and then again after the washing of the hands. While not obligatory these customs may be continued.

Likewise those Catholics who have the custom of bowing the head on hearing the name of Jesus may continue to do so even though this gesture is not mandated in the liturgy. For here we are dealing with a pious custom, not a liturgical act. ZE04061525

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