Honoring the Book of the Gospels

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Honoring the Book of the Gospels

ROME, 18 NOV. 2008 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: A priest-professor of liturgy at a seminary in India told me about the Book of the Gospels which is carried in the entrance procession during the Mass and kept on the altar till the Gospel reading and which is used for proclamation of the Gospel. He explained to me the reasons and significance of this special honor given to the Book of the Gospel. Some of our friends who heard about it for the first time raised many doubts about this practice. I read the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), which also speaks about it. I have three questions on this subject: 1. The Book of the Gospels that he showed to me was an American edition (National Conference of Catholic Bishops — Catholic Book Publishing Co.). Can we use it in India? I called the National Liturgy Commission in India and the person in charge said we do not have an Indian edition, but if we have the U.S. edition we could use it in English-speaking congregations. Is it correct? 2. In India we have many vernacular languages. In those languages we certainly do not have Book of the Gospels. In that case can we use the lectionary (GIRM, No. 120.d, says "not lectionary") or the New Testament (Bible) in procession instead of Book of the Gospels? 3. As regards honor given to the Book of the Gospels, can we give some special honor according to our Indian culture (see GIRM, Nos. 60, 273, 390) such as arathi and garlanding (homage by flowers)? In the approved cultural adaptation (Sacra Congregatio Pro Cultu Divino, Protocol No. 802/69, dated April 25, 1969) for India, the arathi is approved by Holy See, but in the decree it does not mention specifically the Book of the Gospels. Therefore, can we do it? — S.C.A., Thanjavur, India

A: Our correspondent is clearly a very well-formed layman and sedulous with respect to correct liturgical practice.

First of all, he is correct regarding the importance of the Book of the Gospels. Historically the Gospels have always been accorded special treatment in the liturgy. In many ancient churches it was common to have two ambos — large elevated stone podiums placed opposite each other on either side of the nave — before entering the sanctuary. The one on the right was taller and more richly decorated and was reserved for the proclamation of the Gospel and occasionally substituted the cathedra as the place of episcopal preaching.

The left-side ambo was divided into two levels, the higher for reading the Epistle and the lower for the chanter of the responsories. Some ancient Roman churches, such as St. Lawrence and St. Clement, still conserve their fifth-century ambos.

While the mode of expressing particular veneration toward the Gospel has varied over the centuries, it has always been present in some way. In the present liturgy it is expressed in the GIRM. The "Book of the Gospels" referred to in GIRM is generally a book in which all the Gospel texts used in the liturgy are arranged for liturgical proclamation in a manner similar to the lectionary. However, the norms would not seem to exclude the use of an ornate book containing only the four Gospels provided that the translation corresponds to texts officially approved for liturgical use.

The GIRM says:

"120d: 'A lector, who may carry the Book of the Gospels (though not the Lectionary), which should be slightly elevated':

"122: 'It is a praiseworthy practice that the Book of the Gospels be placed upon the altar.'

"133: 'If the Book of the Gospels is on the altar, the priest then takes it and goes to the ambo, carrying the Book of the Gospels slightly elevated and preceded by the lay ministers, who may carry the thurible and the candles. Those present turn towards the ambo as a sign of special reverence to the Gospel of Christ.

"At the ambo, the priest opens the book and, with hands joined, says, Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you), and the people respond, Et cum spiritu tuo (And also with you). Then he says, Lectio sancti Evangelii (A reading from the holy  gospel), making the sign of the cross with his thumb on the book and on his forehead, mouth, and breast, which everyone else does as well. The people say the acclamation Gloria tibi, Domine (Glory to you, Lord). The priest incenses the book, if incense is used (cf. below, nos. 276-277). Then he proclaims the Gospel and at the end says the acclamation Verbum Domini (The gospel of the Lord), to which all respond, Laus tibi, Christe (Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ). The priest kisses the book, saying quietly, Per evangelica dicta (May the words of the gospel)."

If a deacon is present, he will carry the Book of the Gospels in the entrance procession and perform the other rites attributed to the priest in the above texts.

The historical privileging of the Book of the Gospels shows why only this book and not the full lectionary should be carried in the procession and left on the altar.

Addressing the three questions at hand:

1) I must defer to the indications of the official at the National Liturgy Commission regarding the use of the American Book of the Gospels. Although the approval of liturgical books is the exclusive province of each bishops' conference, some allow the use of any officially approved texts by other conferences. This may be the case in India.

2) In multilingual countries such as India, where the cost of publication of specific Books of the Gospels would be exorbitant, one may have recourse to a certain maneuver that can help overcome the difficulty. In this case any duly approved Book of the Gospels is adopted into which a photocopy of the Gospel to be read that day in the local language is inserted. Since a proper Book of the Gospels is used, it is attributed the usual liturgical honors in spite of being in a language different from that of the Mass. Even the Holy See has occasionally avoided a moment of liturgical embarrassment through this practical sleight of hand.

3) I think it is best to have recourse to the National Liturgical Commission regarding rites specifically approved for India. I could say, as a matter of general principle, that if the sense and meaning of the local rite is basically equivalent to that of the missal, then it should be possible. For example, if the aforementioned rites such as the arathi (an offering of bowls containing incense) are used in venerating the altar at the beginning of Mass, then it is probably legitimate to use them for the Gospel. A cleric from Tamil Nadu state studying in Rome has informed me that this rite is occasionally used in venerating the Book of the Gospels on solemn occasions.

The fact that the Gospel was not mentioned in a decree from early 1969 is not surprising as it precedes the definitive publication of the 1970 Roman Missal, and some aspects of this rite were not definitively clarified until some years later.

* * *

Follow-up: Honoring the Book of the Gospels [12-2-2008]

After our Nov. 18 comments on the honors attributed to the Book of the Gospels, a reader from Sweden asked: "I would like to ask, is it right that the deacon gives the Book of the Gospels to the bishop after reading the Gospel, so that the bishop can kiss the book? Someone told me that this does not belong to the Roman rite. When we are celebrating a Pontifical Mass, this is how it is usually done in our parish. I think this is a beautiful sign of veneration for Christ, but is this gesture foreign to the Roman rite?"

It is most certainly not foreign to the Roman rite but is a legitimate option offered in the Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 141, to wit:

"After the gospel reading, the deacon takes the book to the bishop, who kisses it, saying inaudibly, 'May the words of the Gospel [wipe away our sins]'; alternatively, the deacon himself kisses the book and inaudibly says the same words."

The Book of the Gospels is usually kept open on the text that has been read while the deacon brings it to the bishop, who customarily kisses it at the passage's opening words.

The 2001 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (No. 176) also provides that on solemn occasions the bishop may also impart a blessing with the book after having kissed it. This custom was probably introduced on the initiative of Pope John Paul II, who frequently imparted this blessing.

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