A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Layman's Gestures During Eucharistic Prayer
ROME, 25 DEC. 2007 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I like to join in with some of the gestures that a priest makes during the Eucharistic Prayer. For example, during Eucharistic Prayer 1, I bow my head at the words "Almighty God, we pray that your angel may take this sacrifice to your altar in heaven"; and I strike my breast at the words "Though we are sinners"; and I make the sign of the cross at the words "let us be filled with every grace and blessing." I feel more active in my participation by doing this, but am unsure whether these gestures of mine are appropriate. Are these gestures for the priest or president alone? — P.H., London
A: The general principle involved in gestures that accompany prayers is that they are performed only by those who actually say the words.
Thus, for example, the whole assembly bows at the name of Jesus during the Gloria and bows, (or genuflects on Christmas Day) while commemorating the mystery of the Incarnation during the creed.
At a concelebration the usual procedure is that only the principal celebrant performs certain gestures when he alone recites the prayer. Thus, only he extends his hands for the presidential prayers and for the preface.
The other priests join in most gestures during the common prayers such as the ones mentioned by our reader for Eucharistic Prayer 1 (the Roman Canon) as they are normally recited by all the concelebrants.
There are some exceptions to this. For example, in the other Eucharistic Prayers all priests recite in unison the text from the invocation of the Holy Spirit to the commemoration after the consecration, but only the principal celebrant makes the sign of the cross over the chalice.
Likewise all priests strike their breasts at the words "Though we are sinners" even though only one usually recites the prayer.
The reason for this is that the Latin text connects the word "famulis" (servants) to "peccatoribus" (sinners) in a way that is completely lost in the current English translation. In the liturgical tradition of the Roman Canon "famulis" refers primarily to the celebrating clergy and not so much to the faithful (without implying that the only sinners in the congregation are the priests).
It was common for medieval clerics to refer to themselves as sinful servants, and they would sometimes prefix their signature with the word "Sinner." As time went on, the word was replaced with a symbol which had essentially the same meaning.
The custom of bishops to prefix a cross before their signature is probably a relic of the old symbol for denoting the person as a sinful servant.
Therefore it not liturgically correct for our reader to follow the gestures carried out by the priest during the Eucharistic Prayer, above all because these gestures usually imply the concurrent recitation of the prayer.
A blessed and holy Christmas to all.
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Follow-up: Layman's Gestures [1-8-2008]
After our Dec. 25 column regarding a layman making the priest's gestures, a reader inquired: "Is your response primarily for those saying the prayers at certain times of the Mass, [or is it] true as well just before the Gospel when the priest makes the three signs of the cross on forehead, lips and heart? I've always thought that was reserved for the one proclaiming the Gospel, but it seems that the entire congregation does it."
My earlier response referred to a general, but not absolute, rule of thumb for presidential prayers. The example cited by our reader is actually not a presidential prayer but a monition made by the deacon or priest reading the Gospel.
The rubrics already foresee that the entire congregation makes the gesture of the triple sign of the cross together with the deacon or priest.
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