Readers' Bows to the Presider

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Readers' Bows to the Presider

ROME, 25 NOV. 2008 (ZENIT)

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

Q: I have been asking lay readers at the parish to bow to the presider of the Mass when they approach the sanctuary to proclaim their reading. I remembered studying this in the seminary when reviewing the proper gestures and postures of the people during Mass, as well as those participating in the liturgical ministries. In my parish church the tabernacle is in the center and the priest sits to the left of the altar. The pulpit is to the right. From reading Church documents, I have been only able to identify the person they should bow to in Masses where the bishop presides. From a theological as well as liturgical point of view, it is my understanding that the priest as presider (in persona Christi) at the Mass is where the liturgical ministers would bow, signifying they are participating in his ministry as presider. Am I instructing the people correctly? And is there a particular liturgical document that covers this area well for instruction? — G.D., Halifax, Nova Scotia

A: This question is often broached and is sometimes subject to degrees of confusion.

First of all, I would say that, strictly speaking, it is not correct to say that readers are sharing in the ministry of the priest celebrant. Rather, they are fulfilling a specific lay ministry within the celebration itself.

In fact, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 59, clearly excludes the presidential character of reading in the Latin rite, to wit: "By tradition, the function of proclaiming the readings is ministerial, not presidential. The readings, therefore, should be proclaimed by a lector, and the Gospel by a deacon or, in his absence, a priest other than the celebrant. If, however, a deacon or another priest is not present, the priest celebrant himself should read the Gospel. Further, if another suitable lector is also not present, then the priest celebrant should also proclaim the other readings."

Not every liturgical gesture requires a theological foundation. Some are customary signs of courtesy and respect that add overall decorum to the celebration.

Monsignor (now bishop) Peter Elliott describes the reader's bow in his "Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite": "The lector (comes to the sanctuary and) makes the customary reverences; first bowing deeply to the altar …, then bowing to the celebrant, before going to the ambo ..."

The sanctuary situation described here seems to correspond to that of our ZENIT reader's parish church. Two bows are described. The first bow toward the altar is based on the Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 72: "A deep bow is made to the altar by all who enter the sanctuary (chancel), leave it, or pass before the altar."

The second bow, toward the priest celebrant, is not explicitly prescribed in the liturgical books, but may be considered as customary and based on an extension of the indications for reverence toward bishops in the Ceremonial, Nos. 76-77:

"The bishop is greeted with a deep bow by the ministers or others when they approach to assist him, when they leave after assisting him, or when they pass in front of him.

"When the bishop's chair is behind the altar, the ministers should reverence either the altar or the bishop, depending on whether they are approaching the altar or approaching the bishop; out of reverence for both, ministers should, as far as possible, avoid passing between the bishop and the altar."

It is noteworthy that none of these texts explicitly mention readers, and are only applicable insofar as they enter or leave the sanctuary, or, in a very broad sense, assist the presiding celebrant. It does not appear that these bows form a stable and obligatory part of the rites for those who exercise the ministry of reader.

Indeed, in describing the Liturgy of the Word the Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 137, makes no mention of any bows: "After the opening prayer, the reader goes to the ambo and proclaims the first reading …"

Therefore if, for example, the seating arrangements are such that the readers are in the sanctuary from the beginning of Mass and have no need to cross in front of the altar, they could exercise their ministry without making any of these bows.

* * *

Follow-up: Readers' Bows to the Presider [12-9-2008]

Related to the question of bows toward the celebrant and altar (see Nov. 25), a priest from Rhode Island asked the following question:

"Our tabernacle is located in the center of our sanctuary — where the main altar would have been years ago. The altar of sacrifice is placed between that and the people. I realize that the celebrant and ministers are to genuflect once when entering the sanctuary and once when leaving. But what recognition do we give to the tabernacle during Mass? The altar servers have to cross the sanctuary to present me with the book at the collect and at the post-Communion prayer. Should they give a head bow as they pass the tabernacle? When I cross the sanctuary to read the Gospel, do I give a head bow to the tabernacle or simply bow to the altar of sacrifice on which the Book of the Gospels has been placed?"

As on other occasions when addressing similar questions, we suggest that it is best to organize the location and movements of ministers so that they cross the sanctuary only when it forms part of the rite itself. If such movements prove unavoidable, then the ministers should cross in front of the altar.

It is best to avoid all movements that pass behind the altar, except when the deacon or priest goes to take up the Book of the Gospels.

That said, however, the general rule would be to always bow toward the altar, and there is no act of veneration toward the tabernacle during the course of Mass.

An exception is when the Eucharist is reserved in the tabernacle after communion is over. In this case, the priest or deacon genuflects before closing the tabernacle door. He would not genuflect if he opened the tabernacle for the ciborium at the beginning of communion because the Eucharist is already present upon the altar.

Spurious theological foundations for this rule of not venerating the tabernacle during Mass should be avoided, especially those based on a supposed opposition between the celebration and the reserved Eucharist. Let us state simply that during Mass the Church desires that all attention be focused on the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. It is no disrespect toward Christ in the tabernacle when his altar is venerated during Mass.

Some people might not grasp this, so having most movements in front of the altar, and consequently bowing toward the altar and tabernacle at the same time, avoids giving an impression of disrespect toward the tabernacle.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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