|ROME, 25 NOV. 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
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
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
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
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.
* * *
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
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
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