Crucifixes, Bows and Celebrants' Palms

And More on «Redemptionis Sacramentum»

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ROME, JUNE 1, 2004 ( 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.

* * *

«Redemptionis Sacramentum,» Continued

Several readers asked about my comments on the new instruction «Redemptionis Sacramentum,» especially about the rights of the priest to celebrate Mass in Latin.

The instruction states in No. 112: «Mass is celebrated either in Latin or in another language, provided that liturgical texts are used which have been approved according to the norm of law. Except in the case of celebrations of the Mass that are scheduled by the ecclesiastical authorities to take place in the language of the people, Priests are always and everywhere permitted to celebrate Mass in Latin.»

This right refers, of course, to celebrating according to the present Roman Missal, not to the 1962 Roman Missal, the last edition of the so-called Tridentine rite which requires specific authorization from the bishop.

The priest’s right is not absolute as it does not include the right to celebrate in Latin at Masses which «Ecclesiastic authorities» schedule for Mass in the vernacular.

Thus, the local bishop could determine that regular parish Masses may not be celebrated in Latin and a parish priest might not allow a visiting priest to celebrate a previously scheduled vernacular Mass in Latin.

But the bishop may not forbid priests from saying Mass in Latin either alone or for specific groups outside the regular schedules, even if he personally holds that it is not pastorally advisable.

It seems rather strange that in one or two cases bishops have even gone so far as to threaten to suspend priests for celebrating Mass in Latin. Except in the case of a priest defying an order regarding scheduled Masses, such an action would be a grave abuse of authority and contrary to canon law.

It is also very debatable whether an occasional or even regular Mass in Latin is pastorally ineffective.

It is a point that cannot be resolved based on a priori judgments, even on the diocesan level, and may be true in some parish contexts and false in others. It can only be judged by the pastoral reality of full or empty pews.

In the end, bishops and priests must do what is best for the good of souls even if it means going against their personal preferences for or against the use of Latin.

Some readers have questioned the real efficacy of the instruction, which in the end will depend on the willingness of priests and above all of the local ordinary to enforce its provisions.

Certainly, it is incumbent upon the bishops to supervise the liturgy in their diocese and they should be vigilant including imposing canonical penalties for grave abuses.

This duty does not spring from some administrative decision to decentralize at the «Vatican.» Rather, it stems from the Church’s divinely willed structure in which the bishop is High Priest and shepherd of his flock whom he is called to lead to sanctity and communion with the universal Church.

Bishops, like all human beings, have their strong and weak points. But the human failings of a few prelates do not invalidate the principle of hierarchical and sacramental order in governing the Church, which has weathered the test of time.

As Cardinal Ercole Consalvi is reported to have asked Napoleon Bonaparte, when the French emperor threatened to crush the Church, «If in 1,800 years we clergy have failed to destroy the Church, do you really think that you’ll be able to do it?»

All the same, the instruction permits, albeit as a last recourse, for any member of the faithful to lodge a complaint of abuses directly to the Holy See (No. 184). That should serve as a prod for unwilling bishops who fail to act to stem grave abuses.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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