When to Bow Before Communion

And More on Lighted Candles at the Lectern

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ROME, OCT. 11, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: In the dioceses of the United States, the following directive is in force: “When receiving Holy Communion standing, the communicant bows his or her head before the sacrament …” Now to me, to bow my head “before the sacrament” means I should be in direct view of it, that is, once I get to the head of the Communion line. However, I had a religious sister tell me recently that I should make my reverence before I reach the head of the line. She says this is in the directive, yet I cannot find such a stipulation anywhere. Furthermore, to bow before I reach the head of the line implies to me that I am bowing to the person in front of me. Is there some specification as to when in the Communion line one is to make his reverence before the sacrament? — K.M., Darlington, Maryland

A: Our correspondent refers to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 160, which we quote in full along with the number which follows it:

“When receiving Holy Communion, the communicant bows his or her head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence and receives the Body of the Lord from the minister. The consecrated host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant. When Holy Communion is received under both kinds, the sign of reverence is also made before receiving the Precious Blood.”

[No. 161] “If Communion is given only under the species of bread, the priest raises the host slightly and shows it to each, saying, ‘Corpus Christi’ (The Body of Christ). The communicant replies, ‘Amen,’ and receives the Sacrament either on the tongue or, where this is allowed and if the communicant so chooses, in the hand. As soon as the communicant receives the host, he or she consumes it entirely.”

The text does not specify the moment of this bow of reverence and there are few other specific norms. The original text does not specify a bow but merely refers to an act of reverence to be established by the bishops’ conference. Some conferences have included the option of making either a genuflection or a bow.

In practice the act of reverence may be made either just before receiving or while the person immediately before oneself is receiving. It really depends on the number of communicants.

A small intimate group of faithful can easily make the gesture just before receiving the sacred host. But if this gesture, although lasting no more that a few seconds, were to be repeated hundreds of times in a large parish, then the rite of Communion could be unduly prolonged. This practical reason probably motivated the recommendation to perform the gesture of reverence while the person in front is receiving Communion.

Does this mean that I am really bowing to the person in front of me? Personally I think not, because one naturally reverences a person turned toward oneself and practically never performs an act of respect toward a person who has his back turned away. Thus the natural direction of the act of reverence is toward the Eucharistic Christ.

Finally, this question offers an opportunity to remember the norm that the Eucharist must be consumed immediately and before the priest, deacon or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.

In general, it is necessary for priests to remind the faithful of this requirement from time to time, and to insist on its being fulfilled so as to avoid unfortunate incidents due to distraction or even willful profanation of the Eucharist.

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Follow-up: Lighted Candles at the Lectern

Some interesting questions emerged from our piece on ambo candles (Sept. 27).

A Massachusetts reader asked: “I have attended a liturgy where the altar servers carried two candles in procession and placed them at the ambo. The candles were then brought to the altar upon the conclusion of the homily or Prayers of the Faithful. In my church, the candles are already lit at the ambo and then blown out after the Prayers of the Faithful so as to focus on the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Is this correct?”

The candles on or near the altar are usually lit before Mass, and thus the processional candles accompanying the Gospel during the entrance procession and proclamation should normally be distinct from the altar candles. The processional candles are usually left on the credence table or another convenient place in the sanctuary while not in use.

However, some places do have the custom of placing the processional candles on or near the altar after the entrance procession, and, provided they are not the only candles present, it does not appear to go against the liturgical norms. All the same, the use of distinct processional candles seems liturgically preferable and avoids awkward movements near the altar.

Likewise, the torches that accompany the thurifer while incensing the Sacred Species during the consecration should, in principle, be different from the processional candles. These latter may, however, accompany the thurifer in smaller parishes with fewer ministers.

The question regarding blowing out the candles after the Liturgy of the Word is somewhat moot, for, as we mentioned in our previous column, the practice of permanent candles at the ambo, lit or unlit, does not correspond to Catholic liturgical tradition.

While liturgical inventiveness still abounds, we need to remember that the most pastorally effective use of symbols remains that foreseen in the liturgical books. Arbitrarily changing the symbols, even with the best of intentions, inevitably conveys a different message to that desired by the universal Church.

Regarding the ambo in general, a Tennessee correspondent asked: “Can we read announcements from the ambo at the end of Mass?” A Kansas reader asked for comments on the following practice: “In our parish lectors have been instructed to approach and make a profound bow to the ambo before proclaiming the word. Further, upon concluding the readings we are instructed to make another profound bow to the ambo and return to our pew. We have been specifically instructed not to acknowledge or genuflect in the direction of the tabernacle which is recessed to the left rear of the ambo.”

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 309, states: “From the ambo only the readings, the responsorial Psalm, and the Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) are to be proclaimed; it may be used also for giving the homily and for announcing the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful. The dignity of the ambo requires that only a minister of the word should go up to it.”

Thus all other commentaries, announcements and similar activities should be carried out from another suitable place.

The indication of not making a genuflection or other gesture toward the tabernacle during the celebration of Mass is correct and in conformity with GIRM 274: “If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in the sanctuary, the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself.”

The bows toward the ambo — or in other places toward the altar or even toward the celebrant — at the beginning and end of the reading are not prescribed in the liturgical books. They probably arise from a sense of natural courtesy and reverence, especially when the lectors enter from the pews or do not participate in the entrance procession.

Finally, a Winnipeg, Manitoba, reader asked about the origin of the word “ambo.”

According to one authoritative dictionary it appears that the word is of medieval Latin origin and probably derives from the Greek “ambon” — a raised rim, or pulpit. It thus referred to either of the two raised pulpits from which th
e Gospels and epistles were read in early Christian churches.

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Readers may send questions to news@zenit.org. 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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