ROME, NOV. 18, 2008 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: A priest-professor of liturgy at a seminary in India told me about the Book of the Gospels which is carried in the entrance procession during the Mass and kept on the altar till the Gospel reading and which is used for proclamation of the Gospel. He explained to me the reasons and significance of this special honor given to the Book of the Gospel. Some of our friends who heard about it for the first time raised many doubts about this practice. I read the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), which also speaks about it. I have three questions on this subject: 1. The Book of the Gospels that he showed to me was an American edition (National Conference of Catholic Bishops -- Catholic Book Publishing Co.). Can we use it in India? I called the National Liturgy Commission in India and the person in charge said we do not have an Indian edition, but if we have the U.S. edition we could use it in English-speaking congregations. Is it correct? 2. In India we have many vernacular languages. In those languages we certainly do not have Book of the Gospels. In that case can we use the lectionary (GIRM, No. 120.d, says "not lectionary") or the New Testament (Bible) in procession instead of Book of the Gospels? 3. As regards honor given to the Book of the Gospels, can we give some special honor according to our Indian culture (see GIRM, Nos. 60, 273, 390) such as arathi and garlanding (homage by flowers)? In the approved cultural adaptation (Sacra Congregatio Pro Cultu Divino, Protocol No. 802/69, dated April 25, 1969) for India, the arathi is approved by Holy See, but in the decree it does not mention specifically the Book of the Gospels. Therefore, can we do it? -- S.C.A., Thanjavur, India

A: Our correspondent is clearly a very well-formed layman and sedulous with respect to correct liturgical practice.

First of all, he is correct regarding the importance of the Book of the Gospels. Historically the Gospels have always been accorded special treatment in the liturgy. In many ancient churches it was common to have two ambos -- large elevated stone podiums placed opposite each other on either side of the nave -- before entering the sanctuary. The one on the right was taller and more richly decorated and was reserved for the proclamation of the Gospel and occasionally substituted the cathedra as the place of episcopal preaching.

The left-side ambo was divided into two levels, the higher for reading the Epistle and the lower for the chanter of the responsories. Some ancient Roman churches, such as St. Lawrence and St. Clement, still conserve their fifth-century ambos.

While the mode of expressing particular veneration toward the Gospel has varied over the centuries, it has always been present in some way. In the present liturgy it is expressed in the GIRM. The "Book of the Gospels" referred to in GIRM is generally a book in which all the Gospel texts used in the liturgy are arranged for liturgical proclamation in a manner similar to the lectionary. However, the norms would not seem to exclude the use of an ornate book containing only the four Gospels provided that the translation corresponds to texts officially approved for liturgical use.

The GIRM says:

"120d: 'A lector, who may carry the Book of the Gospels (though not the Lectionary), which should be slightly elevated':

"122: 'It is a praiseworthy practice that the Book of the Gospels be placed upon the altar.'

"133: 'If the Book of the Gospels is on the altar, the priest then takes it and goes to the ambo, carrying the Book of the Gospels slightly elevated and preceded by the lay ministers, who may carry the thurible and the candles. Those present turn towards the ambo as a sign of special reverence to the Gospel of Christ.

"At the ambo, the priest opens the book and, with hands joined, says, Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you), and the people respond, Et cum spiritu tuo (And also with you). Then he says, Lectio sancti Evangelii (A reading from the holy gospel), making the sign of the cross with his thumb on the book and on his forehead, mouth, and breast, which everyone else does as well. The people say the acclamation Gloria tibi, Domine (Glory to you, Lord). The priest incenses the book, if incense is used (cf. below, nos. 276-277). Then he proclaims the Gospel and at the end says the acclamation Verbum Domini (The gospel of the Lord), to which all respond, Laus tibi, Christe (Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ). The priest kisses the book, saying quietly, Per evangelica dicta (May the words of the gospel)."

If a deacon is present, he will carry the Book of the Gospels in the entrance procession and perform the other rites attributed to the priest in the above texts.

The historical privileging of the Book of the Gospels shows why only this book and not the full lectionary should be carried in the procession and left on the altar.

Addressing the three questions at hand:

1) I must defer to the indications of the official at the National Liturgy Commission regarding the use of the American Book of the Gospels. Although the approval of liturgical books is the exclusive province of each bishops' conference, some allow the use of any officially approved texts by other conferences. This may be the case in India.

2) In multilingual countries such as India, where the cost of publication of specific Books of the Gospels would be exorbitant, one may have recourse to a certain maneuver that can help overcome the difficulty. In this case any duly approved Book of the Gospels is adopted into which a photocopy of the Gospel to be read that day in the local language is inserted. Since a proper Book of the Gospels is used, it is attributed the usual liturgical honors in spite of being in a language different from that of the Mass. Even the Holy See has occasionally avoided a moment of liturgical embarrassment through this practical sleight of hand.

3) I think it is best to have recourse to the National Liturgical Commission regarding rites specifically approved for India. I could say, as a matter of general principle, that if the sense and meaning of the local rite is basically equivalent to that of the missal, then it should be possible. For example, if the aforementioned rites such as the arathi (an offering of bowls containing incense) are used in venerating the altar at the beginning of Mass, then it is probably legitimate to use them for the Gospel. A cleric from Tamil Nadu state studying in Rome has informed me that this rite is occasionally used in venerating the Book of the Gospels on solemn occasions.

The fact that the Gospel was not mentioned in a decree from early 1969 is not surprising as it precedes the definitive publication of the 1970 Roman Missal, and some aspects of this rite were not definitively clarified until some years later.

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Follow-up: Postures at Adoration and After Communion

A reader offered a further query on our Nov. 4 comments on postures after Communion. He wrote: "The Ceremonial of Bishops gives a specific direction for everyone to sit, in its description of Stational Mass of the Diocesan Bishop, No. 166: 'When the bishop returns to the chair after the communion, he puts on the skullcap and, if need be, washes his hands. All are seated and a period of prayerful silence may follow, or a song of praise or a psalm may be sung' (Ceremonial of Bishops, Liturgical Press, 1989, p. 60).

"Everyone adopting the same posture is consistent with 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 42: 'A common posture, to be observed by all participants, is a sign of the unity of the members of the Christian community gathered for the Sacred Liturgy: it both expresses and fosters the intention and spiritu al attitude of the participants.' I cannot recall ever seeing a priest kneeling after Communion.

"How should we interpret No. 43: '[T]hey may sit or kneel while the period of sacred silence after Communion is observed'? Does it contradict what is said about a common posture? Or does it mean the common posture can be sitting or kneeling, as the priest decides? I don't think the contradiction interpretation is justified."

I would say that there is no contradiction but adjustment to different situations.

No. 42 refers above all to those moments when a common posture is part of the rite itself and specifically prescribed in the liturgical books. Thus, under normal circumstances, it means everybody sitting during the readings, kneeling for the consecration or Eucharistic prayer, standing for the Our Father, etc.

By giving an option, No. 43 basically says that the rite does not require a common posture at this most personal and meditative of moments, and thus each member of the congregation may freely choose to either sit or kneel. This is probably a case of the legislator taking actual practice into account and is therefore more descriptive than prescriptive.

Also, GIRM No. 164 allows the priest to remain at the altar during the silence after Communion rather than going to the chair. In this case the people would be under no obligation to remain standing if he were to do so. This would be very rare at a bishop's solemn stational Mass as the prelate almost invariably goes directly to the chair after distributing Communion while another minister takes the ciboria to the altar.

Since the GIRM is the more recent document, and the legislator took the Ceremonial of Bishops into account in preparing it, I believe that the wider option offered by the GIRM is applicable in all cases.

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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. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.