Readers' Bows to the Presider

And More on Eucharist vs. the Word

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ROME, NOV. 25, 2008 ( 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: Eucharist vs. the Word

In the wake of our column on the Eucharist and the Word (see Nov. 11), a Singapore reader offered the following comments:

«In this week’s topic on ‘Eucharist vs. the Word,’ I was also thinking about Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on divine Revelation, ‘Dei Verbum,’ when I read the question posed by N.C. from Cleveland, Ohio.

«In No. 21 of ‘Dei Verbum’ it states, ‘The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.’

«The proclamation of the Scriptures has always been an integral part of the liturgy at Mass. In a sense, [the] relationship between Scriptures and the Eucharist is complementary, as expressed in ‘Dei Verbum.’ This was also clearly brought out in your reply.

«The 17th General Congregation (12th Synod of Bishops) on Oct. 15, 2008, reported in the third point: ‘Eucharist, homily, community’ deals with the relationship between Scripture and the Eucharist, with the question, which emerged from the synodal discussion, on how to privilege, among the faithful, a more unitary perception of this relationship; the sacramental dimension of the Word and eschatological dimension; the celebration of the Word; the importance of the homily; art as an analogical form of preaching; finally, the relationship between the Word of God, celebration and community.

«Perhaps this is also the reason why, in the question asked, the reader said he was told that ‘Catholics believe that the Word of God is as important as the Eucharist.'»

While «Dei Verbum» is a solemn conciliar text, the text from the Synod represents a work in progress. The latter will become formally magisterial in the degree that the Holy Father might incorporate these suggestions into an apostolic exhortation.

It is quite possible that a misinterpretation of texts such as «Dei Verbum» could have led some Catholics to cast a shadow on the mutually complementary relationship between Eucharist and Word, thus leading to a false opposition between them.

«Dei Verbum» simply recalls that the Church has historically observed a certain parallelism between the liturgical honors offered to sacred Scriptures and that offered to the Eucharist (incense, candles, etc.). The point was not to produce equivalence but rather to emphasize the fact that, contrary to certain accusations, Catholics had always venerated the Word. After all, the same Second Vatican Council had earlier proclaimed the liturgy, and especially the Eucharist, as the summit and source of the Church’s life.

The Synod’s recommendation of a more unitary perception of the Word in its relationship with the Eucharist should also be seen in continuity with previous doctrine. At the same time, a fuller and deeper vision of the various dimensions of the Word in Catholic life and worship can only lead to a fuller appreciation of the importance of the Eucharist as the fulfillment of Scripture.

* * *

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.

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