Venerating Relics at Mass

And More on the Extraordinary Form

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ROME, OCT. 13, 2009 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In our community when we celebrate a saint’s feast day, and we have a relic of the saint present at the Mass, we offer the faithful an opportunity to venerate the relic at the end of the Mass. There seems to be a disagreement regarding the rubrics for how this should be done. I was always told that the proper veneration for the relic of a saint is a genuflection on one knee if it is the actual feast day of the saint; otherwise it is a profound bow. Someone told me that the genuflection on one knee is only for the relic of the True Cross. Could you please clarify this matter as I am unable to find the answer anywhere? Also, is it true that the faithful may receive a plenary indulgence if they receive the blessing of a newly ordained priest and that this may be obtained anytime during that priest’s first year of ordination? — E.M., Bloomington, Indiana

A: According to the rules for genuflection contained in the Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 69, and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 274, the genuflection, as the most solemn sign of liturgical reverence, is «made by bending the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and therefore it is reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament, as well as for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.

«During Mass, three genuflections are made by the priest celebrant: namely, after the showing of the host, after the showing of the chalice, and before Communion.

«Certain specific features to be observed in a concelebrated Mass are noted in their proper place (cf. above, nos. 210-251).

«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.

«Otherwise all who pass before the Most Blessed Sacrament genuflect, unless they are moving in procession.

«Ministers carrying the processional cross or candles bow their heads instead of genuflecting.»

Although no longer mentioned in current legislation, the custom of making a genuflection before a publicly exposed relic of the True Cross or another relic of the Passion remains in force. Indeed, the abovementioned practice of genuflecting to the cross on Good Friday and Holy Saturday most likely began in Jerusalem with the veneration of the True Cross.

In the extraordinary form of the Roman rite there is a wider use of the genuflection. For example, during liturgical functions the altar cross receives the same genuflections as those accorded to the reserved Blessed Sacrament. The pope and others such as cardinals, bishops and some other ecclesiastical dignitaries were also reverenced with a simple genuflection albeit only within the confines of their jurisdictions.

There are also some genuflections made on pronouncing certain words, such as when remembering the Incarnation during the Nicene Creed on Christmas Day and on the feast of the Annunciation. The extraordinary form has many more such incidences than these two days.

Outside of the liturgy, popular piety has several occasions for making genuflections. For example, many Catholics have the custom of making a genuflection during the Way of the Cross at the words «We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, for through your Holy Cross you have saved the world.»

Regarding the mode of venerating relics, there are few recent norms except the prohibition of placing them upon the table of the altar for public veneration (Ceremonial of Bishops 866, 921). The classical 1962 ceremonies manual in Italian by Ludovico Trimeloni, recently reissued, states that it is good, but not obligatory, to make a bow of the head toward relics of saints that are solemnly exposed for veneration. He also states that all relics, including those of the Cross, should not receive the kind of veneration usually reserved only to exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, such as removing any head covering and incensing from a kneeling position.

According to present practice, if a relic is present in the presbytery during Mass, it may only be incensed at the beginning of Mass after incensing the altar. In general, however, the veneration of saintly relics should be kept separate from the Mass. For example, it is possible to have a relic present in the presbytery during Mass, but it would not be correct to conclude the Mass by blessing the people with the relic. After Mass, however, the celebrant could return from the sacristy after removing his chasuble and direct some devotional prayers toward the saint, bless the faithful with the relic, and offer the possibility of them coming forward to kiss it.

Trimeloni states that nothing is said when blessing with a relic of the Passion. When blessing with a relic of a saint the celebrant may use an appropriate formula such as: «Through the intercession of St. N. may Almighty God bless ….» Likewise, when offering the relic to be kissed, the celebrant may also use a suitable formula although it is by no means obligatory. For example: «Through his Passion and Cross (or through the intercession of St. N.) may God free you from all evil. Amen.»

Trimeloni notes that all should kneel during the blessing with a relic, even for that of a saint. Perhaps this custom is what led our reader to believe that a genuflection was in order in venerating the saint’s relic on his feast day.

Finally, regarding the incorrect belief that a plenary indulgence is attached to a new priest’s blessing, we addressed this issue in our column of May 8, 2007.

* * *

Follow-up: Frequency of Extraordinary Form

Related to our Sept. 29 commentaries on the frequency of the extraordinary form of the Roman rite were a couple of questions that could complement that response.

A Moncton, New Brunswick, reader asked: «We are recently having a Mass in the 1962 version of the Tridentine Mass. Is it allowed to sing the Our Father with the priest? Are the appointed servers of Communion in the new rites, as we use today, allowed to distribute Communion in the 1962 Mass?»

As mentioned previously, I believe that the rubrics of the 1962 missal have preference over more recent canonical developments. Since this missal foresees only the priest and deacon as ministers of Communion at Mass, the use of extraordinary ministers is not contemplated.

With respect to singing or reciting the Pater Noster in Latin along with the celebrant, this practice was permitted in the so-called dialogue Masses in which the faithful would follow the Mass along with the celebrant.

A Troy, Michigan, reader asked the following: «Some of my friends who are attached to the Tridentine form of the Mass seem to be irritated at the use of the Nicene Creed in the Novus Ordo. They focus in on the use of ‘We believe’ instead of ‘I believe.’ What’s up with this? Was only the Apostles’ Creed used in the Latin Mass? The Nicene Creed seems to be very rich in theology, and it’s almost poetic. I find it a wonderful source for prayerful meditation.»

Actually, the use of the Apostles’ Creed in the Mass liturgy is the novelty. The extraordinary form uses only the Nicene Creed at Mass. The protests probably stem from the fact that «Credo» is translated as «we» instead of as «I» which is the form found in the original Greek and its Latin translation.

The use of «we,» while theologically correct in expressing the community dimension of faith, is certainly not an accurate translation. For this reason the recently approved new English translation of the Creed returns to the first person singular form.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church in Nos. 26-175 eloquently expresses this double reality of «I» and «we» believe.

* * *

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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