Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I would like to ask a question regarding the use of the Book of the Gospels, or Evangeliary. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 117, says: “On the altar itself may be placed the Book of the Gospels, distinct from the book of other readings, unless it is carried in the Entrance Procession.” Is it possible on some occasions to prepare the Book of the Gospels on a lectern, from the beginning of Mass, in some other part of the church — a side chapel, the church entrance or at the center of the principal nave — and carry it from this place to the ambo at the moment of the Alleluia for proclamation? — G.N., Naples, Italy
A: Apart from No. 117 mentioned above, the Book of the Gospels is mentioned in some other numbers of the introduction to the Roman Missal. The principal ones are:
“44. Among gestures included are also actions and processions: of the priest going with the deacon and ministers to the altar; of the deacon carrying the Evangeliary or Book of the Gospels to the ambo before the proclamation of the Gospel ….
“60. The reading of the Gospel is the high point of the Liturgy of the Word. The Liturgy itself teaches that great reverence is to be shown to it by setting it off from the other readings with special marks of honor: whether the minister appointed to proclaim it prepares himself by a blessing or prayer; or the faithful, standing as they listen to it being read, through their acclamations acknowledge and confess Christ present and speaking to them; or the very marks of reverence are given to the Book of the Gospels.
“119. […] When there is an Entrance Procession, the following are also to be prepared: the Book of the Gospels ….
“120. Once the people have gathered, the priest and ministers, clad in the sacred vestments, go in procession to the altar in this order: […] A lector, [or deacon if present, GIRM, No. 172] who may carry the Book of the Gospels (though not the Lectionary), which should be slightly elevated” [see also GIRM, Nos. 194-195].
“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.
“173. When [the deacon] reaches the altar, if he is carrying the Book of the Gospels, he omits the sign of reverence and goes up to the altar. It is particularly appropriate that he should place the Book of the Gospels on the altar, after which, together with the priest, he venerates the altar with a kiss.
“175. […] Having bowed to the altar, he then takes up the Book of the Gospels which was placed upon it. He proceeds to the ambo, carrying the book slightly elevated. He is preceded by a thurifer, carrying a thurible with smoking incense, and by servers with lighted candles. […] When the deacon is assisting the Bishop, he carries the book to him to be kissed, or else kisses it himself, saying quietly, Per evangelica dicta (May the words of the gospel). In more solemn celebrations, as the occasion suggests, a Bishop may impart a blessing to the people with the Book of the Gospels. Lastly, the deacon may carry the Book of the Gospels to the credence table or to another appropriate and dignified place.”
Nos. 273 and 277 of the GIRM speak about the special veneration reserved for the Book of the Gospels by being kissed and incensed.
From these texts it is clear that the situation envisioned by our reader is not foreseen in the liturgical books. It is true that the norms say that placing the Book of the Gospels upon the altar is “praiseworthy” or “particularly appropriate,” which is not the language of strict obligation. However, the norms offer no alternative location, other than the ambo itself, for placing it, and this alternative implies leaving out the procession of the Evangeliary.
Indeed it is notable that the only procession envisioned is that of taking the book from the altar. No other procession would seem appropriate.
Perhaps it is worthwhile reflecting on the significance of placing the Book of the Gospels upon the altar.
In the Latin rite the altar is the principal center and focal point of the celebration. Indeed as specified in the GIRM, No. 306, it should be reserved in a special way:
“306. Only what is required for the celebration of the Mass may be placed on the mensa of the altar: namely, from the beginning of the celebration until the proclamation of the Gospel, the Book of the Gospels; then from the Presentation of the Gifts until the purification of the vessels, the chalice with the paten, a ciborium if necessary, and, finally, the corporal, the purificator, the pall, and the Missal. In addition, microphones that may be needed to amplify the priest’s voice should be arranged discreetly.”
Therefore, in the context of Mass, placing the Book of the Gospels upon the altar is a sign of the highest veneration. Even if the book were to be placed apart on a special lectern as suggested by our reader it would actually detract from, rather than enhance, the honor due to the sacred text.
To have a procession from this alternative location to the ambo would also in some way lessen and weaken the intimate relationship between Gospel and Eucharist that is symbolized by placing the book upon the altar and taking it from there to the ambo.
Therefore, I do not believe that our reader’s suggestion of placing the book in a visible place before Mass is liturgically acceptable.
That said, it would not seem to be against the norms to have a visible “appropriate and dignified” place for the Book of the Gospels after the proclamation of the word of God. This could be done in a reverent manner but without adding any undue solemnity.
Finally, in some churches it is becoming common to set up a permanent place for venerating God’s word, either the Gospels or the entire Bible. Although this custom is of Protestant origin, there is no reason why it cannot be adopted in Catholic churches as a means of fomenting reading and mediation upon the sacred text.
Indeed, Catholics end up with the best of both worlds. We can read the Book and then go to the tabernacle to have a chat with the author.
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Follow-up: Blessings Over the Phone
In regards to our July 22 piece on blessings over the phone a reader asked: “In an emergency, with the intended recipient between unconscious and comatose, could absolution be given over the phone? A priest who came to the house upon being phoned said he gave absolution, on the spot, from about four miles away. Kosher?”
I think we have two different questions. One is if absolution may be given to a person who is unable to make a sacramental confession and is in imminent danger of death. Here the answer is yes, although some effort should be made to make the person aware that the priest is giving absolution. If possible, it is preferable to administer the anointing of the sick in these cases; the sacrament also has the effect of forgiveness of sins when confession is impossible.
The second question is more delicate: Can absolution be imparted from a distance or even over the phone? Here the general view is that this is not possible. All of the sacraments require some form of physical presence between minister and recipient. Even the possible exception of marriage by proxy still requires the personal presence of the proxy delegate. Likewise a general absolution in an emergency requires the physical presence of those who receive the grace of forgiveness.
This point is corroborated in a statement of the Pontifical Council on Social Communications onThe Church and Internet. To wit:
“Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith” (No. 9).
This merely updates earlier teachings. For instance, absolution by telegraph was declared invalid by a Holy See commission, and this was reiterated on July 1, 1884, regarding the telephone. Most theologians consider that a negative reply in a case such as this is settled Catholic teaching.
The answer would not change just because the question regards a dying comatose person in which issues such as the sacramental seal or determining the penitent’s true contrition are not involved.
The question of invalidity revolves around the essentially interpersonal nature of the sacraments. They are not magical rites but encounters with Christ in which the minister is the human instrument of this personal encounter.
This does not mean that a person in this state is deprived of all spiritual assistance. As canon law states in No. 960: “Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the Church. Only physical or moral impossibility excuses from confession of this type; in such a case reconciliation can be obtained by other means.”
Such other means are an act of perfect contrition (see Canon 916), obviously made before falling into unconsciousness, and many other means which are not specified in Church documents but which God in his mercy makes available.
In this light we can recall how St. Alphonsus Ligouri, in his book on preparation for death, liked to quote the Book of Wisdom (3:1-4): “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality.”
The same saint later continues: “Father St. Colombière held it to be morally impossible that the man who has been faithful to God during life should die a bad death. And before him, St. Augustine said: ‘He who has lived well cannot die badly. He who is prepared to die fears no death, however sudden.’ (De Disc. chr., c. 12).”
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Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.