Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: As one who carries the Book of the Gospels at our Masses, I have some questions. When the book is being carried in, should it be at a modest elevation with the cover facing outward or facing the lector/carrier? I also read that one should make a profound bow when leaving the Book of the Gospels on the altar. Should that be a bow after depositing the book or before that act? — R.B., Rockport, Ontario
A: Not everything is specified in detail in the liturgical books. This is especially true of elements such as carrying the Book of the Gospels, which is a relative novelty in the current Latin liturgy, albeit with historical antecedents.
There are some surviving examples of beautiful manuscript versions of the Books of the Gospels for liturgical use until about the 12th century. From about 1200 onward the convention of including all the readings for Mass within the missal led to the practical disappearance of separate lectionaries.
Before the current liturgical reform reintroduced the Lectionary and the Evangeliary as distinct books, it was possible for a local bishop to authorize the publication of separate lectionaries and Books of the Gospel extracted from the missal for certain solemn celebrations. This was far from being a universal practice, however.
The Introduction to the Book of the Gospels has the following indications:
“9. In the Entrance Procession, the vested deacon reverently carries the Book of the Gospels before him so that it may be seen by the faithful. With the priest he makes the proper reverence and goes up to the altar, placing the Book of the Gospels on it. The deacon then kisses the altar at the same time as the priest. In the absence of a deacon, the reader reverently carries the Book of the Gospels in procession. The reader follows the acolytes and other ministers in procession. The reader places the Book of the Gospels on the altar, but the reader does not kiss the altar.”
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) adds the following indications for deacons and lectors carrying the Book of the Gospels:
“A. MASS WITHOUT A DEACON
“The Introductory Rites
“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. The thurifer carrying a thurible with burning incense, if incense is used;
“b. The ministers who carry lighted candles, and between them an acolyte or another minister with the cross;
“c. The acolytes and the other ministers;
“d. A lector, who may carry the Book of the Gospels (though not the Lectionary), which should be slightly elevated;
“e. The priest who is to celebrate the Mass.
“172. Carrying the Book of the Gospels slightly elevated, the deacon precedes the priest as he approaches the altar or else walks at the priest’s side.
“173. When he 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.
“If, however, he is not carrying the Book of the Gospels, he makes a profound bow to the altar with the priest in the customary way and with him venerates the altar with a kiss. Lastly, if incense is used, he assists the priest in putting some into the thurible and in incensing the cross and the altar.
“D. THE DUTIES OF THE LECTOR
“194. In coming to the altar, when no deacon is present, the lector, wearing approved attire, may carry the Book of the Gospels, which is to be slightly elevated. In that case, the lector walks in front of the priest but otherwise along with the other ministers.
“195. Upon reaching the altar, the lector makes a profound bow with the others. If he is carrying the Book of the Gospels, he approaches the altar and places the Book of the Gospels upon it. Then the lector takes his own place in the sanctuary with the other ministers.”
While it is clear that the Book of the Gospels should be elevated in the procession, nothing indicates the direction of the book as such. I would say that it is customary to have the front of the book facing outward toward the people even though this means turning it when reaching the altar so that, in accordance with the practice of the Roman rite, it lies flat upon the altar table.
Indeed, precious bindings and covers for the Book of the Gospel frequently have finer decoration on the front, precisely with the different processions in mind.
While the texts distinguish between the deacon “going up” to the altar and the lector “approaching the altar” it is not clear if any ritual implications would follow. Perhaps it could mean that the deacon would practically always go around the altar before placing the Book of the Gospels and await the arrival of the priest while the lector will often place the book on the altar from its front. The vast variety of sanctuary designs makes it very difficult to determine exact procedures in this matter.
In general, a profound bow is not made while carrying the book as is specifically indicated for the deacon. There is no norm as to making a bow after leaving the Book of the Gospels upon the altar, and the deacon would certainly not do so as he will kiss the altar with the priest.
It is understandable that the lector carrying the Book of the Gospels might feel that a bow toward the altar is appropriate at this time, but GIRM No. 195 (above) would appear to suggest that he or she proceed directly to the lector’s assigned place in the sanctuary with no further acts of reverence at this time.
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Follow-up: Priest’s Role in the Passion Reading
In the wake of our June 18 reply regarding the proclamation of the Passion Gospel, a reader from Boston has contributed some useful supplementary information for which I am grateful. To wit:
“May I suggest that it might be helpful for your reader(s) to also consult the very clear Praenotanda of the book ‘The Passion of the Lord’ — whether with music or without. These rubrics are far more detailed and both introduce a number of details and clarify a number of points regarding the proclamation of the Passion. They are often overlooked, but the ‘Passio Domini nostri Iesu Christi’ is recognized by Liturgiam Authenticam 110 as a liturgical book of the Roman Rite.
“An English translation (with a couple of minor adaptions) can be found, for example, at the beginning of the Passion Gospel texts approved by the USCCB and widely used for the reading ‘in parts.’ The fact that this introduction is printed in non-musical editions, and the phrasing of the rubrics themselves, make it clear that these rubrics apply to the Passion even when read/not chanted.
“The rubric in this book makes the priority of ministers clearer than in Paschale Solemnitatis, specifying that deacons must be absent for priests to take on the role, and likewise the ordained for the non-ordained. In the USCCB translation, the relevant portion reads:
“‘The story of the Passion of the Lord is sung or proclaimed by three voices… The Passion is to be presented by deacons, or, in their absence, by priests, or in their absence too, by lectors. In the last case, however, the part of Christ should be reserved for the celebrant.’
“The version of the sung Passion printed in the U.S. contains a further modification of this rubric in favor of non-ordained singers, though it is not clear whether that modification was ever explicitly approved in the usual manner.”
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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.