Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: My friends and I have been discussing what the reason is that the deacon kneels at the epiclesis of the Mass and not when the congregation kneels. I know that it is specified in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), but we are interested in the theological or symbolic reason if there is one. — M.T., Chicago
A: One of the causes for not finding any particular theological or symbolic reasons for this difference is probably that there are none.
The reasons for the differences are primarily of a practical nature.
First of all, it must be observed that this difference is only found in some countries such as the United States.
The GIRM in use in England and Wales says the following:
“43. …. But they should kneel at the consecration, except when prevented on occasion by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people present, or some other good reason. Those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the consecration. Nevertheless, it is up to the Conference of Bishops to adapt the gestures and postures described in the Order of Mass to the culture and reasonable traditions of the people. The Conference, however, must make sure that such adaptations correspond to the meaning and character of each part of the celebration.
“Where it is the practice for the people to remain kneeling after the Sanctus until the end of the Eucharistic Prayer and before Communion when the priest says, Ecce Agnus Dei (This is the Lamb of God), this practice is laudably retained. With a view to a uniformity in gestures and postures during one and the same celebration, the faithful should follow the directions which the deacon, lay minister, or priest gives according to whatever is indicated in the Missal.”
In the United States, however, this same number reads:
“In the Dioceses of the United States of America, they should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by ill health, or for reasons of lack of space, of the large number of people present, or for another reasonable cause. However, those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the Priest genuflects after the Consecration. The faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise.
“For the sake of uniformity in gestures and bodily postures during one and the same celebration, the faithful should follow the instructions which the Deacon, a lay minister, or the Priest gives, according to what is laid down in the Missal.”
The British translation reflects the definitive Latin version of the missal. The United States version determines a variant practice for the United States which has been duly approved by the Holy See as particular law.
In fact, it was after approving the petition of the U.S. bishops that the Holy See amended the original text to include the phrase: “Where it is the practice for the people to remain after the Sanctus until the end of the Eucharistic Prayer and before Communion when the priest says Ecce Agnus Dei (This is the Lamb of God), this practice is laudably retained.” This means that if other bishops’ conferences desired to retain this practice, they were able to do so without having to recur to the Holy See for permission.
With respect to the deacon the GIRM says:
“179. During the Eucharistic Prayer, the Deacon stands near the Priest, but slightly behind him, so that when necessary he may assist the Priest with the chalice or the Missal.
“From the epiclesis, until the Priest shows the chalice, the Deacon usually remains kneeling. If several Deacons are present, one of them may place incense in the thurible for the Consecration and incense the host and the chalice at the elevation.”
Therefore, the deacon basically follows the universal practice even though there is a legitimate variation of posture for the people in the United States.
This is because the deacon’s proper ministerial role would usually require him to remain standing except for during the consecration.
For example, among his duties would be helping the priest with the missal during the Eucharistic Prayer.
Likewise, if chalice palls are used, he would uncover any chalices immediately before the epiclesis and would replace the palls after the memorial acclamation.
He most certainly would have to be back on his feet before the end of the Eucharistic Prayer so as to accompany the priest during the final doxology by raising the chalice.
Finally, the deacon at the altar should never do any liturgical act while kneeling. A hand should never appear from below the altar to change a page or remove a chalice pall.
As mentioned the pall should be removed before the epiclesis or, if the presence of dust or insects requires it to be kept on as much as possible, the priest can remove it himself, just as he can turn the page if necessary.
Therefore the deacon should only kneel during the consecration since his ministry as deacon requires it.
In some cases, such as the need to assist a frail elderly priest, or the need to sustain a microphone so the priest can be heard, then the deacon, and indeed another suitable minister could remain standing even during the consecration.
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Follow-up: Instrumental Music After Communion
In the wake of our February 5 article on instrumental music after communion, a priest reader commented:
“In the concluding remarks about music after communion, I read something about meditative music. I do not remember seeing anything about meditative music after communion in official documents. I have seen that a ‘Psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn may be sung (cf. no. 88)’, but not meditative music. I understand the time after communion is for silent or sung praise. I think that silent or sung praise can foster the community aspects that sharing communion should bring us, while meditative music tends to bring us into ourselves and away from community at this point in the liturgy.”
Our reader is correct, and I should probably have been clearer. Effectively there is no mention whatsoever in official documents of meditative music with respect to this part of the liturgy. At most, there is a suggestion that the music for the responsorial psalm be of a meditative kind.
The point I was trying to make was that, if one opts to substitute a period of silent thanksgiving with a psalm or praise hymn, then the music that accompanies the words should seek to effect a similar prayerful attitude in the assembly.
Although not mandated, a melody that musically ponders the text would seem more liturgically adequate than a rousing marching song at this moment of the liturgy.
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Readers may send questions to email@example.com. 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.