ROME, 8 FEB. 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I was at Mass at a local pilgrimage site and was concelebrating a Hispanic pilgrimage Mass. The teenage altar server was dressed in a cassock and surplice. When the celebrant reached the epiclesis, this altar server stood up and walked out in front of the altar. He paused for a moment with hands folded and then prostrated on the floor during the entire consecration. Is there any rubric for prostration, outside ordination, in the ordinary rites of the Mass? — P.N., Huntsville, Alabama
A: I have never observed this posture for acolytes at any Masses, Hispanic or otherwise, and can only suppose that it was either an act of personal devotion or a restricted local custom.
The universal act of reverence during the consecration for all the faithful is kneeling, as prescribed in No. 43 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM).
Although this prostration admirably demonstrates a deep faith in the Eucharistic mystery, it would be better to discourage it in favor of a uniform posture by all the faithful. GIRM, No. 42, says: "A common posture, to be observed by all participants, is a sign of the unity of the members of the Christian community gathered for the Sacred Liturgy: it both expresses and fosters the intention and spiritual attitude of the participants."
The gesture of prostration is the most expressive sign of a sense of deep humility and reverence. Thus, Abraham and Moses prostrated themselves before God (Genesis 17:3; Exodus 34:8). The sick did Jesus homage when asking for healing (Matthew 8:2) as did those who wanted to show him their sentiments of adoration (Matthew 14:33; 28:9). The Book of Revelation also contrasts those who prostrate themselves before God (4:10) and those who do so before the idols or the beast (13:4).
On occasion it also denotes a penitential attitude, such as when Joseph's brothers prostrated themselves as a sign of respect and in asking for forgiveness (Genesis 42:6; 43:26,28; 44:14).
In the ancient Gallican rite of sixth- to eighth-century France and Germany, the gesture of prostration was used before beginning every Mass. A trace of this practice is still found on Good Friday in which the celebrant prostrates before the bare altar at the beginning of the celebration of the Lord's Passion. Otherwise, it is a relatively rare gesture in the Roman rite, and for this very reason it serves to underline the importance of the moment at hand.
The most common use of prostration is during the litany of saints at ordinations. It is also used at the same ritual moment for some other special rites, such as the blessing of an abbot or abbess. It may also be used for the rite of consecration of virgins. And some religious orders adopt it for perpetual professions.
In many countries this posture is used in intense private prayer and as an act of penance and self-mortification. The soon-to-be Blessed Pope John Paul II would often pray prostrate before the altar and tabernacle of his private chapel both as archbishop of Krakow and in the Vatican.
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Follow-up: Prostration at the Consecration [2-22-2011]
Our Feb. 8 column dealt with the matter of an acolyte who prostrated himself in front of the altar during the consecration at Mass. A reader from Trenton, New Jersey, had earlier asked about a related matter at the consecration.
He wrote: "I assume there are no rubrics, but what is the recommended posture while kneeling? Specifically, I feel it makes most sense to bow my head deeply during the words of the consecration and then to look up, adore, and say, 'My Lord and my God' while doing so as the host and chalice are elevated. It seems I'm not normal, though, as I've noticed a lot of folks doing the opposite — looking during the consecration and bowing during the elevation. Any suggestions?"
As our reader says, there are no rubrics regarding this point except that the faithful should kneel. I have written on a couple of occasions that bowing during the elevation is not quite correct, since the purpose of the elevation is precisely for the host and chalice to be seen.
Kneeling is already an act of reverence, so there is no particular need to bow the head during the words of consecration. At the same time, if this helps one to concentrate the mind and spiritually unite oneself more attentively to the sacred action, then I see no reason why it cannot be done. It is a question of each person's spiritual sensibility. Some will profit more by looking at the moment of consecration, others, such as our reader, gain more by refraining from doing so. The Church neither obliges nor reproves one or the other practice.