|ROME, 1 JUNE 2004 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: 1) Is the crucifix essential to the celebration of the Mass? 2) When
the priest comes to the altar, does he bow toward the altar? At the end of
Mass, the priest venerates the altar; does he bows toward the crucifix or
the tabernacle? 3) During the consecration prayer ("Take this ...") the
concelebrants extend their hands, but they do not do this uniformly. Some
extend the hand with palm downward, while others extend it with palm open
toward the ceiling. Which is correct?
A: As there are several questions I will try to answer them in order.
1. The use of the crucifix is obligatory during the celebration of Mass.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal in No. 308 requires the use of
a "cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar
or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It
is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the
saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of
This specific call for the use of the crucifix was probably inserted into
the new GIRM to counter a movement which favored the use of simple bare
crosses or even images of the risen Christ.
While such symbols may have a role in churches, they may not substitute
the crucifix. Use of the crucifix during Mass serves as a reminder and a
sign that the Eucharistic celebration is the same sacrifice as Calvary.
Yet, there are many different acceptable forms of liturgical crucifix
which may be used at Mass.
2. If the tabernacle is present in the sanctuary, then the priest and
ministers genuflect toward it at the beginning (before kissing the altar)
and at the end of Mass (after kissing the altar), but not during the
even though they may cross in front of it.
It may be an approved custom in your country, India, to substitute a deep
bow for a genuflection if this gesture has the same significance of
adoration implied in the genuflection.
If the tabernacle is not present in the sanctuary, then the priest and
ministers bow toward the altar (not the crucifix) at the beginning and end
3. Your third question reflects a long-standing debate regarding this
gesture which has occasioned rivers of ink to be spilt among liturgists
without really clearing anything up.
I would first observe that, unlike the pronunciation of the words of
consecration, the gesture of extending the hand at this moment may even be
omitted and is not required for the validity of the concelebrants'
The crux of the debate is to determine whether the gesture of extending
the hand is merely indicative
pointing toward the sacred species
whether it is directly a sign of the concelebrants' power of consecration.
Those who favored the indicative meaning favor the palm pointing upward,
usually at a slight angle.
Others, such as the late Benedictine Cipriano Vagaggini (who actually had
a hand in composing the new rite of concelebration), favored the epicletic
(invocative) gesture of palms downward in the same manner that all priests
do at the beginning of the rite of consecration when they extend both
hands and call upon the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine into
Christ's body and blood.
After a few years it became apparent that the debate was going nowhere
and, absent an official declaration from the Holy See, everybody more or
less agreed to disagree.
This does not mean that when some priests act one way and others another
they are expressing some profound theological disagreement. It probably
does no more then reflect the opinion of whoever taught liturgy in the
* * *
Follow-up: Crucifixes and Bows [from 06-15-2004]
As always our attentive readers see gaps in my replies. I will try to
clear up any doubts. Regarding the June 1 column, a reader asked if the
bows toward the altar when crossing the sanctuary applied to servers as
well as priests, or should they bow toward the crucifix.
These bows should be made by all to the altar whenever crossing in front
of it, except in those cases when one is moving in procession.
The reason that the altar has preference over the crucifix is because the
symbolic value of the altar as representative of Christ is theologically
far stronger than that of the crucifix.
This symbolism was felt far more strongly in ancient times, before it
became customary to venerate the tabernacle and place the crucifix upon or
near the altar. But the altar conserves its central role as symbol of
Christ himself, present in the midst of the assembly as victim and as food
St. Ambrose of Milan says "For what is the altar of Christ if not the
image of the Body of Christ" and elsewhere "the Altar represents the Body
(of Christ) and the Body of Christ is on the altar" (see Catechism, No.
Some Fathers even hazard to say that the altar "is" Christ, a statement
which is true in a sense but which today needs to be nuanced so as to
avoid causing an erroneous parallel between the symbolic presence in the
altar and the substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
This is why the gesture of respect for the altar differs from that of the
tabernacle, for as indicated by the General Instruction of the Roman
Missal, No. 274-275, "A genuflection indicates adoration ... while a bow
signifies reverence and honor shown to the persons themselves or to the
signs that represent them."
At the same time, the genuflection toward the tabernacle is made at the
beginning and end of Mass only if the tabernacle is within the precincts
of the sanctuary. If the tabernacle is within an adoration chapel, then
only the bow toward the altar is made at the beginning and end of Mass.
Several readers asked if the different bows indicated in GIRM No. 275 were
for everybody or only the priest. The text states:
"There are two kinds of bows: a bow of the head and a bow of the body.
"a. A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named
together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the
Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated.
"b. A bow of the body, that is to say a profound bow, is made to the
altar; during the prayers 'Munda cor meum' (Almighty God, cleanse my
heart) and 'In spiritu humilitatis' (Lord God, we ask you to receive); in
the Creed at the words 'Et incarnatus est' (by the power of the Holy
Spirit ... made man); in the Roman Canon at the words 'Supplices te
rogamus' (Almighty God, we pray that your angel). The same kind of bow is
made by the deacon when he asks for a blessing before the proclamation of
the Gospel. In addition, the priest bows slightly as he speaks the words
of the Lord at the consecration."
Taking a cue from several questions I remark the following.
The bows mentioned in this number are made by whoever recites the prayer
to which the gesture is attached. Thus, in those prayers recited only by
the priest, only he makes a bow at this moment.
In prayers said in common all bow at the indicated moments. Thus, for
example, everybody should make a bow of the head during the Gloria at both
mentions of the name Jesus Christ but not when the priest mentions the
name during the presidential prayers.
The GIRM however is not exhaustive and it is not necessarily true that
everything not specifically mandated is therefore forbidden.
There are some bows which are either not explicitly stipulated, or are
stipulated only for bishops but are customarily extended to the priest.
For example, it is a common practice for servers to bow toward the priest
after they bring the missal to the chair, when they bring the water and
wine, and then again after the washing of the hands. While not obligatory
these customs may be continued.
Likewise those Catholics who have the custom of bowing the head on hearing
the name of Jesus may continue to do so even though this gesture is not
mandated in the liturgy. For here we are dealing with a pious custom, not
a liturgical act. ZE04061525