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Liturgical Traditions: The Introductory Rites for Mass

In this post, we will examine how the introductory rites for Mass might best take place according to the provisions set down in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM) and the “traditional practice of the Roman Rite” (GIRM no. 42). Exploring the Roman tradition’s customs regarding the gestures, postures, and movements at Mass is an act of liturgical retrieval, since a working knowledge of these traditions has nearly been lost in the usual celebration of the Novus Ordo. Much as the instruction on translating liturgical texts Liturgiam Authenticum has required the Church to seek a close correspondence between the Latin texts of the Mass and their vernacular translations, GIRM no. 42 implies that some effort should be made to incorporate the historical manner of conducting oneself during Mass in the course of contemporary celebrations of the revised Order for Mass.

When celebrants are able to develop a habit of embodying the ars celebrandi, this frees the mind from constantly having to make decisions as to how to get from point A to point B, for example. By relying on an established pattern, one grounded in the norms and the tradition, the celebrant and other ministers can be free to enter more deeply into the mystery they are celebrating.

Both priest and deacon enter the sanctuary and begin Mass standing at chairs placed at a right angle to the altar. The chairs will be on the left side of the sanctuary as one faces the sanctuary if the priest normally stands at the altar facing the nave. They will be placed on the right side of the sanctuary if he faces liturgical east when standing at the altar. The instituted acolyte or server holds the missal open in both hands as he stands directly in front of the priest at the chair during the entire period of the introductory rites. A master of ceremonies or another server turns the pages of the missal as necessary, or the celebrant may do so himself.

Certainly the priest may not need the missal in front of him for all the texts of the introductory rites, but traditionally the celebrant was always had the texts for Mass in front of him either in the missal or on cards even when praying some of those same texts from memory. (At an early morning Sunday Mass or at a daily Mass, when a server might not always be available, it seems that there is no alternative than to place a lectern in front of the celebrant’s chair for the missal, since there is no provision in the GIRM for beginning Mass with a congregation while standing at the altar with the missal on the altar itself.)

The missal itself gives two different indications for the orientation of the celebrant when making the sign of the cross. In one location (see Order for Mass no. 1), it directs him to face the people for the sign of the cross and the greeting that follow it. In another location (see GIRM no. 124), it directs him to turn to the people to offer the greeting, presumably after having made the sign of cross reading from the missal. The first direction is the most natural one. The second makes sense if there is no singing at the entrance and the priest is reading the entrance antiphon from the missal, as is often the case on weekday Masses, for example. In that case, he concludes the entrance antiphon with the sign of the cross while facing the missal, just as in the past the priest faced the missal to begin the introit antiphon with the sign of the cross.

The sign of the cross is made with the right hand, of course. The hand is fully extended, with fingers joined, and traces a Greek cross from the forehead, to the breast, to the left shoulder, and then to the right shoulder. Meanwhile, the left hand rests on the priest’s chest. His right hand does not extend lower than his left hand when making the sign of the cross (See Ceremonial for Bishops no. 108, note 81). Afterwards, the priest immediately joins his hands and then he looks at the faithful and extends his hands toward the faithful as he offers the liturgical greeting. The priest joins his hands and receives the people’s response, “And with your spirit.”

Each time the priest celebrant addresses the people, it is important that he look at them. He is directing his words to them, after all; and he is expecting some kind of response from them, as well. The eyes can communicate more than words, or even gestures. By his demeanor, facial expression, and glance, the priest celebrant establishes an atmosphere of dialogue with the assembly which is essential for the proper celebration of the Eucharist. The priest stands in persona Christi capitis—in the person of Christ the head—while the faithful in the nave constitute the members of Jesus’ Mystical Body. For the Eucharist is always the action of Christ, head and members, lived out in the life of the Church hierarchically gathered.

Still facing the people, the celebrant offers the invitation to the penitential act with hands joined, glancing at the missal if necessary. The priest may close his eyes for a moment and bow his head to allow for a brief examination of conscience in silence. In doing so, the priest and deacon indicate that they also are in need of purification at the beginning of Mass. In addition, they model for the assembly how to recollect oneself for an examination of conscience. Formerly, the Confiteor and verses to the prayers at the foot of the altar (“Have mercy on us O Lord…”) as well as the Kyrie, were recited facing the altar. Nowadays, when praying these parts of the introductory rites of Mass, it is proper for the celebrant and the deacon to likewise turn slightly toward the altar at their chairs, or at least face directly forward at the altar from their chairs.

The celebration of the Eucharist is a corporal act of worship. It is by its nature directed to God. Historically, this was represented by focusing one’s attention toward the altar, which stands as the symbol of Christ in the midst of the praying community. As Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 7 reminds us, Christ is also be found when the community gathers in prayer, in the proclamation of his Word, in the person of the ordained minister, and really, truly, and substantially in the Eucharistic species. Orienting one’s prayer to the altar is another way to remind us, spatially and bodily, that Christ is in our midst.

When praying the Confiteor, the celebrant strikes his breast three times with his open hand, fingers joined (See P. Elliott, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, Ignatius Press, 93). He holds his left hand on his chest, below the location where he will strike his breast with the right hand. The priest concludes the penitential act with hands joined (and without making the sign of the cross) while saying, “May almighty God….” The penitential act concluded, the priest begins the assembly’s praying of the Gloria by singing (or saying) its opening words with hands joined. At this time, the priest is turned at least slightly toward the altar or facing the missal. Again, this hymn is sung to glorify God in worship. For this reason, we must understand that it addresses God and it is not sung by the faithful to each other—as members of a group might at other social gatherings. Making that distinction clear by one’s posture helps to take the celebration of the Eucharist out of the profane realm and place it in the realm of sacred actions. The GIRM indicates that all remain standing during the course of the Gloria (GIRM no. 43). Twice during the Gloria all bow their heads at the holy name of “Jesus Christ.”

Once the Gloria is concluded, the priest turns toward the people with hands joined to say “Let us pray.” He then turns toward the open missal and pauses in silence for a time. Again, he has invited people to pray; he should set the example by visibly praying silently himself. Then, extending his open hands with the fingers joined together, he prays the collect. During the collect all bow their heads at the name of Jesus, Mary, or of the saint commemorated on that day. The celebrant joins his hands at the conclusion of the collect, “Through our Lord Jesus Christ…” or other variants to this formula (Ceremonial of Bishops, no. 136.). After the people have responded “Amen,” the server bows his head to the celebrant, and returns the missal to its place near the celebrant’s seat since the celebrant will eventually use the missal at the chair once again for the Creed and for the Universal Prayer.

In the next post, we will see how the readings of the Liturgy of Word can be proclaimed taking into account the traditional practice of the Roman Rite.

Monsignor Marc Caron

Monsignor Marc Caron

Monsignor Marc Caron is Professor of Liturgy at St. John's Seminary, Brighton, Massachusetts. He is a priest of the Diocese of Portland, Maine, having served there as a pastor and as director of the Office for Worship. He received his licentiate degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Illinois. At St. John’s, he also serves as Director of Liturgy and as a formation advisor. He is the author of a number of articles which have appeared in The Jurist, Worship, Catechumenate, and in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review.