This post will examine the three remaining elements of the Liturgy of the Word in the light of the provisions of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) and the traditional practice of the Roman Rite. The homily, the profession of faith, and the universal prayer or prayers of the faithful each have specific postures, gestures, and movements associated with them during the course of the celebration of Mass.
After the reading of the Gospel, the priest celebrant may preach “standing at the chair, at the ambo itself, or in another suitable place” (GIRM, 136). Historically, “another suitable place” could designate either a raised pulpit in the nave, or the entrance to the sanctuary (as at the gates of the altar rail), or before the altar itself toward the side of the sanctuary where the Gospel was proclaimed (See Adrian Fortescue, J.B. O’Connell, and Alcuin Reid, The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, Bloomsbury, 2009, p. 71). In any of these locations, the homilist is intended to preach standing. Instead of the principal celebrant, a concelebrating priest might preach either at the ambo or at “another suitable place.” While a deacon might preach the homily during Mass at the ambo or even at “another suitable place,” he would not preach standing at his chair according to tradition (See Peter Elliot, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, Ignatius, 1995, p. 98).
If the priest celebrant or a concelebrant preaches from the ambo, he makes a profound bow to the altar with hands joined whenever passing in front of it in order to arrive at the ambo or return to the presidential chair. After preaching, the deacon (and server) may rise as the priest celebrant approaches the presidential chair as a mark of respect for him. All sit for some time in silence to ponder what has been proclaimed in God’s Word and in the homily. It is important that this time be free of fidgeting or wandering glances—as if one is anxious to have it all over with —and quickly! The Holy Spirit speaks to the heart in silence and this takes a few moments of uninterrupted quiet, being careful not to prolong it unnecessarily, such that it might become wearisome or burdensome to those gathered.
The celebrant then rises to lead the assembly in the profession of faith by singing, or at least by reciting, the opening words of the Creed, either in the form of the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed. Historically, the Nicene Creed was recited facing the altar since it is a profession of faith made to God. (The Apostles’ Creed has historically been associated with baptism, hence the suggestion that it might be used during the seasons of Lent or Easter. Order for Mass, 19) The profession of faith is a public act done in common, and the gathered faithful, priest and people together, profess their faith before God first and foremost as an act of thanksgiving and praise to him who has granted the gift of faith itself while all were still in unbelief. Therefore, the celebrant could face the faithful momentarily in order to elicit their participation and then turn his gaze toward the altar which remains the focus of the entire assembly’s worship throughout the course of Mass.
The server should arrive in front of the celebrant before the celebrant begins the first words of the Creed. The missal is held directly in front of the celebrant by a server for the Creed and what follows. During the Creed, all bow their heads at the name of Jesus. All bow from the waist at the words “and by the Holy Spirit . . . and became man.” At all the Masses of Christmas and Christmas Eve, as well as at the Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25, all genuflect on one knee at the same words (The rubric at this point in the Masses for Christmas, i.e., “All kneel,” according to the English translation of the third edition of the Missal, seems to be in error compared to the corresponding rubric in the Mass for March 25, i.e., “All genuflect.” In both cases, the Latin typical edition uses the same term, genuflectitur. While this Latin word might be considered ambiguous by some, designating either genuflection or kneeling, the traditional practice at this point has consistently indicated genuflection on one knee. See Fortescue, O’Connell and Reid, Ceremonies, p. 72)
After the Creed, the celebrant turns to face the people to introduce the universal prayer using one of the formulas found in Appendix V of the Missal or simply by saying “Let us pray.” The celebrant faces forward toward the altar with hands joined while the intentions are read or sung by the deacon, a reader, or cantor, who themselves face the people to do so whether they are standing at the ambo, or at their seat, or at some other suitable place (See GIRM, 138). While the intentions are being read out, the celebrant may close his eyes and bow his head in order to signify that he is indeed praying. Again, he will be leading the assembly by example in doing so. All are meant to prayerfully ponder in their hearts those needs spoken by the deacon. Their vocal response to the deacon’s intentions will be authentic to the degree that all have taken the time to pray.
The celebrant, still standing in the same position, now with hands extended, concludes the universal prayer with an appropriate collect from the missal taken either from the Masses for Various Needs and Occasions or from Appendix V. (Traditionally, none of the texts for Mass, other than the homily, were spoken spontaneously; all the spoken parts of Mass itself were read from printed texts or from memorized fixed forms.)
All then sit and the preparation of the gifts and the altar begins. Here too, a complex set of postures, gestures, and movements will be involved. The Roman Church’s traditional practice will continue to be a great help in standardizing the manner in which all these gestures are meant to take place.
Monsignor Marc B. Caron, S.T.L., is a vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Portland, ME. He has served as a pastor, as the director of the diocesan Office for Worship, and as a chancellor of the diocese. Most recently, he was a member of the faculty of St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA, where he was also director of liturgy. He received his licentiate degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. He is the author of a number of articles which have appeared in The Jurist, Worship, Catechumenate, and in Homiletic and Pastoral Review.