The Spirit of the Liturgy

There has been much debate lately about what constitutes ‘proper’ behaviour by Priests celebrating Holy Mass. Whenever the subject of the Rubrics for Holy Mass are discussed on blogs the horror stories abound. A Priest waving to the congregation as he processes toward the altar, variations in celebration during Mass – and worse. Admitedly most of those I have heard of originate in the United States. but there are probably similar stories abounding here. When the people of God come together in celebration of the Eucharist and to meet with Our Blessed Lord – only the best must do. Having said this, we, the laity have our part to play in ensuring both the sanctity and solemnity of the Mass. There are places to catch up on the gossip with your friends – the Church is not it, either before or after Holy Mass. The ‘Peace’ (dreaded by some) is not the time to see how many folk you can share it with – it is not a competition. We should approach the Throne of the Most High in a spirit of reverence and gratitude. Christ died on a cross for us – anything less on our part  would be shameful.


More Than Words:

External Signs of Faith by the Celebrant
The Significance of Genuflections and Other Gestures
By Father Nicola Bux

ROME, JAN. 21, 2010 ( Faith in the presence of the Lord, and in particular in his Eucharistic presence, is expressed in an exemplary manner by the priest when he genuflects with profound reverence during the Holy Mass or before the Eucharist.

In the post-conciliar liturgy, these acts of devotion have been reduced to a minimum in the name of sobriety. The result is that genuflections have become a rarity, or a superficial gesture. We have become stingy with our gestures of reverence before the Lord, even though we often praise Jews and Muslims for their fervor and manner way of praying.

More than words, a genuflection manifests the humility of the priest, who knows he is only a minister, and his dignity, as he is able to render the Lord present in the sacrament. However, there are other signs of devotion.

When the priest extends his hands in prayer he is indicating the supplication of the poor and humble one. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GRIM) establishes that the priest, “when he celebrates the Eucharist, therefore, he must serve God and the people with dignity and humility, and by his bearing and by the way he says the divine words he must convey to the faithful the living presence of Christ” (No. 93). An attitude of humility is consonant with Christ himself, meek and humble of heart. He must increase and I must decrease.

In proceeding to the altar, the priest must be humble, not ostentatious, without indulging in looking to the right and to the left, as if he were seeking applause. Instead, he must look at Jesus; Christ crucified is present in the tabernacle, before whom he must bow. The same is done before the sacred images displayed in the apse behind or on the sides of the altar, the Virgin, the titular saint, the other saints.

The reverent kiss of the altar follows and eventually the incense, the sign of the cross and the sober greeting of the faithful. Following the greeting is the penitential act, to be carried out profoundly with the eyes lowered. In the extraordinary form, the the faithful kneel, imitating the publican pleasing to the Lord.

The celebrant must not raise his voice and should maintain a clear tone for the homily, but be submissive and suppliant in prayer, solemn if sung. “In texts that are to be spoken in a loud and clear voice, whether by the priest or the deacon, or by the lector, or by all, the tone of voice should correspond to the genre of the text itself, that is, depending upon whether it is a reading, a prayer, a commentary, an acclamation, or a sung text; the tone should also be suited to the form of celebration and to the solemnity of the gathering” (GRIM, No. 38).

He will touch the holy gifts with wonder, and will purify the sacred vessels with calm and attention, in keeping with the appeal of so many saints and priests before him. He will bow his head over the bread and the chalice in pronouncing the consecrating words of Christ and in the invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiclesi). He will raise them separately, fixing his gaze on them in adoration and then lowering them in meditation. He will kneel twice in solemn adoration. He will continue with recollection and a prayerful tone the anaphora to the doxology, raising the holy gifts in offer to the Father.

Then, he will recite the Our Father with his hands raised, without having anything else in his hands, because that is proper to the rite of peace. The priest will not leave the Sacrament on the altar to give the sign of peace outside the presbytery, instead he will break the Host in a solemn and visible way, then he will genuflect before the Eucharist and pray in silence. He will ask again to be delivered from every indignity not to eat and drink to his own condemnation and to be protected for eternal life by the holy Body and precious Blood of Christ. Then he will present the Host to the faithful for communion, praying “Dominum non sum dignus,” and bowing he will commune first, and thus will be an example to the faithful.

After communion, silence for thanksgiving can be done standing, better than sitting, as a sign of respect, or kneeling, if it is possible, as John Paul II did to the end when he celebrated in his private chapel, with his head bowed and his hands joined. He asked that the gift received be for him a remedy for eternal life, as in the formula that accompanies the purification of the sacred vessels; many faithful do so and are an example.
Should not the paten or cup and the chalice (vessels that are sacred because of what they contain) be “laudably” covered (GRIM 118; cf. 183) in sign of respect — and also for reasons of hygiene — as the Eastern Churches do? The priest, after the final greeting and blessing, going up to the altar to kiss it, will again raise his eyes to the crucifix and will bow and genuflect before the tabernacle. Then he will return to the sacristy, recollected, without dissipating with looks and words the grace of the mystery celebrated.

In this way the faithful will be helped to understand the holy signs of the liturgy, which is something serious, in which everything has a meaning for the encounter with the present mystery of God.
* * *

Father Nicola Bux is professor of Eastern Liturgy in Bari and consultor of the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, for Saints’ Causes, for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, as well as of the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.

About Gertrude

Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium.
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8 Responses to The Spirit of the Liturgy

  1. rebrites says:

    This sounds beautiful, if a bit wide-reaching. The church is so huge and varied… can we truly expect every priest to toe the line with such exactitude, day after day? Will every priest approach the liturgy in this hierarchical way, especially those brought up in a more communitarian church?

    I am all for giving due respect to the sacrament, altar, etc. But I would feel worship to be a dry and formal exercise if our priest turned his back on us during the high point of the worship, or did not condescend to walk through our little church and shake our hands as we “pass the peace” among ourselves. No one in his right mind would see that as the priest “leaving the Eucharist.” Jesus didn´t save the world at a distance. He got right down into the dirt where the people lived and worked and suffered, and shook sinners by the hand. He didn´t worry about “dignity.” If a priest is truly “meek and humble at heart” he will find much more effective ways of being so than by holding out his hands or whispering it at the right ritual moment.

    Out here in the pueblo we are blessed with a parish priest who is one of us: He doesn´t pretend to be anything greater or higher. It´s another reason to respect and love him — he doesn´t cop a “holier than thou” attitude, even if he is a consecrated person. He smiles and laughs and cries, right in front of everyone. He is a real man, not a cardboard character, draped in dignity and vestments. Thank God for that.

    I think it was perceived clerical arrogance and isolation that brought on the Vat2 liturgical reforms, in part. Turning back the clock to eliminate the good, hands-on communality achieved in the newer Mass would be counterproductive. There´s got to be a happy medium in there somewhere.


  2. joyfulpapist says:

    Teresa, that’s an excellent analogy.


  3. sixupman says:


    The problem is that the priest is not ‘one of the boys’ and ceases to be so upon his ordination. After his first Mass, it was the custom for his family and congregation to approach the altar to receive his individual blessing. Such also recognising his status as ‘alter christus’.


  4. mmvc says:

    A priest who has the ‘human touch’, the ability to reach out to his flock with kindness and compassion, is indeed a blessing. Yet, as I understand it, the Sacrifice of the Mass is neither the time nor the place for expression of the priest’s personality. In fact the more his personality vanishes at the altar, the more the transcendent nature of God and the sense of the sacred becomes palpably present. Fr Gary Coulter explains this very well:

    “The Mass is to have the sense of an ordered, solemn ceremony addressed to God. There is what we call a vertical dimension – that mystery of the transcendent God. Although ordained to administer the sacraments, it is not the priest who gives grace; it is not I who shed my blood on the cross. When the priest faces the congregation, we can forget or misunderstand that only Christ is the source and giver of all grace. Ad orientem avoids focusing attention on the personality and mannerisms of the celebrant and reminds us that the priest stands at the altar in persona Christi, offering the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.

    Again we can ask: what is full and active participation in the Mass? Yes, participation includes external actions, like reading and singing. But external actions are secondary to our interior action of prayer. Cardinal Ratzinger, before being elected pope said: “Doing really must stop when we come to the heart of the matter: prayer (the oratio). It must be plainly evident that prayer (the oratio) is the heart of the matter, but that it is important precisely because it provides a space for the action (actio) of God. Anyone who grasps this will easily see that it is not now a matter of looking at or toward the priest, but of looking together toward the Lord and going out to meet him.” (Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 174.)

    Theologically, the Mass includes God speaking to his people (versus populum), especially during the Liturgy of the Word. But today, during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we can recall that the Mass is directed at the same time towards God (ad orientem). We now know that the Church allows us to continue this long tradition of priest and people facing the same direction, for together we join in offering our prayer to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. To Jesus Christ be all praise and glory forever.”


  5. Gertrude says:

    Just a word:the subject of this post did not apply specifically to the traditional form, in fact my choice of picture was perhaps misleading. As it was written so recently by Father Bux, and in consideration of his position as a Consultor of the Office for Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, I would argue that it might safely be presumed he was talking about the celebration of Holy Mass in whatever form it is being celebrated.


  6. mmvc says:

    I thought your post was clear about this, Gertrude.
    I posted Fr Coulter’s insights in my comment because of the truth they contain and not to single out the EF of the Mass. I should have made that clear. Surely the sentiments he expresses so well can and should be applied to both forms of the Mass.


  7. lutonia says:

    The priest can (and should) be one of the people in the sense that he is not remote from them and that he can both suffer and rejoice with them in their joys and sorrows. But at the celebration of the Mass, something different is going on. Some of the chaotic things that occur during the Sign of Peace (and elsewhere) happen because people have been led to think of Mass as no more out of the ordinary than any other place. During the celebration of the Mass it does not even matter who the priest is – all that matters is that he is a priest – and so for those moments he is not relating to the people in the same everyday way. All the rubrics and gestures are to remind us of this.

    One doesn’t neccesarily need to be over-rigorous. Some might differ, but if a 2 or 3 year old waves to me as I come in to the Church for Mass, I don’t have a problem with acknowledging them – with a smile or a nod of the head – but in general the procession is a liturgical act. I would not expect an adult or older child to behave in the same way! The time for greeting the congregation comes when I say ‘The Lord be with you.’ The essential point to remember is that the priest is – particularly in this situation – alter Christus. His personal relationships are concealed behind the liturgical acts just as his ordinary clothes are concealed by priestly vestments.
    All the rubrics are there for good reasons – not simply to be slavishly adhered to, but to help us to offer a worthy celebration of the Mass. And a worthy celebration is one that leads us beyond the earth we know and closer to Christ our Lord, whatever form of the Liturgy we are using.


  8. Gertrude says:

    Thank you Father.


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