Authored By: Father Edward McNamara
A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Carrying the Book of the Gospels
ROME, 16 July 2019 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Question: As one who carries the Book of the Gospels at our Masses, I have some questions. When the book is being carried in, should it be at a modest elevation with the cover facing outward or facing the lector/carrier? I also read that one should make a profound bow when leaving the Book of the Gospels on the altar. Should that be a bow after depositing the book or before that act? — R.B., Rockport, Ontario
Answer: Not everything is specified in detail in the liturgical books. This is especially true of elements such as carrying the Book of the Gospels, which is a relative novelty in the current Latin liturgy, albeit with historical antecedents.
There are some surviving examples of beautiful manuscript versions of the Books of the Gospels for liturgical use until about the 12th century. From about 1200 onward the convention of including all the readings for Mass within the missal led to the practical disappearance of separate lectionaries.
Before the current liturgical reform reintroduced the Lectionary and the Evangeliary as distinct books, it was possible for a local bishop to authorize the publication of separate lectionaries and Books of the Gospel extracted from the missal for certain solemn celebrations. This was far from being a universal practice, however.
The Introduction to the Book of the Gospels has the following indications:
“9. In the Entrance Procession, the vested deacon reverently carries the Book of the Gospels before him so that it may be seen by the faithful. With the priest he makes the proper reverence and goes up to the altar, placing the Book of the Gospels on it. The deacon then kisses the altar at the same time as the priest. In the absence of a deacon, the reader reverently carries the Book of the Gospels in procession. The reader follows the acolytes and other ministers in procession. The reader places the Book of the Gospels on the altar, but the reader does not kiss the altar.”
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) adds the following indications for deacons and lectors carrying the Book of the Gospels:
“A. MASS WITHOUT A DEACON
“The Introductory Rites
“120. Once the people have gathered, the priest and ministers, clad in the sacred vestments, go in procession to the altar in this order:
“a. The thurifer carrying a thurible with burning incense, if incense is used;
“b. The ministers who carry lighted candles, and between them an acolyte or another minister with the cross;
“c. The acolytes and the other ministers;
“d. A lector, who may carry the Book of the Gospels (though not the Lectionary), which should be slightly elevated;
“e. The priest who is to celebrate the Mass.
“172. Carrying the Book of the Gospels slightly elevated, the deacon precedes the priest as he approaches the altar or else walks at the priest’s side.
“173. When he reaches the altar, if he is carrying the Book of the Gospels, he omits the sign of reverence and goes up to the altar. It is particularly appropriate that he should place the Book of the Gospels on the altar, after which, together with the priest, he venerates the altar with a kiss.
“If, however, he is not carrying the Book of the Gospels, he makes a profound bow to the altar with the priest in the customary way and with him venerates the altar with a kiss. Lastly, if incense is used, he assists the priest in putting some into the thurible and in incensing the cross and the altar.
“D. THE DUTIES OF THE LECTOR
“194. In coming to the altar, when no deacon is present, the lector, wearing approved attire, may carry the Book of the Gospels, which is to be slightly elevated. In that case, the lector walks in front of the priest but otherwise along with the other ministers.
“195. Upon reaching the altar, the lector makes a profound bow with the others. If he is carrying the Book of the Gospels, he approaches the altar and places the Book of the Gospels upon it. Then the lector takes his own place in the sanctuary with the other ministers.”
While it is clear that the Book of the Gospels should be elevated in the procession, nothing indicates the direction of the book as such. I would say that it is customary to have the front of the book facing outward toward the people even though this means turning it when reaching the altar so that, in accordance with the practice of the Roman rite, it lies flat upon the altar table.
Indeed, precious bindings and covers for the Book of the Gospel frequently have finer decoration on the front, precisely with the different processions in mind.
While the texts distinguish between the deacon “going up” to the altar and the lector “approaching the altar” it is not clear if any ritual implications would follow. Perhaps it could mean that the deacon would practically always go around the altar before placing the Book of the Gospels and await the arrival of the priest while the lector will often place the book on the altar from its front. The vast variety of sanctuary designs makes it very difficult to determine exact procedures in this matter.
In general, a profound bow is not made while carrying the book as is specifically indicated for the deacon. There is no norm as to making a bow after leaving the Book of the Gospels upon the altar, and the deacon would certainly not do so as he will kiss the altar with the priest.
It is understandable that the lector carrying the Book of the Gospels might feel that a bow toward the altar is appropriate at this time, but GIRM No. 195 (above) would appear to suggest that he or she proceed directly to the lector’s assigned place in the sanctuary with no further acts of reverence at this time.
“Would it be correct to say that when the Church in her liturgical books speaks about a ‘lector’ carrying the Book of the Gospels, she is referring specifically to a person who is formally instituted in that ministry, and not simply a ‘reader’? In that case, it would seem that only an ordained deacon or an instituted lector should carry the Book of the Gospels for Mass. Furthermore, in the absence of a deacon or lector, could a priest carry the Book of the Gospels?”
Although the Missal presumes that the ideal is the presence of instituted ministers, I do not think that the norms are so restrictive as to exclude that a delegated reader could carry out this function. As the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:
“101. In the absence of an instituted lector, other lay people may be deputed to proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture, people who are truly suited to carrying out this function and carefully prepared, so that by their hearing the readings from the sacred texts the faithful may conceive in their hearts a sweet and living affection for Sacred Scripture.”
And it describes the entrance procession thus:
“120. When the people are gathered, the Priest and ministers, wearing the sacred vestments, go in procession to the altar in this order:
“a) The thurifer carrying a smoking thurible if incense is being used;
“b) ministers who carry lighted candles, and between them an acolyte or another minister with the cross;
“c) the acolytes and the other ministers;
“d) a reader, who may carry a Book of the Gospels (though not a Lectionary), slightly elevated;
“e) the Priest who is to celebrate the Mass.
“If incense is being used, before the procession begins, the Priest puts some into the thurible and blesses it with the Sign of the Cross without saying anything.”
In the light of this, if the legislator had desired to limit carrying the Book of the Gospels to instituted lectors, it would have to have clearly determined this in liturgical law. If instituted lectors are present, however, they would obviously have priority in carrying out this ministry.
Although it would require somewhat unusual circumstances in which there are no deacons or any readers, or the readers cannot for some reason participate in the entrance procession, a priest could carry the Book of the Gospels. Normally the use of the Book of the Gospels is on Sundays and festive days where there is almost always a reader.
However, should the procession not be feasible, the missal also offers the possibility of placing the Book of the Gospels on the altar before Mass begins.
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