The Armchair Liturgist: Lay Gestures During Mass

I see Zenit’s liturgy guru, Father Edward McNamara, has responded to a question about gestures:

For example, during Eucharistic Prayer 1, I bow my head at the words “Almighty God, we pray that your angel may take this sacrifice to your altar in heaven”; and I strike my breast at the words “Though we are sinners”; and I make the sign of the cross at the words “let us be filled with every grace and blessing.” I feel more active in my participation by doing this, but am unsure whether these gestures of mine are appropriate. Are these gestures for the priest or president alone?

The answer is good. I remember my visit to Madonna House where worshippers would bow at the epiclesis. I’d seen all sorts of Catholic gestures before at the words of consecration, but never a recognition of the invocation of the Holy Spirit. Ever since, it has been my practice to bow my head at this time.

I’m not sure I agree with McNamara that gestures and words are tied together in the Roman Rite. Lay gestures like the signing of oneself during the EP or holding hands at the Lord’s Prayer are essentially devotional gestures, not liturgical expressions.

But it’s good to see others see them as inclusive of participatio.

Any thoughts from the other armchair liturgists out ther?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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6 Responses to The Armchair Liturgist: Lay Gestures During Mass

  1. As I recall, in that excellent work, Documents on the Liturgy, even the reformed rite (i.e., the Liturgy of Pope Paul VI) had plenty of provision for liturgical gesture by the people: bowing and/or crossing one’s self at the mention of any member of the Holy Trinity or Our Blessed Lady, at the words “et incarnatus est” (or its vernacular translation) in the Creed and at the Words of Institution in any of the Eucharistic prayers.

    Then again, the liturgical documents thus described also permitted the use of incense, lights, images, etc.

    The current Puritan tendency among a number of RC priests and liturgists of avoiding all of the above came, not from a reading of the documents in question, but through ignoring them. I look forward to an actual implementation of the liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council. As far as I can see, it has still barely started.

  2. Todd says:

    “I look forward to an actual implementation of the liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council. As far as I can see, it has still barely started.”

    I would agree. But I’d also say the past ten years have seen much implementation come to a standstill.

  3. “I’m not sure I agree with McNamara that gestures and words are tied together in the Roman Rite. Lay gestures like the signing of oneself during the EP or holding hands at the Lord’s Prayer are essentially devotional gestures, not liturgical expressions” (emphasis added).

    Ah, but there is the rub, as the bard might say: the laity present at Mass, by virtue of their baptism (and presumptively, thus membership in the Church), are their primarily in a liturgical capacity. Thus, they should not offer the responses, or carry out the roles, of others who act in a different capacity, i.e., the clergy or other laity carrying out a specific role, such as lector, cantor, etc.

    Now, I’m not saying we make a huge deal about this–but this is a basis for what Fr. McNamara wrote. I.e., calling them “devotional” gestures sidesteps the question of whether the laity present at Mass, fully understanding the significance of what they contribute, should offer such gestures.

  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    “Lay gestures like the signing of oneself during the EP or holding hands at the Lord’s Prayer are essentially devotional gestures, not liturgical expressions.”

    Don’t worry, though. Some clericalist will find some way to prohibit them because, you know, they haven’t been officially promulgated by some committee made up exclusively of old male clerics. We can’t have the sheep deciding what they CAN do as a matter of devotion.

  5. L.T. says:

    Right guys, that’s why I hate it when the ushers drag me out of the church just because my devotional practice is to give a shout-out at the top of my lungs at the epiclesis and do a backspin in the aisle at the invocation of the Jesus, cuz, y’know, the Holy Spirit revels in my free expression of break-dance love for Jesus. But for those damn clericalists who indulge in this crazy fantasy that the laity doesn’t share in priestly holy orders by virtue of our baptism… Cuz, y’know, baptism and holy orders are the same thing, right? More liturgical cowbell!

  6. Jeff Pinyan says:

    GIRM 275a reads thus:

    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.

    Is the proper interpretation of this, then, that only those who are SPEAKING the names of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Saint of the day, or the Holy Trinity are to bow their heads? Even when I am not speaking them, I bow my head.

    The custom of bowing the head at the mention of His Name was formally written into law at the Second Council of Lyons, A.D. 1274, convened by Pope Gregory X: “Those who assemble in church should extol with an act of special reverence that Name which is above every Name, than which no other under Heaven has been given to people, in which believers must be saved, the Name, that is, of Jesus Christ, Who will save His people from their sins. Each should fulfil in himself that which is written for all, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow; whenever that glorious Name is recalled, especially during the sacred Mysteries of the Mass, everyone should bow the knees of his heart, which he can do even by a bow of his head.”

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