Monday, February 25, 2008

Ask Father: Why does our lector bow to the congregation?

Here's the latest question: In the parish where my children attend school, the lector bows toward the altar as he approaches the ambo. Then he turns around and bows to the congregation. What's up with that? Everywhere else, the lector only bows toward the altar (with the tabernacle behind it).

It is funny to get this question because this isn't something I would normally think about, but it is a question that came up just last week in an online liturgy disussion group that I particpate in.

So, first what does the General Instruction of the Roman Missal say. [For those who might not know the General Instruction, "GIRM", are the official rules about how Mass is celebrated. You can read the entire GIRM on the US Bishop's website at:]

So, here are some relevant parts of the GIRM as related to the Lector:

"57. In the readings, the table of God's word is prepared for the faithful, and the riches of the Bible are opened to them.61 Hence, it is preferable to maintain the arrangement of the biblical readings, by which light is shed on the unity of both Testaments and of salvation history. Moreover, it is unlawful to substitute other, non-biblical texts for the readings and responsorial Psalm, which contain the word of God.62

58. In the celebration of the Mass with a congregation, the readings are always proclaimed from the ambo.

59. By tradition, the function of proclaiming the readings is ministerial, not presidential. The readings, therefore, should be proclaimed by a lector, and the Gospel by a deacon or, in his absence, a priest other than the celebrant. If, however, a deacon or another priest is not present, the priest celebrant himself should read the Gospel. Further, if another suitable lector is also not present, then the priest celebrant should also proclaim the other readings.

After each reading, whoever reads gives the acclamation, to which the gathered people reply, honoring the word of God that they have received in faith and with grateful hearts."

"128. After the Collect, all sit. The priest may, very briefly, introduce the faithful to the Liturgy of the Word. Then the lector goes to the ambo and, from the Lectionary already placed there before Mass, proclaims the first reading, to which all listen. At the end, the lector says the acclamation Verbum Domini (The word of the Lord), and all respond, Deo gratias (Thanks be to God)."

"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."

"196. The lector reads from the ambo the readings that precede the Gospel. If there is no psalmist, the lector may also proclaim the responsorial Psalm after the first reading."

So, you see, no specific instruction in the Liturgy of the Word. However, the section on Genuflections and Bows has something to say:

"274. If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in the sanctuary, the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself."

"275. A bow of the body, that is to say a profound bow, is made to the altar"

All of this is to say, that there isn't really any formal direction on this from the GIRM other than to say that if the tabernacle is in the sanctuary, the ministers genuflects at the beginning of Mass and at the end, but not during the celebration itself.

It is a custom for people to bow to the altar when moving about the sanctuary, as the altar is a primary symbol of Christ as the place of sacrifice - and that is when we tend to bow - to things that represent Christ (altar, cross, etc.). We reserve our genuflection for the Real Presence of Christ (as in the tabernacle).

In the online discussion that I referenced, what most people were saying is that this is an effort to show in liturgical form another of the ways that Christ is present that we too often tend to neglect: Christ's presence in the gathered assembly. At Mass, we are often very aware of the Real Presence of Christ in the Word proclaimed, in the person of the priest (in persona Christi), certainly in the Eucharist, but how often are we conscious of the same Real Presence in the gathered assembly? "Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I, in the midst of them."

The places where they tend to bow to the assembly are acknowledging that presence in the people, just as they would acknowledge that presence in the other primary ways that we are more familiar with.

Having said that, it obviously needs some explanation as it is not typical (an not rubrical or canonical), and I'm not sure what I personally think about it. I know that I tend to be one to say, "Pray the Sacramentary." I'm not a huge fan of mixing it up, but the flip side is that our world and our churches would be a very different reality if we were as aware of the presence of Christ in each other (and in ourselves) as we are of the presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament.


  1. Thank you for your answer, Father. I'm glad I asked, because I think what you said about reverencing the Body of Christ in the assembly makes a lot of sense--and it's something that I often forget about.

  2. I was taught that if I am the lector carrying up the Gospel, that when we arrive at the altar, I keep the Book elevated and do NOT bow with the others. Now I am confused; do I bow or not?

  3. Well, follow the direction of your pastor, but you see what the GIRM says.

  4. I have been involved in a number of Masses as lector, including some with bishops as celebrant, where the lector bowed before and after the reading to the celebrant. I was told once by a liturgical expert that the lector should bow to the celebrant/presider because he represents the assembly. In doing so, the lector is acknowledging the community.

    However, at my current parish, the pastor said we bow to the altar, because it represents the place where the sacrifice will later take place, and so it represents Christ in the midst of the community.

    I've also seen lectors at other parishes bow toward the crucifix or the tabernacle, and I have a feeling both of those are wrong.

    Apparently the GIRM is not specific. But what's CORRECT or proper?