Layman's Gestures During Eucharistic Prayer

And More on Broadcasting the Mass

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ROME, DEC. 25, 2007 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I like to join in with some of the gestures that a priest makes during the Eucharistic Prayer. 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? -- P.H., London

A: The general principle involved in gestures that accompany prayers is that they are performed only by those who actually say the words.

Thus, for example, the whole assembly bows at the name of Jesus during the Gloria and bows, (or genuflects on Christmas Day) while commemorating the mystery of the Incarnation during the creed.

At a concelebration the usual procedure is that only the principal celebrant performs certain gestures when he alone recites the prayer. Thus, only he extends his hands for the presidential prayers and for the preface.

The other priests join in most gestures during the common prayers such as the ones mentioned by our reader for Eucharistic Prayer 1 (the Roman Canon) as they are normally recited by all the concelebrants.

There are some exceptions to this. For example, in the other Eucharistic Prayers all priests recite in unison the text from the invocation of the Holy Spirit to the commemoration after the consecration, but only the principal celebrant makes the sign of the cross over the chalice.

Likewise all priests strike their breasts at the words "Though we are sinners" even though only one usually recites the prayer.

The reason for this is that the Latin text connects the word "famulis" (servants) to "peccatoribus" (sinners) in a way that is completely lost in the current English translation. In the liturgical tradition of the Roman Canon "famulis" refers primarily to the celebrating clergy and not so much to the faithful (without implying that the only sinners in the congregation are the priests).

It was common for medieval clerics to refer to themselves as sinful servants, and they would sometimes prefix their signature with the word "Sinner." As time went on, the word was replaced with a symbol which had essentially the same meaning.

The custom of bishops to prefix a cross before their signature is probably a relic of the old symbol for denoting the person as a sinful servant.

Therefore it not liturgically correct for our reader to follow the gestures carried out by the priest during the Eucharistic Prayer, above all because these gestures usually imply the concurrent recitation of the prayer.

A blessed and holy Christmas to all.

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Follow-up: Broadcasting the Parish Mass

Related to our reply to a question on broadcasting the Mass to different locales (see Dec. 11), a reader from Auckland, New Zealand, previously asked: "In a new church where the altar is plainly visible to all members of the congregation and the actions of the priest can be observed clearly, is it appropriate to use video projection to image what is happening at the altar on the wall behind to 'improve' the congregation's view of the action at the altar?"

While I am unaware of any official norms relative to this matter, I would consider it pastorally unwise and likely to be counterproductive.

Many Catholics spend countless hours sitting in front of screens of one form or another at home and work. Although Mass is above all an act of worship, it also serves as a break from the mundane and a time to get in touch with the eternal. Thus, the last thing the faithful need at Mass is more television.

By their very nature, television and cinema induce mental passivity and polarize attention and thus are more likely to impede rather than enhance active participation at Mass which consists in much more than merely seeing the action on the altar.

There is also no small danger of the priest, consciously or not, playing to the camera and being overly attentive to how he looks on the big screen.

For these reasons I believe that the use of screens should be limited to cases when they are truly necessary due to overflowing assemblies, and even then be considered as stopgap solutions.

A Buffalo, New York, reader asked: "Is it lawful to celebrate the holy Mass in advance for the purpose of televising that Mass in the future? Basically, a TV channel wants a priest, during Lent, to say the Mass from the Fifth Sunday of Easter, in order to be able to broadcast it later on. Can it be done like that? Is it not just performing something without any connection to time and place?"

The U.S. bishops' conference has issued precise guidelines for televised Masses. Referring to this situation the guidelines say:

"Live vs. Pre-recorded Celebrations

"Whenever possible, the liturgy should be telecast live. When this is not possible, consideration may be given to pre-recording the liturgy. A liturgy that is pre-recorded for delayed telecast should be taped as it is celebrated in a local worshiping community and then be telecast at a later time on the same day. Only when neither of these options is possible, should the liturgy be taped in advance in a setting other than a regularly scheduled liturgy celebrated by a local worshiping community. In order to reflect the integrity of the liturgical year, a pre-recorded liturgy should be taped on a date as close as possible to the date of the actual telecast. In order to preserve the sacred character of the liturgical celebration, only one liturgy should be recorded on a given day with the same group of people.

"Time Constraints

"The celebration of the liturgy should not be rushed, nor should elements of the liturgy be omitted. Those responsible for planning, production, and presiding need to be sensitive to the requirements of the liturgy as well as the time constraints of television. For the integrity of the liturgy, those who produce the televised liturgy should be discouraged from editing out parts of the Mass (e.g., the Gloria, one of the readings). Planning and the careful choice of options can help to keep the celebration within the particular time frame."

The full document which develops the theme more fully may be found in the Web page of the U.S. bishops' conference, at

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.