Hand gestures, wandering around, replacing the crucifix: we priests need to respect the rubrics

A new translation of the Roman Missal on the altar (PA)

In the parish where I was curate, the parish priest regularly employed an Italian who would say, “Montrami dove è scritto”. (It translates as “Show me where it is written”.) He would say this whenever altar servers or curates tried to add things into the Mass which shouldn’t be there. This included eccentric or obsolete liturgical actions. He was a stickler for the rubrics and we had to faithfully adhere to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) in all circumstances. In many ways he was a minimalist, but Mass was dignified and parishioners were spared the innovations and quirks of pushy curates and servers. So whenever we did anything unusual or attempted to innovate he would demand to see where it was written down and authorised by the Church.

He would be pleased that after recent attempts to encourage ad orientem celebration of the Mass, the General Instruction was cited in response: “The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. The altar should, moreover, be so placed as to be truly the centre toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns. The altar is usually fixed and is dedicated.” (GIRM 299)

Applauded by many liberals, several bishops have used this section of the GIRM to confirm their position and discourage eastward-facing celebration. In the same spirit I also hope (perhaps in vain) that the bishops may now act in similar situations where ignoring the GIRM seems to be widespread and leads to the laity being subjected to the whims or wishes of their priests. There are certainly several areas where I would gladly see more attention being paid by those in authority. As Cardinal Nichols rightly said in his recent letter to clergy, Mass is not the time to “exercise personal preference or taste”.

Hand Gestures

The GIRM makes clear prescriptions about hand gestures during the Mass. At various times the priest is required to extend his hands, expressing the action of prayer. At other times the priest’s hands should remain firmly closed. My former parish priest would be saying “Montrami dove è scritto” every time a priest who proclaims the Gospel opens his hands when he proclaims “The Lord be with you”. This is clearly not permitted (GIRM 134) and yet I regularly encounter this happening at Masses in many different settings. Whilst there is a greeting before the Gospel is proclaimed it has not traditionally been a presidential act in the Latin rite, therefore the greeting is said with hands closed.

The General Instruction also clearly gives hand position for the Opening Prayer, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Rite of Peace and the Concluding Rites. Despite this, many clergy seem to either ignore this or employ their own preferences.

Jolly Wandering at the Peace

The GIRM does give scope, for good reasons, for the priest to share the peace with a few of the faithful but in normal circumstances the priest should “always remain within the sanctuary” (GIRM 154). Often I have experienced the Mass descending into chaos as the celebrant wonders around the nave greeting everyone. I would dearly love this to cease and only take place in exceptional pastoral circumstances.

The Replacing of a Crucifix with an image of the Risen Christ

In a parish near where I live, there is no crucifix near the altar. Instead there is an image of the Risen Christ. When the last priest tried to replace it he met much opposition yet the General Instruction clearly states,

There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations.
(GIRM 308)

This local church is not in isolation and I look forward to the General Instruction being applied in such places.

Announcements during the concluding rite

It is certainly permissible to make announcements before the Blessing and Dismissal but the GIRM gives clarity by stating that these should be brief and only if necessary (GIRM 90). We have all been subjected to priests or deacons reading the whole notice sheet, asking for items for the tombola, announcing the winner of the 200 Club and giving all sorts of unnecessary information. It is often a complete distraction and disrupts the whole flow and dynamic of the liturgy.

Appeals for charities in place of the Homily

A priest or deacon has a huge responsibility to break open God’s word for the people through the homily. I still cannot believe that so often the homily is displaced by a lay person giving an appeal for a particular charity. The GIRM is clear in affirming that

The homily is part of the Liturgy and is strongly recommended, for it is necessary for the nurturing of the Christian life. It should be an exposition of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or from the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners. The homily should ordinarily be given by the priest celebrant himself. He may entrust it to a concelebrating priest or occasionally, according to circumstances, to the deacon, but never to a lay person.
(GIRM 65 and 66)

Allowing someone to make an appeal instead of a homily may give the parish priest (and the laity) a day off, but it is not helping to nurture the Christian life in the way a homily should. The place for such things is always at the end.

All this may lead some to conclude that I am being precious and pernickety (or even dismissing me as a typical convert) but something much more important is at stake. The unity of the people of God and the priesthood is beautifully expressed in the common gestures and postures observed by the laity and priests during Mass. I am not saying that we should be slaves to the liturgy and the GIRM does give scope for interpretation of certain aspects in accordance with pastoral need and circumstances. What should not be allowed is for a priest’s personality to dominate so that they take ownership of the liturgy which was never theirs in the first place.

Many laity are jaded by the ad-libbing and ramblings of priests who should know when to just “do the red and say the black”. Often the desire for ad orientem celebration is a reaction to sloppy and messy celebration of the Mass. Those who are most opposed to eastward-facing celebration are those who, through their casual approach to the rubrics, have unwittingly encouraged its reintroduction.

I heard of a young priest who brought his parish priest a copy of the General instruction of the Roman Missal for Christmas. Inside he wrote “I brought this as I assume it is one that you have never read”. Mass is the source and summit and no priest should celebrate Mass lightly or treat it as if it was his.