Recently, I have been attending the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), also known as the Extraordinary Form, as frequently as I can. I still end up attending Mass in my home parish, which uses the Novus Ordo (Ordinary Form), quite frequently as well. One thing I have taken an interest in recently in both Masses is paying attention to the gestures of the people. If one looks at the rubrics for either Mass, there are instructions for what people are supposed to do at particular times in the Mass. This article is not a TLM vs. Novus Ordo rant, though I will be comparing/contrasting the two. I simply want to look at the gestures we use at Mass, and why. In my previous article about use of the Orans posture during the Our Father, the most common response was “Why does it matter?” It matters because our gestures have meaning. If one is to fully, consciously, and actively participate in the Mass, as we are called to do in Sacrosanctum Concilium (14), the gestures matter.
Let us first begin at the beginning. Walking into the Nave of the Church from the Narthex, one dips their finger in holy water and makes the sign of the cross. This action is a reminder of our baptism. As one enters the pew, they genuflect to the tabernacle. Genuflecting is a sign of reverence and adoration, and is done in recognition of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which is in repose in the tabernacle. In the event the tabernacle is not in the sanctuary or the sanctuary candle is not lit (signifying that the tabernacle is empty) one makes a profound bow to the altar in recognition of the sacrifice that occurs there.
In the TLM, when the priest processes toward the altar to begin the Mass, the faithful genuflect and make the sign of the cross when he walks by. This is not some form of idolatry, nor is it done in adoration of the priest, but rather in recognition of his office as an alter Christus. I make the pious decision to also do this when attending the Novus Ordo, as the office of the priest is no less important in the Novus Ordo than it is in the TLM. The fact that this gesture is not a part of the Novus Ordo is one reason, along with the use of lay ministers in roles such as lectors and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, why there seems to be a blurring of the lines between the laity and the clergy in the modern Church.
In the Penitential Rite of the Novus Ordo as well as in the prayers at the foot of the altar in the TLM, we pray the Confiteor. This prayer is said as a public confession. During the Confiteor, we proclaim that we have sinned “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” (Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa). At the point that we make this proclamation, we strike our breast with each mea culpa. The gesture of striking one’s breast expresses sorrow, unworthiness, and extreme humility. This ritual gesture expresses our contrition, our sense of sinfulness and unworthiness before God. The notion of unworthiness will come up again later in the Mass.
Something I notice in the TLM that I rarely see in the Novus Ordo is the bowing of the head at the name of Jesus or Mary. We bow our head at the name of Jesus because He is God and we give him the honor he is due. That honor is called latria, or adoration. We also bow our head at the name of Mary because as the mother of God, we give her a special honor called hyperdulia. This is a special kind of veneration given to Mary above all the other saints. In the TLM, I see the priest, deacon and subdeacon (in a Solemn High Mass), altar boys, and the faithful all bow their heads at these moments. In the Novus Ordo, I rarely even see priests do it. As I mentioned above, this gesture of bowing our head, especially at the name of Jesus, is in recognition of Jesus’ divinity.
The next major gesture occurs at the Gospel. First and foremost, we stand for the proclamation of the Gospel. Standing is a sign of being attentive. Also, as we are encountering Christ in the Gospel, it is appropriate to stand, just as one would if someone important entered the room. Secondly, when the deacon or priest announces the Gospel, we make the sign of the cross with our thumb on our forehead, on our lips and over our heart. While we say out loud, Gloria tibi Domine (“Glory to you, O Lord”) in our hearts we say, “May the Gospel always be on my mind, on my lips, and on my heart.”
The next gesture occurs during the Credo (Nicene Creed). Aside from bowing one’s head at the mention of the names of Jesus and Mary, there is another profound gesture which occurs. In the TLM, at the proclamation of the Incarnation, Et incarnátus est de Spíritu Sancto ex María Vírgine: Et homo factus est (“And by the Holy Spirit, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man”) all the faithful genuflect as a sign of reverence. In the Novus Ordo, there is also a gesture which is supposed to take place at this point - a PROFOUND bow (also as a sign of reverence). This is more than just a nod of the head, this is a BIG bend at the waist. On the Solemnities of Christmas and the Annunciation, those celebrating the Novus Ordo also genuflect. Rarely do I see anyone make this profound bow. What is most disappointing is that it says right in the pew missal or missalette that one is supposed to bow at this moment. This can be seen in paragraph 18 on page 9 of the USCCB’s Order of the Mass.
During the consecration, the faithful are to kneel. This applies to both the TLM and the Novus Ordo. Obviously, if one is not medically able to kneel, they may sit or stand. The reason we kneel during the consecration is because Jesus Christ is made PHYSICALLY present, and we kneel as a sign of reverence to our King and God. At various times throughout the Canon or Eucharistic Prayer, an altar server will ring Sanctus bells. This occurs at the epiclesis, when the priest places his hands over the host and calls down the Holy Spirit. It also occurs as the priest elevates the consecrated Eucharist and the Precious Blood. In the TLM, the priest will genuflect before elevating the Eucharist and Precious Blood as an added sign of reverence. The reason for the use of the bells is to alert the faithful that something important is happening. As the priest elevates the Eucharist, the faithful gaze upon the Blessed Sacrament and say, “My Lord and my God.”
Following the consecration, the Our Father (Pater Noster) is prayed. In the TLM, the priest generally says this prayer on behalf of the faithful, though the faithful were given permission to pray along by Pope Pius XII in 1958. In the Novus Ordo, the faithful pray along with the priest. In my previous article I gave many reasons why one should not use the Orans posture when praying the Our Father. Today, I am only going to give one. The gesture that best articulates the vertical nature of the prayer is hands folded or pressed together. The gesture of raising one’s hands or holding hands with another creates a horizontal nature to the prayer. As this occurs following the consecration, all focus and attention should be on God above and not the people in the pews next to us.
Following the Our Father and Sign of Peace, we sing the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) and then we kneel again. The priest then says, Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccáta mundi (“Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world”). At that point we say, Dómine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo, et sanábitur ánima mea (“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”). In the TLM, this is repeated three times. Each time it is repeated, the faithful strike their breast. Remember earlier, when I mentioned that striking the breast is a gesture recognizing one’s unworthiness before God. What better way to acknowledge our unworthiness than by striking our breast once again?
We have now reached the pinnacle of the Mass. Reception of the Eucharist. In the TLM, one approaches the altar rail, kneels, and receives the Eucharist on the tongue. The gesture of kneeling when receiving the Eucharist is a sign of Adoration. While awaiting the priest at the rail, one has the opportunity to wait in glad Adoration to receive the Blessed Sacrament. While kneeling and receiving the Eucharist on the tongue is a valid option in the Novus Ordo, there are other options as well. One can receive on the tongue while standing, or one can receive in the hand while standing. All these methods are valid and licit. However, there are some guidelines to receiving in the hand in order to be as reverent as possible.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem gave some very basic advice with regard to receiving Holy Communion in the hand. He said, “When thou goest to receive communion go not with thy wrists extended, nor with thy fingers separated, but placing thy left hand as a throne for thy right, which is to receive so great a King, and in the hollow of the palm receive the body of Christ, saying, Amen.” (Catechesis mystagogica V, xxi-xxii, Migne Patrologia Graeca 33). If one is left handed, they would receive in their left hand instead of their right. Too often, I see people extend just one hand to receive Our Lord. I see mothers or fathers holding a small child in one arm and reach for the Eucharist with the other. If one cannot do as St. Cyril prescribed, please receive on the tongue.
When approaching for Communion in the Novus Ordo, one is to make a profound bow as the person in front of them is receiving Communion. Again, the reason for the bow is a sign of reverence. Cardinal Sarah recently suggested that all who receive Holy Communion should genuflect before receiving. That, however, is not mandated by the rubrics. The bow, on the other hand, is.
Once one has received Communion, one returns to their pew and kneels in quiet prayer until the distribution of Communion is over and the vessels used for the distribution of Communion have been purified. Any remaining consecrated hosts are reposed back into the tabernacle and the priest then cleans each vessel individually, making sure that any particles of the Blessed Sacrament that may be left behind are collected in the chalice to be consumed. Likewise, IF any hosts are dropped during the distribution of Communion, the spot where it was dropped is also purified, making sure no particles remain on the floor. As we believe that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, any particles left on the floor could be trampled and desecrated.
Once the post-Communion prayer has been offered, the priest offers a final blessing and the priest or deacon proclaims Ite Missa est, which literally means “She is sent” but gets translated as “Go and proclaim the Gospel of the Lord” or one of the many other options. The faithful reply Deo gratias (“Thanks be to God). At this point in the Novus Ordo, the recessional hymn is sung and Mass is over. However, in the TLM, the priest goes back to the Gospel side (left side) of the altar and proclaims the Last Gospel, which comes from John 1:1-14. As is the case with the proclamation of the Incarnation in the Credo, the faithful all genuflect when the priest proclaims, ET VERBUM CARO FACTUM EST… (“AND THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH…”).
The priest and altar boys then proceed through the Nave toward the Narthex. Upon reaching the back of the Nave, the priest leads the faithful in praying the Our Father, Hail Mary, St. Michael Prayer, Hail Holy Queen, and any other prayers for special intentions that the priest or parish may have. One thing I have nevver seen in the TLM is someone leaving Mass immediately following Communion (barring some kind of emergency). It never ceases to amaze me, I have attended Novus Ordo Masses in parishes across the country, and I always see people heading for the exits immediately following Communion. There is one MAIN reason why this should not happen. Nevermind the fact that Mass is not yet over, but more importantly, Jesus is still exposed. I visited one parish, where in an attempt to get parishioners to not leave before the end of Mass, the priest posted signs at each entrance to the Nave that read, “Judas was the first person to leave Mass early.”
I am sure that many people who read this article may respond the same way they did to my last article, “Why does it matter as long as people are at Mass?” The reason it matters is because we are sensual creatures. We experience the world around us through our senses and we worship God with our bodies. The expression “Actions speak louder than words” is a perfect expression to use in this instance. Our gestures show that we are actively engaged in the Mass.