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Cabrol F. Chapter XII-3. The Attitude of the Faithful and the Liturgical gestures during Mass


By the Right Reverend Dom Fernand Cabrol




To-day it is hardly necessary, in view of the very large number of studies devoted to this question, to insist on the importance of gestures or attitude in connection with the liturgy. We have, moreover, made a separate study of it ourselves, elsewhere.[1] As the Mass is the essential function of the liturgy, it is not astonishing that most of the liturgical gestures belong to it, nor that the Church has very carefully determined both their form and their number. Certain general rules for prayer were already established in the time of St. Paul, who alludes to them many times in his Epistles. For public prayer each must wait his own turn; must speak intelligibly when he does speak. Women were not allowed to speak at all (I Cor. xiv.).

We know from other witnesses, especially Tertullian, in texts often quoted, that Christians prayed standing, their eyes raised to Heaven, their hands stretched out. No one knelt on Sunday, nor during the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost. Frescoes in the catacombs represent "Orantes" in the posture described. One such shows a Priest standing before a "triclinium," his hands outstretched in a gesture of blessing, while beside him a woman stands upright.

Certain rubrics in the ancient liturgical books remind us of these old customs, for some are still preserved in the existing Missal. Thus, the Deacon at certain moments commands the faithful to kneel down, to bow the head, to rise; he dismisses them at the end of Mass — "Flectamus genua," "Levate," "Humiliate capita vestra Deo," "Ite, Missa est." In the Greek and Eastern liturgies these rubrics are much more numerous. Some of these gestures, as has been stated, are marked in the ancient Sacramentaries; but as the gestures at Mass, especially those of the officiant, are both numerous and detailed, they would have overloaded these books. Moreover, at that epoch (fourth and ninth centuries) the tendency was to multiply liturgical books, so as to have one for each function: book of the Priest, or Sacramentary; book of Epistles for the subdeacon; of the Gospels for the Deacon; book for the cantors, etc. One such book was devoted to explaining processions: the order to follow, the places to be taken and kept, and the other movements during Mass. These are the "Ordines," and especially the "Ordines Romani," which are of the highest value in liturgical history (cf. "Books of the Latin Liturgy," p. 81). These "Ordines Romani," or Roman Orders, specially describe the Papal Mass; but as we have already said, this Mass was the same as that of a Bishop, or a simple Priest, except for the number of ministers who assisted at it, and for the solemnity of the ceremonies. Only in Low Mass has the number of the latter been suppressed; and several of those ceremonies still preserved can only be explained by reference to Pontifical High Mass.

This fact being laid down, we can divide our subject, which has never been studied very methodically so far, into a few paragraphs in which we shall try to throw light on the existing rubrics by the ancient customs.

1. Attitude of the faithful during Mass.
2. Processions, Stations, and general ceremonies.
3. Gestures of the officiant and his ministers during Mass.

1. Attitude of the faithful during Mass. — In certain frescoes in the catacombs, which seem to be a representation of the Eucharist, we see guests seated around a table as if for a feast. At the Last Supper, when the Eucharist was instituted, Our Lord and His Apostles were, according to the best exegetists, seated, or half lying on couches, according to the general custom. At the "Agape" described by St. Paul, the faithful were either seated or lying down.

But this position was hardly practicable during the celebration of the Eucharist as soon as the number of the faithful was greatly increased; moreover, the respect due to this function would have been quite enough to impose another attitude. To pray standing was the most usual thing with the Jews, and even with pagans. This position indicated not only respect and deference for the person to whom the prayer was addressed, but it was also, in prayer, an attitude of adoration.

The faithful thus heard Mass standing; the practice of kneeling being reserved, from the second and third centuries, for days of vigil, for times of penitence, or for certain specially solemn moments, as during the Prayer of the Faithful at the Offertory. A sentence spoken by the Deacon, still preserved in our Missal, warned the faithful: "Flectamus genua;" while after some moments of recollection he said: "Levate." The celebrant then pronounced the prayer — "Oremus" — being, as he was, charged in a certain sense to sum up and present to God all the intentions of the people. It was also a rule at this time that on Sundays and during the joyous fifty days from Easter to Pentecost, there should be no kneeling. We are yet reminded of this custom by the fact that during the Ember Days of Pentecost, and on its vigil, the "Flectamus genua," heard during the penitential seasons, is omitted.

It was not customary to sit during the Mass. The Bishop alone was seated, on his throne, which was not an ordinary seat, but rather a symbol of his functions. The seat of that Bishop of the beginning of the third century at Rome, to which we owe the celebrated "anaphora" already mentioned, is a monument of the highest importance, on which have been written the titles of his various works. Antiquity has preserved the remembrance of other Chairs of this distant period, such as that of St. Peter at Rome, the "Cathedra Petri," which has always been celebrated.[2]

I think, however, that those texts of Tertullian and others in which Christians are represented standing with outstretched arms during their prayer have been interpreted too rigorously. Such a prayer would mean that the word was used in its deepest sense, for the prayers, and doubtless for the whole of the Mass of the Faithful. But they must have sat down for the Lessons of the Pre-Mass, which were often long. Certain texts of St. Augustine refer to this subject; he says he will not fatigue the people with a long discourse, as they are all standing. In some places it was allowed to take a staff into the church, to be used for leaning upon. Here, as elsewhere, customs must have varied. In certain texts, indeed, "sedilia" are spoken of, that the people might be seated. St. Benedict, who was not given to relaxation, admits monks to be seated during the Lessons, as this was a common practice.

The custom of prostration at the moment of the Elevation dates from the eleventh century. Before this time it was usual to stand upright; and this too was the customary attitude for receiving the Eucharist in the hands, or for drinking the Precious Blood. From this Protestants have tried to argue against faith in the Real Presence, but their objection is really too easily answered; and it is almost matter for astonishment that one writer has thought it necessary to devote a learned work to this question.[3]

Another custom, much discussed, and on which much has been written, is that of praying turned towards the East. Christ is the Sun of Justice, and His light illumines the West, the region of darkness. The latter is thus the domain of the devil; and it is to the West that men turn to curse him. Hence also the custom of "orientation:" that is, to build churches in such a way that the Priest while praying looks towards the East. But this practice often involved such difficulties that it was not always possible to be faithful to it. It was, however, generally applied in the construction of churches in the Middle Ages, from the fifth century onwards. Hence there were certain changes in the ceremonial. The Priest who, in the first centuries, celebrated before an altar shaped like a simple table, without gradines or retable (as is still the case in the Basilica of San Clemente at Rome), was obliged to face the East when the church was "orientated," and thus, as to-day, turn his back to the people. Consequently when he addresses them in the words, "Dominus vobiscum," he turns towards them, facing the altar again as he says: "Oremus."

The "Ordo Romanus" (n. I) thus describes the attitude of the Pope when celebrating Pontifical Mass. The Pontiff stands upright facing the East at his throne, which is at the back of the apse; turns towards the people to intone the "Gloria in Excelsis," but turns again to face the East, remaining standing thus till the end of the chant. He then again turns towards the people to say: "Pax vobis;" then back to the East when he says: "Oremus," and the Collect for the day. After the Collect he seats himself. The Bishops and Priest present also seat themselves, as a gesture from the Pope invites them to do, but the congregation remains standing, as it does the whole time of the ceremony. It has been said that the Deacon caused all the faithful to kneel on Good Friday for the Prayer of the Faithful; and this ceremony is yet observed.

In our churches at the present time these rules are rather vague. Those usually observed by choirs of Canons or Monks may be followed. It is thus customary to stand upright at High Mass during the Introit, prayers, Gospel, and Canon; to sit during the reading of the Epistle and other Lessons when there are any, as also for the singing of the "Kyrie," "Gloria in Excelsis," "Credo," "Gradual," and "Alleluia," or Tracts and Proses, to prostrate during the Consecration; and to bow for the blessing of the celebrant.

2. Processions, Stations, general ceremonies. — All these subjects have been treated by liturgiologists, often with great learning. It can only be a question here of those connected with the Mass, such as the Station, and the defiling past at the Introit, the Offertory, and the Communion. The Procession of the Station is no longer made. But in the time of St. Gregory and the following centuries the Station began with a most solemn procession. The suburban Bishops (the seven Bishops of Ostia, Porto, Silva Candida, Albano, Tusculum, Sabina, and Praeneste) and other Bishops present in Rome, the Priests of the 25 "tituli" (Rectors of the principal churches in that city), the Monks, and lastly the people divided into groups according to the seven regions (Quarters) of Rome, an ensign-bearer at the head of each group carrying a silver Cross on which were three candles — all these early awaited the Pope (who came from the Lateran with his "cortege") in the church which had been chosen as the starting-point. The Pope arrived on horseback. His following was composed of all the acolytes of the region where the function was being held. After the acolytes came the "Defensores" of each region: these were a kind of lay functionary charged with the administration of the ecclesiastical patrimony. Acolytes and "Defensores" were on foot. The seven Deacons of the seven regions, with their regional sub-Deacons followed next, all on horseback. Two squires were to the right and left of the Pope, and in front of him an acolyte bearing the "ampulla" of the Holy Chrism. Behind the Pope came the "ViceDominus" and other dignitaries of his household. The sub-Deacon who was to read the Epistle carried the "Epistolarium," while the Arch-Deacon bore the "Evangeliarium," usually a luxuriously bound manuscript the cover of which was encrusted with precious stones, and which was carefully enclosed in its case.

When this almost royal procession, recalling in more than one detail the ceremonial of the Emperors and Consuls, had reached the church where the Bishops and people were waiting for it, they all set out together for the church at which the Station had been fixed, and where Mass was to be celebrated. The whole ceremonial for the reception of the Pope in this church is minutely foreseen and described.[4]

The procession of the Pope and clergy for the beginning of Mass is not less solemn. In the sacristy or "secretarium" of the Basilica, which was vast enough to serve as a council hall, the Pope was vested with the liturgical garments, linen tunic, amice, dalmatic, chasuble, "pallium." At a given signal, accompanied by the Deacons, by the sub-Deacon bearing the "thymiamaterium" in which incense was burning, and by the seven serving acolytes with their seven lighted candlesticks, he advanced up the great nave (for at that period the "secretarium" was at the atrium, or entrance of the Basilica, except at St. Peter's) while the "schola" sang the psalm of the Introit. The Pope saluted the "Sancta" (the "fermentum," or Host consecrated at a previous Mass), prayed before the altar, then kissed the book of the Gospels, placed on the altar itself, and so moved to his throne, where he remained standing. He made a sign to the "schola" to stop the singing of the psalm, and to begin the "Gloria Patri" which ends the Introit.

The order followed at Rome for the Offertory and Communion has been already described (Chap. IV); that of precedence was most strictly observed: Bishops first, the ministers to the last rank of the clergy, Princes, nobles, the faithful, first the men, then the women. It was the Golden Age of the liturgy in Rome from the sixth-ninth centuries; both clergy and faithful gave admirable examples of behavior, order, dignity, and a simplicity which did not exclude a certain pomp.

3. Gestures of officiant and ministers during the Mass. — In describing in the various chapters of this book the Mass at Rome, Milan, in Gaul, Spain, and Africa, we have already pointed out the chief gestures prescribed for the celebrant, especially at the Consecration, the Fraction, and the Communion; we have also spoken of censing, of the Kiss of Peace, and of some other rites of the same kind. We then said that all these acts and gestures were generally intended to express, in the eyes of the congregation, an act corresponding to the spoken word; an act which emphasized it, and threw it into new relief. This idea has been explained at length[5] and with perhaps too much complaisance by Dom Claude de Vert in a work whose scholarship is more curious than solid. To him, the word infers the gesture. But, as we have already remarked, it is usually just the contrary which happens. In the ancient Roman liturgy, for example, a great many gestures were made without any words at all. It was only later, in the course of the Middle Ages, that a prayer was composed to explain an act, such as "Oramus te;" or for certain Offertory prayers: "Offerimus tibi;" or again for the Communion: "Panem coelestem accipiam," "Quod ore sumpsimus," "Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam meam," etc.

It must also be noticed that in the liturgy there are gestures which have not a merely simple, mimetic meaning. Certain unctions, the laying-on of hands, certain signs of the Cross, or blessings are supernaturally efficacious, and produce what they signify. For all these reasons, and without going back to different points which have already been sufficiently explained, we must here give a little supplementary information as to certain gestures of the Mass, the sense of which is by no means always understood.

The celebrant and his ministers were thus standing upright during Mass, except during the Lessons and the chants. This is still the custom; at Solemn High Masses celebrant and ministers are seated during the reading of the Epistle and other Lessons, as well as during the singing of "Kyrie," "Gloria in Excelsis," "Credo," Gradual, and other chants.

At certain moments the celebrant spreads out his hands to pray, reminding us of the attitude of the "Orantes:" this is done during the prayers of the Mass, the Preface, Canon, and "Pater." At other times he bows himself, as at the "Confiteor," the "Oramus te, Domine," the "Suscipe sancte Pater" and "Suscipe sancta Trinitas," at the words of the Canon "Te igitur" and "Supplices te," as well as at the "Munda cor meum."

The rubric prescribes that he shall raise his eyes to Heaven at the "Veni Sanctificator," and at the Consecration of the bread and wine; that he shall strike his breast at the "Mea culpa" of the "Confiteor," at the "Agnus Dei," the "Domine, non sum dignus," and at the "Nobis quoque peccatoribus."

Before the prayers he kisses the altar, turns towards the people, extends his hands and salutes them with "Dominus vobiscum," from the middle of the altar, at the "Oremus" he salutes the Cross and again extends his hands. He genuflects at the Elevation, at the "Homo factus est" of the Credo, and of the Last Gospel- also, in Solemn Masses he does this each time he leaves the altar to seat himself, as well as when he returns.

The imposition of hands occurs only once during Mass, at the "Hanc igitur;" this gesture, indeed, dates only from the fifteenth century, and is merely intended to design the oblation. This may appear rather singular when we know the importance of this act in the Catholic liturgy.[6] But it must be remembered that signs of the Cross, which often replace the imposition of hands, are frequent during the Sacrifice of the Mass, and we may now study their meaning.

The sign of the Cross during Mass is a subject which has long gained the attention of liturgiologists. It is presented here under different forms. The usual way of making the ordinary sign of the Cross is for the Priest to trace it upon himself by carrying his right hand from the forehead to the breast, and then from the left shoulder to the right; it has thus been made since the ninth century, as, at the same time, the sign of our Redemption, and of a doxology to the Trinity, with the words: In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

Before this epoch (ninth century) it was more especially the sign of Christ, and answers to the "In Nomine Christi" so frequently recommended by St. Paul. The sign was then traced on the forehead, the lips, and the breast. Under this form it is still used before the Gospel.

The sign of the Cross is, with the imposition of hands, the most venerable and expressive act of Christian worship. Innumerable works, treatises, and articles have been written on this subject. We can only refer here to the articles "Croix" and "Crucifix" in DACL, where a Bibliography of the matter will be found.

The number, place, and form of these signs of the Cross in Mass has varied according to time and place. The Missal of St. Pius V adopted the greater part of those indicated in the most recent MSS. of that period, or in books printed at that time. But these are by no means equally ancient, or of the same importance.

Some are mimetic signs which are specially aimed at emphasizing the text, as in "Haec dona," "haec munera," "haec sancta sacrificia." Others have the meaning of a blessing, like those which accompany the words "benedictam," "adscriptam," "ratam," "ut nobis corpus et sanguis," etc. As much, and "a fortiori," must be said of the sign of the Cross at "Benedixit" upon the Host and chalice, at the Consecration, for this reproduces the gesture of Our Lord in blessing the bread and wine.

But what of those signs of the Cross made upon the consecrated elements? A blessing upon the Body and Blood of Our Lord would seem superfluous, at the very least, and yet the signs occur many times, as at "Hostiam puram," "Hostiam sanctam," etc. There are as many as five, and specially again at the "Per quem" and "Per ipsum," and at the "Pax Domini" and Communion. We may say at once that usually these signs are not indicated in the ancient Sacramentaries, nor in the "Ordo I," while a certain variety is observed even in the other Sacramentaries. Thus, they are not considered essential, and often are merely figurative, the word having been the author of the gesture, according to the theory so dear to De Vert.[7]

At the "Per ipsum" the Priest, holding the Host in his right hand, traces three signs of the Cross over the chalice, two between the chalice and his breast, before elevating the Host and the chalice at the final doxology of the Canon.

During the embolism of the Pater, at "Da propitius pacem," he makes the sign of the Cross with the paten, which he kisses.[8] At the end of Mass the Priest, turned towards the people, makes with his right hand a great sign of the Cross, which is the sign of blessing. A Prelate makes this sign once to his left, once in the center, once to his right.[9]

The kissing of the altar is another act which frequently takes place in Mass. In the seventh century this gesture was far less common, but was surrounded with a greater solemnity. Thus at the beginning of the Office of Good Friday, as has been mentioned, the Pontiff, after the conclusion of Nones, left his throne to go and kiss the altar, returning afterwards to his place. This rite at the beginning of Mass was already a characteristic of the Papal Mass in the seventh-eighth centuries. It is still preserved to-day, with the "Oramus te, Domine," which gives the reason for it — "Sanctorum quorum reliquiae hic sunt." The altar is a sacred stone, containing the relics of Saints; it is the "mensa" which recalls the table of the Last Supper, or again, the stone of Golgotha. It is unnecessary to compare this act with that of the Romans, who kissed their pagan altars, in order to understand the act of veneration accomplished by the Priest at this moment.

To-day the Priest kisses the altar each time he comes to it, as well as before the "Dominus vobiscum" of the prayers.

We have already sufficiently explained the blessing of the people by the Priest at the end of the Roman Mass, as well as that blessing which in the other Latin rites preceded the Communion (Chap IV).


1. See Bibliography at end of this chapter.
2. Cf. DACL, article "Chaires."
3. Jean le Lorrain (d. 1710), "De l'ancienne coutume de prier et d'adorer  debout le jour du dimanche," etc., 2 vols., Liege 1700 Rouen, 171O. Cf.  also our article "Liturgie, Dict. de theol. catholique," col. 821 seq.
4. This description has been made in a most interesting way by Mgr.  Batiffol (p. 67 seq.) from the "Ordo Romanus," I. This "Ordo" had been  edited and explained previously, even more in detail, by E. G. F. Atchley,  "Ordo Romanus," I, Book VI of "Liturgiology" (I vol., 8vo, London, 1905).
5. Dom Claude de Vert "Explication simple, litterale et historique des  ceremonies de l'Eglise" 4 vols. (Paris, 1720).
6. Cf. "Imposition des mains," in DACL.
7. On this point see especially Brinktrine, quoted in the Bibliography, who  has studied this subject deeply.
8. On the gesture of the sub-Deacon who gives the paten to the Deacon at  the end of the Pater, and on this sign of the Cross, cf. p. 82.
9. On this blessing at the end of Mass, and on the prayer "Super populum,"  cf. p. 87.


The articles "Baiser de Paix," "Croix," "Crucifix," "Imposition des mains," in DACL.

Our article "Liturgie," in "Dict. de theol. cath.," col. 821 seq. "La Priere des Chretiens" (Paris, 1929), P. 133 seq.

DE VERT, "Explication des ceremonies de l'Eglise" (Paris, 1713). LEBRUN, "Explication des Prieres et des ceremonies de la Messe" (Paris, 1726).

BRINKTRINE, "Die Heilige Messe, Der Altarkuss," p . 56 seq. For the signs of the Cross, "Exkurs. I, Die Kreuzzeichen im Kanon," p. 250 seq., and BATIFFOL, loc. cit., pp. 239, 251, 267.

DOLGER, "Zu den Zeremonien der Mess liturgie, II, Der Altarkuss, antike u. christent." II, pp. 190-221 (1930).

See also our "Monumenta Ecclesiae Liturgica" (table).

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