Folded Hands at Reading of the Gospel

Date: May 22, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Question: I would like to know why it is that when a priest or deacon proclaims the Gospel he does so with "folded hands." What is the significance of introducing the Gospel without extending the hands? In the seminary, we were not taught about this. Hence today many priests and deacons (including bishops) extend their hands when proclaiming the Gospel. ─ G.V.D., Pretoria, South Africa

Answer: This norm, and it is a norm in the Roman rite, is perhaps one of those least followed, albeit due more to unawareness and lack of understanding as to the reason behind it, than to any form of open rebellion.

The norm was first expressed in the 1984 Ceremonial of Bishops; No. 74, to wit:

"At the ambo the deacon stands facing the people and, with hands joined, says the greeting; then with his right thumb he makes the sign of the cross, first on the book at the beginning of the gospel passage that he is about to read, then on his forehead, lips, and breast, saying, A reading from the holy gospel. The bishop signs himself in the same way on forehead, lips, and breast, and all present do the same. Then, at least at a stational Mass, the deacon incenses the Book of the Gospels three times, that is, in the center, to the left, and to the right. Then he proclaims the gospel reading to its conclusion.”

The 2002 version of the missal incorporated this norm into No. 134 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), but including the fact that it applies also to priests and not just to deacons.

“At the ambo, the priest opens the book and, with hands joined, says: Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you), and the people respond: Et cum spiritu tuo (And with your spirit). Then he says: Lectio sancti Evangelii (A reading from the holy Gospel), making the Sign of the Cross with his thumb on the book and on his forehead, mouth, and breast, which everyone else does as well. The people say the acclamation: Gloria tibi, Domine (Glory to you, Lord). The priest incenses the book, if incense is used (cf. nos. 276-277). Then he proclaims the Gospel and at the end sings or says the acclamation: Verbum Domini (The Gospel of the Lord), to which all respond: Laus tibi, Christe (Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ). The priest kisses the book, saying quietly: Per evangelica dicta (Through the words of the Gospel).”

The basic reasoning behind the norm is that the gesture of opening and closing the hands while greeting the assembly in Mass is considered a presidential act and is thus reserved for the celebrant.

That easily explains why the deacon never opens and closes his hands during the Mass as he cannot preside at Mass. He may do this gesture whenever he presides at a liturgical act in the absence of a priest.

The liturgical greeting "The Lord be with you" usually implies opening and closing the hands, but the greeting before the Gospel is a special case because reading of the Gospel is not considered a presidential act in the Latin rite. The non-presidential character of the readings is specifically mentioned in the GIRM, No. 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."

Thus, it is in virtue of this non-presidential character of reading the Gospel which requires omitting the liturgical gesture at this moment.

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