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Bows to Altar When the Tabernacle Is Nearby

Date: July 24, 2022
Author: Fr. Q: I am a bit confused about the way the

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 am a bit confused about the way the veneration of the altar is happening here in Zambia at the beginning and the end of the Mass. I know that, according to the GIRM, Nos. 49 and 122, "When they reach the altar, the Priest and ministers make a profound bow." I suppose that this is in case where there is no tabernacle in the sanctuary, since No. 274 states, “If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is situated in the sanctuary, the Priest, the Deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from it.” Does this mean that when the tabernacle is in the sanctuary, the profound bow is still maintained because the altar is always there? Or it should be only the genuflection without the profound bow? Here, in most of our parishes, we do both (profound bow and genuflection), and I was told that it is because there is an altar and a tabernacle. I can’t find this explanation in the GIRM, and I find this double veneration too bulky. Could you enlighten us? – M.A., Ndola Diocese, Zambia

Answer: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), in this case, offers some general principles that are applicable in most situations but wisely refrains from entering into specific details given the great variety of possible tabernacle locations.

First, the title for the section that precedes GIRM 49 says: “Greeting of the Altar and of the People Gathered Together.” By using the word “greeting” (salutatio) for altar and people, the missal creates certain parallelism that underlines the altar as the primary symbol of Christ in the church building and the role of the assembly as a mode of Christ’s presence in the liturgy.

Therefore, the altar is always subject to veneration in its own right.

GIRM 274, on the other hand, is dealing with the subject of genuflections and bows in general, and it is within this context that it presents the concrete case of the presence of the tabernacle in the sanctuary area during Mass.

The two numbers are not contradictory, and at no time does the missal suggest that the genuflection, as a sign of adoration toward the Real Presence of Christ at the beginning and end of Mass, substitute the deep bow which is primarily a sign of veneration toward the altar as a symbol of Christ.

However, I would suggest that the genuflection could render the bow unnecessary in some cases. For example, when the tabernacle is directly behind the altar so that the bow and the genuflection would be practically indistinguishable from the ritual point of view, then the genuflection alone could suffice. The altar will still be venerated by the kiss of the ministers and possibly, by incense.

If, on the other hand, the tabernacle is within the sanctuary but off to one side, I think both rites should be observed. The priest and the ministers would approach the altar, make a deep bow, then turn toward the tabernacle and genuflect before kissing the altar.

The process would be reversed at the end of Mass as indicated in GIRM 90. The priest and deacon would first kiss the altar. A profound bow follows this toward the altar by the priest, deacon, and other ministers, and a genuflection if the tabernacle is within the sanctuary.

Once more, I would suggest that if the final genuflection is toward the altar, this sign could suffice. Otherwise, the priest and ministers should bow toward the altar and then turn toward the tabernacle for genuflection before leaving the sanctuary. These dynamics may sometimes vary as some churches have a solemn entrance procession but exit using a shorter route to the sacristy.

What is not always clear is the moment in which concelebrants bow toward the altar at the end of Mass. GIRM 250 says: “Before leaving the altar, the concelebrants make a profound bow to the altar. For his part, the principal celebrant and the Deacon venerate the altar as usual with a kiss.”

In some places, this is interpreted as the concelebrants bowing toward the altar at the same time as the principal celebrant and deacon kiss the altar. In other places, it is done when the priest and deacon bow toward the altar after coming to the front.

Although I believe the second interpretation is the most likely, there may be some situations of large concelebrations when the first option could be legitimate so as to initiate the final procession in a timely manner. Once more, the practice could vary according to the concrete logistics of the large concelebration.

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