Gestures in the 1962 Missal

Date: November 18, 2023
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Question: If there is something that is not explicitly forbidden by the modern rubrics that was in the 1962 Mass, is it OK to do it in the Novus Ordo? For example, in the Tridentine Mass, the priest would make the sign of the cross during the absolution prayer in the Confiteor, but the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM] is silent on the subject. Another example is kissing the cruet and blessing it with the sign of the cross during the offertory. -- D.A., Mesa, Arizona


Answer: In 1978 the Congregation for Divine Worship received the following question:


“2. In a Mass with the people celebrated in a more solemn manner, different methods of incensing the offerings and the altar are used: on the one hand a simple and plain method, on the other hand the same method as the rite for incensing prescribed in the preceding Missal. Which practice should be followed?”


In its official reply, published in Notitiae (1978, page 301), apart from the precise question at hand it articulated the following general principle:


“It must never be forgotten that the Missal of Pope Paul VI, from the year 1970, has taken the place of that which is improperly called ‘the Missal of St Pius V’ and that it has done this totally, whether with regard to texts or rubrics. Where the rubrics of the Missal of Paul VI say nothing or say little in specifics in some places, it is not therefore to be inferred that the old rite must be followed.”


Following this principle, it therefore clarified that:


“Accordingly, the many and complex gestures of incensation according to the prescripts of the earlier Missal (cf. Missale Romanum, T. P. Vaticanis, 1962: Ritus servandus VII et Ordo Incensandi, pp. LXXX-LXXXIII) are not to be repeated.


“When incensing, the celebrant (IGMR 51 and 105) should proceed in this simple manner:


“a) with regard to the offerings: he incenses with three double-swings, as the deacon does for the Gospel;


“b) with regard to the cross: when the celebrant comes before it, he incenses with three double-swings;


“c) with regard to the altar: he incenses all around the side as he circles the altar, with no distinction made between the mensa and the sides.”


In later replies to similar questions, it invoked and reiterated the above-mentioned general principle.


For example, later that same year there was a Response (Notitiae 1978, pages 534-535, no. 10) to a question on the gestures that accompanied certain formulas such as the Confiteor, the Agnus Dei, and the Domine non sum dignus, whether on the part of priests or on the part of the faithful, the gestures accompanying the words are not always performed the same.


In its response the Congregation said:


“In this case it will help to be mindful of these things:


“1) Gestures and words often tend to lend significance to one another.


“2) In this matter, as in others, the liturgical restoration has pursued truth and simplicity according to the passage of Sacrosanctum Concilium: ‘The rites should be resplendent in their noble simplicity ...’ (SC, 34).


“While in the Roman Missal promulgated by the authority of the Council of Trent the words were very frequently also accompanied by minute gestures, the rubrics of the Roman Missal restored by the authority of the Second Vatican Council are noteworthy for their discretion with regard to gestures.


“Having said this:


“a) The words mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa which are found in the Confiteor are introduced in the restored Roman Missal by a rubric of this sort: All likewise ... striking their breast, say ... (OM, n. 3). In the former Missal, in the same place, the rubric sounded like this: He strikes his breast three times. It does not seem, therefore, that anyone has to strike his breast three times in pronouncing those words in Latin or in another language, even if mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa is said. It suffices that there be a striking of the breast.


“It is obvious also that only one gesture suffices in those languages in which the words for showing one's fault have been rendered in a more simple manner, as, for example, in English, ‘I have sinned through my own fault,’ or in French, ‘Oui, j'ai vraiment peche.’


“b) The discretion of the restored Roman Missal is shown to be noteworthy also in the other texts mentioned, namely the Agnus Dei and the Domine, non sum dignus which by words of penitence and humility in one way or another accompany the breaking of the bread and the invitation to the faithful to receive the Eucharist.


“[…] In reality, the Missal formerly indicated at the Agnus Dei, striking the breast three times, and in pronouncing the triple Domine, non sum dignus, striking the breast ... says three times. Since, however, the new Missal says nothing about this (OM 131 and 133), there is no reason to suppose that any gesture should be added to these invocations.”


Hence, we can say with some confidence that when a detailed rubric of the 1962 missal is omitted in the rite from 1970 onward, this omission is not casual and the earlier rite should not be retained. This is especially true for all those gestures and rites carried out by the ministers who should faithfully follow the current rites.


It is not necessary for the former gesture to be specifically abrogated or forbidden to apply this general principle.


However, this principle does not mean that former usage can never be a guide or rule of thumb in order to understand the meaning of a rite or gesture or its proper application. Nor does the above principle mean that all these gestures, especially those that pertain to the people, are forbidden.


For example, since the reintroduction of the triple accusation of fault in the “I confess,” many have spontaneously resumed striking the breast three times. There is no doubt that once is sufficient to comply with the rubrics, but such things come naturally, and it would probably be a waste of energy to try to enforce uniformity.


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Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.


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