Use of a Second Ambo

Date: May 10, 2024
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Question: Can you please comment on the validity of using an "extra lectern" to function like a "second ambo" for functions that are normally executed on the ambo (or lectern, if ambo is not present), e.g. proclamation of readings by designated lectors? And does this practice not destroy the symbolic meaning of the ambo as the "altar of the Word"? I present two specific situations pertaining to this question: 1) At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, some parishes resorted to putting another lectern for the lectors so that the ambo will be exclusively for the proclamation of the Gospel by the priest/deacon. This led to having an ambo on one side and another lectern of similar design on the other side of the sanctuary. Their logic was to supposedly curb the spread of the virus. Even with the significant decline of the COVID-19 pandemic and the "opening up" of social life (with the discontinuation of physical distancing measures) at present, some parishes continued having the aforementioned setup in their churches. The meaning of the ambo and its centrality during the liturgy of the Word has consequently, at least in my view, diminished to a mere high table for the lectionary and evangelarium. 2) I have witnessed in some Easter vigil Masses that a separate, movable lectern is placed at the center aisle right at the foot of the altar. The Old Testament readings would be proclaimed from that lectern. And then after the last Old Testament reading is finished, that separate lectern is removed so that the subsequent Epistle and the Gospel are proclaimed from the ambo up in the sanctuary. Can you also please comment on the two situations presented above? -- M.S., Iloilo Province, Philippines


Answer: This is quite an interesting question and shows how some aspects of liturgy can be interpreted in different ways throughout history.


First a distinction. In ancient times the ambo was traditionally reserved for the proclamation of the Word and occasionally for preaching. The pulpit, although in today’s parlance it is used interchangeably with ambo, was above all reserved for preaching. The lectern is a simpler and usually mobile form of ambo or pulpit. It can also refer to the book support placed on the altar.


Both Western and Eastern Christianity developed forms of ambo for the proclamation of God’s Word and, in some cases, for preaching. For example, St. John Chrysostom would preach regularly from the ambo to be more easily heard.


As the Catholic Encyclopedia reminds us: “Originally there was only one ambo in a church, placed in the nave, and provided with two flights of steps; one from the east, the side towards the altar; and the other from the west. From the eastern steps the subdeacon, with his face to the altar, read the Epistles; and from the western steps the deacon, facing the people, read the Gospels.”


We must also remember that, in these early years, the assembly, including the clergy, was mostly in the nave facing toward the ambo and altar for the proclamation of the Word.


This use of a single ambo was not always practical and so, beginning in the fourth century, in many churches a second ambo was constructed on each side of the choir: a richly decorated one on the south side for the proclamation of the Gospel and a simpler one on the north side for the proclamation of the Old Testament and the Epistle. In some exceptional cases, such as in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, we have a so-called double decker ambo on two levels with the higher level reserved for the Gospel.


In Rome, and in several places in Italy, examples of the two ambos have survived to the present day. In Rome, the most significant are found in the ancient basilicas of St. Clement, St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, St. Sabina, St. Mary in Cosmedin, and the Ara Coeli.


The use of two ambos perdured until around the 12th century when the ambo began to be replaced by the pulpit. It gradually disappeared from most churches and was no longer contemplated in newer constructions.


The reasons for this disappearance are varied. For example, since the people no longer understood Latin, it made little sense to publicly proclaim the readings.


Another influence was the increasing popularity of the “full missal,” containing all the prayers and readings for Mass in one book. This led to the practice of priests celebrating individual Masses on multiple altars in a low voice, thus diminishing the utility of the ambo except for the most solemn celebrations.


A relic of the older practice continued insofar as the priest would move the missal, reading the Epistle from the north side of the altar and the Gospel from the south.


The pulpit, which replaced the ambo, was also an elevated platform, but since it served above all for preaching it gradually migrated away from the sanctuary toward the middle of the church to maximize the number of faithful who could hear the sermon. Only rarely was the pulpit used for proclaiming the word of God during the liturgy. In some places however, especially during the first six decades of the 20eth century, it was used to proclaim a vernacular version of the Latin readings for the benefit of the faithful.


The Second Vatican Council determined a complete reform of the Liturgy of the Word and mandated a much enriched offering of Scripture readings at Mass. This naturally led to a return of the ambo which is reflected in the norms of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the Introduction to the Lectionary.


From the GIRM:


“The Ambo


“309. The dignity of the Word of God requires that in the church there be a suitable place from which it may be proclaimed and toward which the attention of the faithful naturally turns during the Liturgy of the Word. It is appropriate that generally this place be a stationary ambo and not simply a movable lectern. The ambo must be located in keeping with the design of each church in such a way that the ordained ministers and readers may be clearly seen and heard by the faithful.


“From the ambo only the readings, the Responsorial Psalm, and the Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) are to be proclaimed; likewise it may be used for giving the Homily and for announcing the intentions of the Universal Prayer. The dignity of the ambo requires that only a minister of the word should stand at it.


“It is appropriate that before being put into liturgical use a new ambo be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual.”


From the Introduction to the Lectionary:


“a) The Place for the Proclamation of the Word of God


“32. There must be a place in the church that is somewhat elevated, fixed, and of a suitable design and nobility. It should reflect the dignity of God's word and be a clear reminder to the people that in the Mass the table of God's word and of Christ's body is placed before them. The place for the readings must also truly help the people's listening and attention during the liturgy of the word. Great pains must therefore be taken, in keeping with the design of each church, over the harmonious and close relationship of the ambo with the altar.


“33. Either permanently or at least on occasions of greater solemnity, the ambo should be decorated simply and in keeping with its design.


“Since the ambo is the place from which the word of God is proclaimed by the ministers, it must of its nature be reserved for the readings, the responsorial psalm, and the Easter Proclamation (the Exsultet). The ambo may rightly be used for the homily and the prayer of the faithful, however, because of their close connection with the entire liturgy of the word. It is better for the commentator, cantor, or director of singing, for example, not to use the ambo.


34. In order that the ambo may properly serve its liturgical purpose, it is to be rather large, since on occasion several ministers must use it at the same time. Provision must also be made for the readers to have enough light to read the text and, as required, to have modern sound equipment enabling the faithful to hear them without difficulty.”


To this we may add the indications offered by the U.S. bishops’ conference in its guidelines “Built of Livine Stones.”


“The Ambo


“§ 61 § The central focus of the area in which the word of God is proclaimed during the liturgy is the ambo. The design of the ambo and its prominent placement reflects the dignity and nobility of that saving word and draws the attention of those present to the proclamation of the word. Here the Christian community encounters the living Lord in the word of God and prepares itself for the ‘breaking of the bread’ and the mission to live the word that will be proclaimed. An ample area around the ambo is needed to allow a Gospel procession with a full complement of ministers bearing candles and incense. The Introduction to the Lectionary recommends that the design of altar and ambo bear an ‘harmonious and close relationship’ to one another in order to emphasize the close relationship between word and Eucharist. Since many people share in the ministry of the word, the ambo should be accessible to everyone, including those with physical disabilities.


§ 62 § Our reverence for the word of God is expressed not only in an attentive listening to and reflection upon the Scripture, but also by the way we handle and treat the Book of the Gospels. The ambo can be designed not only for reading and preaching, but also for displaying the open Book of the Gospels or a copy of the Scriptures before and after the liturgical celebration.”


From all of this we can deduce that the practice envisioned by the official documents is the single ambo placed in relationship with the altar. However, this seems more a practical consideration than a theological one. 


That is, while the current norms in no way deny the validity of the ancient practice of having two ambos to distinguish the Gospel from the other readings, they see no good reason to promote the restoration of that practice. The liturgical honors attributed to the Book of the Gospels such as being carried in procession and incensed are sufficient to underline its importance without the need for two structures.


That said, in ancient churches where there are two ambos, both may still be used. Likewise, two portable lecterns are occasionally used during papal Masses in St. Peter’s Square, distinguishing readings and Gospel. Masses inside the papal basilica, however, now use a single ambo.


Regarding the cases presented by our reader, I would say that since the reasons for the original separation of the two ambos no longer exist, they should return to using the single ambo.


It is worthwhile pointing out that while two ambos did exist in some ancient churches they were both fixed and permanent structures. It makes little sense to use one proper ambo, designed to be in harmony with the altar and thus evoking the unity of the two tables of the Word and the Sacrifice, and a temporary portable lectern.


Something similar could be said regarding the use of a portable lectern for the Old Testament and the ambo for the New during the Easter vigil. The order of readings displays a single great history of salvation going from the creation to the redemption. Dividing up the place of proclamation could cast a shadow over the unity of God’s overall plan of salvation and reduce the value of the message contained in the readings.


As we saw above, the two ambos exalted the Gospel without giving the impression of denigrating the rest of Scripture.


* * *


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.

Return to Liturgy

At ePriest, we are dedicated to supporting Catholic priests as they serve their people and build up the Church.

We invite you to explore our resources to help your own ministry flourish!

Sign Up Now