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Hand Gestures by Cantors and Lectors

Date: November 14, 2021
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.

Q. I often see cantors or lectors raise their right hand when they are wanting the congregation to respond or participate at Mass. Is this a permissible hand gesture at Mass or should it be discouraged? -- N.H., Kansas City, Kansas

A: As far as I know there is no mention of such a hand gesture in universal liturgical law. However, we may gain some light from examining the function of the cantor in the liturgy. This function is well described in the document of the U.S. bishops’ conferences, “Sing to the Lord”:

“37. The cantor is both a singer and a leader of congregational song. Especially when no choir is present, the cantor may sing in alternation or dialogue with the assembly. For example, the cantor may sing the invocations of the Kyrie, intone the Gloria, lead the short acclamations at the end of the Scripture readings, intone and sing the verse of the Gospel Acclamation, sing the invocations of the Prayer of the Faithful, and lead the singing of the Agnus Dei. The cantor may also sing the verses of the psalm or song that accompany the Entrance, Preparation of the Gifts, and Communion. Finally, the cantor may serve as psalmist, leading and proclaiming the verses of the Responsorial Psalm.

“38. As a leader of congregational song, the cantor should take part in singing with the entire gathered assembly. In order to promote the singing of the liturgical assembly, the cantor’s voice should not be heard above the congregation. As a transitional practice, the voice of the cantor might need to be amplified to stimulate and lead congregational singing when this is still weak. However, as the congregation finds its voice and sings with increasing confidence, the cantor’s voice should correspondingly recede. At times, it may be appropriate to use a modest gesture that invites participation and clearly indicates when the congregation is to begin, but gestures should be used sparingly and only when genuinely needed.

“39. Cantors should lead the assembly from a place where they can be seen by all without drawing attention from the liturgical action. When, however, a congregation is singing very familiar responses, acclamations, or songs that do not include verses for the cantor alone, the cantor need not be visible.

“40. The cantor exercises his or her ministry from a conveniently located stand, but not from the ambo. The cantor may dress in an alb or choir robe, but always in clean, presentable, and modest clothing. Cassock and surplice, being clerical attire, are not recommended as vesture for the cantor.”

Although these are guidelines, and not strictly law, it does suggest that when a cantor leads an assembly some very moderate hand gestures may be permitted.

However, our correspondent is probably referring to readers or cantors who make a hand gesture during the responsorial psalm to indicate to the assembly the moment of response. In some places, the reader actually says the word “Response” to do so.

This is a more questionable practice. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says the following regarding the proclamation of the responsorial psalm:

“61. After the First Reading follows the Responsorial Psalm, which is an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word and which has great liturgical and pastoral importance, since it fosters meditation on the Word of God.

“The Responsorial Psalm should correspond to each reading and should usually be taken from the Lectionary.

“It is preferable for the Responsorial Psalm to be sung, at least as far as the people’s response is concerned. Hence the psalmist, or cantor of the Psalm, sings the Psalm verses at the ambo or another suitable place, while the whole congregation sits and listens, normally taking part by means of the response, except when the Psalm is sung straight through, that is, without a response. However, in order that the people may be able to sing the Psalm response more easily, texts of some responses and Psalms have been chosen for the different times of the year or for the different categories of Saints. These may be used instead of the text corresponding to the reading whenever the Psalm is sung. If the Psalm cannot be sung, then it should be recited in a way that is particularly suited to fostering meditation on the Word of God.”

There is no mention of any hand gesture, but there is a presupposition that, over time, the psalm response will have become sufficiently familiar to the congregation as to obviate the need for any special gestures or verbal indications.

Indeed, it is quite likely that when the responsorial psalm was first introduced, or reintroduced, into the Liturgy of the Word after a hiatus of more than a millennium, its unfamiliarity initially required such gestures or phrases to solicit the assembly’s response. It would appear that in some places they have been ritualized and almost seem obligatory.

Fifty years have passed since those times and practicing Catholics are now familiar with the structure of the responsorial psalm. Hence, I would say that where such hand gestures or verbal indications still persist, they should be phased out.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. 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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