Recently, I reviewed guidelines with some of our liturgical ministers (lectors, Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, and ushers) and instituted a few new ones. It’s good for all of us to be aware of what the liturgy is and why we do what we do during Holy Mass. Here are some of the basic aspects of our liturgy. We might call this the first installment of “Why do Catholics do that?”
Before entering the House of God, we dip our finger(s) into holy water and make the sign of the cross. We do this to be blessed and purified, remind ourselves of our Baptism, and make the sign of our salvation. Some people will do this with two fingers to represent the two natures of Christ (human and divine).
We begin Holy Mass with the Penitential Rite (“I confess”, “Lord have mercy”, etc.) to place ourselves in God’s presence and ask for His mercy. It is an immediate sign of humility at the throne of His Majesty: we are sinners in need of forgiveness. If it is filled with true repentance, this Rite brings forgiveness of venial sins. However, forgiveness of mortal sins is still reserved for the Sacrament of Penance (Confession).
Kneeling, sitting, standing
What’s with all of the different postures during Mass? Each has a particular significance and meaning. Kneeling is the most reverent posture and is done during the Eucharistic Prayer and Holy Communion. We are adoring the Lord and paying homage to the Real Presence! Standing is the second-most reverent position and is done during the prayers, Gospel, and Creed. We stand during the Gospel, for example, because we believe that Jesus is speaking directly to us (hence we say after the proclamation of the Gospel, “praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ”). Sitting is the most relaxed posture and it signifies that we are receiving the Word of God during the readings and reflecting on it after.
Before the Gospel
We make the sign of the cross before the Gospel is proclaimed on our foreheads, lips, and hearts. We do this to signify the importance of having the Gospel on our minds and hearts and speaking it in our lives.
Each congregant should be in place at least a few minutes before Mass to pray and prepare for Holy Mass. If you arrive during one of the readings, ushers will hold you in place until after the reading is proclaimed out of respect for the Word of God. If you arrive after the Gospel, then you need to find another Mass in order to fulfill the Sunday obligation. (We need to be present for both parts of the Mass: Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist).
Please remember that Judas left the first Mass early.
When it comes to this, adults and children should prepare for Mass the same way they prepare for a long car ride: go to the bathroom before you leave home. We can all give God one straight hour! No one should leave their pew during the Eucharistic Prayer or Holy Communion especially.
Communion in the hand or on the tongue?
The Church says that either way of receiving the Lord in Holy Communion is acceptable. Receiving in the hand is the more ancient practice, but there is more of a chance of an abuse (e.g., someone pocketing the Eucharist…God help us) or accident with that. Receiving on the tongue helps to prevent abuses and accidental drops, and, in my opinion, shows greater reverence for the Eucharist.
Priest as leader
The celebrant is also known as the presider (“president” in ancient times). We follow the presider in prayers and gestures. This means that the congregation waits for the priest to begin common prayers when recited (“Holy, Holy, Holy”, e.g..) before joining in, and waits for him to process out of Mass before leaving. We follow him like we follow Christ (the priest acts in the person of Christ during Mass). Ideally, though, congregants should remain in the pew for a few moments and make a prayer of thanksgiving, grateful for the experience of Heaven on Earth that they just received in the Mass.
May you know the peace of Christ,