Reading at Mass

Dear Grace,
I have moved to a different parish within the last couple of years and I am getting conflicting information from two parish priests regarding practices for readers, among other things. I have attempted to research something in particular and am unable to find anything written on it. I have been a lector/reader for several years.

Originally, when I was trained (by the parish priest at the time) I was told that upon stepping onto the ambo and before beginning to do any reading, the reader should face the priest and gently bow as a sign of respect to the priest. Upon coming to this new parish, our pastor has a very casual and different attitude. For example, he refuses to wear clerical dress outside of Mass, he prefers if parishioners refrain from calling him “Father.” He has recently stated that some lectors' practices of genuflecting towards the tabernacle on the way up to the ambo and bowing to the priest prior to reading is silly and unnecessary. Could you please clarify this for me? I don't want to be legalistic about things, but on the other hand if these practices are correct I would like to know.

Without a doubt, moving to another parish can sometimes become a challenging experience. This may be especially so for persons involved in lay ministry who have been trained in and practiced their ministry under the guidance of another pastor or priest. It is of course true that we will find some things are done differently in a new church community from the way we have been used to, and there will be some variation. When it comes to liturgical celebrations, however, there are rules or “rubrics” that must be followed. Your questions concern the gestures of genuflecting and bowing on the part of the reader (lector) at Mass.

On Holy Thursday, 2000, Pope John Paul II approved the revised Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, popularly known as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. This present revision replaces the 1975 edition of the General Instruction. It is the most current document in use that gives the general guidelines for planning the Eucharistic celebration properly and sets forth the rules for arranging the individual forms of celebration.

In this document, we find no instruction indicating that the reader should bow to the priest before proclaiming the Word of God. There is only one instance when the reader is to bow. Upon reaching the altar after the introductory procession, the reader, along with the priest and other ministers, makes a profound bow (the body bending from the waist) to reverence the altar (GIRM, 122).

Bowing is a gesture of reverence. Therefore, one can see how this custom of bowing to the priest might be sometimes practiced or desired by some. Even so, it is optional for a reader to bow before proclaiming the Word of God, as the General Instruction is silent on this point.

Regarding genuflecting to the tabernacle by the reader on his or her way up to the ambo, the General Instruction is specific: “If there is a tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament in the sanctuary, the priest, deacon and other ministers genuflect to it when they approach or leave the altar, but not during the celebration of Mass itself” (GIRM, 274). This probably has to do with the flow of the liturgy. During Mass, the priest, deacon and ministers must walk around the sanctuary area and it would take much longer if they each had to stop to genuflect each time they passed the tabernacle when it is located in the sanctuary.

Your concerns are certainly valid and your fervent desire to show reverence is not “silly.” Many Catholics today long for the same. You will be happy to know that the new General Instruction does make many provisions for a more sacred and reverent liturgy. For example, admonishing that the Liturgy of the Word “must be celebrated in such a way as to promote meditation,” the Instruction cautions against “any kind of haste which impedes recollection” and recommends brief moments of silence throughout the liturgy, especially after the readings and the homily so that the word of God may be “taken into the heart by the fostering of the Holy Spirit” (GIRM, 56).

It was the intention of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council to make the Mass more accessible to the lay faithful. But that good intention has at times been misunderstood, and this has caused the attitude you see today on the part of some, including clergy. Pray for your pastor. And let us also pray that with time we will see in all the people of God an increased hunger for reverence in our scared liturgy.

© Copyright 2003 Grace D. MacKinnon

For permission to reproduce this article, contact Grace MacKinnon at

Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine and teaches in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: You may also visit her online at

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