Epistle Side? Gospel Side? Hello??

Several have commented to me about this issue at the canonization in Rome, so I give it the prominence it deserves, quoting from the comment at PTB from Br. Martin Brown OSB:

The first two readings and the psalm were proclaimed from a simple lectern on the ‘Epistle side’, while the Gospel was proclaimed from a more substantial ambo on the ‘Gospel side.’ What was that about?

Separating the places of proclamation for the Liturgy of the Word – simple for the lay lectors and grand for the ordained deacon – gives me a lot more heartburn than the latest piece of silly dressing-up.



  1. Must be clerical hobgoblins afoot! Finally, the laity back in their place!!! (These last two quips are meant to be sarcasm).

    With all seriousness, I would challenge Br. Martin Browne’s OSB assessment of this latest report. It has long been part of the liturgical tradition, even if there has been some amnesia in the recent past, concerning the use of multiple ambo’s in the liturgy. (Yes, I know the current I.G.M.R. specifies one ambo – but the use of only one ambo is certainly an innovation of the post-conciliar period – since the apparent canonziation ceremony made use of two distinct ambo’s, maybe it is time to take stock about whether this innovation was really necessary).

    Nobody questions that the Proclamation of the Gospel is the high point of the Liturgy of the Word. The Gospel has it’s own unique chant of preparation, there is a distinct book – the Evangelarium; in the solemn liturgy the Deacon proclaims the Gospel accompanied by acolytes carrying candles and a the thurible. Why shouldn’t there be a distinct Ambo for the Gospel? In the roman liturgical tradition, a unique Ambo, is definitely part of the tradition. (San Clemente and San Maria in Cosmedin are just two examples of this tradition – and in these places I have seen these ambos used in the ordinary form as they were intended to be used).

    Br. Martin, were there cries of alarm at the monastery when the unique “Book of the Gospels” began appearing in the late 1990’s – as if this was a renewed sign of resurgent clericalism run amok. I did not hear any one cry out because of that. Why cry now? Me thinks your concern is misplaced. If clericalism is your concern then you might argue for the elimination of all the ceremony currently in place for the Gospel as distinct from the other readings.

    This new movement in the Papal liturgy allow us to take stock of whether or not having only one place for the readings in the Roman Rite is truly wise. What can be gained from utilizing the roman tradition on multiple ambos?

    Heartburn? Really? Chill out brother. Maybe it is just about affording the Gospel its unique place. Peace.

    1. @Rev. Bryan J.B. Pedersen – comment #1:
      I’m suitably chilled, brother, believe me! I know all about the twin ambos in early Roman churches. I have even sung the Gospel from one at Santa Sabina. However, there’s a difference between them, which are there a long time and are part of the genius of the spaces in question, and deciding to have set up two temporary ambos for a day at an outdoor Mass.

      I don’t REALLY have heartburn, but I just wonder why. Maybe there is a good reason. I’m not such an ideologue that I wouldn’t be able to accept a good reason. I just can’t see what the point is at this time.

      Peace to you too!

      1. @Martin Browne OSB – comment #4:
        In Spain and parts of South America it isn’t unusual to find three ambos (one for Old Testament reading, Epistle, and Gospel). Some even add a ambo, or a large pulpit for the sermon. Each ambo more elaborate than the next.

  2. So what about the idea that the readings for Mass all needed to be proclaimed from one place. The idea of the “Table of the Word” and the “Table of the Eucharist” led some architects and innovaters to adopt the practice of placing the altar and ambo in a unique spatial relationship to say the least. As though they had to balance each other out. The Altar appearing center right, and the ambo appearing center left all in the same horizontal axis. Thankfully this novel practice is already disappearing. My apologies to some of the M.C.’s of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who worked in the 1980’s and early 1990’s but it was truly absurd when they placed a tapestry down the center of the main baldachino covering the historic altar and then placed the cathedra under the baldachin. Guess where the altar and ambo were placed. The ambo and altar were in the main plane of the sanctuary – ambo on one side, altar on the other. What made this arrangement so absurd was that now the Archbishop and his cathedra occupied the highest and most dignified place of the entire Cathedral of St. Paul!! There was a real failure to consider how all of the symbols function. The ambo and altar appeared both temporary and small in comparison. At least in the Papal Liturgy in St. Peter’s Square the Altar is central, large, and has a fitting canopy. The papal seat does not compete with the altar. It is like San Clemente in arrangement only with the largest of vaults!

    In regard to the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota – I wish they would develop the Sacred Heart Chapel also as a Blessed Sacrament chapel. This is the Cathedral and Pilgrimage Church tradition. The same rules governing a parish Church don’t always apply. Remove the tabernacle from the main sanctuary, as well as the gradine and exposition throne installed by Archbishop Murry and then enable the main altar to be used again from either side – just have to add some steps to the back by moving the organ console.

  3. I wonder if this whole fanon business is some sort of response to Cardinal Martini’s last interview where he says that “our vestements are pompous.”
    What better way to celebrate Vatican II than to restore elements that were removed by the liturgical reforms following the council?
    This is a landmark moment, up till now, the things re-introduced by Benedict were licit in the OF(e.g. communion kneeling, ad orientem, roman chasubles), but this(i.e. the switching of sides) is a clear case of introducing an element from the pre-reformed liturgy into the reformed liturgy.

  4. Intersting development with the “ambos”. Present liturgical discipline (law) says very little about the ambo but note what it does NOT say:

    “the ambo is a lectern” (Paul Turner’s latest book suggests the ambo is a lectern or similar on p.18, #72 – wrong!).
    “the ambo must be turned to face the people” (well that’s a novelty in force only with Inter Oecumenici from 1964 to 1969 and thankfully quickly forgotten with the first GIRM in 1969).
    “the ambo provides only one position for each of the readers (lectors, psalmist, deacon)” and, therefore, only one place to put the lectionary and only one microphone.
    “preaching is preferably done at/from the ambo”

    What does GIRM say? GIRM 2008 #309 says that the ambo is a place and that churches should have a stationary ambo rather than a movable lectern. If it’s a place, then it can have several points from which the Word of God may be proclaimed, i.e. it can have several lecterns.

  5. Everyone seems to be ignoring the ecumenical dimension of Vatican II and liturgical reforms. It is quite common in both the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches for the readings to be done on the Epistle and Gospel sides of the altar and for the Epistle side to have a smaller lectern sometimes with the symbol of St. John on it, the eagle and the Gospel to be read from a very elevated and large pulpit. I applaud the Vatican for the ecumenical gesture liturgically and the recovery of our own tradition that was quite common immediately following the Council. Finally the faux juxtaposition of two tables, that of the ambo and altar needs to be put to rest as we are fed, so to speak, from the one table, which the recovery of at least the Epistle side and the Gospel side of the altar, although from separate ambos reminds us of the EF Mass where it is quite clear we are fed from the one altar both the Word of God and the Most Holy Eucharist. Finally, I was first to point this recovered tradition by the Vatican last week at the opening Mass of the Year of Faith and again on Sunday morning at the canonization Mass, as I was first in reporting the breaking news of the fanon, surely a sign of the earth, heaven, Church and praytell shaking times we are in as a prelude to the Parousia.

  6. I respect that not all are comfortable with the terms “epistle side” and “gospel side”. I agree that these terms are arguably atavistic given that the EF is no longer the dominant Roman liturgy. Nevertheless, the OF and EF exhibit different spatial relationships. These differences are not superior or inferior. Rather, liturgical spatial relationships have developed to best facilitate the worship of the assembly/congregation and celebrant/presider.

    Vehicle traffic direction is a great example of a now nearly subliminal spatial relationship which has evolved according to custom and need. Before motor vehicles, European traffic (before Napoleon) traveled left given the predominance of horseback travel. Most persons are right handed; hence, a rider rode on the left. To the contrary, Americans often rode in wagons. Often a wagon driver rode on the rear left animal. Driving on the right offered the left-side driver greater visibility.

    Few persons now consider the history of pre-automobile travel when sliding behind the wheel. Yet, every day all of us subconsciously encounter this spatial atavism. Perhaps EF liturgical directions occupy a similar place in the (sub)consciousness of Catholics. Certainly, “epistle” and “gospel” terminology applies when describing church architecture of the Tridentine era, as older architecture presumed these spatial relationships. Since the EF is still a celebrated liturgy, its rubrics remain current and yet diminished, just as pre-automotive traffic rules remain with us with an attenuated meaning.

    Humans constantly rely on spatial description to identity the self and one’s surroundings. Little surprise, then, that the rubrics of an older liturgy still influence relationships in the reformed liturgy.

  7. Going back to the comment about having only one lectern/pulpit/ambo, why then does the deacon, or in his absence, a lay person, read the prayer of the faithful from that same place? Shouldn’t that spot be only for the readings, and not for the sermon or this prayer?

    1. @John Kohanski – comment #10:
      On the few occasions when I, as Deacon, have led the prayer of the faithful (I routinely get bumped by lay readers — but don’t complain, since that is not the ditch I want to die in), I have done it from my chair, as long as it was visible to the people. Since lay readers don’t typically have a chair in the sanctuary, I guess the ambo seems like the most appropriate place.

      As for preaching: given the close relationship between the homily and the Scriptures, the ambo seems appropriate to me.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #11:
        Thanks for your perspective Deacon Fritz. But is it the most appropriate place? Why do you routinely get bumped? Isn’t this prayer proper to the deacon if he is celebrating? I can understand having laity do it if there is no deacon at Mass.

        “Separating the places of proclamation for the Liturgy of the Word – simple for the lay lectors and grand for the ordained deacon” Is this statement to be interpreted that this was a case of discrimination (lay=simple, cleric=fancy)? Or was the reading of the Gospel merely given the prominence that it deserves?

      2. @John Kohanski – comment #13:
        Deacon Fritz when you move to Macon you’ll be able to pray the General Intercessions during Mass at St. Joseph, although our deacons do so from the ambo. I have found it odd, though, that at papal Masses the 1970’s custom of having multiple lay people read the intercessions continues. I suspect it is to appease many different language groups and get women involved. But clearly this is the role of the deacon if one is present, similar to the deacon’s role to chant the Gospel which should not be taken by the celebrant or another priest. But back to the topic at hand in terms of the Epistle and Gospel sides of the altar, I was present with our choirs at a beatification Mass for several Spanish martyrs around 2006 or 07 which was in St. Peter’s Square, packed with pilgrims but presided by a cardinal rather than the pope and the dual sites for the readings occurred at that Mass too. It is interesting that there are no comments from the Vatican explaining the use of two locations for the readings at recent papal Masses or the return of the glorious fanon. Maybe they think these symbols need no explanation and speak for themselves or they wish to create this wonderful conversation on the internet?

      3. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #14:
        John, you’ll notice that at papal Masses the deacon has been given a more central role in the Oratio Universalis – he announces the intention briefly, varieties of lay people elaborate on the intention, and then the deacon invites the spoken prayer of the people (deacon: Domine, deprecemur; people: Te rogamus, audi nos – or some similar text). I suppose part of the desire to have many lay people involved in “saying something” is from imagining the invitations they speak are in fact the prayerS of the faithful, and that they should therefore be recited by members of the lay faithful. The invitations are not, of course, “prayers”, and neither is the Oratio Universalis translated as “PrayerS of the Faithful”.

      4. @John Kohanski – comment #13:

        I’m in a parish context where the way to get things changed in the liturgy is not to wave the GIRM at people. Patience is the key. Perhaps in a few years I will make the argument that on special occasions we could chant the Prayer of the Faithful and that I would be willing to do it. Over the course of the next decade we’ll gradually increase the number of “special occasions.” Then as those who have for years faithfully exercised the ministry of preparing and leading the Prayers retire from that, the ministry will devolve to the deacon.

        I’ll probably be dead by the time that happens, but I’m OK with that.

      5. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #15:
        The other challenge with this ministry is the issue of scheduling. I have been in parishes where I will get a “surprise” concelebrant or deacon (in one parish in which I served we’ve had as many as three). I don’t mind clergy committing themselves to a schedule. But it is seriously rude for clergy to routinely announce at the last moment, “We will be participating at Mass.”

        In my last diocese, where the bishop was rather particular about clergy distributing Communion, I declined to recruit any lay Communion ministers in advance for his appearances at which multiple priests were expected to attend.

        As for deacons, I invite them to organize their own schedule or send me dates and I will do it.

        Part of the responsibility of being in Holy Orders is to ensure an orderly celebration of liturgy.

  8. I went back and checked the Mass for the inauguration of the pontificate It also featured a Greek and Latin deacon and the two ambos were used then as well. Two ambos were also used at the other two piazza masses this month. And a cursory check of papal masses in St. Peter’s square over the past ten years all have two ambos. This does not seem at all to be something new in papal masses in the piazza. It also makes sense from a practical matter to connect more worshipers in that vast square to the action. It is certainly a tradition with some antiquity behind it as well as a good modern adaptation to the size of the square.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *