Wednesday, March 15, 2017

All Lined Up

I present you with a speculative question: when and how did the unitary movement of the three senior ministers at solemn Mass come about in the Latin Church? It is so fundamentally a part of the physical vocabulary of the Latin Church's liturgy that by the time of Trent it was done in seemingly every Western rite descended from the Church of Rome, hence excluding the Milanese and Toledoan rites.

My own guess is that it came in two stages: first with the principle of a singular celebrant for each Mass and second with the increase of reverences paid to the altar.

Sacramentaries and and psalters and the odd fragment of a lectionary come down to us from the pre-medieval days, but very few descriptions of the physical movements of the ministers. Even the increased output of book production from monasteries yielded very little in this regard; when the Oxford Oratorian Sean Finnegan put on Sarum Masses in 1996 and 1997 he derived the ceremonial from illustrations in old Missals and texts rather than concrete rubrics (although some of this may have to do with the modest number of Missals that survived the Reformation). The best hint as to the structure of the ministers in the early days of the Roman liturgy is the pre-Paul VI Papal Mass, the most direct link to the primitive Roman liturgy. In this order of Mass the Pope celebrated at the top step of the altar surrounded by an archpriest and the Cardinal-Bishops vested in copes. A step down from him were the deacons and at the bottom the subdeacon and the Greek deacon and subdeacon. Cardinal-Priests vested in the chasuble and Cardinal-Deacons in the dalmatic; they sat in choir according to the dignity of their Cardinal order, not their ordained order, as most Cardinals were forcibly ordained bishops by this time. As with the additional ministers in the ponitifical form of the Lyonese Mass these vestures and orders of stature are relics from an age when more ministers took an active part in the Mass. At some point the number of sacred ministers and their functions began to consolidate. For example, if the subdeacon is given the right to hold and purify vessels at ordination then why must he hold the paten under the hummeral veil? Simply because he is fulfilling the role previously occupied by the acolytes (cf. Ordo Romanus I) in the first millennium in Rome and in the northern rites under Trent (cf. Sarum); the acolyte in the Roman liturgy held the various patens on the ground level while the breads consecrated at the altar rested on the linens until the fracturing of the sacred species, as the subdeacon does today.

Why did the number of ministers and celebrants become reduced? Requiem Masses, private votive Masses, and additional Masses for the day had much to do with it. Outside of a few major feasts (Christmas, potentially Pascha, Nativity of St. John the Forerunner etc) it was very uncommon for a priest to celebrate more than once a day. The rise of unique Requiem Masses for deceased monks and votive Masses in honor of Saints gave monastic celebrants the option between a private Mass for a specific intentional and the communal Mass, which would be celebrated regardless. As the number of celebrants declined to one so the number of deacons, subdeacons, and acolytes declined to one each. As late as the age of Innocent III the Cardinal-Priests still concelebrated with the Pope on special feasts (then again the primitive Office was still used in St. Peter's and the Lateran, and the primitive Mass on the feast of St. Peter's Chair; the Pope may be referencing these usages and not the curial books popularized by the Minorites). While archaeological evidence remained at Papal Mass, Lyon, and Salisbury of additional ministers in the form of honorary attendees, the older number of active ministers clearly declined by the end of the High Middle Ages. There was one of each minister assigned, as they were in ancient times, to a step from the altar according to each minister's dignity.

This brings us to the second phase in the development of the concurrent movements of the ministers: the increased reverenced paid to the altar. With the single ministers aligned step by step they began to move in unison with the celebrant, who would reverence the altar before greeting the people with Dominus vobiscum. This happened with greater or lesser frequency depending on place. Sarum made a few reverences to the altar and the Dominus vobiscum before the orations happened from the corner where the Missal rested. In Rome the celebrant would move to the center of the altar, kiss it, and return to the Missal for the Collects and post-Communions, so the ministers moved with him.

If done without fuss the movements of the ministers rightly reflects the sacred order of the heavenly hosts, the choirs of angels and the saints in their place before the even high Lord of All. If overdone, these movements can appear comical, which was the impression a friend's mother (JP2 type) received after her first "old" Mass. "I like it when they nod their heads together."

I welcome any further insights on the development of these very Roman movements.


  1. Maybe this holds some clues about the subject matter: "16. The offertory being finished, the bishops stand behind the pontiff, the senior in the midst, and the rest in their order; the archdeacon standing on the right of the bishops, the second deacon on their left, and the rest in order arranged in a line. " (OR1).

    Now, although deacons are to the side of bishops, the senior bishop is in the middle behind the pontiff. As the number of people taking part in the liturgy dropped down, the deacon moved closer to the center of the altar. The subdeacons are supposed to be at the other side of the altar to make responses to the pontiff and maybe that's because the priest initially turned to the people at that point as he still does in the Byzantine Rite. So when that stopped being done, they just remained in front of the altar, and since the deacon is in the middle, it would be logical to stand behind him.

    But all this is just conjecture.

    1. Marko, good observation.

      It's also probable, although still conjecture, that the deacons had greater and lesser involvement in the Mass according to their own rank (Archdeacon preparing the gifts vs the many distributing the chalice).Their place and proximity to the altar may have depended on that as well.

  2. Tomorrow a great Saint, a common Saint Orthodox too. His name Patrichie in Latin meant the rich. He was a rich man who lost his faith in God so forsaken was he and lived as a slave. After praying - so they say - 100 prayers each night he was shown he would return to his family. And so he did.
    The 3 leaves he holds in his hands was by no means the sigb of luck but the sign of the Holy Trinity.
    May his celebration be one day what was and ever shall be, now and into all ages, freed from the cheap show we all see and take for granted. Saint Patrick helps us do the will of God, you who did not forget Him into times of trouble.
    Together with another Saint in my local Church, also Latin man,St. Alexie - the saint of Spring. He also came from a good family but left them, and his wife in the night of wedding to with God. He so loved God that he would not even harm bugs for they are God's children after all. He also came united with his family later on, as a servant, and once his father discovered him and tried to bring him back to the good life he said no. His wife could not turn him either. He belonged to God. The Pope of Rome at that time came at his funeral and witnessed his first miracles.
    So, let the bugs run free and may Spring come!
    (No breaking from fasting though for us, until March 25th when fish is allowed, tomorrow we will love the saints by folliwing them in their sacrificing ways).

  3. I think the humeral veil signifies that the pten is not the SD’s, not simply that it is the former task of the acolyte to hold the paten. Why does the priest use it at Benediction? The blessing is not his. The usage at Mass may also have to do with the papal stational Mass transitioning into a parochial and collegiate usage.

    1. I was more explaining the origins of the act rather than the spiritual significance. I always understood the holding of the paten as a mystery, hiding it as Christ's body was hidden until the Resurrection (as reunion of Body and Blood at the pax).

  4. Have you read "Ritual and Society in Early Medieval Rome" by John Romano? He discusses extensively Ordo Romanus I and even recreated the Papal Mass (with corresponding chants and readings) of Ordo Romanus I's time frame. From my understanding of Romano's work, I think that the development of this "very Roman movements" is tied to the development of the papal household and papal Rome. This also relates to your argument that the papal Mass is the norm in first millennium Rome.

  5. Another common Saint. Tomorrow we celebrate St. Cuthbert (VII-th century).