May 9, 2021

Dear Fellow Parishioners,

Two weeks ago, I began my informal “tour” of the Mass with the development of the entrance procession, and described the normal order of the procession, beginning with the thurifer (incense-bearer) and ending with the clergy celebrant. Last week, I continued the discussion of incense with the huge swinging thurible (censer) in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the end-point of the world-famous Way of St. James, or “Camino.”

In the Roman Missal (the large red book on the altar containing the Mass prayers), there are “rubrics,” that is, instructions on how the priest and other ministers are to celebrate Mass: the movements, gestures and manner of offering the prayers during the Mass. These instructions are called “rubrics,” from the Latin “rubrica,” which was the red-ochre pigment used in the production of illuminated manuscripts from the 13th century onward. The rubrics were often added after the main text was completed, a process called “rubrication.”

The first of these is “Populo congregato” (“When the people are gathered”), which reflects the importance of the congregation. This replaced the previous instruction, “Sacerdos paratus” (“When the priest is ready”), reflecting the fact that full pastoral effectiveness of the Mass requires the participation of both the priest and the congregation.

Opening chant or hymn: Singing in the context of the Eucharist goes back to the Last Supper. (See Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26) In the early 100’s A.D., Pliny the Younger (the Roman governor and writer, not the popular craft beer) wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan, describing Christian practices, such as singing hymns to Christ “as if he were a God.”

Veneration of the Altar: When the priest arrives at the altar, after making a profound bow with the deacon (if present) and ministers, the priest venerates the altar with a kiss. (If appropriate, the priest then incenses the altar.) The Veneration of the Altar serves multiple purposes. Most importantly, it is a sign of reverence for  Christ himself, who is priest, victim and altar of sacrifice. Another purpose is to venerate the relics of the patron saint of the parish, which are often embedded in the altar stone of the main altar and side altars. (At St Vincent’s, there were three altar stones for the main altar and each of the side altars.) In some churches, the relics did not always correspond to the patronal name of the parish, especially parishes named “Resurrection,” “Holy Spirit,” “Assumption,” etc. (However, in 1542, Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz was reported to possess a collection of amazing relics, including “two feathers and an unhatched egg from the Holy Spirit.” Since this was at the height of the Reformation, it would be difficult to verify this story.)

The Sign of the Cross: This gesture of reverence and blessing goes back to very early Christian history, as it was already widely practiced by the 100’s A.D. The symbolism of the Sign of the Cross is to mark on one’s own (or another’s) body the wounds of Christ on the cross. In the early days of Christianity, it was used as part of the minor exorcism at Baptism, during ablutions before fixed prayer times, and for strength in temptation.

The Sign of the Cross must be distinguished from the words which we now say while signing ourselves: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” While the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are referenced together at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the prayer we use now is a trinitarian formula that was not authoritatively defined until much later. The action of the Sign of the Cross– originally symbolizing the cross of Christ alone– predates the Trinitarian prayer we now say with it.

Christians who make the Sign of the Cross do so in one of two ways: The Orthodox use three fingers (for the Trinity) and sign right shoulder to left shoulder. Catholics, Anglicans and some Lutherans make the sign of the cross without three fingers, and sign left shoulder to right shoulder. The difference between these two methods dates back at least as far as the Great Schism– the break between the Catholic and Orthodox churches– in 1054.  

Next week: The Greeting and the Penitential Act.


Fr. Bill Donahue