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Cum dignitate


Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy

Chapter 35


Debet Sacerdos amblare cum dignitate,”[1] laughed the Antiquary as the Liturgiologist got out of the “Scoot” after a long afternoon’s journey, and proceeded somewhat stiffly up the walk towards the little rectory in the suburbs of Cincinapolis[2] which was to be the last stop of the trip before they reached home.


“Dignity is all very well in its place,” was the mild answer. And after supper as they sat on the rectory porch with the Pastor, the subject came up again, not without subtilty on the part of the Liturgiologist. “You see,” said he, “my somewhat sciatic back has recovered from the fatigues of the journey, and I can now ambulate with the proper and becoming dignity! Besides, I am approaching the time of life which almost automatically brings a certain dignity. But I sometimes wonder why our good brethren seem so shy of cultivating a dignified appearance, carriage, manner—call it what you will.”


“Perhaps it’s because we don’t wear the cassock habitually,”[3] suggested the Pastor. “I’ve noticed that priests who have been resident abroad, and members of religious orders who spend most of their daytime in the habit, seem to have a poise which we lack.”


“For my part,” put in the Antiquary, “I like to see, even in the young fellows, a certain restraint in manner, especially when conducting the sacred ceremonies; but nowadays it’s only the oldsters that exhibit it, and one fears their reasons may be similar to those of our friend here, the stiffness of age and—”


“Who said anything about stiffness?” growled the Liturgiologist. “Certainly not the ‘Approved Authors’ nor yet the Ritus servandus.[4] Yes, it’s there, in the missal, tho to see some of our clergy rushing madly out of the sacristy as if they were chasing the altar boy—well, if you must have chapter and verse, Rit. Serv. Tit. II n. I. Procedit—incessu gravi,[5] and the rest. O’Callaghan-Zualdi[6] has a good note on this:


Gravity in walking and moving about must be attended to, not only coming to and from the altar, but also while celebrating, great composure, ascending, and descending the altar steps, turning towards the people, going from the middle to the side of the altar, and vice versa. He must be equally on his guard against that slowness which fatigues, and that hurry which gives scandal.


“The religious seem to be trained in that very thing,” said the Pastor. “The Domciscans,[7] for example, have something in their Rule about “holy alacrity,” yet they accomplish this swiftness without making it noticeable, simply by going on with the Rite steadily, without haste and without rest.”


“I’ve seen the altar boy almost decapitated by the chasuble flying out at an angle when the celebrant turned around to begin the Judica,[8]” laughed the Antiquary, “yet the same good Father spent a full two minutes at the Memento[9] and another two in meditation after receiving the chalice, tho' the rubrics indicate no pause at that point similar to the one prescribed after receiving the Sacred Host.”


“Sometimes it’s nerves,” remarked the Liturgiologist. “I fancy that a psychologist might put a scientific name to both the undue speed and the scrupulous slowness of some priests at the altar. Who has not seen a celebrant whose nearest approach to the required Signs of the Cross is a series of circles, sometimes small, sometimes large, either way indicating a lack of concentration upon what he is doing, and possibly showing an inferiority complex or its distressing opposite! But either way, the rubrics and admonitions of ‘Approved Authors’ are ignored.”


“I should be inclined to question both the psychological aspect of that matter, and the charge of rubrical inaccuracy,” said the Antiquary. “What we were just saying about the dignity and manner (in the good sense of the word) not to mention manners, covers the ground. For the ceremonies of Holy Mass are the Table Manners of the Royal Banquet, fixed with an authority that no worldly etiquette can claim, laid upon our conscience; and in nothing do we show breeding, or the lack of it, quite so surely as in our habitual way of performing these minute yet important acts, gestures, postures, and procedures, all prescribed by law, and an all, if properly done, ministering to the edification of the people and our own devotion.”


“Observe,” chuckled the Liturgiologist, “observe how this discussion of dignity has gotten into his speech—rounded periods, ponderosity, polished diction—really Pere, you surpass yourself! But what you say is true. And I think you’re right about the reason for much of the slovenly ceremonial amongst us. We’ve gotten away from the old traditions of dignity and repose, and go rushing about with our short coat-tails flying; then, when we get ‘on the altar’ (“hateful phrase,” interjected the Antiquary[10]) we keep on rushing. It’s a sign of the times, part of the nervous fitfulness of modern life. But surely, it has no placed in the sanctuary, where bad manners amount to singularity. The strange part of it all is that everything is prescribed, book after book has been written about these details and every one of them mentions exactly the points we’ve been discussing, yet we go on making mistakes.


The list of Defectuum qui frequentius in Missae celebration admitti solent,[11] drawn up by Martinucci[12] and copied in practically every book on ceremonial published since, is hard reading for most of us—maybe that’s why some bishops put it in their diocesan statutes and command that all the clergy read them during the annual retreat.”


“I’m not sure whether Martinucci mentions it, but I will,” said the Antiquary, “and maybe you can find some authority for it. I meant the method of holding the hands extended, as is so often directed in the rubrics. Some spread them wide, others almost touch the palms of their hands, some hold them no higher than the waist, others above the shoulders. Quid de casu?[13]”


“It’s perfectly simple,” replied the Liturgiologist. “The hands are held extended at the height and width of the shoulders, as O’Callaghan and others remark. The wrists should not touch the vestment, then the hands will not be too close together. And if held too high, the left will likely interfere with one’s vision of the missal, so, as usual, the sensible way is the right way. Which reminds me: When I was an altar boy I thought the priest was reaching up into the air to catch an invisible Christ and put Him on the altar, when he extended, raised and joined his hands at Te igitur! This action, perhaps is more open to extravagance than any other of the ceremonies of Holy Mass, and as it is performed five times, may easily make a bad impression on the people. The extension, and raising of the hands, should not go beyond the limits of the celebrant’s body, otherwise the gesture becomes uncouth, as well as liturgically improper.”


“I should like to ask about the Sign of the Cross,” said the Pastor, “I mean the signs which the celebrant makes upon himself or over the people. Kuenzel has a somewhat misleading direction (in his really very excellent Manual of Ceremonies of Low Mass), which directs the priest, when he signs himself with the large Sign of the Cross, to place his left hand on the cincture. Surely he means on the vestment at a point corresponding to the cincture. But some priests gird themselves in a peculiar manner, putting the cincture about the lower hips (and, if they are inclined to rotundity of person, below the equator!) so that, if they followed this direction, the gesture would scarcely be edifying. Most of the books say that the left hand is placed below the breast.”


“Which, surely, is a dignified, and sufficiently clear expression,” replied the Liturgiologist, with a smile for the young Pastor’s geographical euphemism. “The point is, that the left hand is below the foot of the Cross, ut ita dicam.[14] It is interesting to remember that when he blesses the people, or makes the Sign of the Cross at Indulgentiam, etc., before administering Holy Communion, the size of the Cross is precisely the same as when he blessed himself, that is to say, from forehead to breast, and from shoulder to shoulder, not smaller, and certainly not larger. In effect it is a Greek Cross, not a Latin, which is thus formed, and the same is true of the small Signs of the Cross, over the Oblata, etc., which so frequently occur in ceremonies.”


So the conversation ran on, till late that evening, not in a criticizing but in a critical manner, dwelling on the innumerable imperfections of the human agents of the one Perfect Rite of Religion. “For in many things we all offend.” (St. James 3:2) The Liturgiologist’s asperity, the Antiquary’s mildness, the youthful Pastor’s eagerness to be informed, made a charmed triangle, which only broke up in time for a hurried bite and sup before midnight. But the honors were with the Pastor after all, for as he bowed the Liturgiologist into his bedroom he remarked, “Good night, Father. The bed is old, and somewhat shaky. Pray do not ‘complete the circle’ too vigorously!”



1 Latin for “The priest is to render his walk with dignity.”


2 Obviously a reference to Cincinnati.


3 A statement that referred to the more-commonly worn clerical suit worn by secular American priests in the 1920s.


4 The section in the missal that outlines the basics of how the celebrant should offer Mass.

5 Latin for “he proceeds—entering gravely.”


6 Referring to The Sacred Ceremonies of Low Mass written by Fr. Felix Zualdi, CM and edited by Fr. M. O’Callaghan, CM (Browne and Nolan, 1931). This work is often referenced by rubrical authors.


7 That is, the Dominicans as seen in earlier chapters.


8 I.e., the first word of Psalm 42 from the Preparatory Prayers at the Foot of the Altar.


9 Either the “Remembrance” of the living or the dead.


10 Here the Antiquary is objecting to the phrase “on the altar” which is quite inaccurate, since one does not actually stand on the altar of sacrifice, but on the predella.


11 “Defects which frequently occur during the celebration of Mass, admittedly out of habit.”


12 Referring to his rubrical work, Manuale Sacrarum Caeremoniarum.


13 Latin for “what about this case?”


14 Latin for “so to say”.

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