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Local Customs


Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy

Chapter 29


This chapter brings to light some interesting points concerning local usages. It is noteworthy that the American bishops (starting with the First Provincial Council of Baltimore held in 1829) prescribed that the Roman liturgical practices should be used in the churches of the United States.


This rule of liturgical uniformity did not apply solely to the ceremonies, but also in administering the sacraments. Thus the object was to avoid a confusing diversity of national customs through the implementation of romanitas—readers might be glad to know that a historical article on this important point is in the making.

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Before them the road wound like a wide white ribbon over hills and across gentle valleys; on the side rolling fields in which the wheat was already stacked in neat shocks and the corn stood in long rows of vivid green; on the other, occasional glimpses of the great lake, little beaches where children splashed and shouted, campers’ tents showing white beneath the trees, cottages, villages, towns flashed by. The two old friends were well content, for the new “Scoot” was living up to its name, tho they did not press the pace, taking turns at the wheel, and groaning together over occasional tire trouble. It was as they went thus through the country that their conversation turned upon the things which interested them, “talking shop” quite shamelessly and without apology, as old friends can, and usually do. They had been on the road a week, during which they had managed to find a town at each nightfall, with a hotel of sorts, or a friendly rectory, and a chance to say Mass next morning. They had already passed through six dioceses, for their way lay towards the East (where See cities are almost as plentiful as mission chapels in the opposite direction)[1] and, each with an eye to his specialty, had picked up a deal of information on the local customs of each neighborhood.


“Lakeburg is predominantly German,” said the Antiquary, speaking of the diocese they had just traversed. “Did you notice the catafalque in that church where we said Mass yesterday? It seemed to be a permanent erection, for a Requiem without a Dirge is as unheard of where the people are of German extraction as one with the Libera[2] is unusual in localities where the pastors and their flocks trace back their forebears to the Green Isle.”[3]


“You have cited the classic example of local custom sanctioned by law, either in the observance or the omission of a rite,” said the Liturgiologist. “As Fortescue remarks in one of his illuminating footnotes, ‘there is no law that absolution at a catafalque must follow a Requiem Mass.’ The rubric of the missal says only, ‘si facienda est Absolutio,’[4] etc., and the Congregation of Rites says expressly: ‘Non ex obligatione sed ad arbitrium facienda est absolution in anniversariis mortuorum. (S.R.C. no 1322 ad VI, 31 jul. 1665.)’”[5]


“My!” said the Antiquary, with a chuckle, “that’s a long time ago, quite enough for a custom to gain the force of law! But I wonder about the custom, also German if I mistake not, certainly limited in this country to places where the German influence has been strongly felt, that, I mean, of putting a crucifix upon the coffin during the funeral, or on the catafalque at a Requiem without the presence of the body.”


“Fortescue says, of the processional cross, that it may not be stood at the head of the coffin.[6] He says that any suitable symbol of the dead man’s rank or office may be placed on the coffin, if it is not grotesque or irreverent. But then, Fortescue was an Englishman! I have been unable to find, in any ‘Approved Authority,’ a direction for either crucifix or candles to be placed upon the coffin, or on a table at the head of the coffin. Maybe the custom is an extension of purely domestic rites,[7] or a survival of ways that were common in the early days when parishes were too poor to have proper funeral furniture,” replied the Liturgiologist.


“Speaking of the survival of customs, and even of rules,” said the Antiquary, “you will observe tomorrow, if the Lord spares us that long, and we are lucky enough to reach Bellevue tonight, the abiding traces of French settlers who made their part of the country what it is today. Nowhere else in America, so far as I know, is the rubric of the missal (Ritus celebrantes, viii, 6, also Rubricae Generales, xx) observed which orders an extra candle, at the Epistle side, to be lit during the Canon,[8] but you will find the good French cures[9] of the Bellevue diocese[10] very punctilious about this.”


“But the S.R.C. tolerates the omission of this extra candle where it is not the custom to use it” (no. 4029, ad II jun 9, 1899), said the Liturgiologist. “And, certainly, it is hardly customary anywhere nowadays. The rather widespread usage of lighting a lot of extra candles for the Canon at missa cantata[11] may be an extension of this rule, though quite unauthorized and never done in the ‘old countries.’ Certainly not in Rome where the six candles are lighted for Solemn Mass, and only four for the rare performance of missa cantata.[12] We seem to have a complex for multiplying candles, tho good taste is prevailing more and more in this, as in other matters.”[13]


“We are certainly far from uniformity in non-essentials,” admitted the Antiquary. “In ancient times each diocese had its own ‘Use’ and every effort of the authorities at Rome to stamp them out has been only partially successful. This little trip of ours has already demonstrated how the usage of the cathedral in each diocese sets the style for even the tiniest mission chapel in the district. Did you notice, everywhere we stopped in the Fort Duquesne Diocese,[14] they had branch candelabra at the corners of the altar steps, just because the cathedral had ‘em?”


“As to the parochial imitation of the cathedral, concede,”[15] laughed the Liturgiologist. “But, as the Antiquary, you should be able to trace the historical development of these extra candlesticks in the cathedral itself. Fortescue remarks that, during the Pontifical Mass, even in a parish church there may be candlesticks with burning candles at the entrance of the sanctuary.[16] This seems to have been the old usage everywhere, tho I am not sufficiently versed in the Caeremoniale Episcoporum to know whether or not they are therein prescribed. From the cathedrals the usage spread to the larger churches—”


“They had ‘em on the roodlofts,”[17] interrupted the Antiquary.


“Well,” said the Liturgiologist, dryly, “perhaps you’d better turn some lights on the front of this chariot! It’s getting dark, and we’ll be running into Bellevue presently.”


“And mighty lucky if we don’t run into anything else,” growled the Antiquary.



1 A comment in reference to the historical situation of the American Church in the mid-1920’s.


2. The first word of the responsory sung for the Absolution of the Casket: Libera me.


3. A reference to Ireland.


4 “If the Absolution is done…”.


5 “There is no obligation, but one may chose to do the Absolution on the anniversary of the death.”


6 That is, directly against the coffin, as opposed to some distance away (enough for the ministers to pass by).


7 Literally derived from the Latin word “domus” for "house", in this case, referring to the customs once observed when the wake (or viewing of the body) was commonly held in homes and not funeral parlors.


8 This is the so-called “Sanctus candle” or “Elevation candle” and at Low Mass it takes the place of the torchbearers, used to mark the extra solemnity of the Canon and Consecration. It is actually a Roman practice, and certain American rubricians recommended the restoration of it.


9 French for “pastor”, or “curate”; thus the nickname for St. John Vianney, the “Cure of Ars”.


10 A double-pun as the name “Bellevue” is a French take on “Belleview”. Thus this could be referring to the real diocese of Belleville, Illinois (also a French word), which is near St. Louis, an area that historically boasted a strong French presence.


11 A sung Mass, which according to the 1962 missal rubrics, is one with incense.


12 The High Mass form seen so commonly today was not used often in Rome, since an abundance of clergy allowed for frequent use of the Solemn form.


13 This is in reference to an unbalanced use of additional candles. However, the Caeremoniale Episcoporum and various liturgical authors speak of having additional candles lit in the sanctuary (for the entire Mass) on days of greater solemnity. Candles in the Roman Rite gives some good examples of this laudable practice.


14 A play on the city history of Pittsburgh, whose original name was Fort Duquesne (Fort Du Quesne).


15 Latin for “I concede”.


16 Referred to in English as “standard candles” or “pavement candles”. As show in Candles in the Roman Rite, usually these consist of a pair of tall candlesticks each holding one candle.


17 The rood screen that was typically situated where the Communion rail is today. The ambos for chanting the Epistle and Gospel were also usually located atop the screen which was usually surmounted in the center with a representation of the crucifixion, and sometimes with angels holding prickets for candles. The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican still has its rood screen upon which a row of candlesticks are situated.

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