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Sisters and Ceremonies


Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy

Chapter 30


“What would we do without the good Sisters?” said the Antiquary, one morning of the trip, as the “Scoot” breasted the hills and slid down into the valleys bordering the Hudson. The “petrol pilgrims” (as a correspondent in England has subheaded them) had spent the night with the Chaplain of a certain convent, perched high on a hilltop which commanded a sweeping view of the majestic river winding through hills which had the shape of mountains. Morning brought one of the minor feasts of the Order, and the two old friends had assisted the Chaplain (who had been in the seminary with them, and whom neither had seen since), at a Solemn Mass, as pleasing to the community as it had been unexpected. Two Sister Sacristans had scurried to and fro, getting out dalmatics and albs, rearranging the credence, bringing missals from other altars for Epistle and Gospel. So deft were they that Mass began on time in spite of the change, and the Antiquary was not surprised to learn from the Chaplain at breakfast that one of them was the famous Sister Pageanta,[1] known far and wide for her training of altar boys and children for the functions at St. Spectacula’s,[2] sometimes familiarly known as “the show church” of the metropolis.


“Don’t you remember, Pere,” the Antiquary had remarked, as he accepted his third cup of coffee from the hospitable Chaplain, “we dropped in there for the Corpus Christi Procession when we were East five or six years ago. It was some procession!”


“I’ll say it was!” laughed the Liturgiologist, lapsing into the inelegance of a few years back. “Wonderfully impressive, but almost entirely incorrect. It seemed to me, at the time, as if everything that could be done wrong was! Flower girls galore, who carried posies but scattered nary a one; altar boys by the dozen, who had nothing to do, and did it beautifully;[3] four censer bearers walking backwards without once tripping on their trains;[4] oh, yes, a wonderful procession! And you tell me that the good Sister who forgot the maniples just now, was the producer of it?”


“By golly,” laughed the Chaplain, “did she forget the maniples?”


“She did,” said the Antiquary, “but we were too polite to say anything at the time.”


“Perhaps you didn’t notice the omission as soon as I did,” remarked the Liturgiologist with something resembling a wink. “I became aware that something was wrong about the time of the Offertory!”


The Antiquary had saved the situation by some witticism, and when, shortly afterwards, they were on the road once more, had mildly reproved the Liturgiologist for bothering about such details. This led to a discussion of Sister Sacristana[5] in general, and the famous Sister Pageanta in particular.


“What’s wrong with ‘flower girls galore’?” asked the older priest, harking back to the Liturgiologist’s breakfast chat.


“Nothing whatever,” was the reply, “so long as they are in the proper place, i.e., not between the clergy and the celebrant and provided they perform the function of flower girls, which is, I take it, to scatter flowers before the oncoming monstrance. They are not mentioned (still less prescribed) by any ‘Approved Author,’ but are purely a custom. But the good Sisters seem to think that, aside from the Blessed Sacrament Itself, they are the most important thing about the Procession. I’ve been in some places where the little things kept up a patter of vocal prayers all the way around the church, the liturgical music of the procession being interrupted for them.”


“But, after all,” said the Antiquary, “it’s very natural for the good Sisters to regard the spectacular part of ceremonies as their own special domain. They may train children, often altar boys, make the arrangements, in short, do the work of preparation.


Dignum et justum est,”[6] answered the Liturgiologist. “But it is the duty of the priest to see that all these things are done decorously and with propriety. You see, we have rules and regulations. There’s a Congregation at Rome,[7] maintained at great expense, and served by recognized authorities, which legislates on all these points. If they, or the official books, say that two thurifers are to assist at the procession of the Blessed Sacrament, it is the duty of the pastor to see that Sister Pageanta’s zeal, or her fine artistic eye for effects, shall not offend against the decrees of Holy Church. Take, now the matter of the clothes the altar boys wear. How often you see them in capes and sashes, in spite of the fact that these appurtenances are forbidden by decrees of the Congregation of Sacred Rites. The good Sisters get ‘em, and their little charges look so well in ‘em, and the Pastor says nothing, and the Law is set at naught!”


The Antiquary was silent while he maneuvered the “Scoot” around hairpin curve, then—“We were speaking of the ceremonies during which the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, Corpus Christi especially. But I’d like to add a word about the Forty Hours,[8] at which time the Sisters and the children are usually much in evidence. In this country the laity are represented in the procession, at least in most places, by the children. There seems to be nothing contrary to ancient customs in that, and it certainly is convenient when you consider the crowds that throng the churches on such occasions. But I have been, I must admit it, shocked to see the Sisters pottering around the sanctuary during the Forty Hours, tending candles, fixing flowers, and the like. Isn’t there some regulation about that?”


“There certainly is,” said the Liturgiologist. The Clementine Instruction,[9] which formulates the rules for the Forty Hours’ Devotion, expressly states that during the Exposition, women are not to enter the sanctuary (Instr. Clem. section 27). There is nothing to be done there at such a time which men cannot do, but once more we see the feminine eye for effect, the zeal for display, overriding the express rules of Liturgy. And while we are on the subject, how often do we not see other rules of the Clementine Instruction violated. For example, Fortescue calls attention to the prescription that ‘during the exposition, if anyone has duty in the sanctuary, he must wear a surplice.’ Clerks (or as we would say, Clerics) wear cassock and surplice while watching, priests and deacons a white stole.”


“Well,” remarked the Antiquary, dryly, “we’ve wandered considerably from the subject of the good Sisters.”


“Wandering is our special work and prerogative,” laughed the Liturgiologist. “We might even call our discussions of these matters ‘Wandering Notes on Liturgical Practice’.”



1 A Latin word play on a sister zealous about pageantry.


2 Another Latin word play on a church renowned for its spectacular (that is, to catch the eye) ceremonies.


3 Rubricians in general (particularly the Roman and English-speaking ones—e.g., Fortescue and Britt) are against cadres of altar servers filling the sanctuary uselessly, preferring instead only the number necessary for fulfilling the various positions of inferior ministers.


4 Not only is a maximum of two thurifers ever allowed for a Eucharistic procession, but walking backwards while incensing is neither recommended nor prescribed; cf. the article, Eucharistic Processions: Some Common Issues for details.


5 Obviously, Sister Sacristan.


6 The Latin phrase said during the introduction of the Preface at Mass, “It is just and worthy”. Actually, it is not ideal to have sisters training altar servers—this role is better reserved to men.


7 The Sacred Congregation of Rites found in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V.


8 A three-day (or 40 hours) period of public exposition of the Blessed Sacrament with three special Masses (two coram Sanctissimo) and two Eucharistic processions.


9 The Clementine Instruction (so named after Pope Clement XII) is  published as volume IV of rescripts of the Sacred Congregation of Rites: Commentaria ad Instructionem Clementis XI pro Expositione SS. Sacramenti in Forma XL Horarum et Suffragia atque Adnotationes super Decretis Sacr. Rituum Congregationis.

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