The Liturgiologist Goes on the Road
A badly battered flivver drew up by the side of the country road in front of the Church of St. Rusticus, and two men alighted; the first, short and spare, with grey wisps showing under the edges of his cap, the other tall and incredibly stout, and when he took off his cap he displayed a surprisingly bald head. Both were dressed for the road, in khaki trousers and flannel shirts, and the short one, who drove, had also a violently red and yellow bandana about his neck.
The Pastor of St. Rusticus, from the shaded porch of his tiny presbytery, watched them with no little concern, for they looked like tramps, neither of them having, apparently, shaved for several days. As they opened the gate and came slowly up the walk towards the porch, the Pastor felt in his pockets to see if any stray dimes were available for the “touch” he felt impending.
The two flivverites, however, came boldly on and as they mounted the steps, the short one spoke, “Good afternoon, Father. I’m Father Blank, The Antiquary, you know, and this other disreputable specimen is Father Dash, the Liturgiologist.”
“Hm,” muttered the Pastor, “you look it!”
“We know it,” was the cheery reply, as the two priests drew from their hip pockets tiny leather folders from which they extracted each a small bit of paper, which they presented to the Pastor.
“Celebrets! Well, Fathers, you are welcome. Can I show you to the bath room, and afterwards give you a bit of supper?”
“Dignum et justum est,” said the tall, stout and very bald Liturgiologist, speaking for the first time, and the duo disappeared into the presbytery, to emerge presently clean and shaven, if still somewhat disreputable as to apparel.
After supper the three priests crossed the lawn to the little church for a brief visit, then walked about under the trees, their breviaries fluttering a little in the breeze as they paid their debt to the Pope. As dusk fell cigars were lighted on the porch, and the Pastor affably remarked: “I’ve read some of your liturgical writings, Father, and if you’ll pardon my saying so, I don’t agree with some of your recommendations regarding ceremonial.”
“So I observed,” was the calm retort, “and as I peregrinate about the countryside, I observe that you are not the only one who fails to agree with me—and the Congregation of Sacred Rites—!” “Such as, for example—” queried the Pastor.
“Well,” said the Liturgiologist, “I suppose I ought not be thinking of such things when I go into a church to pray, but being my business (secundum quid) I can’t help noticing things. “Its a very nice altar your Reverence has, for a country church, very nice indeed. It really looks like stone, but of course everybody knows it isn’t, a pity, in a country church (or a big parish either, for that matter) to spend so much money on what is, after all, only a support for a ‘portable altar.’”
“It’s the best we can do, here in the country. I’d like to have a stone altar, consecrated, and all that, but it’s quite impossible.” The Pastor was, as his two visitors had already discovered, devoted to his people and to their little crossroads church.
“It will come some day, Father. But meanwhile, the altar being what it is, ought to be treated accordingly. I notice you have no veil on the tabernacle.”
“Why, I thought that when you have an elaborate tabernacle door, there is no necessity for a veil.”
“A very common misconception, your Reverence. As Fortescue says, ‘There is no permission ever to dispense with the tabernacle veil where the Sanctissimum is reserved, though this abuse often occurs at Rome.’ ‘Approved Authors’ are unanimous in requiring it, even when there is an architectural ‘ciborium’ or ‘baldichino’ over the whole altar.”
“But I have no sacristan, and it would be a bother to change the veil.” “It may be white or of gold or silver cloth, in which case it need not be changed. But, of course, the better practice is to have it conform with the color of the vestments, except that black is never used, but violet in its place. However, it is almost a ‘custom’ to omit the veil, a very bad custom, like so many others that are all too common.”
Here the short, thin priest interposed rather in a jocular vein: “Have you ever noticed how often we find a sort of topsy-turvy, cart-before-the-horse, ceremonial in the Church? Just such things as Father has mentioned, an elaborate tabernacle door, and no veil; a choir singing a fancy High Mass, and omitting the chanting of the Propers altogether; and a tremendous insistence on side altars, even in small churches like yours, where they are almost never used?” “One could write a book about that—I don’t promise never to do it!” laughed the Liturgiologist. “Here’s another instance, I fancy. What have you got your candlesticks all covered up for, Father? Too much dirt from passing automobiles?”
“No,” said the Pastor, evidently a little startled, “I have a funeral tomorrow.”
“But this is summer, not Passiontide! There is no direction anywhere that I know of, for veiling the candlesticks for a funeral. Even in Passiontide it is the crosses in the church and images on altars that are to be covered, not the candlesticks. In fact there is a distinct decree forbidding it. (S.R.C. 3059.) Some of the ‘Approved Authors’ mention with favor the old custom of replacing the candles during Passiontide and for Requiems by others of unbleached wax, of a dark brown color. It isn’t required, of course, Wapelhorst, for example, says ‘convenit,’ and Fortescue mentions it repeatedly. Now there’s a good instance of what you were speaking of, Father, the strange reversal of liturgical propriety, with an insistence on what is not required, or even forbidden, and a neglect of good customs or positive directions. I don’t know how this particular abuse ever got started—” “I can offer you a guess,” interrupted the Antiquary. “It’s French, like so many of our customs, and it comes from the practice of covering up the more valuable ornaments in a church on week days.”
“That is a very probable opinion, Father, for I seem to remember some remarks of the S.R.C. to the effect that dust covers are ‘tolerated’ except on ‘solemn days.’”
“Well, perhaps you two clerical tramps can tell me something else that’s wrong with my poor little church!” But the Pastor’s tone belied the fierceness of his words.
“We could,” laughed the Liturgiologist, “if we were not mirrors of politeness if not glasses of fashion.”
“Explica per partes,” retorted the Pastor, “I really want to do things right, but here in the country one gets rusty on these details.”
“But surely, even in the country, you have the decrees forbidding the theatrical use of electric lights on the altar.”
“That’s a home run, Father! You’ve got me! But I’m not to blame for them, and we seldom use them.”
“So long as they’re there, there’s always the temptation to turn the switch on a Holiday! I know places where they would never think of lighting up the altar like a birthday cake, as they did in the old days, and yet when the Sanctus Bell rings, pop! the whole sanctuary lights up with hidden spot-lights. Just as much against the spirit of the decree as illuminated coronae on all the statues.”
“Speaking of lights,” broke in the Antiquary, “do you have to leave parking lights on cars out here?”
“Better run the bus into the yard,” replied the Pastor, “for you’re going to stay here the night.”
“If you insist,” said the Liturgiologist, dryly.
“We’ll put on Roman collars in the morning and say Mass.”
“Bene, bene,” murmured the Pastor, as he led the way indoors.
1 A small, cheap (economy model) automobile.
2 This is the name of several saints, but here the author uses it more as a play on words: rustic for countryside church.
3 In the 1920’s, traveling by motorcar was still rather novel, and a trip often encountered various adventures that could be dirty (especially by unpaved roads in the countryside), hence the expression “dressed for the road”.
4 Literally means, “He may celebrate” and is a “permission slip” from the diocesan chancery office verifying the person is not only a Roman Catholic priest, but also has permission to celebrate Mass.
5 Latin for "it is just and right".
6 An altar stone. It is called “portable” as it is not cemented into the altar mensa (the table of the altar) and hence can be easily removed if necessary. On a “fixed” altar, the entire altar is made of stone and cemented together (rendering the altar “immovable”) and the relics are sealed into a sepulcher carved into the center of the mensa. Hence any altar made out of wood or metal (both allowed, though the use of plaster, artificial gypsum, has been proscribed) is actually merely a “temporary” altar.
7 Latin term meaning "in a certain respect".
8 Rev. Adrian Fortescue, an English priest and renowned liturgist and historian, who is particularly famous for his oft-referenced work, The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described.
9 The Latin term for the Blessed Sacrament meaning "the Most Holy".
10 He is referring to those rubricists who are considered authoritative because their reasons are based upon the liturgical books, general principles, the Sacred Congregation of Rites and the unanimous opinion of fellow rubricians.
11. Cf. The Liturgical Altar by Geoffrey Webb for more details on a properly constructed and adorned altar and its appointments.
12 This refers to a “rescript”, or reply, from the Sacred Congregation of Rites, an authoritative statement from the Holy See on a liturgical question.
13 Fr. Innocentius Wapelhorst (pronounced as vah-pehl-hohrst), a German-American Franciscan who authored the rubrical manual, Compendium Sacrae Liturgicae juxta Ritum Romanum.
14 Latin for "if convenient".
15 He is referring to the Gallican Rite of France, which had considerable influence on Roman Rite practices.
16 Latin for "explain by parts".
17 Electricity was rather new at this time, and its introduction into churches for lighting purposes often led to some unfortunate abuses. Even up to the 1958, J. B. O’Connell in his book, Church Building and Furnishing: The Church’s Way, stated that the use of spot lights was not appropriate in a church, especially for illuminating the altar (the use of natural incandescent lighting in sconces or corona have always been preferred by liturgists to ensure the play of light and shadow within the church).
18 This refers to the once frequent practice of overcrowding the altar and sanctuary with an exaggerated number of candles. However, this does not refer to the general and laudable custom of employing extra candles for solemn occasions.
19 A crown, or halo.
20 A reference to the original use of the parking light, which when streetlights, wide streets and off-street parking were not in common usage, the parking lights (which ran separately from the headlights and were not used when driving as done today) were used as a marker light for those driving by to avoid accidents with stationary vehicles at night.
21 "Good, good" in Latin.