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The Liturgiologist Rescued


Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy

Chapter 4


We left our two clerical pilgrims disconsolate by the side of the road, the flivver disabled by a blow­out, and neither a spare nor a town in sight! But they have not remained there supinely during the fortnight which has intervened, and we behold them today, merrily bowling along the road, the car once more under command of the Antiquary, the occasion of their journey being the baptism of a newly arrived nephew of the Liturgiologist.


The ceremony took place in a large city church, which made it all the more surprising that the font was located well towards the front of the church, in fact just outside the sanctuary, in a railed space between two confessionals. The Antiquary had been animadverting[1] on the ancient baptisteries of Europe, separate buildings from the church itself, equipped with an altar, and adorned with magnificent fonts large enough to permit the primitive practice of immersion, or the ceremony provided by law (Canon 758) of the present day.


“I should think,” said the old priest, “that a church the size of St. Urbans, would have a proper baptistery, and not throw the font in, casually, anywhere that there happens to be room for nothing else.”

“Yes, dear Father,” replied the Liturgiologist, and his tone of voice was as one would suppose a cat’s might be shortly after having swallowed the canary, for here was the chance for which he had been looking ever since they had left the city on their return journey.

“Yes, dear Father,” replied the Liturgiologist, and his tone of voice was as one would suppose a cat’s might be shortly after having swallowed the canary, for here was the chance for which he had been looking ever since they had left the city on their return journey.


“‘Baptisterium sit cancellis—’ says St. Charles,[2] the restorer of the old ways in liturgy. Wapelhorst[3] quotes him, and he is an ‘Approved Author,’ and an American at that. O’Kane,[4] in Ireland, years ago, and having in mind the exigencies of that then poverty stricken land, mitigates the requirement of the Saint and contents himself with saying ‘The place set apart for it (baptism) should be railed off, and, if possible, form a distinct chapel,’ and he mentions that ‘St. Charles orders that it be placed near the entrance of the church.’”


“That would be the place you’d look for it in all the old churches that did not have a separate building like Pisa and Florence,” assented the Antiquary. “Many of the European churches have both the chapel and the railing in front of it, and always it is at the rear of the church near a doorway.”


“Again the ratio[5] of the ceremonies, my dear Father. For as the sapient Fortescue puts it, ‘It (Solemn Baptism) supposes three distinct places, the narthex or porch of the church, in which the first part of the rite takes place (till the priest lays his stole on the child and says ‘N. ingredere etc’); the nave or other part of the church, out­side the Baptistery, where the ceremony continues till he has changed the stole; the baptistery where it continues to the end.’ And he adds, with a bias in the other direction quite as marked as that of O’Kane in favor of the poor Irish churches, ‘The baptistery should be either a separate chapel, or it should, at least, have a railing around it.’”


“Then,” said the Antiquary, “it would seem that, notwithstanding the contrary customs among us, the ceremonies of Baptism should begin at the door of the church, the entrance into the church being one of the ceremonies the significance of which is lost if the candidate is within the church proper at the beginning of the rite.”


“Quite so,” replied the Liturgiologist. “To be sure, it is customary to symbolize the two processions in the ceremonies by the baptismal party stepping, with the priest, forward closer to the font, but this is simply a usage and does not represent the norm of the rite. In most churches, even small country places, it is quite possible to arrange the baptistery properly, tho of course it cannot always be done. But often the opportunity to build a proper baptistery is deliberately neglected, just as the ceremonies themselves are slighted. Besides, other ceremonies than baptism itself depend for their proper carrying out upon the arrangement of the font. Holy Saturday and the Vigil of Pentecost[6] both have ceremonies which presuppose the location of the font, in a chapel, at the rear of the church, connecting with both the church and the narthex.”


“Should there not be, in addition to an altar in the baptistery chapel, a place for the recording of the baptism?”


“It would be very convenient if there were a high desk there, and the priest could thus fulfill his obligation of registering the baptism without delay. But perhaps a better place for it would be just outside the baptistery, for surely it would be more convenient to secure the data of a baptism before beginning the ceremony.”


“But,” remarked the Antiquary, “from a practical point of view, would not the elaborate ceremony you contemplate, with its processions and so on, be difficult to carry out? What about the Holy Oils, which are needed now in one place and then in another?”


“I am glad you brought up that point,” said the Liturgiologist, “for without doubt it is at the root of the reason for the neglect of these prescriptions on the part of so many priests. One seldom sees a server assisting at baptism, yet the employment of a boy is a great convenience, and in other countries one always sees servers at a baptism. A boy carries the salt and the oil stocks on a tray. Another, perhaps, has the white stole ready, for the custom of making use of a double stole, violet on one side and white on the other is a missionaries subterfuge, tho' C. S. R. 3086 permits it. The candle and ‘white robe’ are often taken care of by still another lad, tho one could do all of these things if he were not unduly awkward.”


“We are almost home, but I have another query,” said the Antiquary, as he slowed down for the first of the cross streets of the town. “Should the Holy Oils etc. used for baptism be kept in the ambry on the sanctuary wall near the altar?”


“No, many ‘Approved Authors’ prescribe that the top of the font shall contain a compartment where these things shall be kept. Also that the cover shall be locked, for the protection of the Baptismal Water and the other appurtenances of baptism. Usually this regulation is fairly well observed, but it is surprising how often one finds a font with no drain leading to the ground, and dry fonts, containing no Baptismal Water, are all too common. At the other extreme are Fonts which do not contain sufficient Baptismal Water to last from the Vigil of Pentecost to the following Holy Saturday, and so require the blessing of Baptismal Water at other times during the year. The ceremonies for this are seldom used, for most priests make up this lack by adding common water to the Baptismal Water but always less in quantity than the blessed water, which, of course, can be done repeatedly.” (Ordo adm. Tit II cap i., also O’Kane sections 160-161)


“But I have seen this ceremony,” replied the Antiquary, as he made the turn into the Rectory yard. “Only the Paschal Candle wasn’t used as on Holy Saturday.”


“Incense instead,” said the Liturgiologist, as he prepared to hoist himself out of the flivver.” Maybe that’s why incense is put into the Paschal Candle. There’s a point more in your line than in mine.”




1 To remark or comment critically.


2 St. Charles Borromeo (1538–1584). The quote is from his book, Instructiones Fabricae Et Supellectilis Ecclesiasticae (Book of Instructions on Church Building) published in 1577 which embodied the reforms and decrees of the Council of Trent. The Institute for Sacred Architecture gives an excellent description of the saint’s enormous influence on the sacred liturgy, particularly in the field of buildings.


3 Fr. Innocentius Wapelhorst, O.F.M. (NB; in the original Peregrinus text, his name was misspelled as Wopelhorst), who composed the rubrical work Compendium Sacrae Liturgiae Juxta Ritum Romanum.


4 Referring to Fr. James O'Kane’s book, Supplement to Notes on the Rubrics of the Roman Ritual, published in 1883.


5 Latin for the "reason".


6 NB: The ceremonies at the font once held on the Vigil of Pentecost, were merged with those of the Easter Vigil in the 1955 Holy Week Reform.

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