top of page

The Long and Short of It


Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy

Chapter 24


“In the Spring the young priest’s fancy, lightly turns to thoughts of Ford—” parodied the Liturgiologist, apropos of the “car” one of the junior assistants had that afternoon installed in the tin garage behind the rectory.[1]


“Yes,” growled the Antiquary, “and by the same toke ‘there’s no fool like an old fool.’” He was in that stage of convalescence no less trying to the patient himself than to those about him, when returning vigor manifests itself in a disfiguring grouch, which, in this case, was augmented by the thought of his no longer youthful friend at the wheel of new Scoot, while he himself was housebound. “To think of you, after all these years, actually trying to learn to drive!”


“Better late, when I can bring to it all the solid maturity and poise of middle life, than sooner, in the gay and dangerous caprice of youth, which some drivers (I mention no names) seem to carry over into an age when they ought to know better,” laughed the Liturgiologist.


“Solid maturity, indeed!” barked the Antiquary. “solid ivory, if you ask me!”


“I still am,” chuckled the Liturgiologist. “It’s only the thought of entrusting to your recklessness the little of life that remains to me, that spurs me on to the herculean task of fitting myself to assume responsibility for my share of future smash-ups!”


But in this bald and corpulent critic of the ceremonial behavior of better priests than himself was guilty of what Mr. Wilson[2] so aptly called “tergiversation.” It was nothing more than a combination of Spring working on his old bones, and that indescribable and unique frenzy which fills the wisest and most sedate of men when, for the first time, he feels a steering wheel in his hands, and the thrill of life in an engine under his feet. The Liturgiologist was human—and—well, for an hour each morning, during the convalescence of his friend, and under the tutelage of Jim, he had alternated between the abyss of terror and the ecstatic heights of joy while he slowly tooled (or can’t that good old horsey word he used of a machine?) the new “Scott” along a suburban lane—and all the way home told Jim how he ought to drive!


“We came back the long way, and I drove as far as the boulevard,” said the Liturgiologist.


“Long way—long way,” snapped the Antiquary. “Now that’s more in your line. Explica per partes.”[3]


“Trying to change the subject, eh?” mumbled the incipient De Palma.[4] “Very well, then—before you got ill, when you used occasionally to rob one of the young Fathers of a late sleep on a Sunday morning, you were inordinately fond of ‘the long way!’ I noticed, from my vantage ground in the sacristy, that every time you took a notion to go to the bench and rest yourself (which you did even during the Kyrie, permissible but unusual!) you came down the steps in front of the altar, made a genuflection with the two servers, and went, preceded by them, to the scamnum,[5] where you sat, with the two lads hinc et hinc.”[6]


“But that was at missa cantata, no deacon and subdeacon.[7] Of course at High Mass[8] one goes to the bench ‘by the short way,’ down the steps at the end of the altar,” protested the Antiquary.


“And will your Reverences be so kind as to point out, in any ‘Approved Author,’ directions for any other way of going to the bench at an ordinary sung Mass?” The Liturgiologist’s tone was that gentle sneer which can only, with safety, be used with one’s most intimate friends! “Even the defunct Baltimore Ceremonial[9] gives, strange as it may seem, perfectly clear directions for this. ‘When the priest leaves the altar at the Kyrie, Gloria, or Credo, he goes to the bench per breviorem.’[10] Wapelhorst is more explicit,


Celebrans potest sedere ut in Missa solemni ad Kyrie, Gloria, etc. descendendo per gradus laterals et reveretendo per viam longiorum—.[11]


Fortescue is, as usual, clear and concise. ‘If the celebrant goes to sit during the Kyrie he goes straight to the seat—he returns to the altar by the longer way, genuflecting in the middle before the lowest step.’ Evidently, he does not go down to the center in plano,[12] nor genuflect before leaving the altar. If he is at the middle of the altar, as at the Gloria and Credo, he makes a bow to the cross, unless the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, and goes, either along the foot-pace[13] to the Epistle end and so down to the bench, or, if the bench is somewhat towards the front of the sanctuary, in a direct slanting line to it.”


“How do the boys navigate under such circumstances?” asked the Antiquary, showing some faint signs of interest.


“They meet in the midst, genuflect, and go together not to the scamnum where the priest sits, but to their own bench, either at the altar-rail or at one side. The better practice, mentioned by most writers following Martinucci (p. 320, no. 17)[14] is to have the boys stand, facing each other, at either side of the seated priest. Wapelhorst says they may sit, but not on the scamnum, nor in the same line as the celebrant, but upon two stools placed a little in front of him.[15] So say many of the approved authors. The scamnum or sedilia, is for the celebrant and sacred ministers only, and even they may not have armchairs, but a long low-backed bench, without divisions. Chairs for altar boys are an unauthorized innovation. They are supposed to sit, when sit they must, on small stools, with neither back nor arms.”


“Well, you’ve got us all nicely arranged at the bench.[16] Now how do we get back to the altar to continue Mass” asked the Antiquary.


“By the long way, Pere. The priest gives his cap to one of the lads, rises, and goes to the midst in plano, genuflects there, and goes up to the altar. Fortescue directs that the servers follow him from the bench, but this is the only citation I can give for deviating from the more usual custom of having them precede, or walk on either side of, the celebrant. But I am quite sure that there is no authority, ceremonial or artistic, for the celebrant to make this little journey with one of the boys in front of him and the other following—”


A sound, like a subdued klaxon, interrupted the Liturgiologist. The Antiquary, making use of the special faculties of invalids, was nodding in his chair. The Liturgiologist smiled indulgently, and slipped very quietly from the room, and a moment afterwards there came the sound of an engine starting under the window. But even this did not disturb the Antiquary in his imitation of the occupant of the scamnum during a confrere’s sermon!


1 That is, the Liturgiologist was derisively referring to the type of automobile that a young priest had just purchased and stored in the garage.


2 A reference to Dr. John Wilson (1785-1854), a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. His son-in-law Professor P.J. Ferrier complied and published in 1827 The Works of Professor Wilson. It included Dr. Wilson’s witty Noctes Ambrosianae series which condemned the press’ “tergiversation” (the act of practicing evasion or of being deliberately ambiguous) when being used for a political agenda.


3 Latin for “explain by parts”.

4 Developing into Ralph De Palma, a race car driver who in 1914 beat the famed Barney Oldfield (mentioned in the last chapter).


5 The Latin term for the sedilia, a backless seat or bench reserved to the celebrant and sacred ministers.


6 A Latin phrase that means “on either side”.


7 At the time that Fr. Chapman wrote Peregrinus Gasolinus, the term missa cantata referred to any type of sung Mass. However, the rubrics of the 1962 Missale Romanum refined this term to mean only a sung Mass with the use of incense. Here though, it is being used to refer what is now called a “sung Low Mass”.


8 Now referred to in America as a “Solemn Mass”, whereas a High Mass now refers to a sung Mass with the use of incense, but without a deacon or subdeacon. Interestingly, the British have retained the term “High Mass” to refer to the Solemn form.


9 As previously noted in chapter 22 (ff 5), by this time the Baltimore Ceremonial was actually no longer “dead” or obsolete, as a revised version had just been printed.


10 Latin for “by the short way”.


11 “The celebrant may sit during Solemn Mass for the Kyrie, Gloria, etc., descending by the side steps and returning by the long way.”


12 Latin for “on the floor”.


13 The British term for the top altar step or platform, also called the “predella”.


14 Referring to his rubrical work, Manuale Sacrarum Caeremoniarum.

15 For spatial reasons, it may be necessary to place these stools slightly behind the sedilia, rather than in front as suggested here.


16 Possibly a tongue-in-check reference to being arraigned in court for judgment—“guilty my Lord”—by the Liturgiologist’s critique!

bottom of page