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Utilitarian Ceremonial


Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy

Chapter 15

“I maintain,” said Fr. Torculus, puffing at one of the Antiquary’s impossible cigars, “that the basis of all ceremonial is utilitarian, and that, in order to get at the ratio of any given ceremonial action, one should study the practical purpose which is to be accomplished.”


“There is something in what you say,” murmured the Antiquary, as he looked up from the pages of the Motor Accessories catalog which was, nowadays, in his hands almost as often as his breviary. “The wealth of mystical and symbolic interpretation of the meanings of various ceremonies seems to be largely a medieval growth. But we cannot, even historically, lose sight of the doctrinal convictions which are back of the practical action itself.”


“The point, strange as it may seem, is well taken,” interjected the Liturgiologist, puffing at his pipe. (He was too wide to trust himself to the Antiquary’s cigars, or to vitiate his taste with Fr. Torculus’ perfectos.[1]) “The reason why a certain ceremony is performed is definitely religious, the performance of it plainly regulated by experience that a particular action can best be done in a certain way, which, for reasons of uniformity, is prescribed by authority; there remains the symbolic explanation of it, which is often singularly apt, and always edifying.”


“For example,” said Fr. Torculus, “you tell me, Pere, that the chasuble of today is but the sadly curtailed casual or outdoor coat of the ancients, developed through the early centuries of the Church into the ample and gorgeous folds of the medieval ‘gothic vestment,’ only to yield to modern commercialism and become smaller and stiffer, and, incidentally, cheaper. One can see the reason why, at certain points in the ceremonies, the sacred ministers were directed to support the heavy folds of the voluminous chasuble, that the hands and arms of the celebrant might be free for handling the censer or elevating the Sacred Host.”


“There’s your utilitarian ceremonial,” broke in the Antiquary. “It was definitely useful when vestments really were vestments, but what’s the use of it nowadays, when the chasuble is shaped in such a way that the priest’s hands are always free.”


“Don’t you see, my dear and somewhat practical friend,” said the Liturgiologist, “that while the vestment itself was growing smaller, the symbolism attached to it by the piety of the ages of the vestment by the assistants was explained as setting forth their cooperation in the offering of the Sacrifice. They said the ‘incense prayers’ with the celebrant, and held his vestment not merely as a mark of honor, but also as showing that they too had a part in the offering of the oblation.”


“I suppose that the direction in some books of ceremonial for the server at Low Mass to raise the bottom of the chasuble with his left hand while ringing the bell with his right has the same ratio, and possibly the same symbolism,” remarked the Antiquary.


“There’s a point I’d like to raise, as a sort of parenthesis,” said Fr. Torculus. “Thomas a Kempis[2] says something about the symbolism of the cross on the back of the chasuble. But is there any rule that the vestment shall be so ornamented? I’ve often seen them in Rome and also in Spain with just a stripe or pillar down the back, and there are a few priests introducing such styles in this country.”


The Liturgiologist very deliberately filled his pipe before answering. Then, “the Antiquary would tell you, if I have him a chance, that the custom of forming a cross of the orphreys of the chasuble is comparatively modern,” said he. “But, it is a matter which deserves a separate article, which I do not promise not to write. Meanwhile, here’s another point of utilitarian ceremonial for you to mull over:—I mean the transfer of the missal and the pall by the sacred ministers after the Ablutions. It would be difficult, I fancy, to find a mystical interpretation of that action!”


“Yet the carrying of the Gospel book to the place where the Gospel is sung has a very obvious symbolism,” remarked the Antiquary, “and I fancy that the handling of the pall by the subdeacon might be interpreted as indicating his closer approach to the Sacred Mysteries, since, being now in major orders, he may touch various articles which, as a layman, he would not be permitted to handle.”


“Neat, but not especially clever, Pere,” said Fr. Torculus. “But I beg to mention a little ceremony which is obviously an imitation of the one we’ve just mentioned and which has neither practical utility nor symbolic signification to recommend it. Why does the altar boy at Low Mass in some places, carry the chalice veil over to the left of the celebrant after he has moved the book back for the Post Communion? There’s no direction for this action in any reputable ceremonial book; it’s just as handy for the priest to take the veil from where it was, at his right; and if there is only one server, as there should be at Low Mass, it may make a slight but inconvenient delay.”


“My dear Father,” said the Liturgiologist rising, “it is just because so many priests give so little thought to the ratio of ceremonies, their utilitarian aspect, their significance, and their liturgical propriety as decided by authority that the ceremonies required by Holy Church have become overlaid by multiplicity of customs upon which stress is laid to the detriment of what is definitely required. But, excuse me, I have to run out to the orphanage and hear the sisters’ confessions. Would you give me a lift? I don’t quite like to ride with the Antiquary for a while, till he has mastered the intricacies of the machinery of his new Scoot.”


“Mechanical intricacies indeed,” snorted the Antiquary. “Your real reason for not riding with me is that you don’t want to dig up for a cigar lighter for the dash-board.”


“Instrument board, dear Father, instrument board! Surely you know a car from a buggy!”


“Come with me both or you,” laughed Fr. Torculus, “a ride in a real car will do you good. And,” he added slyly, “I have a cigar lighter on my dial-support!”[3]



1 A type of cigar that is narrow at both ends, but bulges at the center.


2 A priest of the Canons Regular, who was the author of the famous Imitation of Christ.


3 Referring to the instrument panel that held the various dials for the various gauges (speedometer, fuel, electric charge).


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