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Ordo Missae of the 1962 Missale Romanum

A Rubrical Guide For Altar Servers

By Louis J. Tofari

 General Principles of Ceremonies (for inferior ministers): Basic Guidelines

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There are certain privileges that the sacred ministers (i.e., the celebrant, deacon, subdeacon[1]) enjoy due to the dignity of their office, but which the inferior ministers do not generally share. These privileges are as follows:

  • the ability to genuflect on the predella in actu functionis[2],
  • the ability to genuflect on the first altar step in actu functionis (with the exceptions noted below),
  • the ability to genuflect on the appropriate altar step when changing from one side of the predella to the other (outside of the condition in coram Sanctissimo).


Regarding uniformity of action, L. O’Connell declares that “Nothing is more conducive to the smoothness of a ceremony.”[3] It follows then, that the servers should make every effort to genuflect, to make the various liturgical gestures, to walk, to make the responses in unison either with other servers, or with the sacred ministers where this applies.


By Oneself

Always walk erect and at moderate pace. One’s eyes should be slightly cast downwards when walking out of reverence for the sanctuary. Never walk sideways (i.e., sidestepping); rather, turn in the proper direction, walk the short distance, and then turn back to face the former direction. Nor should one walk backwards; one is allowed to take one step back, but that is all. When encountering obstacles, if possible, step off to the right of it. When ascending steps, do so with your left foot first.

When Walking Around The Foot

When walking around the foot, e.g., to go to the Credence, one should not “curb” it. Rather one should go around the foot in a graceful, elliptical manner, keeping about a foot away [“A foot for the foot”]. This will prevent one from hitting the steps accidentally with his shoe, and will also prevent the “leaning towards the step” look that normally accompanies “curbing” the steps.

With Another Server

When two servers are walking together, they always walk shoulder to shoulder, not in single file.

When Two Servers Are Walking Around The Foot

Again the same rule as for one server applies: The inside server should keep a foot away from the foot. Likewise, the inside server must go at a slow enough pace to allow the outside server to keep up with the elliptical movement around the foot.

“Swing Like A Door” Movement

There are times when two servers will need to “swing like a door” rather than turn inwards so as to continue walking shoulder to shoulder. In this case, the inside server will swivel slightly towards the direction in which the pair will proceed, while allowing the outside server to keep up.


One must sit straight and erect without leaning against objects behind him.[4] When sitting, the surplice should be positioned in one’s lap without stretching it, so that the hem is slightly above the bend of the knee. The hem should be arranged neatly, and the hands should be placed inside the hem, palm down, with fingers extended and held together, upon each knee.


During Low Mass:

Servers kneel out of deportment[6], rather than out of reverence, which is why they bow when kneeling, but sacred ministers do not (when a sacred minister kneels, he does so to show a reverence). However, there are a few exceptions:


    • During both Gospels.
    • When servicing the celebrant or performing a duty.


    • During the Sermon [7].

During A Missa Cantata [8] Or A Solemn High Mass:

These are the general rules for the ministers: When the celebrant sits, the ministers sit (unless occupied with a duty), when the celebrant stands the ministers stand, when the celebrant kneels (for an objective reason), then the ministers kneel.

Servers generally stand[9] during these Masses with the exception of these cases:


    • Whenever the celebrant sits.
    • During the Epistle.
    • During the Sermon.


    • During the Preparatory Prayers at the foot of the altar.
    • (If the celebrant does so) During the Credo when the choir sings “…descendit de caelis” until “Et homo factus est” inclusively.
    • During the Consecration (but the servers stand immediately after the Consecration actions are completed; i.e., the last genuflection of the celebrant after consecrating the Precious Blood).
    • During the second Confiteor.
    • During the Distribution of Holy Communion.
    • For the Last Blessing.

During A Requiem Missa Cantata Or Solemn High Mass

As usual for High Mass, with these exceptions:


    • During the Oratio (Collect).
    • During the Postcommunion.

During A Missa Cantata Or A Solemn High Mass On An Ember Day

As usual for High Mass, with these exceptions:


    • During the Oratio (Collect).
    • During the Postcommunion.

HANDS (liturgical gestures)

General Rules

  • Fingers are always held closely together and extended for all actions listed below.
  • When performing an action with your hands, imagine taking your folded hands apart and then performing the action with a slight modification (e.g., like slightly bending the right hand).
  • When holding an object, do not perform any actions with your hands (i.e., the sign of the cross, etc.).
  • When one hand is in use (usually the right hand), hold your free hand with fingers touching, flat against your sternum.

Folded Hands

When one’s hands are not in use, hold them with fingers touching, palm to palm with the right thumb over left thumb (“…in modum crucis…” [11]), at about a twenty degree angle just in front of the sternum (not actually touching the chest)[12].

Making The Large Sign Of The Cross

While keeping your right hand fingers together, touch your forehead, then your sternum (just above your left hand), the top of your left shoulder, then slightly twist your wrist and touch the top of your right shoulder[13]. This sign should always be made deliberately and reverently.

Making The Small Sign Of The Cross (The Gospel Cross)

With your right thumb pointing upwards, and your extended right hand pointing left, take the fleshy side of your thumb and make a small cross on your forehead, then your lips, and finally your chest (just above your left hand). Each small cross should be a Greek cross (equilateral) and made with reverence and care. Do not form your hand into a fist when performing this action.

Striking The Breast

Keep your right hand extended, but slightly cupped, and strike your breast on your sternum (just above your left hand held flat) noiselessly with the tips of fingers. Do not form your right hand into a fist. The only time one strikes his breast are for these occasions:

  1. Each Confiteor of the servers: at each mea culpa.
  2. The Agnus Dei: at miserere nobis and dona nobis pacem.[14]
  3. The Domine non sum dignus of the faithful: for the duration of each clause.
  4. During the Leonine Prayers for the response Miserere nobis or Have mercy on us (out of custom, and then only if the celebrant does so).

Do Not Strike Your Breast For:

  • The celebrant's Confiteor.
  • The Nobis quoque peccatoribus.[15]
  • The celebrant’s Domine non sum dignus.[16]
  • O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary, during the Leonine Prayers.


When servers are carrying objects, they do not make any of the usual liturgical gestures with their hands (e.g., during a blessing, the acolytes and crossbearer neither kneel nor make the sign of the cross). However, they do perform the usual bows (unless they are accompanying an image of Christ; cf. below).[17]


Torches are always held in the outside hand.

Exception: There is an exception to this general rule: When the torchbearers walk next to Blessed Sacrament (e.g., on either side of canopy), torches are held in the inside hand.


Books are always placed with the opening facing left.[18] When presenting a book to a superior minister, hold the book so that the opening faces right. In this way, the minister does not have to turn the book around when he receives it so that it will face left.

Books Can Be Carried In Two Ways:

  1. With both hands under the bottom edge, with the top edge of the book resting against one’s chest.
  2. With the right hand on upper right corner, and the left hand under the bottom edge.

When A Minister Is Reading From A Book:

Books are either held open:

  1. Against one’s chest.
  2. Against one’s forehead.

This will depend on the situation. However, an opened book is always held with both hands under the bottom edge of the book (i.e., the cover boards), but so that the pages can still be turned.

[1] And during a Pontifical Mass, the assistant priest and deacons.

[2] However, outside of a function, a major cleric is still required to genuflect in plano as he is no longer exercising one of the offices of sacred ministers. This is confirmed by the fact that the Ceremoniale Episcoporum assumes that the head MC will be at least a priest, and because this office is that of an inferior minister, he is thereby required to follow the various genuflecting rules for inferior ministers. If this occurs in functionis, then a fortiori, outside of a function, a major cleric would be required to also do so outside of a ceremony when no office is being enacted.

[3] The Book of Ceremonies, pg. 29.

[4] Only a bishop has the right to have a back to his seat, that is, the throne. Even the sedilia should not have a back.

[5] For an excellent in-depth explanation of these principles, one should consult Fr. Michael Simoulin’s article in the March 1997 issue of The Angelus, pages 13-19.

[6] The principle behind this is that the propers or Ordinary are not being chanted. When one sings, one generally stands.

[7] However, the servers should not sit at the sedilia, as this is reserved for the sacred ministers. Rather, they should sit at separate stools.

[8] Generally called “High” Mass.

[9] The reason for this, is that standing is the “liturgical position par excellence.” Fr. Simoulin, March 1997, The Angelus, pg. 17.

[10] In practice, this rule differs slightly for the torchbearers, who kneel upon being led into the sanctuary at the Sanctus, until they are led out after the Distribution of Holy Communion. However, the two senior torchbearers go to each side of the Communion rail and stand during Communion (after having themselves received).

[11] Rit. Cel. III, 1.

[12] Folded hands represent a state of inactivity, so one should not receive the Lavabo towel on one’s folded hands, but rather in the thumbs and index fingers of one’s outstretched hands.

[13] This over-the-right-hand-shoulder action symbolizes the throwing off of sin.

[14] But not at a Requiem Mass, as the words change, and so the meaning changes to “may he rest in peace,” to which a striking of the breast is not appropriate, as this action symbolizes contrition.

[15] This is a part of the Canon, and the celebrant is supposed to use the tone of aliquantulum voce to simply let those near him know where he is at in the Canon. L. O’Connell, pg. 161.

[16] The celebrant is saying, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive;” therefore, it does not make sense that anyone other than the celebrant should be striking his breast. L. O’Connell, pg. 161.

[17] There is, however, a practical exception for the torchbearers: When they are holding their torches and a moderate bow is prescribed, they make only a simple bow, as it is impractical for them to make a moderate bow.

[18] Exception: When a book is on the Gospel side of the altar, the opening faces right, i.e., towards the tabernacle.

Copyright © 2007. Louis J. Tofari. All rights reserved.
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