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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): Introduction

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The general principles of the Roman Rite are what define the character of this rite as roman (romanitas). The dominating themes in the Roman world were logic and simplicity. These same Roman themes can be found to have been impressed upon its namesake Rite and they differentiate it from the Eastern Rites and even other Western Rites[1]. These themes find expression at the following levels:

  1. Logic: The principles and rubrics make sense and are not superfluous actions. The juridical character of the ancient Romans pervades the Roman Rite.
  2. Simplicity: The various actions are done in a simple, yet profound manner, as simplicity is beauty in itself. As a result of this spirit, the Romans were quite practical in their methods. This simplicity is exercised in various ways within the Roman Rite.[2]
The general principles are to rubrics as philosophy is to theology: they are the foundation for individual rubrics. The general principles are also simply liturgical common sense and comprise the liturgical “rules of the road”; once understood, their application on a particular basis becomes a fairly simple matter.

The general principles can be found innately spread, though not necessarily listed systematically, throughout the various liturgical books of the Roman Rite, namely, the Missale Romanum and the Caeremoniale Episcoporum. In fact, by examining the various actions repeatedly dictated by these books for the sacred ministers, one can ascertain a pattern and thereby the majority of the general principles. Furthermore, where the liturgical books lack citations of such principles in detail, the Sacred Congregation of Rites (SRC) and rubricians fill in the gaps, either in the case of the former by elucidation and decrees, or in the latter case, by their referential works. In the case of rubricians though, some list these principles systematically, while others refer to them in passing (e.g., in the case of Fortescue, he assumes one already knows these principles); nevertheless, all rubricians agree on these principles.

One final word to demonstrate the connection of the Roman Rite with Rome herself: in the past, when a dispute of universal proportion has occurred regarding a particular action (e.g., how the altar is to be incensed), the SRC would usually decide in favor of the practice as found in the churches of Rome (i.e.,the major basilicas that have a special link to the Holy See, or particularly, the Bishop of Rome).


There are unfortunately misconceptions about rubricans which in turn beget misconceptions about rubrics themselves. The most common ones are as follows:

  1. There are so many rubricans.
  2. Each says something different or disagrees with another on how the ceremonies should be carried out.
  3. A rubrican’s word is simply his own, and therefore his works can be dispensed with.

In answer to these misconceptions:

  • Since the 19th century, there have been roughly about a dozen authors (rubricians) who have written comprehensive rubrical works, and their works differ slightly for these reasons:
    • The years in which they were published (or republished): revisions were necessary either because of reforms made to the Liturgy or clarifications made by the SRC (or other offices of the Curia).
    • The language in which they were written: many rubrical works are written in Latin, but others are written in the vernacular (e.g., Fortescue was the first to compose a rubrical book in English).
    • The local customs for the geographical area they treated (e.g., Fortescue’s work integrates the local customs of England, while L. O’Connell’s gives those of the United States).
    • The style of presentation: some are more orderly and easier to read than others, especially regarding the depth of detail in outlining how the ceremonies are to be conducted (e.g., in English, Fortescue assumes one already knows the general principles and hence does not list them; J. B. O’Connell gives a few; and L. O’Connell lists almost all of them systematically).
  • All rubricians agree upon the general principles (as they must); where they disagree or hold opinions are in matters where such options are allowed, as the rubrics are either not clear, and/or have not been definitively decided upon.
  • The quote below will not only define what a rubrician is, but also how much authority a rubrician’s word has:
    • “While the name of certain rubricians carries great weight,113 [f. 113 Because it is recognized that they have really studied the rubrics thoroughly —they are not mere copyists or summarists —and their teaching is found to be strictly accurate] the opinion of any writer is worth as much as the reasons on which it is based, and no more. Hence the more authoritative writers usually give the reasons (rubrics, decisions of S.R.C., customary law, general principles of ceremonial —embodied in the rubrics themselves114 [f. 114 Many general laws of ceremonial are given in the first chapter of the Ritus celebrandi of the Missal and are found scattered throughout the Caeremoniale Episcoporum.] or deduced from particular laws —liturgical propriety, or accepted practice) for their views, especially on points about which there is a difference of opinion.” [3].
  • An excerpt from the Archconfraternity of Saint Stephen’s[4] second part of its three-fold object, further demonstrates this point:
    • “…by instructing him in the manner of observing the rites and ceremonies of the Church according to the rubrics and to the decrees of the Sacred Congregation of Rites and the interpretations of the most generally accepted authorities…” (The Altar Servers’ Handbook, pg. 1 in both the original 1962 edition and the Society of St. Pius X’s 2003 reprint of it).


However, rubrical misconceptions do not simply end with the question of rubricians. Indeed there are others; here are just a few:

  1. There are no rules for servers, as they simply follow local custom.
    Contra: Classical rubricians, in listing the general principles of ceremonies, customarily mention those for inferior ministers first, then within the instructions for solemn Mass give those applicable for the sacred ministers. So, with the exception of a few specific differences for the sacred ministers (due to the dignity of their office), the general principles also apply to the inferior ministers. Furthermore, all rubricans give some sort of instructions for the inferior ministers, whether detailed or in general. Finally, the actions of the servers are actually more frequent and therefore more visible (and thereby more liable to cause either edification or distraction for the faithful); hence their actions must be regulated by some type of rules.
  2. We have our own customs or traditions in our church that we have been practicing for many years. Contra: many “customs” are unfortunately abuses, and therefore are not customs at all, but rather, practices that should be done away with in favor of the Church’s legislation, or her true intent. Hence, in every church where the Roman Rite is used, proper customs that conform with the general principles and the authentic rubrics should be eagerly adopted and practiced. This truly is the spirit of romanitas and of the Roman Liturgy (i.e., to conform ourselves with churches in Rome, the seat of the Church).
  3. Rubrics have no meaning (argument of Modernists).


  • General Principles (universal to Roman Rite).
  • National and regional customs (i.e., legitimate local customs; not abuses which are against liturgical law).
  • Religious congregational customs [5] (e.g., the Society of St. Pius X’s retention of reciting the Confiteor before distributing Communion during Mass and of various minor items from pre-1955 Holy Week ceremonial[6]).


The particular customs listed below that are generally practiced within the dioceses of the United States of America were for the most part derived from Roman and English liturgical practices.

  • Ac2 switching book
  • Do not assist with removing the chalice veil before the Offertory nor in re-assembling the chalice by assisting with veil and burse after the Ablutions (English custom not to touch at all)
  • Presentation of cruets
  • Lavabo (Ac1 holds towel)
  • Use of bells (Hanc Igitur, Consecration action [universal method])
  • Incensing from where Gospel was read during Solemn High Mass
  • Use of crossbearer (and boatbearer by application) at High and Solemn Mass
  • Use of thurible with blessed incense for Processional / Recessional at High and Solemn Mass


As the inferior ministers (i.e., servers) are fulfilling a liturgical office (which “normally” would be executed by the appropriate ranks of clerics), they should endeavor to perform only those various reverences and actions as prescribed by the general principles, rubrics, etc. Therefore, within the ceremonies, nothing but the authentic liturgical gestures as described in the liturgical books, and as expounded upon by the recognized authorities, should be performed by laymen when serving the sacred ceremonies. All private acts of devotion should be omitted while serving, as the official prayer of the Church does not consist of these.

[1] For instance, the Dominican Rite, though a variation of the Roman Rite, has its own set of ceremonial principles, the majority of which are in conjunction with the Roman Rite, while a few are not. E.g., the Sedilia is considered in the Dominican Rite to be out of the view of the Altar, whereas in the Roman Rite it is not.

[2] Here is one practical application of this type of Roman thought: If items are not being used, they should be put away (e.g., bells and prayer cards should not be stored on the first Altar step during Mass or outside of Mass; their proper place is on the Credence when they are not being used by the Acolyte). Of course, one could also conclude that this simply makes sense (i.e., it is logical).

[3] J.B. O’Connell, The Celebration of Mass, 1962; V. Rubricians, pg. 24.

[4] This altar servers’ guild is noteworthy for its insistence on high standards on serving correctly. It was first erected at Westminister Cathedral in London, England in 1905, and just a few short months later was given a perpetual blessing by Pope St. Pius X in his own handwriting. St. Pius X further extended its privileges and later the confraternity was canonically expanded into an archconfraternity. Msgr. Joseph Collins (the noted prefect of ceremonies at Westminster during the period that it enjoyed the reputation of executing the ceremonies of the Roman Rite more accurately than in Rome) edited the serving rubrics in the first edition (1907) of the guild’s Handbook (as noted in the editor’s Acknowledgements of the first edition). Msgr. Collins also edited the first edition (1917) of Fr. Adrian Fortescue’s book, The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, as acknowledged within his first edition; Fortescue himself was also involved with the Guild, having composed or compiled the various prayers that are specific to it (also attested within the Acknowledgements section of the first edition of the Handbook).

[5] It should be noted that for religious orders such as the Franciscans, though they follow the Roman Rite, they have their own usage of it (though this does not consist of a separate rite as occurs with the Dominicans and Benedictines, i.e., the Monastic Rite), e.g., the Romano-Seraphicum, and consequently their own books which include those particular rubrics and practices common to the religious order in question. Such usages have precedence over national and regional customs.

[6] Many of these retentions had been retained in many places throughout the world where the Roman Rite was observed even after various liturgical revisions; hence, these are not simply related to the Society of St. Pius X itself, as many others who observe the traditional Roman Liturgy also observe these particulars.

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