Jun 29, 2020

New Book Serves Up a Wealth of Liturgical Insight on Assisting at the Altar

Ceremonies Explained for Servers According to the Roman Rite, by Peter J. Elliot. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019. 330 pp. ISBN: 978-1621642992. $24.95 paperback.

Students of the liturgy will be familiar with Bishop Peter Elliott and his first two titles, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995) and its companion volume, Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002). Now these same readers can welcome a third volume to the series, Ceremonies Explained for Servers: A Manual for Altar Servers, Acolytes, Sacristans, and Masters of Ceremonies (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019). Like its predecessors, this third volume is a wealth of information and guidance, written in a clear style, with much sound, practical advice.

Readers of Bishop Elliott’s previous works will already be familiar with the format employed. Each paragraph is numbered for easy reference. The chapters begin with the theoretical presentation of the general principles involved. Subsequent chapters treat individual sacraments and sacramentals in hierarchical order: first the Mass, then the sacraments, followed by funerals, the Liturgy of the Hours, and finally other sacramentals. There are chapters on specific days of the liturgical year and on Holy Week in particular. Finally, various forms of Mass celebrated by the Bishop are described. There are three very useful appendices on the proper manner of lighting candles, on a method for laying out vestments prior to Mass, and on prayers for servers. All in all, Ceremonies Explained for Servers is a comprehensive treatment of the subject.

Naturally, there is a measure of repetition in this third volume when compared to Bishop Elliott’s first two volumes. In a way, both volumes are recapitulated in this third volume. But the perspective is now different. This third volume is designed for altar servers, acolytes, parish masters of ceremonies and sacristans in particular, not primarily for the clergy. This third volume is written for the many volunteers, both young and old, who make the liturgy of the Church happen in parish churches week in and week out. These members of the laity will benefit greatly from Bishop Elliott’s many clear definitions, and the illustrations which accompany them.

Bishop Elliott also includes instituted acolytes as one of the target audiences of his book. In his home country of Australia, it is common for any number of men from the parish to have received institution into the ministry of acolyte. In the United States, apart from a few dioceses, it is generally candidates for Holy Orders who fulfill this office. In the United States, it is more likely that the adult parishioners responsible for training and supervising altar servers and the parishioners who may serve as masters of ceremonies from time to time will be the primary beneficiaries of this manual. It will give them a language and a rationale to use with their young charges. In sum, the book offers a sequential, coherent description of each of the steps needed to make the liturgy as dignified and as graceful as possible.

Bishop Elliot broadens the scope of the topics he addresses in this third book beyond the topics in the earlier volumes. For the first time, he addresses the manner of serving the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Second, this volume plays a very important catechetical role for its readers. Bishop Elliott is adept at pointing out the theological and spiritual significance of what he is describing, and not merely content with recounting the practical details which need to be accomplished. This catechetical pedagogy is present throughout the book but is especially clear in the first four chapters of this work, “The Server,” “The Liturgy,” “Ceremonial Actions,” and “The Mass.” Taken together, they offer a rich catechesis for young people about the spiritual significance of what they are undertaking. Most catechetical materials for young people do not offer such depth.

Because portions of this book are intended for the altar servers themselves, Bishop Elliot writes these sections in the second person, addressing the young people directly. Here his tone is conversational and clear. In other sections, when he is addressing the sacristan or the master of ceremonies, for example, he writes in the more standard third person. These are sections which are not intended to apply to his younger audience. At times, however, the shift between the second person form of address and the third person form of address can be disorienting to the reader. This is perhaps the only criticism of the work one could make. An editor could have helped the author to group the relevant sections in such a way that it would be clear which audience is being addressed, without moving back and forth multiple times between adult and adolescent audiences and between the two forms of address.

Overall, the publication of Ceremonies Explained for Servers offers a valuable contribution to the Church’s liturgical life. It comes from a well-known and trusted guide to the Ordinary Form, informed by and celebrated according to the best of the Church’s liturgical tradition. This manual makes it possible for this living tradition to be passed on in a comprehensive way to the next generation. All who love the liturgy should thank Bishop Elliott for his contribution.

Monsignor Marc B. Caron

Monsignor Marc B. Caron, S.T.D., is the vicar general and the moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Portland, ME. He has served as a pastor, as the director of the diocesan Office for Worship, and as a chancellor of the diocese. Most recently, he was a member of the faculty of St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA, where he was also director of liturgy. In 2021, he received the doctoral degree from the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, writing on the sacramental nature of the diaconate. He is the author of a number of articles which have appeared in The Jurist, Worship, Catechumenate, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.