Even the humblest tasks associated with the preparations for Mass and those which follow the conclusion of Mass can be inspired by the traditional practice of the Roman rite (General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), 42). Many of these gestures, although entirely practical, can take on religious significance when done attentively, devoutly, and in a recollected manner. They can create an atmosphere of calm which is conducive to prayer, and signal to all those involved that something out of the ordinary is about to take place. Attention even to these details can deepen the experience of Mass itself, especially in the young, who are most often charged with carrying out these necessary functions.
Before Mass Begins
One of the last preparations prior to the beginning of Mass is lighting the candles of the altar. This is usually the responsibility of one of the older servers. During the Easter season, the Easter candle is located in the sanctuary, either next to the ambo or in the center of the sanctuary. Customarily, the Easter candle is lit first, before lighting the candles of the altar.
At the altar, the server customarily begins by lighting the candles on the right side of the altar as the server faces the altar (Elliott, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, 317). The server begins by lighting the candle closest to the altar cross (or the center of the altar) first, and moving from the center of the altar to the right side, lights the other candles. He then returns to the middle, bows, and begins lighting the candles on the left side of the altar, beginning with the candle closest to the altar cross (or center of the altar), and working his way outward from the center to the left edge of the altar. After bowing once again to the center of the altar, he returns to the sacristy (Mutel and Freeman, Cérémonial de la sainte messe, 63-64).
If the altar candles are placed in two rows in either side of the altar (rather than in a row across the altar), the server begins on the right side of the altar as he faces it, with the candle the furthest away from himself, and continues by lighting the candles progressively closer to him. He bows to the altar at the center. Then, he then does the same on the left side of the altar (Elliott, 317).
While lighting the Easter candle and the altar candles, whenever the server passes before the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the sanctuary, he genuflects each time. Any other candles in the sanctuary are lit after the Easter candle and those at the altar.
Meanwhile in the sacristy, if incense is used in the opening procession, the celebrant turns on his right to face the thurifer who presents the thurible with burning coals to him. The deacon holds the incense boat in his left hand. He hands the spoon to the celebrant with his right hand, and transfer the incense boat from his left hand to his right hand. The celebrant imposes incense three times. He returns the spoon to the deacon, who receives it in his right hand. Then the priest blesses the incense with his right hand in the shape of Greek cross, his left hand resting on his chest, saying nothing (Mutel and Freeman, 73-74). The procession is now ready to commence.
After the Conclusion of Mass
In the procession at the conclusion of Mass, neither the Gospel book nor the censer is carried out (Mutel and Freeman, 181, 209n80; Elliott, 153). Upon arriving at the sacristy or at the location where the procession will end (as in the rear vestibule of the church, for example), it is customary for the servers carrying the cross and candles to turn around to face the celebrant. The two lines of servers part and stand in two rows facing each other. First, they turn slightly and bow with the celebrant to the processional cross standing before them in the middle, at the head of the two rows. Then they turn slightly toward the celebrant and bow to him. The celebrant may bless the servers (who kneel, or at least bow, to receive the blessing) before thanking them. Afterward, the celebrant may remove his chasuble (and stole) in order to greet the faithful before returning to the sacristy (Mutel and Freeman, 182).
Alternatively, upon arriving in the sacristy, the celebrant bows his head to the sacristy cross. He removes his vestments in silence, assisted by the deacon or a server. The celebrant kisses the cross on the stole and the amice as he removes them, just as he did when he vested for Mass. After removing all his vestments, the celebrant may remain standing facing the sacristy cross to offer the prayers of thanksgiving found in the appendix to the missal. Or he may return to the church for a period of thanksgiving. After assisting the priest, the deacon removes his own vestments.
One of the first duties of the oldest among the servers is to extinguish the altar candles. The candles are extinguished in the reverse order in which they were lit. Therefore, the server now begins on the left side of the altar as he faces it. He extinguishes first the candle closest to the left edge of the altar, and extinguishes each candle moving progressively closer to the altar cross (or the middle of the altar). Bowing at the center of the altar, he then continues by extinguishing first the candle at the right edge of the altar, and then each candle progressively closer to the altar cross (or middle of the altar). He bows to the altar each time he passes its center. If the altar candles are placed in two rows on either side of the altar (rather than in a row across the altar), the server begins on the left side of the altar as he faces it, with the candle the closest to himself, and continues by extinguishing the candles progressively farther away from him. He bows at the center of the altar. He then does the same on the right side of the altar. If the Easter candle is burning in the sanctuary, as during the Easter season, he then proceeds to extinguish the Easter candle last. Whenever passing before the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the sanctuary, the server genuflects each time. He then returns to the sacristy.
After servers have made their own thanksgiving, removed all the items necessary for Mass from the sanctuary, and placed these same items away in the sacristy, they too remove their vestments in silence.
From beginning to end, the gestures associated with the preparations for Mass, those required in the celebration of Mass itself, and even the tasks which follow the conclusion of Mass, demonstrate the seriousness of purpose which the worship of God demands.
Monsignor Marc B. Caron, S.T.L., is a vicar general and 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. He received his licentiate degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. He is the author of a number of articles which have appeared in The Jurist, Worship, Catechumenate, and in Homiletic and Pastoral Review.