Liturgical Traditions – Some Parting Words: Traditional Practice of the Roman Rite
Aug 24, 2021

Liturgical Traditions – Some Parting Words: Traditional Practice of the Roman Rite

Over the last three years, I have been privileged to contribute a series of posts which have attempted to show how best to understand and implement the current provisions of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) 42. That paragraph states the following with respect to the gestures and bodily postures of the priest, deacon, the ministers, and of the people: “Attention must therefore be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite [emphasis added] and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice.”

GIRM 42 goes on to makes clear that “the actions and processions” of the ministers and faithful at various points in the celebration of Mass are among those gestures and postures which should be informed by the same traditional practice of the Roman Rite. The series of posts that now comes to its conclusion has offered readers what these various actions, processions, postures, and gestures could look like when informed by a sense of continuity with the manner the Mass of the Roman Rite has been celebrated over the last several centuries.

Traditional Touchstones

As I tried to make clear at the onset of the series, this exercise has never intended to promote a mixing of elements of the pre-conciliar and reformed versions of the Roman liturgy. Indeed, neither has it been part of an effort, at least in my mind, to conduct a “reform or the reform” of the current Roman Missal. Rather, the suggestions I made in these posts over the last several years have been part of the wider ongoing effort to actually implement the Missal of Paul VI as it has been presented to the Church. After all, we cannot forget that the Roman Missal of 1969, and its successor, the Roman Missal of 2002/08, have consistently been presented as being in continuity with the Roman Missal of 1570.[1] Unfortunately at times, it has become almost an unquestioned presupposition in liturgical circles that the current edition of the Missal has almost nothing to do with the editions which preceded it.[2] However, the fifth edition of the GIRM, along with documents like Redemptionis Sacramentum and Sacramentum Caritatis, places the ars celebrandi of the revised liturgy in the context of a tradition.[3] For any text, even one like the Order for Mass, only makes sense in a given context. The context for the celebration of Mass as revised after the Second Vatican Council is the long tradition of the practice of the Roman rite.

These posts did not deal with all elements of the celebration of Mass such as sung texts, Scripture readings, choice of Mass texts, ritual objects, or the art and architecture associated with the Eucharistic sacrifice. It also did not address any number of customs associated with the celebration of Mass which may not pertain directly to the gestures, actions, postures intended in the GIRM. Some of these customs have all but died out, for example, the use of the “sanctus candle” lit after the Sanctus of the Low Mass and extinguished at the priest’s communioin. Other customs contrary to the law continue to exist in rare locations without being corrected, such a priest wearing a dalmatic while functioning as the deacon of the Mass. Other customs such as the use of a burse, while unspecified in the current form of the liturgy, continue to exist in a number of churches but are not common. Regarding this last category, I have tried at least to acknowledge how even some of the less common, but not forbidden, customs might be carried out.

Body of Work

With respect to gestures, postures, actions, and processions specifically, I have always attempted to begin with what the GIRM and the Order for Mass asks a celebrant, or a deacon, or a minister to do. For example, the deacon unfolds the corporal on the altar at the beginning of the preparation of the altar. Then, I have tried to describe, in painstaking detail, how the celebrant, or the deacon, or a minister performs the required action. In the case of the corporal, for example: why not unfold it and refold it as that has always been done? Must there be a new way of doing the same gesture every time Mass is celebrated? At times, I have had to make a judgment and find a way to accomplish some gesture which now finds itself in a new ritual context, taking into account parallel circumstances in practice of the Extraordinary Form. For example, in the Ordinary Form the priest imposes incense before the gospel at the chair, not at the altar, as in the Mass according to the Missal of 1962. That requires describing a way to accomplish this gesture which is in harmony, but not identical, to the historic practice.

Naturally, there is room for interpretation in such an exercise. People of good will could differ as to how the requisite action might be carried out and which of the precedents from the liturgical tradition could be illustrative. Thus, what I have offered is only one possible approach; it can never be the definitive approach to these matters. Nevertheless, I do believe it is an approach which has tried to avoid adding, deleting, or changing anything described in the Ordinary Form. A recent study would appear to confirm this assessment.[4]

While the exercise I have undertaken may seem to be much ado about nothing, it has merely been an attempt to take seriously the body language of the Roman Rite and to introduce language to a generation of celebrants who have grown up without any direct personal knowledge or experience of it. In that regard, I am indebted to the work of Bishop Peter Elliott, whose three volume commentary on the liturgical books is the most comprehensive description of the post-conciliar form of the liturgy to date.[5] I am equally grateful to Father Andre Mutel OSSM, and Peter Freeman for their excellent commentary on the celebration of Mass in the Ordinary Form.[6] It is the only manual I know which so consistently and so thoroughly takes into account the recommendation of GIRM 42 to refer to the traditional practice of the Roman Rite. Finally, Dom Alcuin Reid’s updated version of the inestimable The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described is essential to understanding how the Extraordinary Form is intended to be carried out.[7]

To Be Continued…

As this series of posts draws to its close, it is my hope that other students of the liturgy will take up the challenge which GIRM 42 poses. Over time, as more and more commentaries appear, a kind of sifting of the various approaches can eventually occur. In time, this sifting of the wheat from the chaff can create what was always referred to as “the writings of approved authors.” I hope I have contributed in some small way to this important undertaking.


  1. See Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum, AAS 61 (1969): 217.
  2. This way of thinking can be seen in two widely quoted responses from the Congregation for Divine Worship: Sacred Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship, Response, Notitiae 14 (1978): 301-302 (DOL 481R11); SCSDW, Response, Notitiae 14 (1978): 534-535 (DOL 491R22).
  3. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum March 25, 2004, AAS 96 (2004): 552, no. 9; Benedict XVI, Apostolic exhortation Sacramentum caritatis February 22, 2007, AAS 99 (2007): 136. See also Benedict XVI, Letter to Bishops on Summorum Pontificum, AAS 99 (2007): 797, no. 9.
  4. See Michael Casey Sanders, An Interpretation of 1983 CIC Canon 846 1 in the Light of GIRM 42 (JCL thesis, The Catholic University of America, 2021).
  5. Peter J. Elliott, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite: The Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995); Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year According to the Modern Roman Rite: A Manual for Clergy and All Involved in Liturgical Ministries (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002); Ceremonies Explained for Servers According to the Roman Rite: A Manual for Altar Servers, Acolytes, Sacristans, and Masters of Ceremonies (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019).
  6. André Philippe M. Mutel and Peter Freeman, Cérémonial de la sainte messe à l’usage ordinaire des paroisses suivant le missel romain de 2002 et la pratique léguée du rit romain, 2nd ed. (Perpignan, France: Éditions Artège, 2012).
  7. Adrian Fortescue, J.B. O’Connell and Alcuin Reid, eds. The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, 15th ed. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009).