Saturday 5 June 2010

The dispositions of those serving on the altar

What follows is, in fact, from "The Ceremonial of the Roman Rite" by Joseph Baldeschi, translated by Rev J.D. Hilarius Dale in various editions. It is easy to forget, in an age which is dominated by Fortescue and O'Connell, that this edition of Baldeschi was the standard text in English during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Fr Fortescue disliked its stilted, over-Italianate style - of which more another time - but it does convey a spirit of Romanitas as well as deep devotion, which are sometimes lacking in Fortescue's sometimes over-functional approach.

Baldeschi discusses in the first section the rules to be followed by the clergy in choir. Although he is referring to the clergy, there is much that altar servers can learn from this approach.

Sections from Baldeschi - in bold type - are interspersed with commentary from the Secretary of the SST.

He first discusses external composure. Here is an extract, which might say something about Italian clergy at the time (although one hopes not!):

"10. The clergy should comport themselves in choir with silence, modesty, and recollection; abstaining from everything that would indicate frivolity or irreverence, such as reading letters, talking, giving snuff to each other, gazing about, sitting cross-legged, lolling in their seats, and other acts of this nature. According to the Holy Council of Trent, every ecclesiastic should exhibit a grave and religious deportment in every action:- "Nil, nisi grave, moderatum, ac religione plenum, prae se ferant." How edifying then should be his demeanour at choir, whilst engaged in the actual service of the Most High!"

I haven't actually observed any altar server reading letters, or taking snuff during the course of mass! However, talking, gazing about, lolling, are all known; giggling during the offices is not unknown.

And is it not time that The Council (by which I mean Trent) was implemented: "They should carry themselves with gravity, moderation, and full of religion. "

The next section deals with internal dispositions. Very important, for man sees the appearances but the Lord looks at the heart. I reproduce the passage in full.

"The internal Dispositions necessary to assist with propriety in Choir.

11. A pure intention of worshipping God solely for His glory, and not through self-interest or vanity. Such despicable ends are evinced by those who willingly assist at choir, whenever their presence redounds to their emolument, but absent themselves when no worldly interest accrues ; as also by those who perform their part with propriety before the eyes of men, but who act with a miserable remissness when removed from public notice."

We are on this earth for God's glory. Sole reason for existence. "To know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next." As a consequence of us living for His greater glory, we work out our salvation in fear and trembling. But His glory comes first. At no time must this be more evident than when we serve about His altar.

"12. A foresight of what is about to be done, the better to avoid those inadvertencies which entail a multiplicity of defects. This should be taken before proceeding to choir, by reading the instructions for the ceremony, and bringing them before the mind with a little serious reflection ; and even in choir, by filling up each unoccupied moment with something like the following deliberation :- After this, I must perform such an action, which must be done in such and such a manner. By acting on this principle, nothing will happen without provision, and all will proceed with regularity."

Preparation. It is a truism in all areas of life that "Prior preparation and planning prevents poor performance." But how often have liturgies been conducted - by those who could and should know better - where elementary preparation has not been done? Fortescue has not been consulted; a practice has not been arranged; proper time has not been taken to check that the altar is set out correctly; the responses have not been learnt.

"13. Attention - seriously observing what is going for ward, and not yielding to thoughts even of a virtuous nature, which in such cases have not their source in God, but in an evil power, as they divert us from the good work which is before us. Most powerful inducements to enliven our attention, are to place ourselves in the presence of God, and to accompany in spirit each word and action, attending to their signification, and yielding to those affections of the heart which the language of each prayer should excite, according to the beautiful recommendation which St. Augustine has given us in his glossary of the Tenth Psalm : " Si orat Psalmus, orate ; et si gemit gemite; et si timet, timete. Omnia enim, qua hic conscripta sunt, speculum nostrum sunt." That which St. Augustine teaches us to do while singing the Psalms, we should observe also in whatever is recited or sung in Mass, or in any other holy function. "

A reminder that the devil doesn't always use suggestions of obvious evil to distract us during mass, but things which are good. Not temptations to gross sin, but perhaps thoughts of the good things we are going to do later in the day, or liturgies we are going to attend later. In such a way our attention wanders. Sin is not so much choice of a bad thing in itself, but a choice of something else in the place of God, or an incorrect ordering in the choice of secondary goods.

"14. Devotion, which serves to inspire us with an internal relish for the sacred exercises of religion, and which certainly is not experienced by those who perform them with reluctance and tedium; and against whom the Lord delivers that fearful anathema: " Maledictus homo qui facit opus Dei fraudulenter.""

St Jose Maria Escriva comments somewhere: "Do you find the mass is too long? That's because your love is too short!" If we are not experiencing an internal relish for the sacred offices of the altar, is it because our life of devotion is inadequate? Liturgical prayer and private prayer (vocal, meditation, contemplation, in whatever degree we are graced) are mutually supportive and mutually enriching. Even an accurate care for the externals of the ceremony, if not infused with a spirit of devotion, risks the condemnation of the Lord: "Cursed is the man who does the work of God fraudulently."

How often do we fail to live up to these great ideals? Every time! The Confiteor before Communion is well placed for an altar server, because by that time he will almost certainly need it. There are prayers given in the Roman Breviary, for use by the clergy after mass or the office, in reparation for the deficiencies they have committed owing to human weakness. The altar server would be as well, after mass or the office, to take a little time to conduct a "particular examination" of conscience and say a short prayer to the same effect - begging the Lord's pardon for deficiencies due to human weakness, and asking for grace to improve in the future. Such is the spirit of the Sodality.

Fidelis usque ad mortem.


  1. Many thanks for this.

    One does get the impression that Fr Fortescue was a snob in his attitudes towards other artistic expressions of Catholicism (and I am talking about folk or charismatic masses at all!).

  2. A valuable piece, which should be standard reading for all servers and clergy.

    (I can, incidentally, remember seeing choir stalls in Europe with spittoons between each pair of stalls, presumably for the benefit of those who chewed tobacco, or pursued other repulsive practices, during the Office and Mass - so that caveat was clearly justified !)