On the Procession Before Mass

On the Procession before Sunday Mass

(Translated from Lebrun’s Explanation)

A procession at the Abbey of Fontgombault (Source)

The word “procession” comes from the Latin verb procedere, which means to go, and for our purposes it refers to a walk made by the clergy and the people while praying for some religious object and carrying the cross before them, just as they do in the church.

The Old Testament often speaks of the processions made to transport the Ark from one place to another, and ever since the Church has enjoyed peace there have been many processions made to go to the tombs of the martyrs, to transport their relics, to gather the faithful together in the Station church on days of fasting,[1] and there to request particular graces. The origin of these processions is well known.[2] But many people do not know the reason why we make a procession on Sunday before the Mass.

This procession has a two-fold origin. The primary reason is to honor the resurrection of Christ who went from Jerusalem to Galilee, and the second is to sprinkle the environs of the church.

In the first place, we find in the Rule of St. Cesarius of Arles, in the 6th century, in many other monastic and canonical rules, and in Rupert of Deutz, that Sunday processions were made to particular Oratories or Chapels.[3] This procession took place after Matins, to imitate the holy women who went to the tomb before dawn, and at dawn,[4] to imitate the disciples to whom the women related the angel’s message that Christ would precede them into Galilee, and that there they would see him as he himself had said.[5] Rupert remarks that this is why in Sunday morning processions the prelates and superiors went in front, as if to represent Christ preceding the disciples.

The procession still takes place in many churches on Easter day.[6] The chants associated with it are Sedit Angelus, and Dicite discipulis, and many ancient Missals and Processionals note that these antiphons and responses are sung at the Sunday procession until Pentecost. Although the chants proper to Easter are not repeated at other times of the year, it is nevertheless the case that all Sundays are a sort of continuation and renewal of the Feast of Easter, and thus fitting times to honor Christ’s resurrection. Therefore the primary intention of Sunday processions before Mass is the same has that of the Easter procession.

A second reason to make a procession on Sunday before the Mass was to sprinkle the environs of the Church. At the beginning of the 9th century the Capitularies of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious ordered parish priests to make a procession around their church with the blessed water on every Sunday. Archbishop Hérard of Tours prescribed the same in his Capitularies of 858. The cathedral and collegial churches were certainly the first to observe this practice, and it was practiced from about the same time in the monasteries. An ancient Ordinary of the Benedictines, which Fr. Mabillon assigns to the 9th century, notes that on Easter they carry the blessed water throughout the whole monastery while singing.[7] The Customs of Cluny and numerous abbeys describe in detail all the places that must be sprinkled each Sunday.[8]

But starting in the 10th century in some churches, it was deemed sufficient to assign a priest and a few clerics preceded by the crucifix to perform the aspersion of the bishop and the canons’ cloister.[9] Henceforth the procession halted at the entrance of the cloister or even within the church, and the original reason for the procession was gradually forgotten.

But the practices that have been conserved in several places can remind us of the ancient purpose of the procession. At Vienne in Dauphiné, the water is still blessed with great solemnity in the nave of the church, and the aspersion is performed in procession around the cloister and cemetery. At Chalon-sur-Saône the canons make a procession around the cloister every Sunday before Terce. The Hebdomarius sprinkles the doors through which the canons entered the refectory and other rooms of the cloister in former times, when they still lived in common. They also still sing a number of responses give us to believe that salt, meat, and many other things were once blessed at that time. At Châlons-sur-Marne the procession goes to the small cloister and the celebrant sprinkles the chapter, which he enters preceded by the crucifix, holy water, the deacon, and the subdeacon. In the Premonstratensian Order, a religious in alb standing next to the crucifix sprinkles everywhere along the route of the procession. At the Cathedral of Liège, an ecclesiastique in alb does the same.[10] At the end of the Processional of the Order of St. Benedict, printed in Paris in 1659, are found all the orations said during the procession to the cloister, chapter, dormitory, infirmary, etc. for the aspersions,[11] and the Ceremonials of Saint-Vannes[12] and Saint-Maur[13] note that this aspersion must be made. The Processionals of Paris and the Missals of Rouen, Meaux, Laon, and Orléans indicate that the stoup should be carried in the Sunday morning procession: a relic of the ancient practice.

Nothing proves this second original purpose of the Sunday procession better than the prayers found in the ancient books of churches as far from one another as those of Germany and Spain. In Toledo, according to the Missal of that church printed in 1551, and at the Cathedral of Liège, the prayer “Visit O Lord and bless all that we are about to visit and bless” is used in place of the oration Exaudi nos used for asperging rooms. This oration is noted in all the ancient MIssal manuscripts of this church, of Aix-la-Chapelle, Cambrai, Sainte-Gudule de Bruxelles, Strasbourg and numerous other churches in Germany. According to the Agenda of Spire printed in 1512, and the Manual of Pamplona (1561), the following words are chanted as the procession leaves the church: Place, O Lord, the sign of salvation on our houses, so that they may be preserved from the hand of the Angel of Death.

In this we see that the intention was to preserve the houses of the faithful from the attacks of the demon by asperging them with blessed water, just as the houses of the Hebrews were preserved from the sword of the angel through the blood of the lamb that was used to mark the doorposts. This is more than enough evidence to show that besides the intention of honoring the mysteries of the resurrected Christ, the procession was also done in order to perform the aspersion of the Church environs.

In those places where its only purpose was to perform the aspersion, the procession took place immediately before the Mass, after Terce. But the churches that have always retained the ancient purpose of the procession do in the very early morning, right after Prime,[14] with the view of uniting into one the procession that formerly took place at dawn to commemorate the Resurrection and the one that took place after, before the Mass, for the aspersion.

Those who desire, therefore, to enter into the spirit of the Church in these processions, should ask God to purify them from every uncleanness, and have the intention to honor the resurrection and apparitions of Jesus Christ. The faithful who are solemnly invited to these processions should come there with a holy enthusiasm. The Council of Freising (1440) recommends the procession after the benediction of the water, according a forty-day indulgence to those who assist in it. The crucifix and saints’ banners seen at their head are for them a great cause for joy. Under these glorious standards they make a small army corps that is formidable to the Demon and that acquires a right, so to speak, to the grace of God, if they march with the modesty, piety, and recollection that befits Christ’s militia.

If the procession goes through the streets, as is done in many places, we should think about the fruit of Christ’s apparitions. He went into Galilee to show himself to more than five hundred of the brethren, and his appearance gave them great joy. The procession should also be a source of consolation for sick and for all those who cannot leave their homes, so that hearing the chanting of those marching in the procession they may be united to them and unite their desires with the holy Sacrifice that will be celebrated soon after.

In addition, since on nearly every Sunday a new response is chanted with an often very ornate melody, so that the assistants ordinarily understanding nothing at all of what is sung in the procession, it would be desirable to say the prayer recorded in so many ancient Missals, Rituals, and Processionals, the one said on re-entering the church.[15] We include it here. Each may at least say it on his own:

Viam Sanctorum omnium, Domine Jesu Christe, qui ad te venientibus aeternae claritatis gaudia contulisti, ambitum Templi istius Spiritus Sancti luce perfunde, qui locum istum in honorem Sanctorum tuorum Floridi et Amantii consecrasti ; praesta, Omnipotens Deus, ut omnes istic in te credentes obtineant veniam pro delictis ab omnibus liberentur angustiis, impetrent quidquid petierint pro necessitatibus suis, placere semper praevaleant coram oculis tuis quatenus per te, et omnium sanctorum tuorum intercessionibus mumiti aulam paradisi mereantur introire. Qui cum Patre, etc.

Lord, Jesus Christ, the way of all the saints, who have given the eternal joy of heaven to those who come to you: shine the light of the Holy Spirit in the area of this Temple which you have consecrated to the name of our saint and Patron N. We beg you that those who believe in your may obtain here pardon for their faults, that they may be delivered from their troubles, that they may be always acceptable in your eyes, so that defended by the intercession of the saints they may merit to enter the courts of heaven through you, Savior of the world, who livest and reignest God, etc.

This prayer and all our processions should cause us to think that we are voyagers upon the earth, that heaven is our homeland, that we have need of Jesus Christ to make our way there and come to rest there. He is the way, the truth, and the life; the way by which we go, the truth the place where we are going, and the way where we will remain eternally.[16]


[1] Although the Stations were held in Rome on other days of the year, the people only processed from one church to another on fasting days, when the faithful were encouraged to apply themselves to prayer at greater length. See P. Mabillon, Commentary on the Ordo Romanus, n. 5.

[2] See Serrarius, Gretser, Meurier, Traité des Processions (Rheims, 1584); Eveillon, De Processionibus Ecclesiasticis (Paris, 1641); Le Catéchisme de Montpellier; Vatar, Des Processions, etc.

[3] See the Rule of St. Cesarius, n. 69; Ap. Boll. of 12th January in the Codex Regularum and many others in P. Martenne, De antiq. Mon. Rit. book 2, chapter 2. Rupert of Deutz, De Divinis Officiis, book 5, chapter 8; book 7, chapter 20 and 21.

[4] Durandus thought that the Sunday procession was meant to honor the Resurrection. He even believed that the Church had done it originally on both Sunday and Thursday, and that Pope Agapetus (d. 536) had limited it to the Sunday alone (Rationale IV.6.21). But this opinion is based on false sources. Suffice it to say that, in the 6th century, the procession took place on Sunday.

[5] Mark 14:28;16:7.

[6] At Agde before Matins, at Clermont in Auvergne after Matins, and at Saint-Quentin at the end of Prime.

[7] Item Dominico die vadunt cum antiphona et aqua sancta per singulas mansiones (Mabillon, Vetera Analecta. vol. 4. p. 456).

[8] Spicil. tom. 4, pg. 46.

[9] See the very ancient Ordinary of the Churches of Arras and of Cambrai, written around the end of the 10th century, in the time when these two dioceses were still united. It is printed with the Codex Canonum of M. Pithough, pg. 368. See also the Ordinary of Mont-Cassin written at the end of the 11th century, kept at the Institution de l’Oratoire de Paris. According to the Dominican Ordinary written in 1254, and the Statutes of the Carthusians printed in 1509, one of the brothers is assigned to make the aspersion of the cells and the places where the religious were assembled. This practice was broken off, apparently because of the difficulty of keeping stoups around everywhere.

[10] The same was also done at Saint-Quiriace de Provins ten or twelve years ago.

[11] Diebus Dominicis circa claustrum orationes privatae. In ingressu claustri: Omnipotens and misericors Deus… quaesumus immensam clementiam tuam, ut quidquid modo visitamus, visites, etc.

[12] Caeremoniale Monasticum, Tulli Leuc. (Laurent)(1695).

[13] Caerem. S. Mauri (Paris, 1680).

[14] It takes place after Prime at Metz, Verdun, Cambrai, Arras, Noyon, etc.

[15] This is said still at Narbonne, Châlons-sur-Marne, etc. But in the Ritual of Paris there are proper responses and orations for most Sundays.

[16] Ipse est qua itur, quo itur, et ubi permanetur (Augustine, Tractates on John).

5 thoughts on “On the Procession Before Mass

  1. There is a practice in some places in Portugal for the priest to come around during the Paschal Octave, if I recall correctly, and asperge the house of the faithful. If this is an offshoot of the practice described here, I don’t know.

    Liked by 1 person

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