Lebrun on the Procession to the Altar

Article VII

Leaving the Sacristy and Going to the Altar
(from Pierre Lebrun’s Explanation)


The priest, clothed in all his vestments, preceded by the minister in surplice carrying the Missal, walks from the sacristy to the altar, with his head covered, with eyes downcast, in a dignified manner, and with his body erect.


1) The priest goes from the sacristy to the altar. The Roman Ordines up to the thirteenth century indicate that the celebrant, including a bishop or pope, first goes to the sacristy for preparation and vesting, then goes in procession to the altar.[1] In most of the cathedral churches of France, on solemn days, this procession is very impressive.[2] The authors writing from the ninth century to the end of the thirteenth[3] have regarded the celebrant, preceded by the deacons, subdeacons, and other ministers as an image of Christ entering the world preceded by the prophets, or even by the Apostles in their missions, while the music sung by the choir expresses the sentiments of the people attending the Mass. It is only beginning in the 14th century that this procession is sometimes suppressed, and when the Roman Order of Cajetan notes an alternative to the sacristy or sanctuary as the place where the bishops vested.[4] As for priests, they must always vest in the sacristy, except when he is in a chapter where the absence of a sacristy makes it necessary to vest at the altar.

Lyon Procession 1.jpg

2. He walks in a dignified manner. The intention of the Church is that the grave and modest manner with which the priest walks from the sacristy to the altar should announce the great action that he is about to perform.

3. The priest walks with his head covered. Seven or eight centuries ago it was always the custom to go to the altar with the head uncovered. This custom has been preserved in many churches: at Trier, Toul, Metz, Verdun, Sens, Laon, and Tournay the celebrant and ministers go to the altar with heads bared. In Cambrai, the priest alone is covered with the hood of an almuce, and among the Premonstratensians by a square biretta; the deacon and subdeacon who accompany him are uncovered, which is generally the custom for the inferior ministers and the children of the choir.

For several centuries, as a matter of our local custom, it has become a mark of authority and preeminence to be the only one covered in an assembly. As he goes to the altar vested in the priestly garments, the priest is vested also with the authority of Christ and the Church to offer the Holy Sacrifice. He has the preeminence over the whole assembly. He does not greet anyone and does not uncover himself except to genuflect when he passes before an altar where the Holy Sacrament is exposed, or the Elevation is taking place, or communion is being given. The only thoughts that occupy him are of Christ his master, and he only uncovers when he sees him.

Lyons Procession 2.jpg

4. He is preceded by a minister, because it is fitting that he doesn’t walk alone, clothed as he is with the sacred vestments. At least one minister is required to make the responses, because the Church forbids him to say the Mass alone.[5] The councils foresee that there be at least one person with him to represent the people who together with the priest form the assembly of the faithful. For the Mass is that which it was anciently called, the Synax, i.e. the Assembly. Therefore it is very fitting that when the priest says such holy and efficacious prayers as those of the Mass, we should observe what Christ said when he promised his presence among us: If two or more are gathered in my name….[6]

By a minister in surplice. The Rubric is referring to nothing more than what has been ordered expressly by the councils of the last five or six centuries, which prescribe that this minister should be a cleric wearing a vestment suitable for the altar. We may even add that it is only by toleration that a simple cleric is allowed to approach the altar. If we go back to antiquity, we find that the deacon, who is the priest’s minister properly speaking, had to accompany him to celebrate the Holy Mysteries even in a Low Mass without ceremony. During the time of persecutions, St. Cyprian sent priests into the prisons, and though he made sure they did not go there in groups,[7] to avoid making noise or being refused entry, nevertheless he ordered that the priests who went there to say Mass should always been accompanied by a deacon.[8] St. Laurence was speaking about the practice of the deacon’s assisting at Mass when he said to Pope Sixtus, as he went to his martyrdom: Where, holy priest, are you hastening without your deacon? Never were you wont to offer sacrifice without an attendant.[9]

In later times such a great number of Masses were said that it was not possible for each priest to be accompanied by a deacon. But the councils have dictated that the minister who takes the place of the deacon must be a tonsured cleric vested in a surplice. This is stated expressed in the Statues of Paris by Eudes of Sully (1200),[10] in the Council of Oxford (1222),[11] and in many others.[12] The Council of Aix (1585) orders that in churches that do not have the means to maintain a cleric, the priest should not say Mass without having obtained the written permission of the bishop.[13] Finally, the Council of Avignon (1594) prescribes that no layman should serve the Mass except in case of necessity.[14] This council is the last to have explained this rubric. Every church, therefore, must ensure that each Mass is celebrated with a cleric, if possible; or, as is done in some places by young boys of mature character, vested like clerics. If it is necessary to make use of a layman, it is at least desirable that one choose a person whose modesty and piety will inspire respect.

Carrying the Missal. At present, the cleric does not carry the Missal unless it is not on the altar already. It is put there for the High Mass and in this case the Rubric does not require the subdeacon to carry it. But according to all the ancient Roman Ordines[15] and Amalarius,[16] the celebrant always leaves the sacristy preceded by the book of the Gospels, carried with great respect. We find this practice still observed in many cathedrals, where the uncovered subdeacon carries the book and presents it to the priest to be kissed before the Mass. The Missal of Paris[17] simply indicates that on solemn feasts the subdeacon should give the book to the priest to be kissed as he arrives at the altar. The practice is to be recommended, according to which the book is always carried with respect before the priest, since it contains the power that Christ gave to priests to celebrate the Mass, saying: Do this in memory of me; hoc facite, etc.


[1] Cum vero ecclesiam introierit pontifex, non ascendit continuo ad altare, sed prius intrat in secretarium (OR I; II; III). Intrat sacrarium… et processionaliter vadunt ad altare sicut est moris (OR XII).

[2] In the church of Lyon, the archbishop is accompanied by more than forty ministers. At

[3] Amalarius 5.5; Alcuin De Divinis Officiis; Rupert 1.28; Gemma Animae 1.84.

[4] Quod si pontifex juxta altare induatur, non oportet huiusmodi processionem fieri (OR XIV).

[5] The Council of Mayence (813), c. 43. The Capitularies of France 5.159; the Council of Paris (829) 1.4; Pope Leo IV (850); the Constitutions of Riculfe of Soissons (889); and the Council of Nantes, in Buchard 3.68 and Yves of Chartres 3.70 expressly forbid the priest to say Mass alone. It is true that permission has sometimes been granted to solitaries and even to cenobitic monks, as we see in the Capitularies attributed to Theodore of Canterbury, ch. 49 of Spicil. and in Stephen of Autun de Sacram. Allar. ch. 13. But the Council of Nantes ordered this abuse abolished. Pope Alexander III also decreed that the priest can not say Mass alone (Decret. 1.17 proposuit) and it appears that it has not been tolerated since the 13th century.

[6] Matthew 18.19 and 20.

[7] Caute et non glomeratim.

[8] Ita ut presbyteri quoque qui illic apud Confessores offerunt, singuli cum singulis diaconis per vices alternent (Cypr. epist. 5).

[9] Ambrose, De Officiis, 1.41.214.

[10] Nulli clerico permittatur servire altari, nisi in superpellicis aut cappa clausa (Synod. Eccles. Paris. ch. 7).

[11] Ut qui altari ministrant, superpelliciis induantur (Concil. Exon., ch. 10).

[12] Concil. Nemaus. (1298); Council. Bud. (1279), ch. 22; Synod. Colon. (1280); Conc. Lameth. (1330).

[13] Sacerdos ne se conferat ad altare, nisi clericum in decenti habitu, et cum superpellicio mundo cum manicis sibi inservientem habuerit. Quibus vero in locis propter inopiam clericus ita commode haberi non poterit, caveat ne celebret absque huiusmodi clerico, nisi facultatem ab episcopo in scriptis impetraverit (Conc. Aqu. tit. de celebratione Missae).

[14] Laicus, si fieri potest, nullo modo ministret Altari (Tit. 23).

[15] OR I; OR II; OR III.

[16] 3.5

[17] 1685 and 1706

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