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Hold the flower girls, please!

A brief treatise
on Blessed Sacrament processions
and some related issues

Louis J. Tofari

Corpus Christi procession from a manuscript

With the Feast of Christ the King around the corner, this is a convenient time to outline some problems often seen during processions with the Blessed Sacrament. But first, a few words of explanation about Eucharistic processions in general.

One of the hallmarks of Roman Catholicism is the manner in which Our Lord’s Real Presence is honored, particularly in the exposition, adoration, benediction and even public procession of the Sacred Host. A technical term for this type of procession is Theophoric from the joined Greek words of theos (God) and pherein (to carry).

The liturgical books (specifically the Missale Romanum, Rituale Romanum and Caeremoniale Episcoporum) list three occasions for processions with the Blessed Sacrament that can occur annually:

  • Holy Thursday

  • Corpus Christi

  • Forty Hours Devotion (if done)

    Technically there is a fourth, though this not actually a procession as we are dealing with here. I refer to the translation for the Communion rite during the Good Friday Solemn Afternoon Liturgy and Its replacement at the altar of the repose afterwards. This occurs practically for bringing the Hosts to the altar for Communion from Its place of reservation (as was done in olden days – thus harkening to a more ancient liturgical practice), but not to render specific honors to the Eucharist (as occurs on Holy Thursday). Hence, the participants in the translation are solely comprised of liturgical ministers and not of any assisting clergy and incense is not used.

As for the Eucharistic processions held after the evening Mass of Maundy Thursday (technically called a “translation”) and twice during the Forty Hours Devotion, these differ substantially from that of Corpus Christi, as the rubrics presume that the faithful will remain in their pews while the Blessed Sacrament is processed within the church.

For Corpus Christi though, the procession is intended to take place publicly outdoors. Interestingly though, while it is common today in a typical parish setting for the faithful to join in the procession following behind the monstrance, in olden times this was not done at all, except by the laity who were either dignitaries or belonged to a third order or confraternity. It was also more usual for a single procession to be held in each town or city, with the faithful lining the sides of the street. This not only imitates a modern-day parade, but more importantly, a royal or kingly procession.

Thus, the order of a Eucharistic procession imitates a secular royal procession, the difference being that the nobility’s usual place is taken by the clergy and the temporal king is the Everlasting One for Whom the gates are lifted up.

The basic order of a procession with the Blessed Sacrament is outlined in the Rituale Romanum (likewise the Missale Romanum and Caeremoniale Episcoporum), as well as some related rubrics.[1] Subsequently, these have been supplemented by decisions of the Sacred Congregation of Rites and the commentary of rubricians.

Because the Blessed Sacrament is being carried exposed, the rules for this type of procession differ slightly from non-Eucharistic processions, such as that of Palm Sunday, rogations, or one devoted to Our Lady or a saint. Here are some governing principles:

Blessed Sacrament procession formation diagram - Fortescue, 1934 edition

  • All reverences are given to the Blessed Sacrament.

  • Because Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Divine Logos, is in public view, mere representations are omitted.

  • The formation of the clergy with the Blessed Sacrament is treated as that of a liturgical function (in actu functionis).

As mentioned above, unfortunately there are some oft-seen practices during Blessed Sacrament processions which many considered as traditional, but are in fact actually abuses, or less than ideal, and here I provide a brief list with explanations.

Flower girls

They’re often seen during Eucharistic processions: little girls in white First Communion dresses frolicking amongst the clergy and servers while dropping red rose petals as they go. What could be cuteryet more incorrect.

It must be recalled that women cannot function as a liturgical ministerGod has reserved this privilege to men, and not even the Blessed Virgin Mary was dispensed from this rule of the natural order. As shown in the diagram, the area marked in red is considered part of a liturgical function, thus when women or girls intrude upon this space, e.g., to throw petals, they are then presuming to equate themselves with the clergy and even the liturgical ministers, which is prohibited by the Church.

Concerning this abuse, Dr. Adrian Fortescue remarks specifically in his classic rubrical work, The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described:

The Congregation of Rites toleratedin two special cases{5}the custom that children (boys) scatter flowers on the way; but it is a very undesirable practice. They may not walk among the clergy nor between the clergy and the celebrant carrying the Sanctissimum. [my emphasis] {ff 5: S.R.C. 3324, 3935, 1.see S.R.C. Appendix below for full texts of both rescripts}[2]

A further restriction applicable even to boys is given by Fr. P. Charles Augustine, O.S.B. in his book, Liturgical Law:

There should be no boys in surplice going around the altar strewing flowers, especially not during benediction.[3]

Banners and other images

Typically in processions, banners, images or statutes, and even saints’ relics are carried. However, this is not the case for a Eucharistic procession, where the Blessed Sacrament is intended to be the focal point:

No relics or statues of our Lord or the Saints are to be carried in the procession.[4]

There is one exception to this rule though: a banner bearing an image of the Blessed Sacrament may be carried at the head of the procession, but otherwise:

No other image may be carried in procession of the Blessed Sacrament (except the processional cross).[5]

Such a banner serves as an alert (or signread: billboard) that Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is approaching. Also, if there is a lay confraternity specifically devoted to the Blessed Sacrament, they would process behind this banner as a group (but ahead of the crossbearer who marks the boundary of the liturgical group).

How many thurifers

As every rubrician comments who deals with Corpus Christi and its Eucharistic Procession, the Sacred Congregation of Rites has ruled[6] that only two thurifers are allowed. In fact in the Roman Rite, normally only a single thurifer may be used during a procession, even for a bishop.

Thurifers: for the love of God, walk forward, not backwards!

It is rather mind-boggling to see a certain insistence on incensing with a concentrated set of 3 doubles while simultaneously attempting to walk backwards (gives a whole new meaning to “chewing gum and walking at the same time”!). I have witnessed at least one thurifer tripping on a protrusion and thus falling completely flat while irreparably damaging the thurible in the process. So not only is this method rather dangerous, but a fortiori it is neither Roman nor prescribed as noted by Fortescue in his aforementioned book:

There is no authority really for the practice of walking backwards and incensing the Sanctissimum all the time with repeated ductus duplex [the Latin term for 3 doublesEd.]. Gavanti mentions it, but dissuades from it (Pars IV, tit. viii, rubr. 9, n. 9, ed. Cit., I, p. 275). The Rituale Romanum (Tit. IX, cap. V, §3) clearly supposes that the thurifers walk in front swinging their thuribles. [my emphasis] So do the approved authors (Martinucci, I, ii, p. 205, §49; Le Vavasseur, ii, p. 80, §271). Nor is it graceful to walk backwards. Merati (Pars IV, tit. viii, §10; vol. I, p. 276) proposes an even stranger plan, that the thurifers walk sideways facing one another. By far the most dignified proceeding is that they walk straight, swinging the thuribles in the inner hands, as Martinucci and Le Vavasseur say.[7]

This informative footnote was replaced in later editions of Fortescue’s work with a simplified description in the body text instructing the thurifers to walk forward while continually swinging their thuribles with their inside handsof course, the ideal way is to swing the thuribles in sync.

After Fortescue’s untimely death, Rev. J.B. O’Connell took over the continual revising of his indispensable rubrical work, who in the 1962 edition added: “It is better to walk straight, not backwards or sideways”.[8]

Having addressed the most common offenses, a brief word on another related topic.

What about the Feast of Christ the King?

Parishes following the 1962 liturgical calendar often have a Eucharistic procession on the feast celebrating the Kingship of Christ which falls on the last Sunday of October. So it may surprise many to learn that such a Blessed Sacrament procession is nowhere prescribed in any liturgical book and thus not mentioned by any rubrician.[9]

Furthermore if a Eucharistic procession is held, what is prescribed for Corpus Christiconsecrating the Host to be used for the procession during the Mass, exposing It in the monstrance immediately after Communion and therefore observing the remainder of the Mass coram Sanctissimois not required on Christ the King. Also, it is not required on the Feast of Christ the King to have the Blessed Sacrament procession follow immediately after Mass; so it can be held at another time of the day if more convenient.

So on Christ the King the options exist to either:

  1. follow strictly the rubrics for Corpus Christi.

  2. or have the Mass celebrated as usual for a Sunday[10] with the Blessed Sacrament being exposed and carried in procession afterwards and independently of the Mass.[11]

I actually prefer (and recommend) method "b", as it dispenses with the special genuflecting rules prescribed for Mass coram Sanctissimo and has several other practical advantages.

Hopefully this brief treatise will be useful for understanding the ideal, law and mind of the Church concerning processions with the Real Presence of Christ here on earth, and thus help contribute to a diligent rendering of worthy honor and glory to Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament.


Footnotes

1 The order and specific rubrics for the Forty Hours Devotion is given in the Clementine Instruction, published as volume IV (Commentaria ad Instructionem Clementis XI pro Expositione SS. Sacramenti in Forma XL Horarum et Suffragia atque Adnotationes super Decretis Sacr. Rituum Congregationis) of rescripts of the Sacred Congregation of Rites.

2 The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described (1962 reprint - St. Austin Press, 1996), p 325.

3 Liturgical Law, Rev. P. Charles Augustine, O.S.B. (Herder, 1931), p 343.

4 The Book of Ceremonies, Very Rev. Laurence O’Connell (Bruce, 1958), p 505 and ff 63, citing SRC 1731, 1.

5 Fortescue (1996), p 327, ff 1.

6 S.R.C. rescript 3448, 9.

7 Fortescue (1934), p 311, ff 3.

8 Fortescue (1996), p 327, ff 5. It should be mentioned that in earlier revisions (e.g., 1958), J.B. O'Connell had originally added that the thurifers should walk straight ahead, but turned slightly inwards, that is towards each other and thus the Blessed Sacrament, but amended this latter.

9 The only mention for this feast day is by L. Connell (per ff 4) on pp 506-508, and that simply mentions all-day exposition of the Blessed Sacrament followed by Vespers and benediction.

10 NB: if the procession follows immediately after Mass, “Benedicamus Domino” replaces “Ite, missa est” and the Last Blessing and Last Gospel are omitted per Rubricae Generales Missalis Romani, (1962), IX; L: 507, a; because the Mass will be followed by a procession. Thus 508 (for the Last Blessing) and 510a (Last Gospel), which are dependent upon 507a.

11 When the procession is not held immediately after Mass, the concluding portions are as usual on a Sunday.


S.R.C. Appendix

3324 (5576):

Ordinis Minorum de Observantia

Rmus Pater hodiernus Superior Conventus Ordinis Minorum S. Francisci de Observantia in Civitate Hierosolymitana a Sacra Rituum Congregatione humiliter postulavit ut in Processione peragenda in solemnitate SSmi Corporis Christi admitti possint pueri, modo quo Angeli depingi solent, vestiti, quorum alii flores per viam spargant, alii fumigantes deferant thuribulos, alii uvam ac frumenti spicas in manibus gestent, quia id pergratum est spectatoribus cunctis non solum Catholicis sed Schismaticis et ipsis Turcis.

Sacra vero eadem Congregatio, audita relatione huiusmodi instantiae ab eiusdem Secretario facta, rescribere rata est: «Tam relate ad ritum, quam relate ad modum vestiendi, remittitur arbitrio Rmi D. Patriarchae Hierosolymitani». Atque ita rescripsit. Die 7 Februarii 1874.

3935

Westmonasterien

Eminentissimus et Rmus Dominus Cardinalis Erbertus Vaughan, Archiepiscopus Westmonasteriensis sequentium dubiorum solutionem a Sacra Rituum Congregatione humiliter postulaivt; nimirum:

Dubium I. An et quomodo admittendi sint pueri vel puellae in Processionibus SSmi Corporis Christi?

Ad I. «Arbitrio Eminentissimi Ordinarii; iuxta Decretum Ordinis Minorum S. Francisci de Observantia diei 7 Februarii 1874».

 
 
 

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