Pierre Lebrun: On the Priest's Preparation

(This article is cross-posted on Canticum Salomonis and is taken from Pierre Lebrun's 1716 Explication littérale historique et dogmatique des prières et des cérémonies de la Messe)


On the Priest’s Preparation as Noted in the Rubrics

Exclusion from the Garden of Eden, Masaccio

Explanation of the Word RUBRIC

The name Rubrics refers to directions written in red characters. The word comes from ancient Roman Law, in which titles, rules, or important decisions were written in red.[1]Read through the red-lettered laws of our forefathers,” said Juvenal,[2] which means the rubrics of the law according to an ancient Scholiast. In the same way we speak of the rubrics of the Mass, the rules that prescribe the manner of saying it, because in fact they are commonly written in red in order that they may be better distinguished. In former times these rules were only written in particular books, called Directories, Rituals, Ceremonials, or Ordinaries. The ancient missal manuscripts and even the first printed ones contain almost no rubrics. Burchard,[3] Master of Ceremonies under the popes Innocent VIII and Alexander VI at the end of the 15th century, is the first to have included them alongside the order and ceremonies of the Mass — in the Pontifical printed at Rome for the first time in 1485, and in the Sacerdotal printed some years later and reprinted under Leo X.[4] The ceremonies of the Ordinary of the Mass were added in some Missals; and Pope Pius V, in 1570 caused them to be placed in the order and under the headings that we see today in the front of our Missals. This is the precious source of the rubrics. We will relate them all exactly and in their order, in each case noting the meaning and discovering the origins, and at the same time we will explain the prayers.

First Rubric

The Personal Preparation of the Priest

The priest celebrating the Mass, after making a sacramental confession if necessary, and after reciting at least Matins and Lauds, should take a little time for prayer, using some of the prayers below. He takes the Missal, locates the Mass texts, washes his hands, and prepares the chalice.[5]


1) The priest makes his confession, if necessary. This rule follows from the precept of the Apostle, who said: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”[6] “But what a crime is theirs on the one hand,” says Firmilien in his letter to St. Cyprian, “who receive, or on the other, theirs who are received, that their foulness not being washed away by the layer of the Church, nor their sins put away, communion being rashly seized, they touch the body and blood of the Lord, although it is written, Whosoever, etc.”[7] These maxims were not neglected at Carthage, where St. Cyprian speaks of those men full of faith and charity “who, although bound by no crime of sacrifice to idols or of certificate, yet, since they have even thought of such things, with grief and simplicity confess this very thing to God's priests, and make the conscientious avowal, put off from them the load of their minds, and seek out the salutary medicine even for slight and moderate wounds.”[8] The Council of Trent[9] has distinctly indicated to priests and the faithful what they must observe regarding Confession in order to participate in the holy Mysteries; and these rules are found in many particular councils before and after the Council of Trent.[10]

2) After having said Matins and Lauds. Long vocal prayers have always been said before the holy Sacrifice with the view of exciting those desires which, as St. Augustine says, produce a greater effect the more they are stirred up in advance.[11] The night vigils and early morning prayers, so ancient a practice among Christians, were regarded as a fitting disposition for the Eucharist. When St. Athanasius was obliged to flee into exile, he was at that moment celebrating the Vigils in the church, because he was about to perform the Synax, i.e. the assembly for the Sacrifice.[12] For the same reason we find the long vigils of Saturday in Cassian,[13]and that prolongation of prayers on Sunday morning, when the monks assisted at Mass and communicated. Now, Matins and Lauds are the Office of the night and the morning. Matins was once called Vigils, the Nocturne or Nocturnes, because they were said at night. We know that for at least 1100 years without interruption this Office has been said at night in the Church of Paris;[14] we do not know when this practice began, but it was once very common.[15] But because for many centuries the majority of the churches said the Nocturne in the morning, they came to be called Matins.[16] Thus the Council of Rouen in 1256 orders that priests and chaplains should say Matins during the night; and the chapter of the cathedral of Troyes, in 1364, states that we shall continue to chant Matins at midnight.[17] With regard to Lauds, it was the office of dawn, which is clearly indicated in Gregory of Tours in the middle of the 6th century, who wrote concerning the time to say it and noted the Psalms and Chapter of which it is still composed.[18] Thus, since these offices were a first preparation for the holy Sacrifice, many councils[19] legislated just as our rubric, that Mass should not be said before the office of night and morning which is Matins and Lauds. Some ancient churches have so rigorously maintained this rule that the office is a preparation for the holy Sacrifice, that at St. Etienne de Bourges, the Archbishop is not allowed to officiate at the Mass on the days assigned to him if he has noted assisted at First Vespers, Matins, and Lauds. It is the same at Boulogne. This is observed also at Notre-Dame de Paris, as long as indisposition or business do not impede the archbishop from going to the night office after having officiated at Vespers. This is also the custom of Auxerre. In Lyon and Vienne the archbishop must ask for a dispensation from the chapter.

The rubric adds at least, because it has often been prescribed to say Prime,[20] and even Terce[21] before the Mass, and because one would regularly have said the Hours that precede the time when one says Mass, which is to say, Prime and Terce if it is said at 9 o’clock, and even Sext if it is said around midday.

3) The priest takes a little time for prayer. Mental prayer should always be joined to vocal prayer, which is useful insofar as it is recollected, and recollection can be strengthened by a simple attention to one’s unworthiness and to the grandeur of the mysteries. Lest the tumult of the world should pose an obstacle to recollection, certain cathedral and collegiate churches have recommended that the priest whose turn it is to officiate during a particular week should spend the whole time in retreat.[22] On Saturday evening, the whole choir would lead him in procession to a separate apartment set aside for this purpose, from which he would not leave except for the Mass and the other offices. Cardinal Jiménes observed this retreat. In some places the deacon and subdeacon were also obliged to the same retreat. Two learned ecclesiastics who have researched the ancient customs of that church, under the direction of M. Fouquet the Bishop of Agde, have noted that the weekly deacon and subdeacon scrupulously observed this retreat during their week and never left the chapter house, in which they each had a separate room.

But little remains of these very edifying practices. Currently at the Abbey of Saint-Claude, the hebdomarius does not leave the cloister and during the week he observes the abstinence from meat that the whole community formerly kept.[23] Those priests whom circumstances constrain to living the common life and attending to many affairs should often groan and beg of God the gift of that recollection that befits the Holy Sacrifice.

4) He says the prayers. The ancient author who wrote under the name of St. Denys the Areopagite[24] speaks about particular inspirations that the bishop St. Carpus received during the preparatory prayers before the holy Mysteries. And St. Maximus[25] and St. Pachymeres[26] who have commented on this text understand these prayers to be private prayers the priest makes in order to dispose himself to approach the altar with purity and fervor. It has been eight or nine hundred years that we have placed these kinds of prayers in the front of Sacramentaries or Missals. The Micrologus (around 500) noted the first four Psalms[27] of the preparation that he say in the Missals, Breviaries, and all the parish registers. One hundred years previously, the Sacramentary of Trèves (written in the 10th century) only notes the first three, but it places them after lengthy Litanies of the Saints, and these Litanies were said by the whole choir at Solemn Masses.[28] This is still observed in the Cathedral of Cambrai, where every day the whole choir sings the Litanies on their knees before Mass, and in Barcelona, where they are recited.[29] One does not find precisely the same Psalms and the same prayers in all the ancient books, and the Church leaves it to the devotion and preference of the priest to choose the prayers that he judges the most appropriate to nourish his faith and piety.

5) He locates the Mass texts, so that he may understand them and say them well, and cause no tedium to the assistants by searching around in the book.

6) He washes his hands. It is a maxim of all times and of all peoples, to wash the hands before the Sacrifice. The Old Law ordered it expressly[30] and Christians have never neglected this practice. St. Cyril of Jerusalem says[31] that it is common knowledge that the ministers of the altar do not approach without having first washed their hands. “Would you dare to approach the Sacrifice without washing your hands?,” asks St. Chrysostom in his homilies to the people of Antioch;[32] and St. Augustine,[33] or rather St. Cesarius,[34] also says that all men take care to wash their hands in order to receive the Eucharist. Respect alone inspires this propriety, but the Church has it principally in view to inspire, by this exterior ablution, the interior purity that she asks for in the special Oration said while washing the hands.

7) He prepares the chalice himself, or causes it to be prepared by some other person, as the Rubric of the Missal of Paris remarks. It is also sufficient if everything necessary for the oblation is placed on the altar at the Offertory, as is done in Solemn Masses. But in Low Masses, as the priest has neither deacon or subdeacon and might need something at the time of the oblation, it is more appropriate that before he begins the Mass he carries the prepared chalice to the altar along with a bread on the paten.

Cleansing the Temple.jpg

[1] Quintillian, book 2, chapter 3, Prudentius contra Symm.
[2] Causas age, perlege rubras Majorum leges (Satyr. XIV).
[3] See the Preface of Patricio, Bishop of Pienza, in the first Pontifical printed in Rome in 1485, his letter to Innocent VIII in 1488, and the Prefaces of the Sacerdotal and Pontifical under Leo X.
[4] Ordo Missae compositus per Reverendum Patrem Dominum Joannem Burcardum, olim Magistrum ceremoniarum S. R. Ecclesiae… Ordo servandus per Sacerdotes in celebratione Missae sine cantu et sine Ministris, secundum ritum S. R. Ecclesiae. Sacerdotale, trac. 4. ch. 8, p. 66.
[5] Sacerdos celebraturus Missam, praevia Confessione sacramentali, quando opus est, et saltem matutino cum laudibus absoluti, orationi aliquantulum vacet; et orationes inferius positas pro temporis opportunitate dicat. Deinde accedit ad locum in Sacristia, vel alibi praeparatum, ubi paramenta, aliaque ad celebrationem necessaria habentur: accipit missale, perquirit Missam, perlegit, et signacula ordinat ad ea, quae dicturus est. Postea lavat manus, dicens orationem inferior positam. Deinde praeparat calicem (Rubricae, Tit. 1, n. 1).
[6] 1 Cor 11:27.
[7] Quale delictum est…. ut non ablutis per Ecclesiae lavacrum sordibus, nec peccatis expositis, usurpata temere communicatione contingant corpus et sanguinem Domini, cum scriptum sit: Quicunque, etc. (Inter Ep. Cyprian. 75).
[8] Cyprian On the Lapsed.
[9] Session 13, chapter 7.
[10] Conc. Colon. (1280); Lingonense (1404); Carnotense (1526), chapter 26. Parisiense (1557), chapter 1. Burdigalense (1582), chapter 6. Remense (1583), chapter 4. Birturicense (1584), chapter 89. Aquense (1585), chapter 7.
[11] Ideo per certa intervalla horarum et temporum etiam verbis rogamus Deum, ut...ad hoc augendum nos ipsos acrius excitemus. Dignior enim sequentur effectus quem ferventior praecedit affectus (Epistle 130 ad Probam).
[12] Socrat. Hist. Eccles. book 2, chapter 8.
[13] Book 3, chapter 8 and 11.
[14] Venantius Fortunatus, Vita S. Germani and book 2, Carmen 10.
[15] Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, book 9, chapter 6.
[16] The Customary of the Carthusians written by Guigues, fifty Prior-General, which are the first Statues of the order, called the night office Matins, apparently because they said Lauds at the same time, and the new Missals and Breviaries of Paris call them Nocturnes in order to use the terminology of antiquity.
[17] Camuzat, Promptuarium sacrum antiquitatum Trecassinae diocesis.
[18] De Vitis Patrum, chapter 6. (Ed.: See here, page 63).
[19] Synodus Parisiensis. Eudes. de Sully.. Innocent IV, epist. 40. Concilium Nemaus (1284). Concilium Lingonense (1444). Senonense (1524).
[20] Synodus Coloniensis (1280). Synodus Exoniensis (1287), chapter 21. Synodus Parisiensis, p. 7.
[21] Ibid., pag. 343.
[22] See the book entitled: Pratiques de Piete pour honorer le saint Sacrement (1683), part. 28, where it is said that in the cathedral Church of Rouen the ancient canons observed this ceremony, against the efforts of certain young people, pg. 86. But this has not been observed for many years.
[23] Among the Carthusians where the cloister and abstinence are still kept, the hebdomarius adds to these practices that of reciting the Passion of Jesus Christ. At Paris he does this in a stole at the foot of the Altar before beginning Mass, in order to bring to the altar a spirit entirely occupied with the mysteries of the Sacrifice of our Savior (Consuetudines Carthusianeses, Paris).
[24] Epistle 8, p. 790.
[25] In Dionysium, pg. 319.
[26] Page 279.
[27] Quam dilecta, Benedixisti, Inclina, Credidi.
[28] The Carthusians in Paris also say them on ferial days..
[29] They stopped singing them around 36 years ago at Tournai. At Noyon, during the procession which was made on Sunday before the Mass, the children of the choir chanted the Litanies at the altar. This seems to have been established in order to shorten the office. At Metz there is the custom of chanting the Litanies of the Saints on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays of Lent after Sext. The whole choir begin them on their knees before the altar, then continue them during the procession and end them in the church. At Toulon, on the first Sunday of each month, they are also begin in choir, and continued during the procession until the moment when they re-enter the church.
[30] Exodus 30:18.
[31] Mystagogical Catechesis, 5.
[32] Homily 3 in Epist. ad Ephesios.
[33] Sermon 229
[34] Sermon 52

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