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Monday, November 19, 2018

The Uniqueness of the Altar Missal

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The Uniqueness of the Altar Missal

Sometimes we are so accustomed to the presence of an object that we rarely consider its significance. This can certainly be said about the large book called the “missal” which we see on the altar at every Mass. Indeed, few Catholics perhaps—even priests who used it daily to offer the Holy Sacrifice—fully appreciate the importance of an altar missal.

It goes without saying, that Catholics should have a great affection for this book, especially as it provides the sacred prayers and rites intended for our sanctification. While much could be said on the spiritual treasures of the altar missal,[1] in this piece I will be focusing on some points about this liturgical book that have seldom been touched upon.

In particular, I intend to emphasize the Missale Romanum—the Roman Missal—which comprising the Mass of Rome, has for centuries been an especial hallmark of doctrinal purity. Indeed, the various altar missals of the Latin Church have not only contributed to the piety and holiness of countless saints, but have also promoted and maintained the unchanging Catholic Faith throughout the world.

missalea romanum

The Altar Missal: Exclusive to the West

For starters, the very concept of a missal as a liturgical book is unique to the Latin Church in the West, and has no equivalent in the Eastern Rites.[2] Indeed, even the name “missale” is distinctly Latin, being a variation of the word “Mass”—or missa—and derived from the phrase “Ite, missa est” (“Go, it is the dismissal”), which was once chanted by the deacon to the catechumens before the Offertory.

All of the Latin Rites (e.g., the Roman, Ambrosian, Dominican, Carmelite, Mozarabic, etc.) have an altar missal in their repertoire of liturgical books, and this is historical evidence to the unique Western development of the Low Mass form. Because essentially, the missal was born out of necessity about the 11th century when the celebrant required a single book containing the texts for offering the Holy Sacrifice. To better understand this point, let us briefly examine the development of Low Mass within the Latin Church.

The Practical Origin of the Altar Missal: Low Mass

In ancient times all Masses were sung and as seen at Solemn Mass, a division of books had been utilized according to the ministerial offices, that is: the Sacramentary for the celebrant, the Epistles and Gospels for the deacon and subdeacon, the Graduale for the schola[3] and even one for the master of ceremonies, called the Ordines.[4] Of course at Solemn Mass, only one priest offers the Holy Sacrifice, thus in larger communities such as monasteries, the number of Masses that could be offered each day in earlier times was rather limited, especially after the practice of concelebration ceased in the West.[5]

The original impetus for the development of Low Mass—offered by a priest with just an assisting acolyte—was the frequent requests for votive Masses. As can be seen in lay missals, a variety of such votive Masses are still preserved in the Missale Romanum, such as for rain, peace, in time of war, for traveling or going on pilgrimage, for the sick, the forgiveness of sins, and even a good death.

Later, the Western emphasis of priests offering a daily Mass further contributed to the permanency of the Low form, known as the missa recitata, as it tended to be spoken.[6] Another Latin term for Low Mass is missa privatis, a reference to its original use by a priest in a private chapel or at a side altar, thus generally without the presence of a congregation. In time though, particularly with the diminishing ability to have Solemn Masses offered on a daily basis, Low Mass became the more frequently used public rite of the Holy Sacrifice in the West.[7]

With the advent of Low Mass however, the celebrant required a single manual that compiled—or supplied—the parts of the absent sacred ministers (deacon and subdeacon) and schola; otherwise, the priest would be forced to impractically switch from book to book. Thus, the altar missal was eventually begotten, and is a testimony to the unique form of Low Mass that exists in the Latin Rites of the West. Whereas in the East, a spoken—or Low form—does not exist, as the Eastern Rite Divine Liturgies are sung (and usually include the use of incense) and so continue to adhere to the ancient division of liturgical books.

An Ark of the Latin Church

But the altar missal is much more than just a practical compilation of prayers and readings for the celebrant. As a book, the missale should be regarded as both a doctrinal and cultural ark of the Catholic Faith and the Latin Church.

ALtar missal

Concerning theology, the prayers contained in traditional altar missals have been frequently used to defend the Faith against error and heresy. In fact the first use of the famed axiom, “lex credendi, lex orandi”, was stated in the 5th century as: “Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi”—“let the law of prayer determine the law of faith”.[8]

Nearly fifteen hundred years later, the Council of Trent published several dogmatic canons regarding the mysteries of the Blessed Sacrament and the Holy Sacrifice, whose teachings had been admirably enshrined in the Roman Missal.

This integral connection between the dogma of the Catholic Church and the traditional Mass was clearly emphasized again by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani in 1969 when he stated that the Tridentine Canons “provided an insurmountable barrier to any heresy directed against the integrity of the Mystery.” This quote came from his foreword to “A Brief Critical Study of the New Order of the Mass”[9] sent to Pope Paul VI in opposition to the New Mass, which declared:

“... the Novus Ordo represents, both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Session XXII of the Council of Trent.”

Hence, in our present struggle against the errors of Modernism, we can also see how the prayers of the traditional altar missal continue to defend, maintain and promote the true Catholic Faith as in centuries past.

Treasury of Tradition and Scripture

The texts of the missal also enshrine the two pillars of the Church, Tradition (what has been transmitted orally) and Scripture (what has been written), and in this sense, the missal—as an official book of the Church—possesses a dignity second to the Bible.

While obviously the missal conveys the Good News through its varied readings and prayers from Sacred Scripture, the subject of Tradition should be further developed—particularly in the context of ecclesiastical culture—and thus again, why the Missale Romanum should possess a special place in the hearts and minds of Roman Catholics.

Connection with Sts. Peter and Paul, Holy Pontiffs, and Saints

Firstly, it is from the Mass of the Eternal City that the Roman Canon was derived and thereby used in every Latin Rite. This Canon—or ordering of prayers to be said (i.e., from the Te igitur to the Per ipsum prayers)—is the oldest part of the Mass and the Roman Church has always believed that many of its words were uttered by the first Bishop of Rome, St. Peter.

open missal

Also present is the phrase “Mysterium Fidei” of the other great Patron of Rome and Apostle to the Gentiles, St. Paul, having been added to the consecratory formula said by our Lord Jesus Christ during the Mass of the Last Supper.

We also know that numerous holy popes contributed to the composition and present-day arrangement of the prayers of the Roman Canon and other parts of the Mass. Furthermore, the missal contains a wealth of prayers composed by many eminent saints and inspired ecclesiastics (e.g., the propers for the Feast of Corpus Christi written by St. Thomas Aquinas).

Reservoir of Romanitas and of Religious Orders

Secondly, the Missale Romanum encapsulates the culture of romanitas (to be Roman)[10] through its ritualistic characteristics of logic, juridical sense of order, and practicality, and incorporation of other liturgical practices in a Roman mold. Of course, the most noticeable Roman element is the use of Latin whose heritage the Western Church has not only preserved, but even continued to develop, from its terse style of composition, to the hieratic form of Itala Vetus, the Vulgate of St. Jerome, and the poetic genius of Latinists.

As a last note about the ecclesiastical culture of the altar missal, there are some religious orders that have their own versions,[11] which not only celebrate the holy legacies of their particular patrons and saints, but even integrate the charism of their communities.

Practical Organization of the Altar Missal

The altar missal also has many material aspects to consider. The first concerns its internal organization, which is a marvel of practicality. This can be readily seen by reviewing a lay missal whose division of sections is nearly identical to the book used at the altar.

The most obvious example of the missal’s practical organization is how Masses from the Common of Saints section are shared by certain classes of saints to keep the book size to a minimum (thereby avoiding a 30lb tome!). Thus, many a saint that is a “Confessor Not a Bishop” uses the Mass titled Os Justi Meditabor (from the first words of its Introit).[12]

Self-Sufficiency for Mass

The missal is also ingeniously self-sufficient in providing the requisite information for properly offering the Holy Sacrifice. Hence, in addition to the prayers and chants needed by the celebrant to offer Mass, the missal has sections that provide the Roman Calendar, a Table of Moveable Feasts, how to astronomically reckon the date of Easter (per either the old Julian Calendar or the reformed Gregorian)[13], and among other decrees, the famed papal bull of St. Pius V, Quo Primum, which since 1570 has guaranteed the right of every Latin Rite priest to use the traditional Missale Romanum.

The missal also has various rubrical sections,[14] such as the Rubricae Generales or general rubrics (e.g., what vestment colors to use), the Ritus Servandus which provides some basic rules for the celebrant and other ministers (e.g., the deacon and subdeacon and even the acolytes), while a segment called De Defectibus offers guidelines for resolving defects that might occur during the celebration of Mass (e.g., discovering after pronouncing the words of consecration that the “wine” used was actually water ).

canon missae sede

There are even appendixes of excerpts from the Rituale Romanum (e.g., for the blessing and sprinkling of holy water, i.e., the Asperges) and the Pontficale Romanum (e.g., the Rite of Confirmation). Furthermore, the edition published by Benziger Brothers[15] features an inserted segment of the proper Masses observed in the dioceses of the United States in addition to the usual Pro Aliquibus Locis (For Some Places) section found in every missal.

Height of Workmanship in the Printing Industry

Concerning the publication of the traditional altar missal, we may say that it represents the highest achievement in the arts of the printing industry, namely of typography (i.e., the style and format of typesetting) and book manufacturing (i.e., its printing, binding and other accessories).

One of the most important—though often overlooked—practical aspects of the missal is its typography, that is, the design of the lettering (or fonts) and layout of its texts to enable a high degree of readability, especially in low light conditions or those with poor eyesight.

The typesetters of missals were masters at their trade, not only in the fonts they created (for which printers such as Benziger Brothers and Pustet had their own custom styles), but also in how they skillfully arranged and aligned the texts with a two-color process (red and black inks) using the old movable-type process (e.g., Linotype), which required the alignment of two separate plates of lead typeface—one for red and one for black.

As for the quality of the printing and binding, these were vastly superior to the average book of the day, from the utilization of fine paper to cover-binding skins of leather or sheep that were elegantly hand-tooled, die-stamped or embossed with decorative gilding. Deluxe editions of missals could include such special details as decorative clasps or five-color-process lithographs (the fifth color often a metallic ink, such as gold).

Of course, more recently-produced altar missals also practically featured marking ribbons of various colors and unique leather tabs that protrude from the pages of the Canon, thereby allowing the celebrant to turn the pages after the consecration without using his (now joined) thumb and index fingers.

Another feature found on almost every missal are gilded page edges (i.e., the exposed sides of the book block). This was not done merely as decoration, but also for a practical reason, namely to protect the paper pages from the long-term effects of humidity. As for the durability of these missals, this is readily attested by copies still in use at the altar today even after 50 years.

So much more could be said about the wonders of the missals of the Latin Rite, but time and space in this article is fleeting. Hopefully though, this brief examination will have stirred up a greater appreciation of the missale that humbly graces the altar and awaits the arrival of the priest to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass from its hallowed pages.



1 One outstanding work, is The Riches of the Missal by Benedictine Fr. Jean Vagaggini (Herder, 1949), while another is the Mind of the Missal by Fr. C.C. Martindale (Catholic Book Club, 1947). Unfortunately, both of these books are currently out of print though available secondhand.

2 For example, the Byzantine, Coptic, or Syrian Rites.

3 There were other books used by the schola as well, such as the Antiphonary, Cantorinus, and Kyriale, which have been compiled into the more commonly used book of today, the Liber Usualis.

4 Today the rubrics, or ceremonial rules, are found in the missal itself, the Caeremoniale Episcoporum (Ceremonial of Bishops), decrees of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, as well as explicated by numerous rubricians, such as Fortescue and J.B. O’Connell in English.

5 In the Latin Rite, concelebration occurs only in the context of priestly ordinations (by the ordinands in unison with the bishop) and episcopal consecrations (by the new bishops with the consecrating bishop). However, in the East, concelebration is still practiced, particularly in the Hierarchical Liturgy of bishops.

6 A sung variation of the Low Mass seems to have also been practiced early on, and this option still exists today, such as singing the Kyriale parts or even having the schola sing the propers. The main difference between Low Mass and High Mass (or missa cantata) is that the latter includes the use of incense and usually the entourage of servers seen at Solemn Mass (i.e., master of ceremonies, thurifer, acolytes and torchbearers).

7 In many religious orders, such as the Benedictines, it is presumed by their rules that the community—or conventual—Mass will be according to the Solemn form. This was also the practice in many collegial churches and cathedrals before the degradation of liturgical life that occurred in the West from the effects of the Protestant Reformation and the successive revolutionary social upheavals that convulsed Europe (e.g., the French Revolution). Other negative effects included the near-loss of the patrimony of Gregorian Chant, as well as the active participation of the faithful, which the popes of the 20th century—starting with St. Pius X—worked to restore. For more details, Divini Cultus of Pope Pius IX and Mediator Dei of Pius XII, as well as my past Remnant articles on the Dialogue Mass.

9 Written circa 440 by Prosper of Aquitaine as given in his book, The Defense of St. Augustine (cf. Patrologia Latina, Migne).

9 See here for the complete text of the “Ottaviani Intervention”. Readers may also be interested in my related August 2013 Remnant piece, “What About Those Six Protestants and the New Mass?”

10 On the vast importance and influence of the special character of romanitas (i.e., to be Roman), see my serialization of articles in Catholic Family News, “The Importance of the Roman Mass”.

11 Such as the Missale Romanum Seraphicum (for the Franciscans), Missale Cisterciense (Cistercians), Missale ad usum ordinis Praemonstratensis (Norbertines), Missale S. Ordinis Praedicatorum (Dominicans), Missale Monasticum (Benedictines), Missale Augustinianum (Augustinians), and Missale Carmelitarum (Carmelites).

12 For a more in-depth treatment of some organizational aspects of the missal, readers might be interested in my article on the Proper of Saints entry for St. Saturninus on November 29.

13 For more on the subject of the calendar reckoning of Easter, see this June 2015 Remnant article, “Will the Pope Fix the Date? (Why Easter is not ecumenical)”.

14 The full titles of these sections are: Rubricae Generales Missalis Romani, Ritus Servandus in Celebratione Missae, and De Defectibus in Celebratione Missarum Occurrentibus.

15 Available from Angelus Press.

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Last modified on Monday, November 19, 2018
Louis Tofari

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