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Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

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To be found in almost every form of religious worship

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Processions, an element in all ceremonial, are to be found, as we should expect, in almost every form of religious worship. The example of the processions with the Ark in the Old Testament (cf. espec., II Kings, vi, and III Kings, viii) and the triumphant entry of our Savior into Jerusalem in the New were probably not without influence upon the ritual of later ages. Even before the age of Constantine, the funeral processions of the Christians seem to have been carried out with a certain amount of solemnity, and the use of the word by Tertullian (De Praeseriptio, xliii) may possibly have reference to some formal progress or movement of the faithful churchwards, which led afterwards to the assembly itself or the service being called processio as well as synaxis and collecta (Probst, “Sakramentarien und Ord.”, 205). About the time of St. Gregory the Great, and possibly earlier, two forms of procession played a great part in papal ceremonial. The one was the procession to the “Station”, the other the solemn entry of the celebrant from the secretarium, or sacristy, to the altar. A good description of the stational procession is given in the St. Amand Ordo, n. 6 (Duchesne, “Christian Worship“, 474). The pontiff, the clergy, and the people assembled in the appointed church, where the clergy vested and the office was begun. The poor people of the hospital went first with a painted wooden cross; the seven stationary crosses, with three candles each and a retinue, followed, and then the bishops, priests, and subdeacons; finally came the pope surrounded by his deacons, with two crosses borne before him and the schola cantorum or choir following behind him. As the procession moved along to the stational church where Mass was to be offered the Kyrie Eleison and the litanies were sung, from which the procession itself was often called litania. The solemn entrance of the celebrant as he proceeded from the sacristy to the altar was of course a procession on a smaller scale, but this also is minutely described in the first “Ordo”. The pontiff was again surrounded by his deacons and preceded by the subdeacons, one of whom swung a thurible, and a conspicuous feature was the group of seven acolytes carrying tapers, which make us think of the seven candles now lighted on the altar at a pontifical High Mass. In this procession to the altar the antiphon of the introit was sung. On certain special occasions, notably St. Mark’s Day (April 25), which coincided with the old Roman festival of the Robigalia, and in Gaul on the three Rogation Days before the feast of the Ascension, there were processions of exceptional solemnity (see Litany).

Although not now formally recognized as a procession in the liturgical books, we may say that the sprinkling of the congregation with holy water at the beginning of the parochial Mass on Sundays preserves for us the memory of the most familiar procession of the early Middle Ages. The rite is prescribed in the Capitularies of Charlemagne and of Louis the Pious, as well as in other ninth-century documents. For example a Council of Nantes before the year 900 enjoins that “every Sunday before Mass, each priest is to bless water in a vessel which is clean and suitable for so great a mystery, for the people to be sprinkled with when they enter the church, and let him make the round of the yard [atrium] of the said church with the [processional] crosses, sprinkling it with the holy water, and let him pray for the souls of them that rest therein” (Mansi, “Concilia”, XVIII, 173). In the monastic ceremonials of the same period this holy water procession on the Sunday morning was usually described in much detail. After the sprinkling of the high altar and of the other altars of the church in order, the whole body of the monks, after being sprinkled themselves, went in procession through the cloister, making stations there, while the celebrant assisted by two lay brothers blessed the different portions of the monastery (see Marténe, “De antiq. eccles. IV, 46-9). At the present day the Roman Missal, which is the primary liturgical authority for this “Blessing of the people with holy water to be imparted on Sundays” (Benedictio populi cum aqua benedicta diebus dominicis impertienda), says nothing about a procession, though some such progress of the celebrant and assistant clerks around the church very commonly takes place. The rubric only directs that the priest having intoned the antiphon “Asperges me” is to sprinkle the altar and then himself and his assistants. After which he is to sprinkle the clergy and the people, while he recites the Miserere with his assistants in a low voice. The other ordinary processions, as opposed to the extraordinary processions, which the bishop may enjoin or permit as circumstances may call for such a form of public supplication, are specified in the Roman Ritual to be the Procession of Candles on the Purification of our Lady (February 2), that of Palms or Palm Sunday, the greater litanies on the feast of St. Mark (April 25), the Rogation processions on the three days before the Ascension, and the procession of the Blessed Sacrament on the feast of Corpus Christi. The prescriptions to be observed on all these occasions are duly set down in the Roman Ritual. For their history etc., see Candlemas; Feast of Corpus Christi; Holy Week; Litany. etc. We might also add to these “ordinary” processions the carrying of the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose on Maundy Thursday and the return on Good Friday, as well as the visit to the font on Holy Saturday and the procession which forms part of the rite of the consecration of the holy oils in cathedral churches on Maundy Thursday. This latter function is described in full in the Roman Pontifical. In earlier times a series of processions were usually made to the font after Vespers upon every day of Easter week (Morin in “Rev. benedict.”, VI, 150). Traces of this rite lingered on in many local churches down to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it finds no official recognition in the Roman service books.

Under the heading of “extraordinary” processions the Roman Ritual makes provision for the following emergencies: a procession to ask for rain, another to beg for fine weather, a third to drive away storms, three others assigned respectively to seasons of famine, plague, and war, one more general on occasion of any calamity (pro quacunque tribulatione), one rather lengthy form (in which a number of the Jubilate and Laudate psalms are indicated for recitation) by way of solemn thanksgiving, and finally a form for the translation of important relics (reliquiarum insignium). In the majority of these extraordinary processions it is directed that the Litany of the Saints be chanted as in the Rogation processions, a supplication special to the occasion being usually added and repeated, for example in the procession “to ask for rain” the petition is inserted: “Ut congruentem pluviam fidelibus tuis concedere digneris. Te rogamus audi nos”. In the medieval rituals and processionals a large variety of such exceptional forms may be found, connected especially with supplications for the produce of the earth. A common feature in many of these was to make a station towards the four points of the compass and to read at each the beginning of one of the four Gospels with other prayers. The practice of carrying the Blessed Sacrament upon such occasions is frequently condemned in medieval synods. In England the perambulation of the parishes on the “Gang days”, as the Rogation days were called, lasted far into the seventeenth century. Aubrey, for example, declares in a pencil note to his “Remains”: “On Rogation Days the Gospells were read in the cornfields here in England untill the Civill wars” (Hazlitt, “Faiths and Folklore”, II, 478). The custom of making these processions was kept up seemingly with a view to its utility in impressing upon the memory the boundaries of the parish, and in some places boys were flogged at the boundaries that they might remember the spot in old age. In the Greek and some other Oriental liturgies the two processions known as the great and little entrances form a very imposing feature of the rite. At the “little entrance” the Book of the Gospels is carried in by the deacon accompanied by acolytes bearing torches and two fans. The “great entrance” takes place when the holy gifts, i.e. the bread and wine, are solemnly brought to the altar while the choir sing the famous “cherubic hymn”. Similar features seem to have existed in the early Gallican Liturgy; even in the Roman high Mass the procession which heralds the singing of the Gospel is probably the survival of a more imposing ceremony of earlier date.


PROCESSIONAL CROSS.—A processional cross is simply a crucifix which is carried at the head of a procession, and which, that it may be more easily seen, is usually mounted upon a long staff or handle. From an archaeological point of view this subject has already been briefly dealt with under The Cross and Crucifix. It will suffice to note here that the processional cross does not essentially differ from what may be called the cross of jurisdiction which is borne before the pope, his legates, and metropolitans or archbishops. The pope is entitled to have the cross borne before him wherever he may be; a legate’s cross is used only in the territory for which he has been appointed, and that of an archbishop within the limits of his province. All these crosses, including that of the pope, have in practice only one bar. The double-barred cross is a sort of heraldic fiction which is unknown in the ceremonial of the Church. It is supposed that every parish possesses a cross of its own and that behind this, as a sort of standard, the parishioners are marshalled when they take part in some general procession. It is usual also for cathedral chapters and similar collegiate bodies to possess a processional cross which precedes them in their corporate capacity; and the same is true of religious, for whom usage prescribes that in case of the monastic orders the staff of the cross should be of silver or metal, but for the mendicant orders, of wood. In the case of these crosses of religious orders, confraternities, etc. it is usual in Italy to attach streamers to a sort of penthouse over the crucifix, or to the knob underneath it. When these crosses are carried in procession the figure of Christ faces the direction in which the procession is moving, but in the case of the papal, legatine, and archiepiscopal crosses the figure of our Savior is always turned towards the prelate to whom it belongs. In England, during the Middle Ages, a special processional cross was used during Lent. It was of wood, painted red and had no figure of Christ upon it. It seems probable that this is identical with the “vexillum cinericium” of which we read in the Sarum processional.

PROCESSIONAL CANOPIES.—As, according to the requirements of the Caeremoniale Episcoporum, the altars of a church and especially the high altar should be covered by a baldacchino and the bishop’s throne etc. should be honored with the same mark of respect, so canopies are used in processions and solemn receptions not only for the Blessed Sacrament but also under certain circumstances for bishops, legates, and princes of the blood royal. The principal occasions on which a bishop has the right to use a canopy are at his solemn reception in his own cathedral city, and when he makes his first pastoral visitation to any town or parish within his jurisdiction the Caeremoniale Episcoporum (I, ii, 4) directs that in these receptions the bishop is to ride on horseback wearing his mitre, and under a canopy which is in the first instance to be carried by some of the principal magistrates of the town. Excepting in the rare case of separate portions of the True Cross or of the instruments of the Passion, relics borne in procession are not to be carried under a canopy. In processions’ of the Blessed Sacrament the color of the canopy must always be white. For transporting the Blessed Sacrament from one altar to another or for taking the Holy Viaticum to the sick, it is customary in many places, e.g. in Rome, to use an umbella, or ombrellino, as it is called in Italian, which is simply a small canopy with a single staff.

PROCESSIONAL BANNERS.—Processional banners have also been in common use in the Church since medieval times. In England before the Reformation they are frequently referred to, though it does not seem clear that these vexilla were floating draperies, such as we are now accustomed to understand by the name. The woodcuts which appear in some early editions of the Sarum Processional rather suggest a rigid frame of wood or metal. In the Rogation processions and some others two special vexilla were carried, representing the one a lion, the other a dragon (Rock, “The Church of Our Fathers”, 1904, IV, 292). The use of a number of richly embroidered banners in religious processions of all kinds is now customary in most parts of the Church, but the Rituale Romanum (tit. IX, cap. i, 4, 5) seems to contemplate only a single banner. “At the head of the procession let a cross be carried, and where the custom obtains a banner adorned with sacred devices (sacris imaginibus insignitum), but not made in a military or triangular shape”.

PROCESSIONAL HYMNS.—We may recognize a particular class of hymns which in the early Middle Ages were specially composed to be sung in processions, as distinct from the breviary hymns. These processional hymns were nearly always provided with a refrain. England was specially rich in such hymns, and several are to be found in the Sarum Processional. In the Roman liturgy we still retain the “Gloria, laus et honor” sung in the procession on Palm Sunday, and in the ceremony of the consecration of the oils on Maundy Thursday we have the hymn “O Redemptor, sume carmen temet concinentium”. Both these have a refrain, as has also the Easter hymn “Salve festa dies”, which in different forms appears in the Processionals of both Sarum and York. The hymns “Vexilla Regis” and “Pange lingua”, though sung in processions, lack a refrain and are less properly processional hymns.


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