Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback


Consecrated term for the rules concerning Divine service or the administration of the sacraments

Click to enlarge

Rubrics .—I. Idea.—Among the ancients, according to Columella, Vitruvius, and Pliny, the word rubrica, rubric, signified the red earth used by carpenters to mark on wood the line to follow in cutting it; according to Juvenal the same name was applied to the red titles under which the jurisconsults arranged the announcements of laws. Soon the red color, at first used exclusively for writing the titles, passed to the indications or remarks made on a given text. This custom was adopted in liturgical collections to distinguish from the formulae of the prayers the instructions and indications which should regulate their recitation, so that the word rubric has become the consecrated term for the rules concerning Divine service or the administration of the sacraments. Gavanti said that the word appeared for the first time in this sense in the Roman Breviary printed at Venice in 1550, but it is found in MSS, of the fourteenth century, such as 4397 of the Vatican Library, fol. 227-28; see also the fifteenth-century “Ordo Romanus” of Peter Amelius. The word is used sometimes to indicate the general laws, sometimes to mark a particular indication, but always to furnish an explanation of the use of the text, hence the saying: Lege rubrum si vis intelligere nigrum (read the red if you would understand the black). Thus in liturgical books the red characters indicate what should be done, the black what should be recited, and the Rubrics may be defined as: the rules laid down for the recitation of the Divine Office, the celebration of Mass, and the administration of the sacraments. In some respects the rubrics resemble ceremonies, but they differ inasmuch as the ceremonies are external attitudes, actions considered as accidental rites and movements, while the Rubrics bear on the essential rite.

II. Kinds.—Writers distinguish between the rubrics of the Breviary, the Missal, and the Ritual, according as the matter regulated concerns the Divine Office, the Mass, or the sacraments; and again between essential and accidental rubrics according as they relate to what is of necessity or to external circumstances in the act which they regulate, etc. But the chief distinction seems to be that which divides them into general and particular rubrics. The first are the rules common to the same sacred function, e.g. those which regulate the recitation of the Divine Office, whether considered as a whole, in its chief parts, or in its secondary parts; they are at present printed under thirty-four titles in the editions of the Roman Breviary at the head of the part for autumn; those which regulate the celebration of Mass printed at the beginning of the Roman Missal (twenty titles containing the general rules, thirteen others giving the rite to be followed in the celebration, and ten others explaining the defects which may occur); those which regulate the administration of the sacraments (given by the Ritual at the beginning of each of the sacraments, as also by the Pontifical for the sacraments administered by a bishop). The particular rubrics are the special rules which determine during the course of the action what must be done at each period of the year, on certain fixed days, as the days of Holy Week, or when a particular formula is recited. They are inserted in the midst of the formulae of Breviary, Missal, or Ritual.

III. Origin and Development.—The Rubrics are as ancient as the Offices themselves. They were long transmitted by oral tradition and when they were consigned to writing it was not in the fulness known to us. Like the various elements of the Divine Office and the Mass, the manner of celebrating them had at first a local character; there were observances peculiar to certain churches. Thus St. Cyprian (Ep. lvi, in P.L., IV, 410) mentions the peculiarities of Carthage in the administration of the sacraments; St. Augustine in his reply to Januarius (Ep. lv, in P.L.,) XXIII, 204) treats at length the rites of the Church, those which might under no circumstances be neglected and those which might be discontinued; St. Gregory the Great, writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury (XI, lxiv, in P.L., LXXVII, 1186) suggests to him the same wise direction with regard to local practices. It is difficult to determine the period at which these rules were consigned to writing. The ancient Sacramentaries, the MSS. Missals, and even the early printed Missals contain some, but very few, rubrics. There is every reason to believe that they were contained in special collections known as Ordinaries, Directories, and Rituals. An Ordo Romanus has been attributed to Gregory the Great (see Liturgical Books), but it is difficult to say what it was. Relying on the “Ordines Romani” published by Mabillon, Father Grisar (Civilta Cattolica, May 20, 1905) gives the oldest description of the solemn pontifical Mass as dating from the pontificate of Gregory the Great. Hittorp’s publication has been much discussed Cardinal Bona (De divina psalmodia, i, 604) regarding the collection as very ancient but overloaded with the ceremonies of subsequent ages, which is the case with all the ritualistic books. Cardinal Tommasi (Opera, IV, p. xxxv) characterizes it as a confused mass in which it is impossible to distinguish the most ancient and authentic practices. In this primitive state rubrics and ceremonies were generally mingled.

There were no rubricists until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. At first they were compilers and worked on separate parts. Cardinal Quignonez found the ancient rubrics obscure and confused; the new rubrics which still exist with some additions and alterations form an excellent exposition borrowed from the “Directorium Officii Divini”, published in 1540 by the Franciscan L. Ciconialano with the approval of Paul III. In 1502, under Leo X, Burchard edited the general rubrics of the Roman Missal; they were printed in the edition of the “Missale Pianum” and have thus reached us. In collaboration with August Patrizi Piccolomini, Burchard also issued (1488) the ordinary and the ceremonies of the pontifical Mass under the title “Romance Ecclesiae Caeremoniarum libri tres”; these have passed into our present Pontifical. Finally the Roman Ritual, edited in 1614 under Paul V, was compiled, with the aid of the Ritual of Cardinal Giulio Antonio Santario, from which most of the rubrics are derived. Thus various collections of the rubrics compiled by individuals have received the approval of the sovereign pontiffs, and since Pius V, instead of being published as separate treatises, they have been inserted in the liturgical books with which they dealt. The S. C. of Rites, instituted by Sixtus V in 1587, is commissioned to approve new rites, to suppress abuses in liturgical matters, issue authentic editions of liturgical books, to interpret the rubrics, and to solve difficulties connected therewith. Besides this interpreting authority, individual liturgists may also write commentaries and explanations on the subject.

IV. Obligatory Character.—In describing the kinds of rubrics we have intentionally omitted mention of distinctions which seem to us without sufficient foundation. Writers distinguish between Divine and human rubrics, but as soon as rubrics are approved by the sovereign pontiff and promulgated in his name it seems to us that they emanate from a Divine-human authority, and none save the Church has the right to establish such rules. According to a prevalent sentiment, we should do away with the distinction between the preceptive rubrics (those which bind under pain of sin, mortal or venial according to the matter) and directive rubrics (those which are not binding in themselves, but state what is to be done in the form of an instruction or counsel).

It may be said that the rubrics of the liturgical books are real laws; this follows from the definition: they are prescriptions for the good order of external worship in the Catholic Church, they emanate from the highest authority—the sovereign pontiff—and considering the terms in which they are promulgated it does not appear that the supreme head of the Church merely desires to give a counsel. Hence the distinction between the preceptive and directive rubrics is (a) in contradiction to the terms of the definition of rubrics, which are rules, consequently ordinances, laws, whose character is to be at once both directive and preceptive, i.e. to impose an obligation: (b) it is contrary to the mind of the sovereign pontiffs as expressed in their Bulls, which in establishing and promulgating rubrics intend to make them real laws. Pius V in the Bull “Quod a nobis”, for the publication of the Roman Breviary (1508), expressed himself as follows: “Statuentes Breviarium ipsum nullounquam tempore, vel totum vel ex parte mutandum, vel ei aliquid addendum, vel omnino detrahendum esse”. The same pope uses similar terms in the Bull “Quo primum tempore”, for the publication of the Roman Missal (1870): “Mandantes, ac districte … praecipientes ut coeteris omnibus rationibuset ritibus ex aliis Missalibus quantumvis vetustishactenus observari consuetis, in posterum penitusomissis ac plane rejectis, Missam juxta ritum, modumac normam quae per Missale hoc a Nobis nunc traditurdecantent ac legant, neque in Missae celebrationealias caeremonias, vel preces quam quae hoc Missali continentur addere vel recitare praesumant”. No less explicit are the expressions employed by Paul V for the publication of the Ritual (Brief “Apostolicae Sedi”, 1614), by Clement VIII for the publication of the Pontifical (Brief “Ex quo in Ecclesia”, 1596), etc.; (c) this distinction is equally contrary to the Decrees of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, whichconstitute a real command, while it cannot be saidthat they involve a greater obligation than the rubricswhich they explain, which would be the case if therubrics were not preceptive, when the commentarywould have greater force than the text itself. (d) Itis contrary to the rubricists’ manner of expressingthemselves. Thus Bissus declares that the rubricsare laws: “Leges tam Missalis quam Breviariidicuntur Rubrics, cum legibus et aliis ordinationibuset solent esse firmae donee revocentur”. De Herdt is still more explicit: “Rubricae sunt regulae juxta quas officium divinum persolvi, Missae sacrificum celebrari, et sacramenta administrari debent.”

It is true that many others admit the distinction between preceptive and directive rubrics as De Herdt does, but they write from the standpoint of conscience, and when they excuse infractions of the rule it is in virtue of special reasons due to circumstances. It is also objected that certain rubrics are marked “Ad libitum”, e.g. the third Collect of the Mass for certain days, the optional recitation of the “Dies Irae” in low unprivileged Masses for the dead. But even in these cases there is a certain prescription: a third prayer must be said, which is left to the choice of the celebrant; half of the “Dies Irae” may not be said, but it must either be omitted or said entire. Rubrical indications whose obligatory character is completely lacking, such as the prayers in preparation for Mass, “pro opportunitate sacerdotis facienda”, are exceptional instances, the very terms of which show what is to be understood, but these exceptions merely confirm the thesis. To make them the starting point in establishing a distinction is merely to multiply distinctions at will, a procedure that is all the more useless because it would eventually amount to saying that there are preceptive precepts and non-preceptive precepts. We can only conclude that the distinction between preceptive and directive rubrics should be done away with, or if it be mentioned at all, it should be simply as an historical reference (see Ephemerides Liturgicae, I, 146). Under certain circumstances rubrics may be modified by custom, but in this respect they do not differ from laws in general.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!