Proper Attire and Location of Masters of Ceremonies

Date: November 12, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Proper Attire and Location of Masters of Ceremonies

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Question: My first question is about the proper attire of the master of ceremonies during a liturgical celebration. There are times that we see a master of ceremonies wearing a white cassock and a surplice, without any difference from the instituted acolytes and lectors serving during the liturgical celebration. Other times, we notice that the master of ceremonies is vested like any other concelebrant priest, whether in alb and stole, or alb, stole and chasuble. There are also times that we see a master of ceremonies wearing a purple cassock and a surplice like the two masters of ceremonies of the Holy Father. These three situations are quite confusing because there is no clear rule about this. Is there any regulations for the attire of the master of ceremonies? My second question is related to the first. It is about the placement of the master of ceremonies during the celebration. I used to see the two masters of ceremonies of the Holy Father standing beside him. Sometimes, it creates confusion with the place of deacons. Where is the master of ceremonies supposed to stand during the ceremonies so that the deacon can recover his place beside the main celebrant? -- F.N.K., Democratic Republic of Congo

Answer: The essential norms regarding the master of ceremonies can be found in the liturgical book known as the Ceremonial of Bishops. To wit:

“Master of Ceremonies

“34. For a liturgical celebration, especially a celebration presided over by the bishop, to be distinguished by grace, simplicity, and order, a master of ceremonies is needed to prepare and direct the celebration in close cooperation with the bishop and others responsible for planning its several parts, and especially from a pastoral standpoint.

“The master of ceremonies should be well-versed in the history and nature of the liturgy and in its laws and precepts. But equally he should be well-versed in pastoral science, so that he knows how to plan liturgical celebrations in a way that encourages fruitful participation by the people and enhances the beauty of the rites.

“He should seek to ensure an observance of liturgical laws that is in accord with the true spirit of such laws and with those legitimate traditions of the particular Church that have pastoral value.

“35. In due time he should arrange with the cantors, assistants, ministers, and celebrants the actions to be carried out and the texts to be used, but during the celebration he should exercise the greatest discretion: he is not to speak more than is necessary, nor replace the deacons or assistants at the side of the celebrant. The master of ceremonies should carry out his responsibilities with reverence, patience, and careful attention.

“36. The master of ceremonies wears either an alb or a cassock and surplice. Within a celebration a master of ceremonies who is an ordained deacon may wear a dalmatic and the other diaconal vestments.”

To this we may add the indications offered by Bishop Peter J. Elliott in his book Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite:


“171. Not only every diocese but each parish should have a trained master of ceremonies (M.C.). He must know the laws and details of ceremonial and the history and traditions of the Roman Rite. He should study the sources and be familiar with liturgical texts. But he should also be ‘well-versed in pastoral science,’ so as to plan celebrations ‘in a way that encourages fruitful participation by the people and enhances the beauty of the rites’ (Ceremonial of Bishops no. 34).

“172. Whether priest, deacon or layman, he should gain the confidence of the clergy, who then welcome his services and accept his directions cheerfully during celebrations. He works closely with musicians, servers and clergy, and especially with the sacristans before and after each celebration. However, he must be assured of authority over ministers during, before and after a celebration. In a complicated ceremony, such as an ordination, two or more M.C.s are useful. Therefore, it is appropriate to have assistants of ceremonies in training for this skilled work. The diocesan M.C. should arrange training programs for parish M.C.s so as to develop their skills and standardize ceremonial.

“173. The good M.C. is unobtrusive, calm and dignified. He moves without haste. He has great freedom of movement so as to attend to all details, but he never abuses this freedom by distracting behavior during readings or sacred actions. He directs discreetly, without obvious gestures or comments, nor does he take the place of the deacon beside the celebrant (Cf. CB, no. 35). If he has to discipline misbehavior, he acts with restraint, at least while walking in procession or working in the sanctuary.

“174. He must know what everyone is supposed to do and where all are meant to be at each moment of the liturgy. Therefore, much of his skill depends on the ability to see ahead: (a) he must be aware of variations in the ceremonial or text of a particular celebration; (b) he must know exactly what happens next, anticipating the movements of servers so that they are prompt with the book, incense, etc. He should be a person who can keep fine details in his mind while being aware of the ‘shape’ and unity of a liturgical celebration.

“175. The M.C. may wear an alb, but choir dress may seem preferable, to distinguish him from servers. A priest or deacon acting as the M.C. wears a stole only when receiving Communion or during duty at the tabernacle.

“(a) According to CB, no. 36, a deacon acting as M.C. may wear a dalmatic. This may not be appropriate, because acting as M.C. does not seem to be a role which pertains to the order of deacons in a visible sacramental sense. Moreover, a vested concelebrant should never act as M.C.

“(b) It may be customary for the diocesan M.C. to wear a purple cassock and sash when assisting the bishop. If he is not a prelate, the buttons and trimmings are also purple.”

Thus, with respect to the proper vesture the law allows for several legitimate possibilities, not excluding the wearing of the dalmatic for a deacon even though, as Bishop Elliott points out, this might lead to some confusion with the other officiating deacons.

Wearing an alb is a possibility. But if the M.C. is a priest, he should not wear a stole as the duty of the master of ceremonies would usually exclude his being a concelebrant. For this reason, an M.C. should also never wear a chasuble.

When the option of cassock and surplice is used it is good practice for the master of ceremonies to use a surplice of a distinctive design, different from that of the servers, so as to be easily identified by the various ministers.

The use of the purple cassock may be either a privilege, as is the case of pontifical masters of ceremonies, or simply a legitimate custom for the diocesan M.C. When already in use it may be maintained but should probably not be introduced where unknown.

With respect to the location of the master of ceremonies, he should usually be unobtrusive and, as seen above, not replace the deacon at the celebrant’s side.

It is true that papal masters of ceremonies usually stand close to the Holy Father. This is a legitimate exception justified by the complexity and publicity surrounding these celebrations.

Indeed, given the large spaces involved in celebrations in places such as St. Peter’s Basilica, and the number of interventions required of the master of ceremonies, remaining close to the Holy Father is probably the most unobtrusive position and hence, fulfills the spirit of the norm while apparently being an exception.

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