Masters of Ceremonies

Date: October 8, 2023
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

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: Recently, my superior and I were reading the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], and we were wondering what the rules are on the master of ceremonies—whether lay or ordained—assisting the main celebrant by flipping the pages of the altar missal for him. In another archdiocesan seminary assisting the celebrant in this way was normal, but some priests affirm that such a task is reserved for sacred ministers. So, I have two questions: 1) Is it permissible to be a master of ceremonies at a daily Mass, when there is not much coordinating of other altar servers going on? 2) Is it permissible for a lay MC to assist the priest, if the latter wishes, by flipping the pages of the altar missal for him? -- L.D., Toronto, Ontario


Answer: The GIRM makes only one mention of the role of master of ceremonies. To wit:


106. It is desirable, at least in cathedrals and in larger churches, to have some competent minister or master of ceremonies, to see to the appropriate arrangement of sacred actions and to their being carried out by the sacred ministers and lay faithful with decorum, order, and devotion.


The most thorough official treatment of the details of the celebration is found in the book called the Ceremonial of Bishops.


Regarding helping with the book, the Ceremonial says the following while referring to the deacon:


“25. In liturgical celebrations it belongs to the deacon to assist the celebrant, to minister at the altar with the book and the cup, to guide the assembly of the faithful with suitable directions, to announce the intentions of the general intercessions.”


In describing the role of the master of ceremonies it states:


“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.”


Addressing the first question, I would say that as an overall principle the liturgical books generally foresee the presence of a master of ceremonies only for more complex celebrations and not usually for relatively simple ferial celebrations.


That said, however, I believe that under certain circumstances it would be allowable for there to be a master of ceremonies or a similar figure, even at ferial celebrations. For example, the presence of a figure like a master of ceremonies might be necessary to assist an elderly or infirm priest.


The master of ceremonies would also be a distinct figure from that of an instituted acolyte whose functions are outlined in the GIRM:


“98. The acolyte is instituted for service at the altar and to assist the Priest and Deacon. It is his place principally to prepare the altar and the sacred vessels and, if necessary, to distribute the Eucharist to the faithful as an extraordinary minister.”


In normal circumstances, however, it would seem unnecessary to have the presence of a master of ceremonies as the priest is perfectly capable of carrying out most of the practicalities of a daily Mass.


With respect to whether the master of ceremonies can turn the pages of the altar missal, No. 25 of the ceremonial clearly assigns this task principally to the deacon while No. 35 indicates that the master of ceremonies should not supplant the deacon in his functions.


I would say that this assigning of the task of turning the pages to the deacon is a practical rule because the deacon is usually the closest person to the presiding celebrant. I do not believe that it is based on any theological principle that reserves touching the missal to the ordained.


Because of this, there can be exceptions to the general rule. For example, papal masters of ceremonies usually stand close to the Holy Father and attend to the book. This is a legitimate exception justified by the complexity and publicity of the ceremonies surrounding these celebrations and because the deacons who serve at these papal Masses are almost invariably doing so for the first and often only time.


I would suggest that there could also be other legitimate exceptions in which the master of ceremonies (cleric or lay) prefers to attend to the book personally. This could be in the case of particularly complex ritual celebrations such as ordinations or the consecration of a church whose ritual books would be unfamiliar to the deacon.


Likewise, in the absence of a deacon, I believe that the master of ceremonies can do this service, above all for episcopal or more complex celebrations but not excluding regular Sunday or festive occasions.


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