A Rubrical Guide For Altar Servers
By Louis J. Tofari
Torchbearer At High Mass (Missa Cantata) Or Solemn High Mass
The Torchbearers (Tbs) are like the honor guard for Our Lord. During a High Mass, they take the place of the Sanctus Candle, an ancient Roman custom at Low Mass, which is lit from the Sanctus until the Ablutions. The Tbs also accompany Our Lord at the Communion Rail when Holy Communion is distributed . During processions of the Blessed Sacrament, they accompany Him on either side of the canopy that covers Him .
It is the position of Tb, more so than of any other position, that adds
solemnity to the Mass, who with his bright torch illuminates the
Sanctuary and helps to surround Our Lord during the Canon, thereby highlighting and adding splendor to the most sacred part of the Mass .
- Unity of action is very important and conducive to carrying out
the various actions of Tbs’ office smoothly. Great care should be taken
by Tbs to work as a team, and not as a group of individuals, especially
in processing, genuflecting, and kneeling.
- Tbs always turn inwards, that is, towards each other, when next to each other.
- Tbs usually walk in their proper pairs and shoulder to shoulder
[unless there is a lack of room; then they do so in single file, with
the highest ranking Tb always going first].
- Whenever Tbs are processing, they should always be at least four pews
away from each other [about ten feet]; this will prevent Tbs from
bunching up during processions, especially while genuflecting at the
Foot of the Altar.
How to hold a torch:
- Torches are always held in the outside hand , and the other hand is placed flat against one’s sternum, with fingers extended and held together.
- When turning, the torch must be smoothly changed to the outside hand.
- One must take care to hold the torch straight .
- Whenever one is about to genuflect or kneel, the torch should be
placed squarely on the floor first, then one may genuflect or kneel.
However, striking the floor hard with the bottom of the staff must be
When not holding torches:
- Tbs act as the other servers in folding their hands, and in making the various bows and gestures.
When holding torches:
- Tbs do not make the sign of the Cross, nor do they strike their breasts, since they are holding objects.
- The only type of bow that they make is a simple bow, even when the
other servers are making a moderate bow, since it is unwieldy to make a
moderate bow when holding a torch.
Positioning the seating of the Torchbearers:
The Tbs may have their stools situated either in front of the Choir
Stalls in the Chancel (centered and divided evenly on either side of
the Chancel) or on the Gospel side of the Sanctuary . While placing the Tbs in the Chancel certainly has some practical advantages , most small churches do not have a Chancel. In some cases the Sanctuary may be so small, that
one has to find a way of accommodating the
Tbs either in the front pew or even by seating them against the
Communion Rail. On this sheet, the two most common options are given
for the placement of the Tbs, which depends on the layout of the
Sanctuary; option A (sitting in the Chancel) is the optimum choice when
space allows for its use.
Tbs should always be in the Sacristy at least fifteen minutes before Mass begins.
Tbs must complete these tasks within the first five minutes:
- They must vest in Cassock and Surplice, and remember to say the Vesting Prayers for each item.
- They should have the correct number of stools lined up in the
proper place in the Sanctuary. There ought to be sufficient room
between each stool, so that Tbs may sit without being pressed together.
- The torches must be checked to see if the candles are high enough to last from the Sanctus until the Ablutions ;
they should be no lower than two inches high. The candlewicks must also
be checked to verify if they are long enough to burn correctly [they
should be no lower than a quarter inch high]; if not, they will have to be
carefully excavated with a knife.
- If there are at least four Tbs, then Tb1 should delegate the various
tasks amongst the other three Tbs. Tb1 must also ensure that Tbs’
stools are set up correctly, and that the torches are in good
condition. When verified, Tb1 should report this to the MC.
In the Sacristy:
- When these tasks are completed, Tbs then line up for the Processional.
Tb1 lines up the other Tbs shoulder to shoulder into their designated
pairs and numbers, also ensuring that all pairs of Tbs match in
height. Tb1 should also designate the odd numbered Tbs on the right,
and the even numbered on the left. Tb1 and 2 lead the formation of Tbs,
then Tb 3 and 4 and so forth.
The Procession :
- When C has finished vesting, the MC will signal with a single clap,
then Tbs turn and make a simple bow towards the Processional Cross , while the MC says, "Procedamus in pace." Tbs then respond with the other servers: "In nomine Christi, Amen."
- Each pair of Tbs follow after Cb and Acolytes at a distance of four
pews, walking shoulder to shoulder, solemnly and at a moderate pace.
The location of Tbs’ genuflection upon entering the Sanctuary:
- If Tbs sit on either side of the Chancel, each pair genuflects at
the front portion of the Chancel, and then pairs off outwardly (Tb1
turns right, Tb2 turns left) to their stools, with the first pair
proceeding to stools furthest from the Altar, the second pair to the
middle stools, and etc.
- If Tbs sit against the Gospel Sanctuary wall or against the
Communion Rail on the Gospel side, they proceed to the Foot, genuflect
in pairs, turn inwards (Tb1 to his left, Tb2 to his right ), and then continue to their stools shoulder to shoulder. Tb1 takes the stool closest to the Altar, Tb2 the next one and etc.
- Tbs respond, stand, kneel, genuflect, turn and bow with the other
servers. Tb1 should lead Tbs in turning and bowing towards the Altar at
the proper times; otherwise, Tbs face across the Sanctuary.
During the Gospel :
- When C moves to the Missal to sing the Gospel, Tbs turn towards the Missal for the reading. When the reading is completed, they turn to face across the Sanctuary again.
During the Offertory :
- After Th incenses the servers on the Epistle side of the Sanctuary,
Th will bow to Tbs, who make a simple bow back to him, then Th will
incense them, and Tbs will bow to Th again.
- Tbs then immediately step forward from each side, as two
converging lines, to the center of the Chancel and form their
respective pairs into two parallel lines, standing in line with the
edges of the Altar and facing it.
- Tbs then immediately proceed shoulder to shoulder to the center
of the Sanctuary, in front of the Foot, form their respective pairs
into two parallel lines, standing in line with the edges of the Altar,
and facing it.
- Th signals, all Tbs genuflect in unison with Th, then all Tbs
turn inwards, and follow Th to the Sacristy in pairs, shoulder to
shoulder, keeping a distance of four pews between Th and each pair of
- Upon reaching the Sacristy, Tbs retrieve their torches, and Tb1
lights them while each Tb holds his own torch. Tbs then resume their
former formation with Th at the head.
At the Sanctus :
- When the Sanctus begins, Th leads Tbs into the Sanctuary,
who are walking shoulder to shoulder, each pair at a distance of four
pews, holding their torches straight and in their outside hands.
- Upon reaching the Sanctuary, Th goes to the center of the
Sanctuary, while Tb1 and Tb2 go to his sides (Tb1 to his right, Tb2 to
his left), each about three feet from him. The other Tbs line up recta linea  next to Tb1 and Tb2 accordingly, with an equal space between each Tb .
- Tbs then genuflect on Th’s signal, and then kneel on the floor at
his signal. Tbs should hold their torches at their sides, not directly
in front of them, with the bottom of the staff resting against the
floor . Tbs must also ensure torches are being held straight.
During the Consecration :
During the Consecration, Tbs make only a simple bow for each time C genuflects before and after each Elevation.
If Communion were not to be distributed to the faithful:
- This rarely happens now; however, if for some reason Communion were
not to be distributed to the faithful, Th would lead Tbs out of and
back into the Sanctuary after the Consecration of the Chalice as described below for After the Distribution of Communion , with a single knee genuflection .
At C’s Communion and during the Communion of the Faithful :
- When C consumes the Sacred Host, Tbs make a simple bow.
- The Tbs may then:
- Remain in their present position of recta linea
(or of parallel lines) in the Sanctuary and receive Communion there.
(OR, following Tb 1 & 2's lead, stand, turn towards the Altar and
in single file return to their stools in the Chancel, kneel and receive
- Go to kneel on each side of the Predella and receive Communion there .
- When C consumes the Precious Blood, all Tbs make a simple bow, and then remained bowed for the Second Confiteor, though they do not strike their breasts for each mea culpa nor for each Domine non sum dignus.
- The MC (or Th if they kneel on the Predella) holds the Plate for
the Tbs; the Tbs do not hold it for themselves as they are holding the
- In all cases, the outside Tbs (which should be Tb1 & 2), after
receiving Communion, immediately rise and, without any genuflection,
follow C with Blessed Sacrament to the Communion Rail (inside the
Sanctuary), where they stand at each end, holding their torches in
their outside hand (towards the Rail). These Tbs should keep their eyes
downcast in reverence of the Blessed Sacrament that they accompany.
- When C has distributed Communion to the last communicant, both Tbs
go in unison with C back to their positions with the other Tbs. Tb 1
& 2 do not genuflect at all while performing this action , they simply return to their positions and kneel immediately.
During the Ablutions :
- When C has closed the Tabernacle and the MC has signaled all to
rise, the Tbs stand, and then take position in the same manner as at
the Offertory either according to option A or B.
- When all are ready, Th signals all the Tbs to genuflect, then all turn inwards and process out behind Th as usual.
- Upon reaching the Sacristy, the Tbs extinguish their torches and put them away.
- Th then leads them back into the Sanctuary, where the Tbs line up again as at the Offertory,
then Th signals a genuflection and the Tbs return to their stools in
the same manner as upon entering the Sanctuary during the Processional.
During the remainder of the Mass:
During the Last Blessing :
- When the MC signals all to kneel during the Last Blessing, the Tbs kneel facing each other across the Sanctuary.
During the Last Gospel :
- After the Tbs have signed themselves for the Last Gospel (having made the proper responses), they line up as for the Offertory according to option A or B.
- The Tbs genuflect in unison when "Et Verbum caro factum est" is said.
- The Tbs genuflect on the MC’s signal and then turn inwards to face
the Nave, but first allow the Acolytes and Crossbearer to pass through
- When the Acolytes and Crossbearer have passed through completely, the
pairs of Tbs each follow at a distance of four pews, walking shoulder to
- When the Tbs reach the Sacristy, they line up as they did before the Processional.
- At the MC’s signal, the Tbs bow to the Processional Cross, then to C and then kneel to receive C’s blessing.
After Mass Duties
- When the After Mass Prayers have been said, the Tbs put away their stools and do whatever other duties the MC assigns to them.
 In almost all of the rubrical books, the authors make mention of the Tbs departing with their torches after the Consecration
(except for Requiem and Ferial Masses in violet vestments). This was
due to the ancient and now extinct practice of distributing Holy
Communion to the faithful after Mass (or even not at all), and
not during it. Later on it did become customary to distribute Communion
during Mass itself, but it was not always practiced, hence the books
speaking of this departure. The books often have as an endnote, buried
amongst other texts in relation to Solemn High Mass, that if Communion
was to be distributed to the faithful, the Tbs would depart after Communion.
Unfortunately, this cannot often be done, due to the necessity of
having to process down narrow sidewalks, rather than down the middle of
the street. So they are compelled to process in pairs in front of the
Thurifers incensing Our Lord.
 This is shown by the Caeremoniale Episcoporum
and by the various rubricians who graduate the number of Torchbearers
depending on the degree of solemnity of the feast (e.g., first class feasts: no more than eight; normal circumstances: four to six; Requiems and ferials: no more than four).
is an exception to this rule: For processions of the Blessed Sacrament,
Tbs hold their torches in their inside hand, that is next to Our Lord
as they are on either side of the Canopy. However, if Tbs process in
front of the Thurifers, they hold their torches in the outside hand as
 This is especially true when they are kneeling recta linea (in a straight line). It is very visually distracting to see one torch held at one angle, another at a different one, etc.
 Cf. Fortescue, pg. 107.
One of these advantages concerns the staging of the Tbs in front of the
Foot when entering or leaving the Sanctuary. Staging at the Foot often
leads to a conflict of action with the Acolytes, especially during the
switching of the Missal and the Chalice Veil after the Ablutions.
In this case, it is necessary for Th to time his arrival into the
Sanctuary, so as not to interfere with the Acolytes’ movements.
However, sitting and staging in the Chancel eliminates this possible
conflict and is thereby conducive to a smoother and more dignified
 If there is a procession with the Blessed Sacrament, they will need to be even taller; in this case 4 inches is recommended.
Or Sacristy Cross if there is not a Crossbearer.
 This should be practiced until the Tbs do this instinctively, as it is in the opposite direction in which they are accustomed to turn while serving Low Mass.
 A straight line.
In this case, a horizontal line across the width of the Sanctuary. The
rubricians give two different arrangements for Tbs for the Canon,
both of which are diagramed above. The one that is most practical due
to space limitations within the Sanctuary should be employed.
Prearranged landmarks (e.g., tile cracks, alignment with Altar items,
etc.) should be used for the placement of Tbs, especially Tb1 and Tb2,
as they are the anchors for the others. In some Sanctuaries, it may be
necessary for Tbs to kneel shoulder to shoulder, on the first Altar step, or even on the first Altar steps on the sides of the Altar.
 If Tbs are kneeling on a step, it may be easier for them to hold their torches by placing their torches on the step above.
 SRC 4135 3. The Blessed Sacrament is not considered to be exposed to the inferior ministers, who are in plano and not on the Predella.
this option is used, the Tbs approach the sides while the other servers
line up at the Foot. They genuflect on the MC’s signal , kneel,
recite the Confiteor , then stand and genuflect on MC’s signal again, ascend to the Predella, kneel and receive Communion there.
is because they are accompanying the Blessed Sacrament and so the rule
applies for Tb 1 & 2 as it would for Ac1 & 2 with the
Copyright © 2007. Louis J. Tofari. All rights reserved.