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The Sanctus is the last part of the Preface in the Mass, sung in practically every rite by the people (or choir). It is one of the elements of the liturgy of which we have the earliest evidence. St. Clement of Rome (d. about 104) mentions it. He quotes the text in Isaiah 6:3, and goes on to say that it is also sung in church; this at least seems the plain meaning of the passage: "for the Scripture says . . . Holy, holy, holy Lord of hosts; full is every creature of his glory. And we, led by conscience, gathered together in one place in concord, cry to him continuously as from one mouth, that we may become sharers in his great and glorious promises" (1 Corinthians 34:6-7). It seems clear that what the people cry is the text just quoted. Clement does not say at what moment of the service the people cry those words; but again we may safely suppose that it was at the end of what we call the Preface, the place at which the Sanctus appears in every liturgy, from that of "Apost. Const.", VIII, on. The next oldest witness is Origen (d. 254). He quotes the text of Isaias and continues: "The coming of my Jesus is announced, wherefore the whole earth is full of his glory" (In Isa., hom., I, n. 2). There is nothing to correspond to this in the Prophet. It seems plainly an allusion to liturgical use and so agrees very well with the place of the Sanctus. The Anaphora of Sarapion of Thmuis (Egypt, fourteenth century) gives the Sanctus almost exactly in the form of the Alexandrine Liturgy (Funk, "Didascalia", Paderborn, 1905, II, 174), but says nothing about its being sung by the people. From the fourteenth century we have abundance of testimony for the Sanctus in every liturgical centre. In Egypt St. Athanasius (d. 373) mentions it (Expos in Ps, cii, P.G. XXVII, 434); at Jerusalem St. Cyril (d. 373) (Mystagogical Catechesis 5, no. 6), and at Antioch St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) alludes to it (in Ps. cxxxiv, n. 6, P.G., LV, 393). Tertullian (d. about 220) ("de Oratione", 3) and Victor of Vite (d. 486) ("Hist. persec. Vandal", III, P.L., LVIII quote it in Africa; Germanus of Paris (d. 576) in Gaul (in Duchesne, "Origines du Culte", 2d ed., Paris, 1898, p. 204), Isidore of Seville (d. 636) in Spain (ibid.). The Sanctus is sung by the people in "Apostolic Constitutions", VIII, XII, 27 (Brightman, "Eastern Liturgies", 18-19) and so in almost all rites. The scanty state of our knowledge about the early Roman Mass accounts for the fact that we have no allusion to the Sanctus till it appears in the first Sacramentaries. The Leonine and Gelasian books give only the celebrant's part; but their prefaces lead up to it plainly. The Gregorian Sacramentary gives the text exactly as we still have it (P.L. LXXVIII, 26). But the passage quoted from St. Clement and then the use of Africa (always similar to Rome) leave no doubt that at Rome too the Sanctus is part of the oldest liturgical tradition. In view of Clement's allusion it is difficult to understand Abbot Cabrol's theory that the Sanctus is a later addition to the Mass ("Les Origines liturgiques", Paris, 1906, p. 329).

The connection in which it occurs in the liturgy is this: in all rites the Eucharistic prayer (Canon Anaphora) begins with a formal thanksgiving to God for his benefits, generally enumerated at length (see PREFACE). This first part of the prayer (our Preface) takes the form of an outline of creation, of the many graces given to Patriarchs and Prophets in the Old Law and so to the crowning benefit of our redemption by Christ, to His life and Passion, to the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the words of institution, all in the scheme of a thanksgiving for these things (cf. ib.). Before the prayer comes to the mention of our Lord it always refers to the angels. In "Apost. Const.", VIII, XII (Brightman, op. cit., 15-18), they occur twice, at the beginning as being the first creatures and again at the end of the Old Testament history — possibly in connection with the place of Isaias who mentions them. In St. James's liturgy this part of the Anaphora is much shorter and the angels are named once only (ibid., p. 50); so also in St. Mark they come only once (pp. 131-32). They are always named at length and with much solemnity as those who join with us in praising God. So the description in Isaiah 6:1-4, must have attracted attention very early as expressing this angelic praise of God and as summing up (in v. 3) just the note of the first part of the Anaphora. The Sanctus simply continues the Preface. It is a quotation of what the angels say. We thank God with the angels, who say unceasingly: "Holy, holy, holy", etc. Logically the celebrant could very well himself say or sing the Sanctus. But, apparently from the beginning of its Christian use (so already Clem. Rom.), one of the dramatic touches that continually adorn the liturgy was added here. We too desire to say with the angels: "Holy, holy, holy"; so when the celebrant comes to the quotation, the people (or choir) interrupt and themselves sing these words, continuing his sentence. The interruption is important since it is the chief cause of the separation of the original first part of the eucharistic prayer (the Preface) at Rome from the rest and the reason why this first part is still sung aloud although the continuation is said in a low voice. The only rite that has no Sanctus is that of the Ethiopic Church Order (Brightman, op. cit., 190).

The Sanctus in the Eastern Rites

In the liturgies of St. James and St. Mark and the Byzantine Rite (Brightman, loc. cit.) the introductory sentence calls it the "hymn of victory" (ton epinikion hymnon). This has become its usual name in Greek. It should never be called the Trisagion, which is a different liturgical formula ("Holy God, Holy Strong One, Holy Immortal One have mercy on us") occurring in another part of the service. In "Apost. Const.", VIII, XII, 27, the form of the Epinikion is: "Holy, holy, holy the Lord of Hosts (sabaoth). Full (are) the heaven and the earth of his glory. Blessed for ever. Amen." St. James has: "Holy, holy, holy, Lord (voc.) of hosts. Full (are) the heaven and the earth of thy Glory. Hosanna (he) in the highest. Blessed (is) he that comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna, (he) in the highest." In this the cry of the people on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:9, modified) is added (cf. the Jacobite form, Brightman, p. 86). Alexandria has only the text of Isaias (ib. 132; and Coptic, in Greek, 176; Abyssinian, p. 231). In the Greek Alexandrine form (St. Mark) the text occurs twice. First the celebrant quotes it himself as said by the cherubim and seraphim; then he continues aloud: "for all things always call thee holy (hagiazei) and with all who call thee holy receive, Master and Lord, our hallowing (hagiasmon) who with them sing, saying . . ." and the people repeat the Epinikion (Brightman, p. 132). The Nestorians have a considerably extended form of Isaiah 6:3, and Matthew 21:9, in the third person (ib. 284). The Byzantine Rite has the form of St. James (ib. 323-324), so also the Armenians (p. 436). In all Eastern rites only the sentence that immediately introduces the Epinikion is said aloud, as an Ekphonesis.

The Sanctus in the West

In Latin it is the "Tersanctus" or simply the "Sanctus". "Hymnus angelicus" is ambiguous and should be avoided, since this is the usual name for the Gloria in Excelsis. Germanus of Paris bears witness to it in the Gallican Rite (Ep. I; P.L., LXXII, 89 seq.; see above). Its form was as at Rome. The Mozarabic Sanctus is almost the Roman one; but it has for the first Hosanna: "Osanna filio David" (more literally Matthew 21:9) and the additional exclamations "Agyos, agyos, agyos Kyrie o theos" (P.L., LXXXV, 548 cfr. 116). Milan has exactly our form. It may be noted that the Gallican and Mozarabic liturgies, following the tradition of Antioch and Jerusalem (Brightman, op. cit., pp. 19, 51), continue the Anaphora by taking up the idea of the Sanctus: "Vere sanctus, vere benedictus Dominus noster Iesus Christus" (P.L., LXXXV, 548) and so coming almost at once to the words of Institution: This prayer, which varies in each Mass, is called "Post Sanctus", or "Vere Sanctus". Milan has one remnant of this on Holy Saturday (Duchesne, ib. 205). At Rome the Sanctus is described in "Ordo Rom.", I, as "hymnus angelicus, id est Sanctus" (P.L., LXXVIII, 945). It is sung by the regionary subdeacons (ib.). So also "Ordo Rom.", II, which notes that Hosanna is sung twice (ib. 974). C. Atchley thinks that this marks the beginning of the addition of the Benedictus verses to the Sanctus, that originally these were an acclamation to the celebrating bishop and that they were only later directed towards the Holy Eucharist. In "Apost. Connst.", VIII, XIII, 13 (Brightman, 24), these verses are sung at the Elevation just before Communion, then they were pushed back to become an appendix to the Sanctus, where they coincide more or less with the moment of consecration. Mr. Atchley further thinks that the Benedictus in the Roman Rite is a Gallican addition of the eleventh century ("Ordo Romanus Primus", London, 1905, pp. 90-5). That the verses of Matthew 21:9, were first used as a salutation to the bishop is quite probable (cf. Peregrinatio Silviæ, ed. Gamurrini, 59-60). It is less likely that they are a late Gallican addition at Rome. Their occurrence in the liturgy of Jerusalem-Antioch may well be one more example of the relation between that centre and Rome from the earliest ages (see CANON OF THE MASS).

We do not know at what moment the chant of the Sanctus was taken from the subdeacons and given to the schola cantorum. This is merely part of a general tendency to entrust music that was getting more ornate and difficult to trained singers. So the Gradual was once sung by a deacon. The "Ordo Rom. V" implies that the subdeacons no longer sing the Sanctus (P.L. LXXVIII, 988). In "Ordo XI", 20 (ib. 1033), it is sung by the "Basilicarii". St. Gregory of Tours (d. 593) says it is sung by the people (de mirac. S. Martini, II, 14; P.L. LXXI). The notice of the "Liber Pontificalis" that Pope Sixtus I (119-128) ordered the people to sing the Sanctus cannot be correct. It seems that it was not sung always at every Mass. The Second Council of Vaison finds it necessary to command that it should not be omitted in Lent nor at requiems (Can. 3; Hefele-Leclercq, "Histoire des Conciles" II, 1114). There were also laws in the Middle Ages forbidding the celebrant to continue the Canon before the choir had finished singing it (Martène, "De antiq. eccl, ritibus", I, 4, §7). The ringing of a bell at the Sanctus is a development from the Elevation bell; this began in the Middle Ages. Ivo of Chartres (d. 1116) mentions it (Ep. 142) and Durandus (Rationale, IV, 41, §53). It was rung to call people to church that they might see the Elevation. The Sanctus bell is an earlier warning that the Canon is about to begin. The rubrics of the Missal still say nothing about the bell at the Sanctus. It was (and in places still is) usual to ring the great church bell, at least at high Mass. The hand-bell was only a warning to the ringers in the tower (Gavanti-Merati, "Thesaurus S. Rituum", II, 7, Venice, 1762, p. 156).

The text of the Roman Sanctus is first, Isa., vi, 3, with 'pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua" instead of "plena est omnis terra gloria eius". In this way (as at Antioch and Alexandria) it is made into a prayer by the use of the second person. In all liturgies the Hebrew for "hosts" sabaoth) is kept, as in the Septuagint (Vulgate, "exercituum"). The "Lord of hosts" is a very old Semitic title, in the polytheistic religions apparently for the moon-god, the hosts being the stars (as in Genesis 2:1; Psalm 32:6). To the Jews these hosts were the angels (cf. Lc., II, 13). Then follows the acclamation of Palm Sunday in Matthew 21:9. It is based on Psalm 117:25-26; but the source of the liturgical text is, of course, the text in the Gospel. Hosanna is in the Greek text and Vulgate, left as a practically untranslatable exclamation of triumph. It means literally "Oh help", but in Matthew 21:9, it is already a triumphant interjection (like Alleluia). In "Didache", X, 6, it occurs as a liturgical formula ("Hosanna to the God of David"). In the medieval local rites the Sanctus was often "farced" (interpolated with tropes), like the Kyrie and other texts, to fill up the long musical neums. Specimens of such farcings, including one attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas, may be seen in Bona, "Rerum liturgicarum", II, 10, §4 (ed. Paris, 1672), p. 418. The skeleton of a Mass at the blessing of palms retains not only a Preface but also a Sanctus, sung to the original "simple" tone. The many other prayers (blessing of the font, ordinations, etc.) that are modelled on the Preface diverge from its scheme as they proceed and do not end with a Sanctus.

Present rite

At high Mass as soon as the celebrant has sung the last word of the Preface (dicentes) the choir begins the Sanctus, continuing his phrase. They should sing it straight through, including the Benedictus. The custom of waiting till after the Elevation and then adding the Benedictus, once common, is now abolished by the rubric ("De ritibus servandis in cantu missæ, VII) of the Vatican Gradual. It was a dramatic effect that never had any warrant. Sanctus and Benedictus are one text. Meanwhile the deacon and subdeacon go up to the right and left of the celebrant and say the Sanctus in a low voice with him. Every one in the choir and church kneels (Cærim. Episcop., II, VIII, 69). The hand-bell is usually rung at the Sanctus; but at Rome there is no bell at all at high Mass. While the choir sings the celebrant goes on with the Canon. They must finish or he must wait before the Consecration. At low Mass the celebrant after the Preface, bowing and laying the folded hands on the altar, continues the Sanctus in a lower voice (vox media). The bell is rung three times. Although the rubrics of the Missal do not mention this it is done everywhere by approved custom. It may be noticed that of the many chants of the Sanctus in the Gradual the simple one only (for ferias of Advent and Lent, requiems and the blessing of palms) continues the melody of the Preface and so presumably represents the same musical tradition as our Preface tone. As in the case of the Preface its mode is doubtful.


DURANDUS, Rationale divinorum officiorum, IV, 34; BONA, Rerum liturgiarum libri duo, II, X, 4; BENEDICT XIV, De SS. Sacrificio missæ, II, XI, 18-19; GAVANTI-MERATI, Thesaurus S. Rituum, II, VII, 80-86; GIHR, Das h. Messopfer (Freiburg 1897), 524-530.

About this page

APA citation. Fortescue, A. (1912). Sanctus. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Fortescue, Adrian. "Sanctus." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Tony de Melo.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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