Processions played a prominent part in the great festivals of Greece, where they were always religious in character. The games were either opened or accompanied by more or less elaborate processions and sacrifices, while processions from the earliest times formed part of the worship of the old nature gods, as those connected with the cult of Dionysus and the Phallic processions, and later formed an essential part of the celebration of the great religious festivals (e.g. the processions of the Thesmophoria, and that of the Great Dionysia), and of the mysteries (e.g. the great procession from Athens to Eleusis, in connection with the Eleusinia).
Of the Roman processions, the most prominent was that of the Triumph, which had its origin in the return of the victorious army headed by the general, who proceeded in great pomp from the Campus to the Capitol to offer sacrifice, accompanied by the army, captives, spoils, the chief magistrate, priests bearing the images of the gods, amidst strewing of flowers, burning of incense and the like (Ovid, Trist. iv. 2, 3 and 6). Connected with the triumph was the pompa circensis, or solemn procession which preceded the games in the circus; it first came into use at the ludi romani, when the games were preceded by a great procession from the Capitol to the Circus. The praetor or consul who appeared in the ponipa circensis wore the robes of a triumphing general (see Mommsen, Staatsrec/zt I. 397 for the connection of the triumph with the ludi). Thus, when it became customary for the consul to celebrate games at the opening of the consular year, he came, under the empire, to appear in triumphal robes in the processus consularis, or procession of the consul to the Capitol to sacrifice to Jupiter.
After the establishment of Christianity, the consular processions in Constantinople retained their religious character, now proceeding to Hagia Sophia, where prayers and offerings were made; but in Rome, where Christianity was not so widely spread among the upper classes, the tendency was to convert the procession into a purely civil function, omitting the pagan rites and prayers, without substituting Christian ones. Besides these public processions, there were others connected with the primitive worship of the country people, which remained unchanged, and were later to influence the worship of the Christian Church. Such were those of the Ambarvalia, Robigalia, which were essentially rustic festivals, lustrations of the fields, consisting in a procession round the spot to be purified leading the sacrificial victims with prayers, hymns and cere monies, in order to protect the young crops from evil influences.
Tertullian (2nd century) uses processio and procedere in the sense of to go out, appear in public, and, as applied to a church function, processio was first used in the same way as collecta, i.e. for the assembly of the people in the church. In this sense it appears to be used by Pope Leo I, while in the version by Dionysius Exiguus of the 17th canon of the Council of Laodicaea ouv&~eoi, is translated by processionibus.
For the processions that formed part of the ritual of the eucharist, those of the introit, the gospel and the oblation, the earliest records date from the 6th century and even later, but they evidently were established at a much earlier date. As to public processions, these seem to have come into rapid vogue after the recognition of Christianity as the religion of the empire. Those at Jerusalem would seem to have been long established when described by the authoress of the Peregrinatio Silviae towards the end of the 4th century.
Very early were the processions accompanied by hymns and prayers, known as litaniae, rogationes or supplicationes. It is to such a procession that reference appears to be made in a letter of St Basil , which would thus be the first recorded mention of a public Christian procession. The first mention for the Western Church occurs in St Ambrose . In both these cases the litanies are stated to have been long in use. There is also mention of a procession accompanied by hymns, organized at Constantinople by St John Chrysostom (c. 390-400) in opposition to a procession of Arians, in Sozomen. In times of calamity litanies were held, in which the people walked in robes of penitence, fasting, barefooted, and, in later times, frequently dressed in black (litaniae nigrae). The cross was carried at the head of the procession and often the gospel and the relics of the saint were carried. Gregory of Tours gives numerous instances of such litanies in time of calamity; thus he describes a procession of the clergy and people round the city, in which relics of St Remigius were carried and litanies chanted in order to avert the plague. So, too, Gregory the Great writes to the Sicilian bishops to hold processions in order to prevent a threatened invasion of Sicily. A famous instance of these penitential litanies is the lania septiformis ordered by Gregory the Great in the year 590, when Rome had been inundated and pestilence had followed.
In this litany seven processions, of clergy, laymen, monks, nuns, matrons, the poor, and children respectively, starting from seven different churches, proceeding to hear mass at Sta Maria Maggiore. This litany has often been confused with the litania major, introduced at Rome in 598 (vide supra) , but is quite distinct from it. Funeral processions, accompanied with singing and the carrying of lighted tapers, were very early customary (see ceremonial use of lights), and akin to these, also very early, were the processions connected with the translation of the relics of martyrs from their original burying place to the church where they were to be enshrined. From the time of the emperor Constantine I these processions were of great magnificence.
Some liturgists maintain that the early Church in its processions followed Old Testament precedents, quoting such cases as the procession of the ark round the walls of Christian Jericho, the procession of David with the ark, the processions of thanksgiving on the return from captivity, &c. The liturgy of the early Church as Duchesne shows was influenced by that of the Jewish synagogue, but the theory that the Church adopted the Old Testament ritual is of quite late growth.
Festivals involving processions were adopted by the Christian Church from the pagan calendar of Rome. The litaniae majores et minores, which are stated by Hermann Usener to have been first instituted by Pope Liberius (352-366). It is generally acknowledged that they are the equivalent of the Christian Church of the Roman lustrations of the crops in spring, the Ambarvalia, &c. The litania major, or great procession on St Mark's day (April 25) is shown to coincide both in date and ritual with the Roman Robigalia, which took place ad. vii. Kal. Mai., and consisted in a procession leaving Rome by the Flaminian gate, and proceeding by way of the Milvian bridge to a sanctuary at the 5th milestone of the Via Claudia, where the flamen quirinalis sacrificed a dog and a sheep to avert blight (robigo) from the crops. The litania major followed the same route as far as the Milvian bridge, when it turned off and returned to St Peter's, where mass was celebrated. This was already established as an annual festival by 598, as is shown by a document of Gregory the Great which inculcates the duty of celebrating litaniam, quae major ab omnibus appellatur. The litaniae minores or rogations, held on the three days preceding Ascension Day, were first introduced into Gaul by Bishop Mamertus of Vienne (c. 470), and made binding for all Gaul by the First Council of Orleans (511). The litaniae minores were also adopted for these three days in Rome by Pope Leo III (c. 800).
A description of the institution and character of the Ascensiontide rogations is given by Sidonius Apollinaris. The solemnity of these, he says, was first established by Mamertus. Hitherto they had been erratic, lukewarm and poorly attended (vagae, tepentes, infrequentesque); those which he instituted were characterized by fasting, prayers, psalms and tears. In the Ambrosian rite the rogations take place after Ascension, and in the Spanish on the Thursday to Saturday after Whitsuntide, and in November (Synod of Girona, 517).
It is impossible to describe in detail the vast development of processions during the Middle Ages. The most important and characteristic of these still have a place in the ritual of the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church. For Roman Catholics, the rules governing them are laid down in the Rituale Romanum (Tit. ix.), and they are classified in the following way:
There are also processions of honor, for instance to meet a royal personage, or the bishop on his first entry into his diocese (Pontif. Tom. iii.). Those taking part in processions are to walk bare-headed (weather permitting), two and two, in decent costume, and with reverent mien; clergy and laity, men and women, are to walk separately. The cross is carried at the head of the procession, and banners embroidered with sacred pictures in places where this is customary; these banners must not be of military or triangular shape. Violet is the color prescribed for processions, except on the Feast of Corpus Christi, or on a day when some other color is prescribed. The officiating priest wears a cope, or at least a surplice with a violet stole, the other priests and clergy wear surplices.
Where the host is carried in procession it is covered always by a canopy, and accompanied by lights. At the litaniae majores and ininores and other penitential processions, joyful hymns are not allowed, but the litanies are sung, and, if the length of the procession requires, the penitential and gradual psalms. As to the discipline regarding processions the bishop, according to the Council of Trent (Sess. 25 de reg. cap. 6), appoints and regulates processions and public prayers outside the churches.
The observance or variation of the discipline belongs to the Congregation of Rites; in pontifical processions, which are regulated by the masters of the ceremonies (magistri ceremoniarum pontificalium), these points are decided by the chief cardinal deacon. As to processions within the churches, some difference of opinion having arisen as to the regulating authority, the Congregation of Rites has decided that the bishop must ask, though not necessarily follow, the advice of the chapter in their regulation.
Reformed Churches. The Reformation abolished in all Protestant countries those processions associated with the doctrine of transubstantiation (Corpus Christi); the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, according to the 28th Article of Religion of the Church of England was not by Christs ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped. It also abolished those associated with the cult of the Blessed Virgin and the saints. The stern simplicity of Calvinism, indeed, would not tolerate religious processions of any kind, and from the Reformed Churches they vanished altogether. The more conservative temper of the Anglican and Lutheran communions, however, suffered the retention of such processions as did not conflict with the reformed doctrines, though even in these Churches they met with opposition and tended after a while to fall into disuse.
The Lutheran practice has varied at different times and in different countries. Thus, according to the Württemberg Kirchenordnung of 1553, a funeral procession was prescribed, the bier being followed by the congregation singing hymns; the Brandenburg Kirchenordnung (1540) directed a cross-bearer to precede the procession and lighted candles to be carried, and this was prescribed also by the Waldeck Kirchenordnung of 1556. At present funeral processions survive in general only in the country districts; the processional cross or crucifix is still carried. In some provinces also the Lutheran Church has retained the ancient rogation processions in the week before Whitsuntide and, in some cases, in the month of May or on special occasions (e.g. days of humiliation, Busstage), processions about the fields to ask a blessing on the crops. On these occasions the ancient litanies are still used.
In a narrower sense of going forth, proceeding, the term is used in the technical language of theology in the phrase Procession of the Holy Ghost, expressing the relation of the Third Person in the Triune Godhead to the Father and the Son.