Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Pontificalia I: what is pontifical Mass?

John Ruskin, the eminent art critic of the Victorian age and contemporary Gothicist to Augustus Welby Pugin, allegedly wrote once that, 

the apex of western civilization was pontifical high Mass in a Gothic cathedral. 

Having spent the past weeks with my eyes affixed on upcoming events (I'll be assisting a major pontifical Mass at my hometown parish for the Assumption in the Ordinariate Use, followed by an historic pontifical EF celebration of the 10th anniversary of Summorum Pontificum at the Cathedral Basilica in Philadelphia on the feast of the Holy Cross) I can see where Ruskin was coming from! The rites of Mass involving a bishop in his cathedral are so painstakingly detailed, with layer upon layer grown over like bark on a thousand-year old tree, that one can be forgiven for imagining that pontifical Mass was the axis around which the entire epoch of the Middle Ages and all it stood for revolved.... because, frankly, that's not far from the truth.

Today I start a new mini-series of posts which I'll call Pontificalia. I'll dedicate a post every few days or so on one or two miscellaneous items of pontificalia: starting with the obvious ones like the mitre and crozier and then working our way down to obscure details like the bugia (the hand-candle) and the praegustatio (the "pre-tasting" ceremony for spoiled bread and wine or, perhaps, poison).

But first, what is this all really about? What are "pontificals"? What exactly does it mean for a Mass to be "pontifical"? What did pontifical Mass look like in the Middle Ages? Why weren't bishops allowed to say Mass like an ordinary priest? And, is there even such a thing as pontifical Mass in the Ordinary Form?

What are "pontificals"?

Pontificals are things related to a pontifex. If you're lucky enough to even find someone who's familiar with that word, they tend to think that refers specifically to the Pope. Of course, the Pope is a pontifex (pontifex maximus, often translated as "Supreme Pontiff"), but the word more literally translates from Latin to "bridge-builder" and can refer to any bishop, or even some priests who have been granted pontifical privileges (more on that later). 

The two most iconic pontificals throughout the ages in the western Church are the mitre and crozier. These, thank God, are held onto dearly by even the most snake-belly-low church bishops in the present-day Church. Most bishops are also still comfortable with retaining the episcopal "bling": the ring and pectoral cross. Less known are the pontifical dalmatic and tunicle, gloves, and slippers; as well as smaller instruments like the bugia, the bishop's hand-candle. More broadly, pontificals can also refer to furnishings like the cathedra (throne) and faldstool or ceremonial privileges like being attended by two deacons at the throne, or an assistant-priest in cope. We'll go into detail about some of these later on.

What exactly does it mean for a Mass to be "pontifical"?

Most people would call any Mass said by a bishop to be a "pontifical Mass", but I don't think this is quite accurate. Traditionally, a pontifical Mass is really one that's celebrated by a bishop with all of the symbols or "trappings" of his office.... or a priest who has the privilege of using pontificals, like a mitred abbot or monsignor. In this understanding, phrases like "pontifical solemn Mass" or "pontifical high Mass", while descriptive for the average layman, are redundant because all pontifical Masses are solemn. Conversely, there's not really any such thing as "pontifical low Mass". Fortescue actually calls the latter "low Mass said by a bishop" since it's mostly the same as how a priest says Mass, with a few distinctions tacked on.

The Roman Rite prior to Vatican II had developed two kinds of pontifical Mass: "Mass at the Faldstool" and "Mass at the Throne". Any bishop could celebrate from the faldstool (a special folding-chair placed in the sanctuary), but only the Ordinary of the diocese could preside from a throne when within his own territory--unless he gave that permission to a visiting bishop. Cardinals alone had the right to celebrate from the throne anywhere outside of Rome without asking for permission. 

Pontifical Mass at the Throne was the supreme model from which all other forms of Mass were derived, but it was the hardest to organize because it assumed the Ordinary of the diocese was at his cathedral with all his canons and attendants: 2 deacons-of-honor at the throne, plus 4 chaplain-bearers in copes, train-bearer, and of course, his valet in addition to the assistant-priest, deacon and subdeacon of the Mass that were expected as a minimum for Mass at the Faldstool. The stringest requirements for Mass at the Throne meant that the diocesan bishop rarely pontificated at parish churches, and didn't even pontificate in his own cathedral all that often. If the bishop was making his annual rounds at the local parish for confirmations, he would have more likely just attended the pastor's Mass in choir dress or given confirmation as a standalone ceremony. A typical Sunday Mass at the cathedral, meanwhile, was celebrated by the dean or rector even if the bishop was around.

What did pontifical Mass look like in the Middle Ages?

We have abundant evidence for what pontifical Mass was supposed to look like in the "Tridentine" centuries because the ceremonial books after the Council of Trent (the Pontificale Romanum and Caeremoniale Episcoporum) were standardized and upheld even beyond Vatican II... but what about the "pre-Tridentine" Mass? 

Nearly all descriptions of the liturgy in the earliest centuries of the Church referred to pontifical Mass because that was the norm in practice as well as on paper. At first, the bishop was the usual celebrant of a single Mass for all the Christians in each city. As numbers grew, bishops then ordained priests to serve the needs of satellite communities outside of his own reach. The bishop's Mass, however, remained normative for written accounts of the liturgy. They must have been large affairs even at the time of the Council of Nicaea because canon 18 is spent ruling on the seating of deacons and priests in the church. The deacons had gotten so uppity that, according to the text, they were receiving Communion even before the bishops in some places. 

The oldest surviving books for pontifical ceremonies that I know of are the Ordines Romani (plural of Ordo Romanus, of which there are 15 in all), a series of texts going back to the age of Charlemagne and beyond, dealing with ceremonies for the church of the city of Rome. The model is naturally the papal Mass at the Throne, with the next level down being the Mass of an ordinary bishop at the Faldstool (where, in Rome, he would never dare preside at the Throne), then Masses for ordinary priests. So we can see that the basic distinctions for different kinds of Mass are hardly the elaborations of a decadent Baroque age, but go back to the early Middle Ages, when everyone from lord to peasant was struggling to survive.

The 10th-13th centuries gave rise to several major books, culminating in the Pontifical by Guillaume Durand, Bishop of Mende (d. 1296), aka Durandus. Durand's Pontifical drew from earlier works like the Germano-Roman Pontifical and the Pontifical of Innocent III's court, but was divided neatly into 3 sections, uncluttered by anything that didn't pertain directly to bishops or was exclusive to the Pope. It was a successful formula that became the basis for the first typical Pontificale Romanum in 1485, which was adapted by Burckhard (a famous papal MC) for the Roman Curia... and then, at last, the Pontifical of the Council of Trent (1595), which went further than Quo Primum by suppressing all other local pontificals throughout the Latin Rite, with no grandfather clauses for ancient rites. That means even if you could make a case for celebrating a Sarum Mass in England according to the exceptions of Quo Primum, you couldn't do the same for a Sarum ordination rite. 

The traditional Pontificale Romanum was last edited in 1961, during the pontificate of John XXIII. Still, since even at this time, the Pontificale was substantially the same as Burckhard's, which was likewise the same as Durand's, we can safely say that a pontifical Mass in the year 1960 was carried out more-or-less the same way as a pontifical Mass in the year 1260--allowing for differences in styles of vestments and church architecture, of course. This staggering continuity is as impressive for all of my dear readers as it was horrifyingly in need of a total makeover in the eyes of Bugnini and company.

Why weren't bishops allowed to say Mass like an ordinary priest?

Quite simply, because he isn't one. A bishop, upon his elevation to the episcopacy, was held to have surrendered his former identity and, in some sense, his ability to have a private life. (To this day, eastern bishops show this by ceasing entirely to use their family surnames.) This problem came up last week when the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei confirmed that a bishop isn't allowed to celebrate a "pontifical missa cantata" because the option just wasn't there in 1962. At that time, a bishop could celebrate Mass pontifically according to his station, or say a low Mass as though he were in his private chapel. That was it! The old restrictions proved to be the only things capable of preserving the medieval pontifical Mass into the 20th century. Once they were gone, the casual approach to liturgy in general did the rest.

Is there even such a thing as pontifical Mass in the Ordinary Form?

Ordinary Form Mass with Cardinal Sarah at the London Oratory, complete with assistant-priest in cope
I know it doesn't feel like there is! I can count on one hand the number of OF Masses I've been to which were ever billed as "pontifical". The phrase "pontifical Mass" appears just once, I believe, in the entire new Missal (para. 143, in reference to the pontifical blessing at the end of Mass). Ever since the new Ceremonial of Bishops came out in 1984, the preferred expression became the "Stational Mass of the Bishop". The phrase "Stational Mass" was pulled from the Church of late antiquity in reference to the church of Rome, when the Pope celebrated Mass at one of the great basilicas or shrines of the martyrs.

A Stational Mass, in the Ordinary Form, surprisingly still calls for two deacons at the throne in addition to the deacon of the Mass (though, as with most things, not an absolute requirement). You'll notice I didn't say anything about Mass at the Faldstool; all Stational Masses are now "Throne Masses" because even ordinary priests usually celebrate the fore-Mass from thrones (or "presidential chairs"). I assume the only time a distinction is made is that, perhaps, an auxiliary bishop might use a different chair other than the Ordinary's cathedra when celebrating at the cathedral.

There is, of course, no subdeacon, but there can be two deacons of the Mass to divide roles amongst each other. Oddly, a deacon who serves as MC is permitted to wear the dalmatic. Priests are forbidden from serving in the role of deacon or wearing the dalmatic, though, even in the absence of any deacons. They are instead to either concelebrate, attend in-choir, or serve as MC only. The rule against priests "dressing down" as deacons (in imitation of the eastern churches' prohibitions) seems to have only applied only to pontifical Mass at first, but is now a given for all Masses in the Ordinary Form these days.

The new Ceremonial of Bishops still explicitly mentions the pontifical dalmatic and even the cappa magna (for the solemn entrance) as options, but most of the other pontificalia are no longer mentioned. While a rare few communities like the London Oratory have preserved the use of the pontifical gloves and so on as a matter of custom, their omission in the new books has been interpreted by the Church at large to mean that they're practically abolished. Still, the new Ceremonial only gives one strict prohibition regarding pontificalia here, namely that a bishop is only allowed to wear one kind of mitre per Mass. (The old rite usually has him switch between two types at various points in the liturgy: precious and golden.)

Next time, we'll look more closely at the bishop's most distinctive apparel: the mitre, how it developed into its current shape, and why a bishop used different types even at the same Mass.

Pontificalia II: the mitre and crozier

Pontificalia III: the pontifical vestments


  1. "snake-bellied low-church bishops???" Interesting turn of phrase, I must say.

    1. It's a favorite appellation of high-church Anglicans to refer to their prelates who resent being treated as bishops.

    2. Most Catholic bishops (in my experience) seem to be as "low-church" as a Catholic bishop can possibly be. Which is rather disappointing, and why I love Bishops Lopes, Conley, and Slattery so much.

  2. Does the Ordinariate form allow priests to serve as deacons? I'm wondering because I'd like to ask a priest I know to serve as the deacon at my wedding (in the Ordinariate rite), and the priest who will be celebrating Mass hasn't said anything against that. It seems like a very foolish prohibition in the Ordinary Form. What is the Eastern reasoning behind this?

    1. Speaking strictly unofficially here, policy seems to vary between the three Ordinariates. For the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter (US/Canada) and Our Lady of Walsingham (UK), priests can and frequently do assist as deacons in the absence of the "permanent" kind. I've heard but can't confirm that the Ordinariate in Australia thinks differently. Though since the Divine Worship Missal explicitly authorizes priests to assist as subdeacons when necessary, it seems illogical to disallow them from serving as deacons, too.

      The eastern rites ban priests from serving as deacons or subdeacons because they consider it a form of dishonesty for a priest to vest beneath his station. However, the eastern Divine Liturgy allows for concelebrating priests to share responsibilities in a way that's much more natural than what we see in the Ordinary Form.

  3. Our Lady of the Atonement is having a pontifical Mass to install Fr. Lewis as pastor. I still don't understand what makes it pontifical. It sounds like the Pope is going to be there!

    1. Yes, I'll be there assisting at the altar. In short, the Mass is "pontifical" if the bishop (or abbot or other priest with pontifical privileges) is celebrating and is using the signs of their office: like wearing the mitre. Some forms of pontifical Mass are much more elaborate than others. The Extraordinary Form's pontifical Mass at the Throne is more elaborate for an ordinary bishop than a solemn papal Mass in the Ordinary Form today.

  4. It's disappointing to hear of the suppression of local pontificals. There may be something to this idea that some of our liturgical problems started with the perhaps excessive control exercised over the liturgy by St. Pius V. I, however, obviously do not contend with St. Pius V's authority to do such a thing.

    1. Yes, I keep finding the roots of problems in the acts of canonised popes... PV arrested the development of the liturgy (or reserved it to Rome) for good reasons, but powers could have been leaked back over the centuries since. Then 342 years later PX forces a new psalter on the whole Latin rite, which I consider the beginning of our current ailment.

    2. There were a few local adaptations to the Missal of S Pius V early on. The real trouble was less the Roman books than the erection of the SRC in 1588 circumvented any diversity in how the Missal was received.

  5. By the way, the nuncio is a greater prelate entitled to the throne, & the same is the case for apostolic delegates in their place of legation. Metropolitan archbishops can use the throne in their province, though on the epistle side.

    Krakow and Regensburg both have something like the fanon, retained by the Ordinary today. & Malta’s archbishop even brings out the cappa magna once a year.

  6. A few more thoughts: Cardinal Sarah bizarrely used the faldstool at Westminster.

    I also think that you make liturgy prior to VII more impoverished than it was. There were more priests per parish usually, the bishop had a priest secretary, and you could always pull from the deanery, even in a rural place. Certainly, in the missions, not doing things correctly wasn’t envisioned, because an apostolic delegate can use the throne–why let him if he’ll never do it?