What makes a Mass ‘Pontifical’ Print
What's That All About
Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016 -- 12:00 AM

What's That All About column by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

The third in a series by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf about the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

In this installment we can finally get into the nitty-gritty of what Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison does when he celebrates a “Pontifical Mass at the Throne” in the older, traditional, Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite as it has been for centuries before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

In the traditional form of Holy Mass there are distinct levels of solemnity, each carefully regulated.

For Masses of priests, we have “Low,” “High,” and “Solemn” Masses.

At Low Mass, all the texts are spoken, no incense is used, and you will see one or two altar boys.

At “High Mass,” also called “Sung Mass,” incense is used, the texts of Mass are sung (usually in Gregorian Chant, for the prayers that change according to the occasion, and in polyphonic settings in for the regular, unchanging Ordinary parts), and more servers are needed.

At “Solemn Mass,” we have all the smells and bells and chants, but also the services of a deacon and a subdeacon (which roles can be filled by priests).

Pontifical Masses

When a bishop celebrates with the Extraordinary Form, the Masses are called “Pontifical” (from Latin pontifex, literally “bridge builder,” which means “bishop”).

Bishops have the option of Pontifical Low Mass (which is a little more elaborate than how a priest says Low Mass), and Pontifical Mass either “at the Faldstool,” or “at the Throne”.

A “faldstool” is a chair placed in the middle of the sanctuary where the bishop sits and preaches.

“Throne” refers to the local bishop’s special chair, the cathedra, the great symbol of his teaching authority.

The cathedra, or “throne,” is placed against a side wall of the sanctuary.

The real cathedra is in the bishop’s cathedral church.

A cathedral is so called because that’s where the cathedra is.

Alas, our cathedral in Madison was destroyed by fire some years ago.

A symbolic “throne” can be set up anywhere in his diocese, and it can even be quite simple.

For both Pontifical Masses at the Faldstool and at the Throne, everything is sung and many servers are added to handle the objects the bishop uses.

The bishop also has the help of an assistant priest, a deacon, and a subdeacon.

When he is at the “throne,” he has two additional deacons at his side.

In the ancient Church, the bishop was surrounded by his deacons while the priests were sidelined.

Other officials of the diocese may be present and even have liturgical roles.

This multiplication of servers and ministers reflects the ideal that when the bishop celebrates Mass, the entire diocese is symbolically present there with him.

Even the bishop’s private Masses would have the service of his secretaries.

A bishop’s Mass embraces his whole flock. It is an official act, even when private. Therefore, in solemn public Masses great attention is given also to the instruments of the bishop’s office: his miter and crozier or staff, his ring and coat-of-arms, and so forth. They symbolize the bishop’s ministry to all the people and remind the bishop of his grave responsibilities.

‘Trappings’ of the office

The outward “trappings” of the priest’s and bishop’s office are not for the individual priest’s glorification.

God’s chosen People, the Jews, tended and pampered the spotless Passover lamb, their sacrificial victim, setting it apart and making much of it . . . right up to the point when they slashed its neck open and bleed it out.

Similarly, we put fine vestments on our bishop and priest and show him respect during the sacred liturgy because, at the altar of sacrifice, he is not just the priest, he is also the victim, not in the bloody sense, but in the sacramental sense: he is alter Christus, another Christ for you.

To be continued . . .


Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, “Father Z”, a Catholic priest ordained by St. John Paul II, has a background in classical language and patristic theology and worked in the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei.” He has been a weekly columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald and runs his award-winning blog (fatherzonline.com). He lives and works in the Diocese of Madison and travels, giving talks, conferences, and retreats.