ROME, 18 MARCH 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q1: I have often seen the Mass of the Chrism described as the
"Pontifical Mass of the Chrism." Is this correct and, if so, what
attributes make it (or any other Mass) pontifical? Also, I have been to
a number of Masses where the cardinal archbishop of the diocese is the
presider/celebrant. I have noticed that he usually has the deacon read
or chant the Gospel, and when the deacon does this, the master of
ceremonies hands the bishop his crosier at the start of the Gospel
acclamation and holds it until the Gospel is finished. What is the
significance of this action? During the Mass of the Chrism, the bishop
and priests assembled renew their commitment to priestly service. I
remember one of the prayers of the faithful that the bishop prays is for
himself, and in that prayer I have heard him pray that he, as bishop,
will "speak with a prophetic voice." Are there "standard forms" for this
prayer in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal or other
liturgical documents, or are there only guidelines as to what this
prayer should cover?
Q2: Can you explain the origins of the Exultet and why choirs and lay
cantors have seemingly become the principal proclaimers over that of the
J.M., Niceville, Florida
A1: The expression "Pontifical Mass" refers to any solemn Mass
celebrated by a diocesan bishop (or an abbot) as high priest of his
flock. It is not reserved to a Mass celebrated by the Holy Father.
This Mass is usually considered as a sign of unity in the Church and is
celebrated on important feasts and anniversaries with full ceremonial
and the complete complement of ministers: concelebrating priests,
deacons, acolytes, lectors and the full, active participation of all
God's holy people. It is usually also a sung Mass (cf. Ceremonial of
Bishops, Nos. 119-121).
While the terms "Pontifical Mass" and "Pontifical High Mass" are still
used in current speech, the 1984 Ceremonial of Bishops no longer uses
this expression. It officially refers to this Mass as the "Stational
Mass of the Diocesan Bishop," thereby reintroducing an ancient
According to the Ceremonial of Bishops (No. 59), the bishop carries the
crosier or pastoral staff in his own territory as a sign of his pastoral
office. As a general rule the bishop holds the staff, "its curved head
turned away from himself and towards the people: as he walks in
procession, listens to the Gospel reading, and gives the homily; also
when receiving religious vows and promises or a profession of faith and
when he bestows a blessing on persons, unless the blessing includes the
laying on of hands."
Whenever the diocesan bishop permits another bishop to celebrate a
solemn Mass within his territory, the visiting bishop may also use the
Although the Roman Missal provides texts for the prayers for the renewal
of commitment to priestly service, the rubric in the English version of
the missal says that the bishop speaks to the priests and the people "in
these or similar words."
In the text provided in the missal the bishop addresses the people:
"Pray also for me that despite my own unworthiness I may faithfully
fulfil the office of apostle which Jesus Christ has entrusted to me.
Pray that I may become more like our High Priest and Good Shepherd, the
teacher and servant of all, and so be a genuine sign of Christ's loving
presence among you."
I suppose that the prayer heard by our reader was a legitimate variation
of this text which implores prayers for the bishop to fearlessly preach
the Gospel with an authentically prophetic voice.
A2: The origin of the Exultet is intimately connected to that of the
Easter candle. We dealt with this theme in our column of April 3, 2007.
In this column we wrote: "There is clear evidence that this solemn rite
began no later than the second half of the fourth century. For example,
the use of singing a hymn in praise of the candle and the Easter mystery
is mentioned as an established custom in a letter of St. Jerome, written
in 384 to Presidio, a deacon from Piacenza, Italy.
"Sts. Ambrose and Augustine are also known to have composed such Easter
proclamations. The poetic and solemn text of the 'Exultet,' or Easter
proclamation now in use, originated in the fifth century but its author
Singing the Exultet is a proper function of a deacon although the priest
may also do so. If this is not possible, another cantor may sing the
Some vernacular versions of the Exultet also allow for the introduction
of choral parts and responses. But this does not exclude the fact that
the deacon or priest may also sing the proper parts.
In some places it appears that choirs and lay cantors have replaced the
ordained ministers. This probably has more to do with the level of
musical preparation of the clergy than with any designs of usurpation.
From personal experience I know how much time one has to invest so that
this wonderful, and only apparently simple, melody truly ascends to God
as an authentic prayer. It is understandable why some deacons and
priests balk at the challenge rather than risk executing the Easter
proclamation in every possible sense of the word.
* * *
Follow-up: On "Pontifical Masses" [4-8-2008]
Related to our piece on the "Pontifical Mass of the Chrism" (see March
18), a Dallas, Texas, reader asked: "I recently heard of a diocese with
two co-cathedrals having two Chrism Masses each year. Is this proper,
given the fact that it seems to take away from the sign of the oneness
of the diocesan celebration? Are their any norms or standard practices
for dioceses with two cathedrals in regards to Chrism Masses?"
The Holy See's Circular Letter on celebrating this feast says the
following regarding the Chrism Mass:
"35. The Chrism Mass, which the bishop concelebrates with his
presbyterium, and at which the Holy Chrism is consecrated and the oils
blessed, manifests the communion of the priests with their bishop in the
same priesthood and ministry of Christ.  The priests who
concelebrate with the bishop should come to this Mass from different
parts of the diocese, thus showing in the consecration of the Chrism to
be his witnesses and cooperators, just as in their daily ministry, they
are his helpers and counselors.
"The faithful are also to be encouraged to participate in this Mass and
to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist.
"Traditionally, the Chrism Mass is celebrated on the Thursday of Holy
Week. If, however, it should prove to be difficult for the clergy and
people to gather with the bishop, this rite can be transferred to
another day, but one always close to Easter. The Chrism and the oil of
catechumens is to be used in the celebration of the sacraments of
initiation on Easter night.
"36. There should be only one celebration of the Chrism Mass, given its
significance in the life of the diocese, and it should take place in the
cathedral or, for pastoral reasons, in another church that has a special
"The Holy oils can be brought to the individual parishes before the
celebration of the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper, or at some other
suitable time. This can be a means of catechizing the faithful about the
use and effects of the Holy oils and Chrism in Christian life."
Therefore it is clear that in principle there should be only one Chrism
Mass per diocese, even if there is more than one cathedral.
Even if there are more churches with the title of "cathedral," each
diocese, properly speaking, has only one.
The multiplication of cathedrals usually comes about due to some
historic circumstances, such as when a new cathedral is built on a site
different from the old, when dioceses are amalgamated, or when the
bishop's principal residence is transferred to another town within the
One case in which two Chrism Masses would be justified is when two
dioceses are united in the person of the bishop without formally
establishing a new unified diocese. In this situation the prelate is
bishop of two dioceses, but the clergy are incardinated in only one of
the two. A similar situation is when one bishop temporarily
administrates another diocese during the vacancy of the episcopal see.