On Pontifical Masses, and the Exultet

Author: Father Edward McNamara


On Pontifical Masses, and the Exultet


Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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? — E.G., Chicago

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 clergy? — 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 formulation.

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 pastoral staff.

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 is unknown."

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 Exultet.

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.

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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. [38] 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 significance.

"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 same diocese.

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.

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