Papal Master of Ceremonies: Monsignor Enrico Dante


One of the greatest liturgical minds of the twentieth century was Monsignor Enrico Dante (1884-1967).  He was chosen among many to be the papal Master of Ceremonies for three important decades that culminated with a General Council of the Church.  April 24th is the anniversary of his passing at age 82.  Dante most certainly embodied the aura of a golden age of papal liturgies.  


Dante is easily recognized, seen standing next to popes - in oriental refinement - in cultured elegance in behavior and manner.  His comportment at the altar was nothing short of outstanding.  He was the epitome of Roman style, seen vested in a cotta over the rochet (both pressed in griccia style with handmade lace apparel); in those days a requirement for prelates serving the pope at the altar.  He was the architect behind papal liturgies of the pontificates of Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI.  As Master of Ceremonies for the popes, he was the glue that held the intricate papal liturgies together.  Those days saw the advent of new photographic technologies and color photography -- these images give precious testimony of the splendor and imagination of the old Papal Chapel and Court.  The liturgical celebrations would commence such a spectacle of beauty, a scene such as could only be beheld in Rome and the Vatican.  The faithful would return home with their eyes full of joy and their hearts full of reverence.



Even today Dante has a large following among liturgy aficionado types.  Some pilgrims make sure to visit his tomb when in Rome.  He is buried in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Agatha of the Goths (Sant'Agata de' Goti), today the titular church of Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, located just down the street behind the Angelicum.  Ask at the sacristy to see the downstairs crypt and the sacristan will open the door and turn on the light. 


Dante was entrusted with both assisting and overseeing some of the most beautiful sacred functions ever recorded on film.  Those were years of prestige, baroque elegance and beauty when the lofty liturgies were glittering in the radiance of the eastern sun, with so many subtle Byzantine elements.  The liturgies were built to last forever, as long as the papacy itself.  The center of Dante's job was the priestly rite, the supreme comfort - assisting the Holy Father at the altar with Holy Mass.  In many ways he resembled one of Fra Angelico's glorious saints, having walked out and come down from a frescoed wall only to do a great service and then to turn away.  I can certainly say myself no man at the altar so impressed me with the idea of one who is so in command of his sacred role of Cerimoniere.  "How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts!  My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord."  

In the last few years of his tenure the winds of change were gathering and soon the storm of revolution had gained the momentum of a freight train.  Change was in the air and the revolutionary spirit was unstoppable by many accounts.  Overnight the rites were all revised and simplified.  Today historians and curious liturgists are left studying and marveling over these precious rites of antiquity which had survived into our own modern times, now abolished, while recorded forever in old Caeremoniale books from the sacristy of the Vatican Basilica, today mostly kept in the Vatican Library.  Mons. Dante was the last papal M.C. before the extra "stuff" was abolished. The sacred drama of papal liturgies in those days was a glittering array of great titles and personages that included such colorful extras as the stately Noble Guard and the Knights of the Cloak and Sword, the custodians of the Pope's person.  The local aristocracy of rank and intellect were included with special roles.  The Roman nobility, Royal houses of Europe, and high church dignitaries together with the diplomatic body accredited to the Holy See played a big part in papal liturgies, assuring high court dignitaries were present, bearing the various insignia of royal and chivalric orders and military decorations of honor.  The sediari dressed in their brilliant red brocade costumes carried the pope in a grand entrance on his sedia gestatoria.  The Maestro di Camera, or high chamberlain to His Holiness, was always present.  Visitors would stand in awe with emotion, the scene resembling the heavenly court on high in the presence of that Awful Majesty, God Himself, surrounded by angelic and saintly multitudes, lifting the soul up as if to see the Beatific Vision in heaven.

Less than a year after Dante passed away, the Papal Court and Chapel were shaken up with the motu proprio Pontificalis Domus, effectively abolishing the protocols of centuries, bringing to mind in some ways the old Irish proverb: "Before you take down a fence, first ask why it was put up."  The wisdom and traditions of the centuries were taken down in favor of starting over while the roles in the Papal Chapel were drastically reordered.  In short, the days of the intricate papal "pharaoh" liturgies were over, when liturgies were resplendent in jeweled raiment.  People had grown tired of greatness.  Roles that were suppressed included the offices of the Acolyte Ceroferari, the Common Papal Chaplain, Porter-Masters of the Virga Rubea, the Secret Chaplain and Secret Chaplain of honor, the Secret Cleric, and more. 

A lot can be said of Monsignor Dante and the lost majesty of papal liturgies of those days.  I recommend the link to his Wiki page for a brief biography.  Alas, I wish some intrepid historian would write his life story.  Dante was born in Rome and rose to be Prefect of Pontifical Ceremonies from 1947 until 1965.  He was ordained in Rome in 1910 and got his start in papal liturgies in 1914 when he joined the College of Monsignori Maestri delle Cerimonie Pontificie (Masters of Pontifical Ceremonies).  This venerable office of Magistri Caeremoniarum Apostolicarum was founded by Pius IV in 1563, already having been constituted a Romanis Pontificibus ab immemorabili tempore.  The Magistri Caeremoniarum S.R.E. et Sedis Apostolicae  formed a collegium under a praefectus, elected by the pope himself.  The other members, Masters of Ceremonies, were elected by the Secretary of State of His Holiness and confirmed by the pope.  On May 15, 1943 Dante was named a Domestic Prelate.  After years of working in the S. Congregazione dei Riti (Sacred Congregation of Rites), founded by Sixtus V in 1588, Dante rose from substitute to secretary in 1960.  During this time he was also sometime the under-secretary of the S. Congregazione Cerimoniale (Sacred Congregation of Ceremonies), also founded by Sixtus V in 1588.  He was consecrated bishop by Pope John XXIII on September 21, 1962, named Titular Archbishop of Carpasia (Carpasiensis, an ancient town on the island of Cyprus).  As a crowning merit he was created a Cardinal-Deacon on February 22, 1965.  He was also an emeritus academic of the Pontifical Academy (Academia Liturgica, founded by Benedict XIV in 1740).  He lived fifty-six years a priest and two years a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church and passed away on April 24, 1967.  In your charity kindly offer a prayer for the repose of his soul.

And one final thought.  There has long been debate about the level of demand for 1960's post-Vatican II reform of the old papal liturgy, and there is scant evidence of any serious pre-Vatican II call to reform it.  At least from the laity or priests.  Indeed, Vatican II makes no mention of the reform of papal liturgies.  For the most part, it can be said the quintessence of the revolutionary call to reform the liturgy came to a full head during the revolutionary fervor of the sixties and it piggybacked its way in the front door of the Church on the back of Sacrosanctum Concilium (which in my opinion was poorly written by committee and compromise and should not have been the first document issued by the Council).  As far as my research has led me, the driving forces in the world that began to effect the Church of that time are best explained in the book Revolution and Counter-Revolution, a profound study by the illustrious Catholic professor Plinio Correa de Oliveira.  I highly recommend this book for anyone seeking to understand the metamorphoses of the revolutionary process.  One of the author's best quotes reads thus: "If the Revolution is disorder, the Counter-Revolution is the restoration of order."   

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