A Ceremonial Overview of the Solemn Pontifical Mass in the Presence of the Pope (Coram Summo Pontifice)

The following is a description of the Missa Pontificalis coram Summo Pontifice (Solemn Pontifical Mass celebrated in the presence of the Supreme Pontiff) as it would have been celebrated traditionally for the papal chapel in places such as the Sistine Chapel with the pope in attendance, the cardinals of the Roman curia, and other invited attendees. It should be noted this is distinct from the Solemn Papal Mass proper which was a form of Papal Mass which was done infrequently, being mainly in evidence for events like papal coronations and the canonizations of new saints. While those were rare liturgical events, Masses such as these were far more common as part of the liturgical observances of the Holy See which liturgically functioned very much like its own parish community in many regards. It was within this context that the Pope and the Curia would gather together to observe times like the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, Good Friday, Palm Sunday and so on. 

For those familiar with the usus antiquior, particularly in its Solemn Pontifical form, one will find much here that you will be familiar with -- and also some notable differences. For those not so familiar, either for lack of having attended a Solemn Mass in the usus antiquior, or only being familiar with the modern, Pauline rite of liturgy, this will likely be nearly entirely foreign to you -- which is arguably an damning indictment of the liturgical impoverishment of our times since these rites not only represent some of the highest liturgical expressions in Christendom, but also signify a general loss of familiarity with the venerable patrimony of the Roman rite. One might say it is rather akin to not knowing one's own parents and grandparents.

To make the material more consumable, I shall utilize point form -- with the understanding that this is not intended to be an exhaustive ceremonial treatment (and as such, I exclude a lot of the general ceremonial), nor necessarily a 10,000 foot overview either. It sits somewhere in between, attempting to give enough details for you to understand the flow of the liturgy as it related especially to the pope, but not so detailed as to mire one in the minute details.

With that in mind, we now present overview of the Solemn Pontifical Mass offered in the presence of the Pope. To set the scene, one must picture the Sistine Chapel (though such Masses also took place in other places in Rome of course).  Inside the balustrade are set textile covered benches where the cardinals and their attendants will sit. The high altar is covered with a burgundy red velvet canopy (tester) and behind it hangs another curtain of velvet that reaches from the tester to the altar itself (the dossal); upon this is placed a large tapestry that has some particular relevance to the liturgy being celebrated that day. To the left is the throne of the throne of the pope, it too covered with a similar canopy and dossal-like curtain. Before the altar is set a faldstool where the celebrating Cardinal will sit. 

  • The Procession. The pope approaches altar vested in alb, falda, papal slippers or sandals, stole, mitre and the papal mantum (the long trained papal cope) and proceeds to the foot of the altar where he recites the prayers at the foot of the altar along with the cardinal-celebrant (hereafter: "CC"). Of note here is that all of the other prelates also present at chapel also join in reciting these same prayers. (We refer here to the prayers that open the Mass in the immemorial Roman rite, the "Introibo ad altare Dei", etc. with the various responses, prayers that are found in the lowliest of Low Masses to up to the heights of the Solemn Papal Mass.)

The pope and cardinal-celebrant reciting the prayers at the Foot of the Altar
  • At the "Indulgentiam" the CC takes the maniple and puts it on (just as in a regular Solemn Pontifical Mass) and continues the prayers with the deacon and subdeacon of the Mass. At the same time, the two cardinal-assistants (hereafter, "CA") approach the pope to conclude the same prayers with the pontiff.
  • After the conclusion of these opening prayers, the CA then puts the mitre on the pope, the pope gives benediction to the college of cardinals and ascends to the throne (with attendants assisting with the falda and mantum)
  • During this time, the schola is chanting the Introit and, once complete, intones the Kyrie at which time the pope sits at the throne.

  • The cardinals now come in order of seniority and first bow before the altar and then give their simple obedience to the pope, bowing toward him at the foot of the throne, they proceed up the steps and kiss the pontiff's foot/hand, embrace him and then greet the cardinal assistants at the throne with a slight bow and then returns to his place

  • As the obedience reaches the rank of the cardinal-priests, the first cardinal-priest kneels and kisses the pope's ring and the spoon for the incense, incense is then imposed and the pope then blesses the incense and the thurible is brought to the deacon of the Mass who gives it to the CC to incense the altar, which is done concurrently while the cardinals' obedience continues. (It is worth noting that  the obedience is dispensed with in the context of Requiem Masses, Good Friday and Matins.) The choir continues with the singing of the Kyrie (frequently a setting by Palestrina) so long as the obedience is taking place. 
  • At the conclusion of the obedience and Kyrie, the first cardinal-priest then goes and kneels before the pope, who remains seated on his throne, and incenses the pontiff three times while the cardinal-assistants hold open the edges of the papal mantum.
  • The cardinals then gather in the middle of the chapel, forming a circle, where they together recite the Kyrie and Gloria together; the other prelates do so as well but in their respective places.

Note: This photo is intended to merely demonstrate the above rubric. It is actually taking place at the Gospel at a Missa coram Summo Pontifice taking place in Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
  • The pope's mitre is taken off and held by a patriarch, archbishop or assistant bishop while kneeling and another holds the bugia with candle.  The pope stands and recites the Introit of the Mass, after which the CC intones the Gloria and the schola concludes the singing of it. At the conclusion of the Gloria, the pope blesses the cardinals, still in their circular formation, who then return to their places after the pope sits. The CC and deacon and subdeacon the sit in their places at the steps in front of the altar, while the others take their respective seats on the steps, benches, etc.
  • The subdeacon, with an acolyte attending him, then chants the epistle of the Mass. When completed he goes to the papal throne and kisses the foot of the pope and then returns to his place by the CC who then, himself, reads the epistle from the missal. The choir intones the Gradual (which is completed when the pope concludes himself reading the epistle and gospel)

  • The Gospel. As before, the pope blesses the incense; the Deacon of the Mass ascends to the throne and kisses the pope's foot, then returns to the altar and prays the Munda Cor Meum. He then takes the book of the gospels and goes before the papal throne, kneels and asks for the usual blessing ("Jube, Domne benedicere."). The pope responds and gives his blessing to the deacon (who, as usual, is accompanied by the subdeacon and two acolytes, the thurifer and the boat). Facing toward the altar the deacon chants the gospel of the Mass. 

  • At the conclusion of gospel, the subdeacon takes the open book of the gospels to the papal throne to be kissed by the pope; the assistant cardinal priest then takes the thurible and incenses the pope three times (who is still standing and without mitre); all then sit for the sermon/homily.
  • The papal preacher then ascends to the papal throne with the Master of Ceremonies (MC) and kisses the foot of the pope and asks, "Jube, Domne benedicere" and the pope blesses him with a triple sign of the cross. The pope then indicates the indulgence to be granted. The papal preacher rises, genuflects toward the pope and then acknowledges the CC seated before the altar on the faldstool and ascends the pulpit where he kneels and prays the Ave Maria. The homily is then preached.

  • At the conclusion of the homily, the deacon of the Mass recites the Confiteor at the foot of the papal throne; he genuflects on two occasions toward the pope at the words "et tibi pater"; seeing that, the indulgence the pope indicated is announced by the papal preacher (who remains at the pulpit), inviting them to pray for the Church and the Pope. The papal preacher then descends from the pulpit and, accompanied by the MC, goes to the sacristy. 
  • The Cardinal-Celebrant now intones the Credo and at this point the cardinals once again join into a circle in the middle of the chapel to recite it together, bending to one knee at the "Et Incarnatus est." Once the creed is concluded the pope once again blesses the cardinals who the return to their places. During this time, the schola sings the Credo. 
  • At the conclusion of the Creed, the prelates who are seated on the steps of the presbyterium and throne arise and the schola begins to sing the offertory or motet (generally a composition by Palestrina); the CC's mitre is removed and his attendant gentleman brings the ewer and basin to him so that he may purify his fingers. Standing up, the CC is blessed by the pope and then proceeds to the altar with the deacon and subdeacon of the Mass for the offertory and the offertory chant is sung.
  • The pope once again blesses the incense in the same way as before while the subdeacon is vested in the humeral veil and brings forth the cruets containing the wine and water. The deacon carries the thurible to the CC at the altar who then incenses the altar. When that is finished, the CC receives the mitre and is incensed twice by the deacon of the Mass. He then purifies his fingers once again.
  • The first cardinal-priest descends from the papal throne with the MC and receives the thurible from the deacon, goes back to the papal throne and, while kneeling, incenses the pope three times (who remains seated on his throne and wearing the mitre); the cardinal-priest resumes his place by the pope at the steps of the throne and is then himself incensed along with the cardinal-assistants at the throne by the deacon of the Mass (who genuflects each time toward the pope). All of the cardinals and dignitaries in the chapel now arise, removing their zucchetto and handing it to their assistants who remain seated before them (so as to not interfere with the incensation). Each cardinal greets the other next to him before being incensed by the deacon. 
  • The offertory chant is concluded by the schola when only a few cardinals remain to be incensed and the MC informs the CC who then intones the Preface of the Mass while the deacon concludes the incensations.

  • Just prior to the Sanctus, the cardinals once again re-assemble in a circle in the middle of the presbytery of the chapel and recite the Sanctus together. Once finished, they are again blessed by the pope and return to their places and kneel.
  • The pope descends from the throne while the schola sings the Sanctus and kneels at the prie-dieu that two servers have now setup before the steps at the centre of the altar. The Cardinal assistants come with him, carrying his mantum and falda. A cardinal-assistant removes the popes mitre and gives it to the Dean of the Rota; once the pope kneels, they kneel behind the pope. The two cardinal-assistants to the pope kneel in front of their seats at the throne. 

  • Two MC's arrange the falda and mantum of the pope in a suitable way (and the first MC will remove the zucchetto of the pope at the moment of the consecration); the patriarchs and assistants line up two by two and kneel behind the pope as well. 

  • Four chaplains carrying lit torches proceed from the sacristy and kneel on the steps before the altar, to either side of the celebrant in preparation for the consecration.
  • At the elevations at the consecration, there is neither music, nor is any bell rung; the MC, kneeling on the epistle side of the altar incenses at the elevation (during this, the Noble Guard kneel and remove their hats and swords while the Swiss guards kneel only on one knee); all others kneel as usual. 
  • The MC places the pope's zucchetto back on his head, the pope stands, the cardinal-assistant places the mitre on the pope who then returns to the papal throne where he remains standing; once at the throne his mitre is removed once again (and so remains until the CC has consumed the sacred species). 
  • At the same time, the schola now sings the Benedictus and, once concluded, the CC concludes the Canon with the "per omnia saecula saeculorum" and all respond "Amen." He proceeds to chant the Pater Noster.
  • The cardinals once again return to the middle of the presbytery, kneel in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and then arise to recite the Agnus Dei together. When the CC sings the "Pax Domini" they kneel in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and then arise and receive the papal blessing, then returning again to their places.
  • The first cardinal-priest, accompanied by the MC, with his choir cassock train let down, proceeds to the altar, kneels beside the CC, rises and receives the kiss of peace, which he then carries to the pope at the throne; the cardinal-priest then passes it to the cardinal-assistants at the throne and from there each passes the peace to the person beside him saying "pax tecum" and embracing in the usual ceremonial fashion.
  • When the CC has consumed the Blessed Sacrament, the schola intones the Communion verse; the CC purifies his fingers, receives the mitre again and then himself recites the communion verse. 
  • The Mass now concluding, the deacon chants the "Ite Missa Est" and the pope, with his mantum held by the assistants, then gives the final benediction. 
  • The CC recites the Last Gospel while he is processing out of the chapel, concluding it within the sacristy. The pope descends from the throne and gives his blessing to the college of cardinals, goes and kneels in prayer at the prie-dieu before the altar once again before finally processing out of the chapel. 
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