Religion Wiki

A Pontifical Sung Mass, from a Missal of the Fifteenth Century. British Museum, 19897.

In the context of the Tridentine Mass of the Roman Catholic Church, a Pontifical High Mass, also called Solemn Pontifical Mass, is a Solemn or High Mass celebrated by a bishop using certain prescribed ceremonies. The term is also used among Anglo-Catholic Anglicans.


In the early Church, Mass was normally celebrated by the bishop, with other clergy. In the Roman Rite this evolved into a form of Solemn High Mass celebrated by a bishop accompanied by a deacon, subdeacon, thurifer, acolyte(s) and other ministers, under the guidance of a priest acting as Master of Ceremonies. Most often the specific parts assigned to deacon and subdeacon are performed by priests. The parts to be said aloud are all chanted, except that the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, which before the reform of Pope Pius V were said in the sacristy or during the entrance procession, were said quietly by the bishop with the deacon and the subdeacon, while the choir sang the Introit.

The full Pontifical High Mass is carried out when the bishop celebrates the Mass at the throne (or cathedra) in his own cathedral church, or with permission at the throne in another diocese.[1]

A Low Mass celebrated by a bishop is almost identical with a priest's Low Mass, except that the bishop puts on the maniple only after the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar.

Differences from ordinary Solemn Mass

Celebration by a Bishop other than the Pope

In contrast to celebration by a priest, a bishop celebrates almost the entire first half of the Solemn High Mass (until the offertory) at the cathedra (often referred to as his throne) to the left of the altar. Instead of saying "Dominus vobiscum" (The Lord be with you) as the opening liturgical greeting, a bishop says "Pax vobis" (Peace to you).

A bishop also wears vestments additional to those of a priest:

  • The dalmatic, the distinctive vestment of a deacon, worn under the bishop's chasuble to show that he has the full powers of the sacrament of Holy Orders
  • The tunicle, the particular vestment of the subdeacon, worn under the bishop's dalmatic, further to show the fullness of the major orders. Since the 19th century it looks almost exactly the same as the dalmatic
  • The mitre, the bishop's hat
  • The crosier, the bishop's hooked staff
  • buskins (ceremonial stockings) along with episcopal sandals a specially decorated form of footwear, in the shape of loafers
  • a pectoral cross
  • liturgical gloves
  • A metropolitan archbishop, celebrating Mass within the area of his province (over which he has jurisdiction), wears a pallium over the chasuble, as a sign of the special authority granted by the Pope, but which technically is not extensive, over the suffragan bishops. The metropolitan archbishop does not need the permission of one of his suffragan bishops to celebrate Mass in one of the suffragan's churches (or even the cathedral), but he usually will do so as a sign of respect.

When the bishop sits at the cathedra, a special silk cloth, called a gremial(e), of the same liturgical colour as the bishop's vestments, was placed in his lap.

Papal Mass


Papal Solemn Mass celebrated by Pope John XXIII in St. Peter's Basilica in the early 1960s.
Note the presence of multiple assistant priests and ministers, and the mitre and the papal tiaras placed on the altar.

The Pope's Pontifical High Mass, when celebrated with full solemnity, was even more elaborate. The Gospel and Epistle was sung not only in Latin by a Latin-Rite deacon and subdeacon, but also in Greek by Eastern clergy, wearing the vestments of their own rite and observing its customs, such as placing the deacon's stole on the Gospel Book and bowing rather than genuflecting. This was done to stress the unity of the universal Catholic Church, formed by both the Eastern and the Western (Latin Rite) Churches in full communion. (If Latin is used at a Papal Mass, this practice is retained, as seen at the inauguration of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.)

At the elevations of host and chalice, the Silveri symphony was played on the trumpets of the no longer existing Noble Guard. (Through a misunderstanding of the name "Silveri", English speakers sometimes referred to this as the sounding of "silver trumpets".) An asterisk - a common eucharistic implement in the Eastern Rites, in which it is shaped differently from the twelve-ray asterisk that was used in Papal Masses - was used to cover the host on the paten, when it was brought to the Pope at his throne for communion. The Pope drank the consecrated wine (changed into the blood of Christ) through a golden tube. (Even for the laity, the use of a tube (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 248-250)[1] is one of the four ways envisaged in the 1970 revision of the Roman Missal for receiving Communion from the chalice.) It was also customary for some of the bread and wine used at the Mass to be consumed, as a precaution against poison or invalid matter, by the sacristan and the cup-bearer in the presence of the Pope at the offertory and again before the Pater noster in a short ceremony called the praegustatio.[2]

Anglican use of the term

In the Anglo-Catholic tradition of Anglicanism, the term "Pontifical High Mass" may refer to a Mass celebrated with the traditional Tridentine ceremonies described above. Liturgical manuals such as Ritual Notes provide a framework for incorporating Tridentine ceremonial into the services of the Book of Common Prayer. More generally, the term may refer to any High Mass celebrated by a bishop, usually in the presence of his or her throne. The Pontifical High Mass is one of four full-form pontifical functions, the other three being pontifical Evensong, High Mass in the presence of a greater prelate, and Solemn Evensong in the presence of a greater prelate. In its more traditional form, the ministers required at the service are a deacon and subdeacon of the Mass, assistant deacons in dalmatics, and an assistant priest in cope and surplice, who acts as the episcopal chaplain, along with the usual servers.[3]


  1.  "Pontifical Mass". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  2. Solemn Papal Mass
  3. E.C.R. Lamburn, Ritual Notes, 11th ed. (London: Knott, 1964), 411ff.