On June 20, 1921, noted architect Ralph Adams Cram gave an address titled “The Test of Beauty” to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University. During his address, Cram lavished extravagent praise on the Pontifical Mass (Missa Pontificalis in Latin), which is an elaborate form of the traditional Roman Catholic Mass that has seldom been celebrated during most of the past sixty years. A convert from Unitarianism to Episcopalianism, Cram is perhaps best known for his design for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. He was also a prominent member of the Anglo-Catholic movement, and he wrote and spoke extensively as an ardent advocate for Gothic architecture. In spite of the fact that he never became a Roman Catholic, he was an equally ardent admirer of Catholic liturgy. Cram was so renowned in his field that he wrote the article on “Gothic Architecture ” in the 1909 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia.
In his peroration at the end of his address at Harvard, Cram posed this rhetorical question, “What was the greatest synthesis of beauty, made operative through art, that man has ever achieved?” He went on to summarize the main premise of his talk in his answer, “The answer is very simple: it was a Gothic cathedral of the thirteenth century during a Pontifical High Mass. . . . Every art raised to its highest point was here brought into play in one place and associated in absolute union with the greatest beauty of thought, emotion, and action that have ever been the possession of fallen man. . . . And all were for the exposition and realization of the supreme beauty of spiritual things; the durable love of God for His children through the Sacrifice of Calvary, eternally renewed upon the altar, and the veritable presence of His Spirit through the miracle of the Mass.”
On Sunday September 14, 2014, on the Solemnity of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross according to the 1962 liturgical calendar, more than four hundred worshippers filled the pews of Star of the Sea Church in San Francisco for a historically resonant liturgical event, when San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone celebrated the first Pontifical Mass held in that city for close to sixty years.
The Pontifical Mass was celebrated on that balmy September evening in that beautiful church at the northwest tip of the San Francisco peninsula, very much the same way as Pontifical Masses have been celebrated around the world for centuries earlier. Star of the Sea Church is a parish church that was finished in 1917 using the best materials the working-class parish could buy, during Cram’s lifetime, and while it is not a cathedral, and its arches are Romanesque rather than Gothic, it was an appropriately lovely setting for this modern-day Pontifical Mass.
The Pontifical Mass was to celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and the seventh anniversary of the implementation of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which affirmed that ceremonies and rituals like the Pontifical Mass are still valid and an important part of the Church’s rich heritage. The Mass, which was advertised as “one of the treasures of the faith,” was coordinated by the Traditional Latin Mass Society of San Francisco with music by the Golden Gate Boys Choir.
The elaborate gestures, the large number of ministers, the multitudinous details of the vesting of the celebrant and of the ministers, and the order of the ceremony, all were followed according to how they are spelled out in the Manual of Episcopal Ceremonies from 1916.
The Pontifical Mass is the Mass of a bishop, and all the highly regulated, complex details of this Mass are fraught with meaning. Taken together, the details are designed to make up a system of visible, material signs that point to the invisible, spiritual realities of a bishop’s office. As is true about how we come to understand many important things, we don’t grasp the importance of something as complex as a Pontifical Mass without having been taught what it means. The goal of this post is to explain some of the rich meaning of what occurred that night.
Why is it called a Pontifical Mass?
It is not commonly known, but the adjective “pontifical” does not refer exclusively to the pope. A cardinal, archbishop, bishop or abbot is also referred to as high priest, or “pontiff.” The celebrant of a Pontifical Mass is said to be “pontificating.” The related term “pontificals” refers to all the vestments and ornaments the bishop wears and uses when he pontificates at the Pontifical Mass.
A Pontifical Mass at the Throne represents the summit of the Roman liturgy. It is the paradigm for the Roman Rite. As Canon Olivier Meney of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (who assisted at the Mass) recently explained, “The Low Mass is a reduction of the Solemn High Mass, which in its turn is a reduction of the Pontifical Mass at the Throne.”
Elaborate vestments and liturgical items, such as those worn and used during the Pontifical Mass, are not, as some mistakenly think, a form of vain clerical dressing-up, but on the contrary, they are rich in symbolism. The truth is that in ceremonies like this, the individual is minimized, while the power of the priesthood is emphasized. If we understand and meditate on the symbols during ceremonies like this, they can lead us to think more deeply about the role of the priesthood as it was instituted by Jesus Christ.
Before being vested during the Pontifical Mass, the bishop takes off the vestments he usually wears as a prelate of the Church. He then is clothed ceremonially with vestments that stand for the full power of the priesthood, which belongs not to himself, but to his role as a bishop.
What does “at the Throne” mean?
At Star of the Sea, Archbishop Cordileone celebrated a Pontifical Mass at the Throne. The term “at the Throne” is used when a Pontifical Mass is celebrated within the jurisdiction of a bishop or archbishop. During the Mass, the celebrant sits at a throne at the altar.
If a bishop celebrates a Pontifical Mass at a cathedral or church outside of his own jurisdiction, he either celebrates “at the faldstool” (a faldstool being a portable folding chair) or “in choro” (in choir).
The privilege of “Pontificating” on the Throne is only allowed to all Cardinals outside of Rome, to the Pope’s Apostolic Nuncios and Legates in the territorial jurisdiction they are assigned, and to Bishops and Archbishops within their Ecclesiastical Jurisdictions.
Because the archbishop was visiting Star of the Sea and did not celebrate at his cathedral, it was necessary to construct a temporary throne on the gospel side of the altar. The archbishop’s shield was mounted behind the chair with a gold-embroidered baldachin (canopy) above it.
Why all that vesting at the Throne?
One unusual and elaborate aspect of the Pontifical Mass was the ceremony called “vesting at the throne.”
Before the start of the Mass, the pontificals were laid out on the altar. Servers ceremoniously removed each of the pontificals in turn from the altar, and waited in line to present them to the archbishop. Sacred ministers helped vest him.
The pontificals included buskins, an amice, an alb, a cincture, a stole, a tunic, a dalmatic, and a chasuble, along with the bishop’s pectoral cross, ring, and crosier, which bishops always use, plus two types of mitre worn by the archbishop at different points during the Pontifical Mass, along with a gremial and gloves. (Additional information about the official costumes of prelates is available online at Costume of Prelates of the Catholic Church: According to Roman Etiquette.)
When the celebrant is divested of the vestments he wore when entering the church, he is symbolically stripped of the trappings of the world and loses his personal identity. When he is then subsequently ceremoniously vested in the pontificals, one after another, the bishop is clothed in the new man of which St. Paul speaks in his letter to the Ephesians and is covered from head to foot in the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ.
If so be that you have heard him, and have been taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus: To put off, according to former conversation, the old man, who is corrupted according to the desire of error. And be renewed in the spirit of your mind: And put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth.” – Ephesians 4:21-24.
Bishops at Pontifical Mass wear the vestments of a subdeacon (the tunic), deacon (the dalmatic), and priest (chasuble) because in the bishop, as medieval liturgist William Durandus wrote, “the degrees of all the Major Orders are most eminently present.”
What does it all mean?
Beauty existed, and was infinitely desired, and within certain limits was supremely achieved under paganism, but with Christianity it was given a new content and a new function. The passion for perfection remained, but it was how a new perfection revealed in Christ; the joy in labor and creation remained, but it was now a new joy, for it was irradiated by the motive of worship and of sacrifice. —Ralph Adams Cram, “The Test of Beauty.”
If art is, indeed, as I have said, one of the really great agents of civilization, the Church is preeminently the place where its work may be made most effective. . . . Each art is fine in itself, but a great and beautiful church, living with pictorial and sculptured decoration, where the sublime, appalling mystery of the Christian Faith is solemnized through the assembling of all the other arts — music, poetry, drama, and ceremonial —- in one vast, organic work of art built up of every one of them raised to its highest level of possibility, and all fused in one consummate opus Dei, this is in simple fact and in plain speech, the greatest artistic achievement, the most perfect proof of man’s divine nature thus far recorded in the annals of humanity.” — Ralph Adams Cram,”The Artist in the World,” collected in The ministry of art.
For Cram then, the meaning of the Pontifical Mass on September 14, 2014 would be found in the synthesis of all of the beauties of the church, the ceremony, the vestments and the music, each of which contributed to the creation of an act of sublime worship expressing our love for God.
In his homily, Archbishop Cordileone reminded the Mass-goers to keep in mind that the beauty of the Pontifical Mass should not be an end in itself. Alongside of the love of God that is fostered during the celebration of the Eucharist in such a reverent ceremony in such a beautiful setting, our love of our neighbor must also be fostered:
Our spirituality and stewardship are the practical way we live our Christian faith in the world. Our faith is not to be left inside the walls of this beautiful church. We are all awed and inspired by the beauty of the ceremonies here in the celebration this evening. . . . We all love this liturgy, but if it doesn’t make a difference, it becomes nothing more than a neat hobby. A neat one. But a hobby. It is meant to transform us into a deeper love of Jesus Christ.
Here we experience the beauty of Jesus Christ in the beauty of the Church’s liturgy so that we might recognize the beauty in those in the world around us, in those who are poor. Sharing those gifts with them, in works of charity, works of justice. We have ample opportunity here in our community. Here in this parish, right across the street, is a very good and powerful ministry to women who find themselves in crisis situations*. Mothers with young children or expectant mothers. Sharing our gifts. Understanding their needs. [We need] to see the beauty of Jesus Christ in them and to lift them out of their moment of crisis, out of their own fear, so they might encounter the Jesus who we encounter here and who we share with them.
Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus said to him: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.” — Matthew 22:36-40
* Star Community Home for women in crisis situations is a project of Catholic Charities CYO that is located in the former convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet at Star of the Sea. Archbishop Cordileone is the Director of the home’s Board of Directors.