Sunday, April 25, 2010

Stairway to Heaven

PHOTO: The faithful at the National Shrine before the Pontifical Mass begins. (Tina Hertz Evans)

Yesterday, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was the setting for a Pontifical Solemn High Mass, according to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the first Traditional Mass to be celebrated at the Main High Altar in nearly half a century. I was there to assist at the altar as one of several dozen altar servers, gentlemen of all ages. My particular role was that of a "paten bearer" -- one who assists a priest in the administration of Communion. A liturgy of this scale required sixteen of us in that role.

All this had been in the works for some time. Until now, I have written nothing of it here. And there's a reason ...

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PHOTO: Rehearsal at the throne.

But to begin, for those unfamiliar with the term, what is a Pontifical Mass?

The term is derived from the Latin "pontifex," meaning "high priest," It is the highest form of the Mass, one in which the bishop presides, and one from which the Solemn, the High, and the Low Mass are derived. As he possesses a fuller share of the ministerial priesthood than a priest, there is a corresponding elevation of ceremony to the role of a bishop in the Mass ...

... the dignitaries, of whom the first acts as assistant priest, in copes, those of the sacerdotal order in chasubles, those of the diaconal order, of whom the first two act as assistant deacons, in dalmatics, and the subdeacons in tunics over the amice and the surplice or the rochet. In addition a deacon and subdeacon in their regular vestments and a master of ceremonies assist the bishop. Nine acolytes or clerics minister the book, bugia, mitre, crosier, censer, two acolyte candles, gremiale, and cruets, and four minister in turn at the washing of the bishop's hands. Mention is also made of a train-bearer and of at least four and at most eight torch-bearers ...

PHOTO: Local servers are prepared for the role of Torchbearer, by the Master of Ceremonies.

Everybody still with me?

Of course, for a production of this scale, the principal functionary must dress for the part ...

The ornaments worn or used by the bishop, besides those ordinarily required for Mass, are the buskins and sandals, pectoral cross, tunic, dalmatic, gloves, pallium (if he has a right to use it), mitre, ring, crosier, gremiale, basin and ewer, canon, and bugia. A seventh candle is also placed on the altar besides the usual six.

PHOTO: Buskins waiting in the sacristy.

"Buskins" are the silk stockings that are worn. A "gremiale" is a long cloth of the liturgical color placed on the bishop's lap when he sits on the throne. The "canon" is the type of missal with texts only used for a pontifical Mass. It is used at the altar in addition to the missal. The "bugia" is the candle which accompanies the bishop with the canon. There is an attendant to carry each of these things.

The above quotations are excerpted from the website “” sponsored by the Paulus Institute. As it is really quite informative, I will leave them to tell that story, while I tell mine.

PHOTO: Vesting at the "secretarium" before Mass, at which time the Office of Terce is read. (MCITL of A Priest Life)

Obviously a lot of altar servers had to be assembled, and they were selected from the best among five local parishes. But the real high-priced talent among us were a group of high school guys with prior experience, mostly from a parish in New Jersey, one administered by the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter. It was the "Jersey Boys" for the most part, who attended to the celebrant at the throne. One of our own gentlemen at Saint John the Beloved was an acolyte, who not only carried the candlestick in the processions, but assisted in vesting the bishop at the "secretarium," the vesting chapel, before the Mass itself began.

PHOTO: The processional party waits for the main entourage in the crypt.

There were nearly two hundred priests, deacons, seminarians, servers, and papal knights and dames waiting in the crypt during the time of vesture of the Celebrant, before the main procession began. As the main entourage arrived, we came up the steps, into the vestibule, through the great doors, into the presence of several thousand people assembled. As the mighty organ played a triumphant processional, I remember how it felt to emerge with my comrades in the sight of the crowd, to discreetly notice those of my acquaintance standing in the pews, to gaze at the scene bathed in light and the focus of the assembled.

VIDEO: The procession of papal knights and dames, followed by servers and clerics in choir. Yours truly appears at 1:07.

The Church teaches us that every Mass is a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy, in the sight of the Triune God, with His angels and saints. Ascending the stairs past the sanctuary rail, then another set into the choir section, stopping just short of the final steps to the Altar of Sacrifice, one is overtaken by the sense that entering heaven may be something like this, only ever much more so.

There were perhaps a hundred priests and laymen "in choro" during the Mass, flanking the central action on either side. We joined quietly with the priest and his ministers in the prayers at the foot of the altar:

Introibo ad altare Dei,

I will go in unto the altar of God,

ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

to God who giveth joy to my youth.

Judica me, Deus,
    et deiscerne causam meam de gente non sancta;
    ab homine iniquo et doloso erue me.

Judge me, O God,
    and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy;
    deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man.

Quia tu es, Deus, fortitudo mea: quare me repulisti,
    et quare tristis incedo, dum affligit me inimicus ...

For Thou, O God, art my strength: why hast Thou cast me off?
    and why do I go sorrowful whilst the enemy afflicteth me ...

PHOTOS: Above at right, clergy and servers in choir. Shown here, Bishop Slattery at the Throne. (MCITL of A Priest Life)

The celebrant for the Mass was the Most Reverend Edward James Slattery, Bishop of Tulsa in Oklahoma. His homily was exactly was the faithful needed to hear, when they needed to hear it.

We have much to discuss, you and I ... much to speak of on this glorious occasion when we gather together in the glare of the world’s scrutiny ...

(NOTE: The text for this homily was first published by Diane at Te Deum Laudamus. It is also available via podcast at WDTPRS.)

There are those who would say that the Latin language is incomprehensible, therefore unsuited to the prayer of ordinary people. In cultures throughout the world, from time immemorial, the use of an arcane and uncommon language when addressing the Divine has been the norm. Even Christ on earth with His apostles prayed in Hebrew according to the Law, as they otherwise spoke Aramaic on the streets. There are those who would say that the traditional form of the Mass does not facilitate the participation of the faithful. They should have heard thousands of voices raising the roof, while singing the Gregorian chant of Credo III from the "Missa de Angelis."

PHOTO: “Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi ...” (Sophia Guerra of AlwaysCatholic .com)

For communion, the paten-bearers ascended the steps to the High Altar, to receive the Body of Christ from the Bishop himself. We then proceeded to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel off to the side, where we queued up to be assigned to a priest*, whom we led to a designated station assigned to us that morning. My station was the side altar and chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, just to the left of the great sanctuary.

There were young parents each leading several small (and totally adorable) children. There was a developmentally challenged boy, who had to be dissuaded from licking the paten before he received. There was a young man in a wheelchair, in a reclining position, with an IV tube and an oxygen tank. All were weary and heavily burdened, all came unto Him with those burdens, and to receive the Bread of Life.

VIDEO: For those who cannot get enough, including Mama, the author appears one-third of the way through the clip.

When the event was over, and we processed out of the church and down the great steps, we were saluted by a color guard of Knights of Columbus. There was jubilation in the greeting of friends, both old and new. (I gotta tell ya, I've never been saluted by that many guys in uniform in my life. They looked so sharp, I actually forgot they were wearing black tie before six in the evening.) There was a "blognic" (a term to describe a blogger's picnic or soireƩ, usually at a bar or restaurant) at The Dubliner near the Capitol downtown. A good time was had by all.

PHOTO: Dinner at The Dubliner. Yours truly at left, Father Zuhlsdorf of WDTPRS on his best behavior at right. Great minds eat alike. (Tina Hertz Evans)

The entire event was broadcast on EWTN. I was told after it was over that I may have had a disproportionate amount of "face time" during that broadcast. I can't help it if I have a pretty face. But as I walked behind the main altar after Communion, to return to my place in choir, it is fortunate that I chose not to take a picture of the bishop at the altar with my camera phone, as I returned to my place in choir. Someone else's camera would have caught it.

Once the DVD comes out, I'm sending a copy to Mama. She still thinks I'll be a priest someday. (Hey, a girl can dream, right?)

PHOTO: A close-up from the EWTN broadcast. (Sophia Guerra of

Now, the question that occurs to all of you: “Hey, Mister Black Hat Guy, why didn't you tell us you had a piece of the action, so we could be totally glued to our sets with high-end cable?”

Ah, my little minions, I wish I could tell you, but most of what I could say to that subject, is either really boring, or doesn't bear repeating. But I can tell you this: I only learned two or three weeks earlier that I was in for any action, period. I was on a list two months ago, associated with a parish where I used to work, and I hadn't heard anything, until an e-mail came out of the blue early this month. So it was just dumb luck, really. Besides, who among us isn't expendable, know what I mean?

In fact, I was so thrilled, I went out and ordered a new cassock, as my old one was wearing thin. Not one of those cheap ones that clutter sacristy closets for the kiddies, mind you, but a nice one like the priests wear, with buttons, cuffs, and a tab collar to hide whatever's unsightly. Plus a banded cincture to take about one to two inches off the hem until I can get it tailored. (Yes, tailored. I'm in this for the long haul, people.) I tried it on for the first time last Tuesday night. As I looked in the full length mirror, I almost had myself convinced that ... uh, never mind.

PHOTO: Bishop Slattery greets His Eminence William Cardinal Baum, Archbishop of Washington Emeritus.

Now then, what with all the high-priced talent in town for the weekend, two priests from the Canons Regular of Saint John Cantius in Chicago, were the celebrant and subdeacon for a Solemn High Mass at my usual gig. Sure, a more prestigious position at the Pontifical Mass would have been nice, but I'm pretty well set every Sunday as it is.

(POSTSCRIPT: A number of people contributed resources to this story, and they are properly referenced or linked in this narrative. A special acknowledgment goes to Sophia Guerra, Research Assistant at mwbh, and author of All photos are provided by the author, unless otherwise listed.)

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* I was not introduced to the priest assigned to me, and with his dark habit covered by a white surplice showing only his cowl, I found myself addressing him in passing as "Friar," believing him to be a Capuchin or Carmelite. I have learned since that he was not a friar, but a Benedictine monk, one Father Ananias of Saint Vincent's Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and one whom I had met back in 2007. Silly me.

1 comment:

Nod said...

Congratulations. It looked like a slice of Heaven.