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The collective name given for convenience sake to those insignia of the episcopal order which of right are worn by bishops alone. In its broader sense the term may be taken to include all the items of attire proper to bishops, even those belonging to their civil or choir dress, for example the cappa magna, or the hat with its green cord and lining. But more strictly and accurately, rubricians limit the pontificals to those ornaments which a prelate wears in celebrating pontifically. The pontificals common to all are enumerated by Pius VII in his constitution "Decet Romanos" (4 July, 1823), and are eight in number: buskins, sandals, gloves, dalmatic, tunicle, ring, pectoral cross, and mitre. When abbots, prothonotaries apostolic, and in some cases canons, receive by indult from the Holy See the privilege of celebrating cum pontificalibus, these eight ornaments are meant. The use of them is ordinarily restricted--for Abbots to their own monastery or places within their jurisdiction, for canons to their own church, and for prothonotaries to those places for which the ordinary gives his consent. Moreover, while bishops and cardinals may wear most of these things in all solemn ecclesiastical functions, those who enjoy them by papal indult may only exercise this privilege in the celebration of Mass. Several other restrictions distinguish the pontifical Mass of such inferior prelates from that of bishops or cardinals. The former are not allowed to bless the people as they pass through the church; they have no right to a seventh candle on the altar; they vest in the sacristy and not in the sanctuary; they do not use faldstool, or bugia, or gremiale, or crosier, or Canon, and they are attended by no assistant priest; they do not say "Pax vobis", and they only wash their hands once, i.e. at the offertory. The legislation upon this subject is to be found in the above-mentioned constitution of Pius VII, supplemented by the "Apostolic Sedis officium" of Pius IX (26 Aug., 1872) and the Motu Proprio of Pius X, "Inter multiplices" (21 Feb., 1905). With regard to the ornaments just mentioned and other such pontificals or quasi-pontificals as the manteletta, mozzetta, rationale, rochet, etc. nearly all will be found separately treated in their alphabetical order. The buskins (caligæ) are large silk leg-coverings put on over the ordinary stockings and gaiters and tied with a ribbon. The gremiale is simply an apron of silk or linen which is spread over a bishop's lap when he is seated or using the holy oils. The "Canon" is a liturgical book containing nothing but the Canon of the Mass, which is used instead of the altar cards when a bishop pontificates. The pallium and the archiepiscopal cross may also be mentioned, but they form ordinarily the special insignia of an archbishop.

The practice of conceding the use of certain of the pontificals to prelates of inferior rank is one of ancient date. A grant of dalmatic and sandals to the Abbot of Metz is recorded in the year 970 (Jaffé, "Regesta" 374). In the eleventh century Pope Leo IX granted the use of the mitre to the Canons of Besan on and of Bamberg (Jaffé, 4249 and 4293). The earliest known concession of the mitre to the ruler of a monastic house is that made to Abbot Egelsinus of St. Augustine's, Canterbury, in 1063. At a somewhat later date the grants of pontifical insignia to monastic superiors and other prelates are of constant occurrence in the papal "Regesta". To obtain such distinctions became a point of rivalry among all the greater abbeys, the more so that such concessions were by no means always made in the same form or with the same amplitude, while subsequent indults often extended the terms of previous grants. Thus while, as noticed above, the concession of the mitre to St. Augustine's, Canterbury, in one of the earliest instances on record, the use of the tunicle and dalmatic at High Mass was only granted to the same abbey by Gregory IX in 1238 (Bliss, "Papal Registers", I, 170). In 1251 Innocent IV conceded to the Prior of Coventry and his successor the use of the ring only. It might be worn at all times and in all places except in celebrating Mass (ibid., 268). To the Prior of Winchester, on the other hand, only three years later, the same pope, Innocent IV, granted a much more ample concession in virtue of which he might use mitre, ring, tunic, dalmatic, gloves, and sandals, might bless chalices, altar cloths, etc., might confer the first tonsure as well as the minor orders of ostiarius and lector, and bestow the episcopal benediction at High Mass and at table (ibid., 395). It will be noticed that the crosier is not here included. But it was included in a grant to the Abbot of Selby by Alexander IV in 1256 (ibid., 331). In many of these indults a restriction was imposed that pontifical ornaments were not to be worn in the presence of the bishop of the diocese, but even here distinctions were made. For example Urban V, in 1365, allowed the Prior of Worcester to wear the plain mitre and ring in presence of the bishop, and in his absence to wear the precious mitre and ring and episcopal vestments, and to give his solemn benediction. (Bliss, IV, 48.) Not unfrequently it was specified that such pontificals might be worn in parliaments and councils "whenever any prelates below bishops wear their mitre". One most extraordinary series of concessions, to which attention has recently been called in the English Historical Review (Jan., 1911, p. 124), where the documents are printed, first bestows upon the Abbot of St. Osyth the right to use the mitre and other pontificals (Bliss, V, 334), and then gives power to confer not only the minor orders and subdiaconate but the diaconate and priesthood. This grant made by Boniface IX, in 1397, during the great Schism, was cancelled by the same pope six years afterwards at the request of the Bishop of London.


BRAUN, Liturgische Gewandung (Freiburg, 1907); BARBIER DE MONTAULT, Le Costume et les Usages Ecclésiastiques, 2 vols. (Paris, 1897-1901); ROHAULT DE FLEURY, La Messe (Paris, 1884).

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1911). Pontificalia. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "Pontificalia." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Wm Stuart French, Jr. Dedicated to Rt. Rev. Walter A. Coggin, O.S.B. Third Abbot Nullius Belmont Abbey, Belmont, N.C., U.S.A. Council Father, Second Vatican Council.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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