Ecclesiastical ranks and their privileges

Many years ago, in an old bookshop, I stumbled across a copy of Adrian Fortescue’s The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described. I was instantly charmed by the antique typography, by Fortescue’s quirky prose style and by the illustrations with their roundhand lettering showing the positions of the candle-bearer, the train-bearer, the thurifer with incense, the thurifer not bearing incense, etc.  There was a procedure for everything: for incensing the altar at vespers with six assistants, for a High Mass with an assistant priest in a cope (this is only allowed for canons of certain chapters), for High Mass when the bishop is assistant in the less solemn vestiture of cappa magna and biretta, as opposed to the more solemn vestiture of cope and mitre.

The book felt like a window into a different world.

Nowhere was this more so than in the section on “ecclesiastical rank”, where Fortescue discusses the prerogatives of different kinds of ecclesiastical and lay dignitaries. I thought the section worth sharing with Pray Tell readers, and have provided a lightly edited transcript here. The entire volume, in the 1917 edition, can be found in various places on the Internet.

It’s worth reading, not as much for the liturgical details – though I found many of them interesting – as for the overall ethos style. Here are a few things that struck me, primarily as deeply foreign to the liturgical and social world I live in. I am curious about the experience of other Pray Tell participants.

The emphasis on precedence, distinctions and grades. The text portrays a world that is highly ordered – for example, there are so many types of “inferior prelates” that Fortescue himself loses track of the hierarchy in the text. What might look like a gap in the categories (four ranks, with the first having four subclasses) in my transcript is there because it’s missing in the original. First-class protonotaries have precedence over abbots. But lower-class protonotaries may not wear even a white silk mitre. They do get to use the scotula, though, a special candle borne by an attendant.

In my own experience, almost entirely in the reformed Mass, we almost never think or operate in this way. I have been at Mass and served at Mass with bishops, religious superiors and cardinals. There are liturgical differences between what a bishop does and what a priest does, but they are relatively small – a few extra words at the blessing, for instance, or the use of the mitre. The minute differences in grade and precedence – deciding, for instance, whether or not a particular prelate is allowed ruddy fringes at the end of the mitre – never occur.

The papacy as a royal court. Many of the gradations that Fortescue details seem to stem from a tradition of the papacy as a court – for examples, the many varieties of inferior prelates and their prerogatives inside and outside of Rome. At the moment we don’t seem to have a pope who sees himself as a king, in that sense – not a democrat, perhaps, but not a king. Fortescue himself says that the title “Monsignor” was never given as such – and Pope Francis has further reduced its use.

Special privileges given to non-clerical notables. Fortescue glossed over the precedence owed to ‘princes’, primarily because he was writing in England, where the royals were not Catholic. But he notes that kings – Anglican kings, I wonder? – and the Roman Emperor, are to be incensed before a bishop. A ‘mulier insignis’ is incensed. As best as I can tell, this means a ‘distinguished’ woman – a duchess, perhaps, or a countess. What about a woman who is a Fellow of the Royal Society? Or a Nobel laureate? Or a billionaire? Or a high-ranking military officer?

Some years ago, I was in Russia just after Dmitry Medvedev had become President. The papers were reporting that Medvedev had turned up at an Orthodox Divine Liturgy, seated in chairs behind the iconostasis, in a place once reserved for the Tsar. I have not been able to corroborate this report; but if true, it would suggest that a future Fortescue will have to update the tables of rank and precedence.

* * *

What is it in the human condition that makes or once made us want to rank and grade people like this? Is the loss of these elaborate grades and distinctions an exclusively modern thing? Is there any point in trying to recover the distinctions and grades in a Twittery world of instant celebrity and instant infamy? Could the royal overtones of the papacy ever come back?

I think we are far better off without all of the ecclesiastical ranks that Fortescue describes; but other Pray Tell participants may disagree. How do you read Fortescue’s analysis of ecclesiastical rank?



  1. Regarding: “A ‘mulier insignis’ is incensed. As best as I can tell, this means a ‘distinguished’ woman – a duchess, perhaps, or a countess. What about a woman who is a Fellow of the Royal Society? Or a Nobel laureate? Or a billionaire? Or a high-ranking military officer?”

    By way of an interesting anecdote from @1981. I attended an anniversary celebration of the founding of several related congregations of men and women. A newly ordained cleric, acting as master of ceremonies, ordered the procession so that the consecrated laymen and women who were Mothers Generals or Provincials of the lay branches were to follow, at a distance, the clerics, most of whom were not the congregations’ leaders, into the nave of the church. After everyone found their assigned places and were standing ready for the clerics to begin moving forward, the Mothers Generals and the lay Provincials, as far as I could tell, without speaking to each, left the assigned places and moved into the clerics’ formation to stand with the cleric(s) from the same region as the Mother General or Provincial. The clerics, who indeed were brothers, adjusted the line so all found a place. Thus the community of students and faculty and guests saw a unified family of religious enter and celebrate.

  2. True story… About 20 years ago, a certain diocese in which I worked got a new bishop. For Christmas that year, he sent each of the diocesan priests a copy of that very book. My pastor, a former classmate of said bishop, laughed a lot, then pitched it into the wastebasket. Curious, I pulled it out and took a look. Fascinating… another world indeed. 🙂

  3. What is it in the human condition that makes or once made us want to rank and grade people like this? Is the loss of these elaborate grades and distinctions an exclusively modern thing?

    Is it a ranking and grading of persons, or of their offices? Anyway, it seems to me to be a fascination with order and distinction (that is, acknowledging one thing as distinct from another).

    Nowadays we still rank and grade, but what we’ve given up in terms of order and elaborateness, we’ve made up for in terms of sheer meanness.

    1. @Jeffrey Pinyan – comment #3:
      Jeffrey, I do know what you mean about the general meanness and social disorder that so often surrounds us. There are many times when I wish life were tidier. And yet…

      In 1990, I was caught in the back of a London taxi, stuck on the M4 motorway in traffic that simply wasn’t moving. The driver, a strong Labour supporter (i.e. way left of centre), took advantage of my imprisonment to deliver a lecture on the virtues of socialism and the evils of the Thatcher government. In particular, he said, the benefit of the Labour vision – remember, this was before the weaker Blairite version emerged – was that people knew their places, and people were content to stay in their places. None of this aspiration or entrepreneurship!

      I wonder how many of the traditionalists who curse the French Revolution and long for the return of Catholic monarchy would themselves enjoy a system in which people knew their places and were content to stay in them. It’s striking that some of the most strident traditionalist voices rely almost entirely on the Internet – the most chaotic, least ordered, least hierarchical medium of all.

  4. “With so many different ranks and grades separating people from one another, people tend not to have a very large circle of friends.”

    – Yi Junghwan, on Korea (1751)

    It’s amazing how universal it was and how it all came crashing down starting in the 18th century. These ever-increasing ranks were probably a way to secure privileges and prevent conflict in a non-meritocratic system. To an extent, perhaps even necessary for social stability. A pure guess: The Industrial Revolution (re)introduced rank by meritocracy and the old system fell by the wayside.

  5. This is an utterly fascinating post, Jonathan! It certainly contributes to our understanding of the need for the liturgical reform and the purpose of the simplifications undertaken under Paul VI.

    The issue you raise here is one that should be confronted, I think, by those who are trying to revive the unreformed rite in the 1962 missal. ISTM that the liturgical tradition of the church got ‘infected’ over the centuries with the values of monarchy and aristocracy and court ceremonial. Or to put it more positively, the liturgy of the church was inculturated in societies with monarchy and aristocracy.

    Either way, the need for liturgical reform, and the basic lack of viability today of the old rite, is shown. This is true whether the appropriate of court ceremonial was once appropriate but is no more because of changed societal structures, or whether it was never appropriate because the court ceremonial was at odds with Gospel values.

    Either way, there is a fundamental problem with the revival of the old rite, and it can’t but be escapist in some deep sense, even though some people are attracted to what they find beautiful and prayerful in it.


    1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #5:

      I think this becomes very much apparent when there is a celebration the pontifical form of Mass according to the 1962 Missal. There is a clash between the missal, which had a series of reforms through the 20th century right up to the eve of the Council (so at least the is a degree of reform and a suppression of archaic elements) and the 1886 Ceremonial of Bishops, which treated a bishop like a renaissance prince (i.e. the tasting of the bread and wine or the burgia) and of which there were no reforms in the 20th century.

    2. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #5:

      I don’t think that the ‘court’ ceremonial is inextricably wound up with the old rite. Certainly in some of its forms, particularly the Pontifical, it is – but I think that one could disentangle the ‘court’ aspects.

  6. Wasn’t the “Roman Court” at the final two papal coronations actually composed of “common” Roman notables and not necessarily hereditary nobility? One very good reason for the abolition of the papal coronation is perhaps the sense that the play-acting of the feudal social structure actually diminished the value of the inauguration of a new pope.

    Jonathan notes that “At the moment we don’t seem to have a pope who sees himself as a king” […]. While I fully agree, I don’t think that we are at the point where the pope is a constitutional monarch. The pope still exercises significant reserve powers, even if he has devolved many of his prerogatives in the current synod. The difficulty remains this: if the pope were to give up the title Pont. Max., the semiotic bridge between the Roman imperial age and the Christian age would be permanently severed. The “regal” titles, even if not used publicly as in the case of Pope Francis, necessarily carry the great import of millennia.

    Noble play-acting? Sure, jettison that silliness. I do hope however that Pope Francis and his successors act quite cautiously if they decide to shed some of their titles.

  7. In reading the lightly edited transcript provided (thanks, Jonathan!), I sensed precious little “smell of the sheep”.

    It is, truly, a window into a different world. It is not, however, a worldview that has disappeared and belongs to the past.

    In watching the various discussions flowing out of the Synod on the Family, or around the investigation into the work of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or around the revised translation of the mass, this highly structured “emphasis on precedence, distinctions and grades” is alive and well.

  8. Jordan, I wonder if Pope Francis is acting neither like an autocratic monarch nor a constitutional monarch, but instead like a chief executive. The idea isn’t entirely outlandish.

    The chief executive of a public company is, effectively, a vicar, a steward. A CEO is directly accountable to the board and through them to the shareholders. We think of CEOs as sitting in huge offices, flying around on private jets and drinking expensive wines, but, in an age of equality and austerity, many of them work in open plan offices; subject to security concerns, some of them fly economy class and stay in rather simple hotels. Yet most CEOs have very strong delegations from their boards and can act with considerable power in hiring, firing and the like.

    Of course the analogy doesn’t entirely work; perhaps Pope Francis himself would object strongly to it. Public company CEOs are very highly paid, for example.

    Still, you could argue that things started to go wrong when people started thinking of popes as kings in their own right, rather than stewards of Christ the King. Or worse, popes as “kings over other all kings”, as in the old coronation rite:

    Accipe thiaram tribus coronis ornatam, et scias te esse patrem principum et regum, rectorem orbis in terra, vicarium Salvatoris nostri Jesu Christi, cui est honor et gloria in saecula saeculorum. (Receive the tiara adorned with three crowns and know that you are the father of princes and kings, the ruler of the world on earth, the vicar of our Savior Jesus Christ, to whom is honor and glory, world without end.)

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #9:

      I agree that Pope Francis functions like a chief executive when in the role of pope. He is very much a bishop to the Romans, though. What is remarkable is Pope Francis’s ability to separately manage his leadership of the Church and his role as the shepherd of Rome. A feat, indeed.

      I do not lament the loss of the triregnum. I am glad that the tiara has been replaced with a mitre on the papal coat of arms. Even so, my one criticism of Pope Francis is this: he has not been able to effectively communicate that the transition from temporal king to shepherd-servant of the universal Church is not a downgrade of the papal majestas. Simplicity is the grandeur, as the true wealth of the Church (its faithful assembled for worship and their belief) shines through all the stronger the more the superfluous regal plaster of centuries is cleared away. A great many people, and not just traditionalists, are to some degree scandalized by Pope Francis’s simplicity, even austerity. How can our Pope communicate that the Church requires simplicity for our age?

  9. Searching for something one day I came across the description of the ranking of feasts in days gone by. From Wiki: “The rank of feast days determines which Mass is said when two feast days coincide (or “occur”) on the one day, as well as when a feast day falls on Sundays or certain other privileged days. Feast days were classified as Simple, Semidouble, or Double, with feast days of the Double Rite further divided into Double of the I Class, Double of the II Class, Greater Double or Major Double, and Double, in order of descending rank.” So there.

    I had the honor of residing in the territory of an Abbey Nullius for the first 4 months of my time in college at Belmont Abbey in North Carolina. Alas, on January 1, 1977, that rank was suppressed. It was a hard blow…

    1. @Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh – comment #12:
      FWIW, that was not endemic to the rite and only the product of the 18th and 19th century influx of feasts into the rite. If you look at some of the older missals on GoogleBooks for example, there were just Doubles, Semidoubles and Simples.

      Actually, many of the so-called privileges that occupied the later rubricists (and which Fortescue summarized) only started accumulating with Pius IX, who also popularized the granting of the title “Monsignor” to priests outside Rome. Prior to this, the privileges were more restricted and usually restricted to Rome and the Papal court. Prior to this time, any non-Papal ceremonials manuals published would have usually only considered Cardinals and Bishops. The difference between the first and later 20th century verses of the Baltimore Ceremonial is a case in point.

  10. One thing I find comforting/funny when reading through Fortescue was finding out how much he disliked dealing with all of those rules/details.

    Two great quotes from Fr. Fortescue about ritual and ceremonial details:
    “To rubricians it is not the history nor the development of rites that matter a bit, it is the latest decision of the Congregation of Rites. These decisions are made by a crowd of dirty little Monsignori at Rome in utter ignorance of the meaning or reason of anything. To the historian their decisions are simply disgusting nonsense, that people of my kind want simply to ignore. It is a queer type of mind that actually is interested in knowing whether the deacon should stand at the right or the left of someone else at some moment.”

    “I never cared a tinker’s curse for what the Congregation of Rites may have decided about the order in which the acolyte should put out the candles after Vespers”.

    It’s really too bad he died at only 49 in 1923. It would have been fascinating to see his take on the liturgical reforms.

    1. @David Annable – comment #13:
      David, here’s another charming quote from Fortescue, one that some modern servers and indeed priests could usefully take to heart:

      A remark by Martinucci about the behaviour of servers in church may be noted with advantage here: “They should avoid too much precision or affectation, or such a bearing as befits soldiers on parade rather than churchmen. They must certainly do all gravely and regularly; but if they behave with too punctilious a uniformity the sacred functions look theatrical.”

  11. That book has been revised “Fifteenth Edition: Revised and Updated in the light of Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum.” AND, drum roll, as one blog review carefully noted *The book has a very useful ribbon marker.* 😉

    I’d have zero interest in any liturgy that was so heavily orchestrated. The anal retentiveness and OCD required to get things right would be exhausting. I remember reading in the aftermath of Napoléon Bonaparte’s defeat, when attendees at the Congress of Vienna, met to to decide how to redraw Europe, a diarist noted with humor the intricate nature of deciding on protocols for all the various grades of nobility (particular from Germany) on how to introduce who first, and their titles and relationship to one other (who was ‘higher” and who was ‘lower’ in rank and their placement at state dinners. That’s what I thought of when I leafed through this book.

  12. 1. Fortescue counts twenty persons (though I counted twenty-two) who are required to attend a bishop who presides at pontifical high Mass from the throne. No wonder this grade of Mass was so rarely carried out. It was impressive in its way back in the day, but I suspect one reason the simplifying moves of “Sacramentum Concilium” got so many votes was that the bishops at the Council had had enough. Besides, think of what could have been accomplished if some of those twenty-odd ministers had instead been out preaching on street corners or staffing soup kitchens.
    2. He seems to have found heavy rubrical nicety revolting when he stood back from it (, but the thoroughness and absorption he brought to the book suggest he really liked it. What was going on with the man—a combination of horror and fascination? Will the real Adrian Fortescue please stand up?

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