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.
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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?