Masters of Ceremonies at Papal Events

ROME, APRIL 24, 2012 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: During Pope Benedict XVI’s celebrations I took note of the master of ceremonies and wondered what the others «assisting» him and, of course assisting the Holy Father are called? I know his personal secretary was with him but does not share the role of a master of ceremonies. Do the others? I was told by someone that there is only one papal master of ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini. I know that the Holy Father was accompanied by an American whose name I don’t know, who I believe is an archbishop. But herein lies the question: What is his role? Is there a hierarchy among them? As a onetime seminarian, I served at quite a few pontifical Masses with bishops, archbishops and cardinals, and I know there were often different masters of ceremonies fulfilling different roles in the liturgy, always, of course, with a «main» master of ceremonies. — D.M., Toronto

A: Monsignor Guido Marini (no relation to his predecessor, Archbishop Piero Marini) is the current master of apostolic ceremonies and as such is head of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.

The role of official papal master of ceremonies goes back at least to the 15th century. The rights and duties of the master have been adjusted over the centuries, and the latest regulations stem from the 1988 apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus.

This constitution strengthened the role of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations, making it a new institution of the Roman Curia with proper legislation and exclusive competencies.

According to the office’s profile on the Vatican website its duty «is to prepare all that is necessary for liturgical celebrations or any other sacred celebrations either presided by the Pope, or at which he participates or assists, or which are presided in his name by a Cardinal or Prelate. These preparations include everything necessary to ensure worthy celebration and active participation of the people. Also included in the competencies of the Office[:] the celebration of a Consistory and the direction of liturgical celebrations of the College of Cardinals while the Papal See is vacant. One most important task of the Office is the planning, publication and distribution of special prayer-booklets for each liturgy, an asset that guarantees worthy and active participation of those present.»

It adds that the duty of the master of ceremonies is «to revise and adapt Papal liturgies, according to needs and as required, in harmony with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and in keeping with the distinctive character of liturgical celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff. A most important task is the planning and leading of all papal liturgies during visits made by the Supreme Pontiff to parishes or institutions in the diocese of Rome, as well as those celebrated during the Pope’s Apostolic Visits all over the world.»

Since 1991 he is also responsible for the Papal Sacristy as well as the chapels within the Apostolic Palace, including the Sistine Chapel, the Pauline Chapel and the Redemptoris Mater Chapel.

In this task he is assisted by about 12 assistant masters of ceremonies. At least one of these is also an official of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations, while the others work in other offices of the Roman Curia. Except for those who are officials, the other masters usually only assist at the Roman celebrations and do not travel with the Pope on apostolic visits. On these occasions the papal master of ceremonies is aided by those responsible for liturgy at the diocesan level.

As well as directly assisting the Pope, the assistant masters help coordinate the other ministers during the liturgical celebrations, such as the deacons, acolytes and concelebrants. At least four masters would be present for a solemn papal Mass. The assistant masters also help cardinals under special circumstances, such as consistories, taking possession of their titular churches, and other important celebrations held in Rome such as episcopal ordinations.

During the Sede Vacante: the papal masters of ceremonies are on duty during the congregations of cardinals, and they enter the conclave at which they have specific tasks. By virtue of their office they are notaries. Thus they have to draft official documents of the function which they attend as part of their office, including the acts of the conclave and the actual act of the election of the Supreme Pontiff.

For the practical side of all these duties the Office of Liturgical Celebrations has seven officials (three priests, three women religious, and two laypeople) beside the master. They are responsible, among other tasks for preparing all of the booklets, missals and other resources offered to the faithful at each and every celebration. The office is located within the Vatican and roughly corresponds to the floor below the Mater Ecclesiae mosaic in St. Peter’s Square. There are also six consultors named to the office who offer expert advice on historical and technical aspects of the liturgy.

Besides those directly involved in the liturgy, the Holy Father is usually accompanied in the procession by his personal secretaries and by the prefect of the Papal Household.

According to its profile, «It is the task of the Prefecture of the Papal Household to coordinate the services of the Antechamber and to organize the official audiences granted by His Holiness to Heads of State, Heads of Government, Governmental Ministers and other dignitaries, as well as to Ambassadors who come to the Vatican to present their Letters of Credence. The Prefecture takes care of the preparations for all audiences — private, special and general — and visits from those who are formally received by the Holy Father. It is also responsible for arranging Pontifical ceremonies — except liturgical celebrations — as well as the Spiritual Retreat of the Holy Father, the College of Cardinals and the Roman Curia. In addition, the Prefecture oversees the appropriate arrangements required each time the Holy Father leaves the Apostolic Palace to visit the city of Rome or travel within Italy.»

For those of us who are not ambassadors or heads of state, dealings with the Prefecture of the Papal Household is usually limited to requesting tickets for papal Masses and audiences.

The current prefect is Milwaukee native Archbishop James Michael Harvey and thus the most likely candidate to be the American our reader was curious about. He accompanies the Holy Father in practically every celebration and meeting at home and abroad, and is usually seen following discreetly just behind the Pope.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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