Birettas and Academic Hats at Mass

And More on the Sede Vacante

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: What is the protocol for the wearing of academic hats or tams or birettas when faculty members are attired in academic regalia at a Mass? When should the headgear be taken off the head? Throughout the entire Mass? Only during the Eucharistic Prayer? Or from the Sanctus to the final blessing? And is there a different protocol for men and women? — L.M., Columbus, Ohio

A: As far as I have been able to ascertain, there are no universally accepted rules regarding the wearing of official civil robes at Mass. The whole question is tied up to particular traditions, privileges and customs that vary from place to place and institution to institution.

The rules for clergy are fairly clear and in some way help determine the situation for other circumstances.

The bishop wears his zucchetto, or skullcap, throughout the Mass except from the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer until he has returned to the cathedra on concluding the administration of holy Communion.

According to the Ceremonial of Bishops, the miter is worn «when the bishop is seated; when he gives the homily, when he greets the people, addresses them, or gives the invitation to prayer, except when he would have to lay it aside immediately afterward; when he gives a solemn blessing to the people; when he confers a sacrament; when he is walking in procession.»

The ceremonial adds that «the bishop does not use the miter: during the introductory rites, the opening prayer, prayer over the gifts, and prayer after communion; during the general intercessions, the Eucharistic prayer, the gospel reading, hymns that are sung standing ….»

The three-peaked priestly biretta is now rarely used (the four-peaked doctoral biretta was not permitted in liturgical functions), and is no longer mentioned as liturgical vesture in the ordinary form. It was used in a way analogous to the bishop’s miter: when the priest was seated or preaching or processing within the church.

For laity the overall rule is that men keep their heads uncovered and women may choose to wear head coverings or leave them aside. There are some exceptions to this, however.

Papal knights have special privileges and roles at Mass. As one official description indicates: «The Knights’ principal ceremonial role is to escort the Ordinary (Bishop or Archbishop of the Diocese) and/or Cardinal into the Church or Cathedral, lead him into the Sanctuary, and remain there, seated usually to the right of the altar, until the end of the Mass. Two Knights are usually preferred for such a role, although one can be sufficient, and they walk immediately in front of the Bishop they are escorting. At the end of the Mass they will again immediately precede the Bishop in the recessional.

«The Knight wears the plumed hat while processing in and out of the Church or Cathedral; on entering the sanctuary and taking his seat he removes his sword and lays it on the ground until the end of the Mass. He shall wear his hat at the same time the Bishops wears his miter and remove or replace it simultaneously with the Bishop.»

The above rules could also, perhaps, inspire practices at a Mass celebrated on solemn academic occasions celebrated by a bishop. In accordance with the tradition of each institute, at least the principal academic authorities could don and doff their caps in unison with the miter.

Even civil rules vary widely in this respect. For example, the American Council on Education makes the following recommendations:

«During graduation ceremonies in the United States, both women and men wear caps, and both women and men wear their caps indoors throughout most of the ceremony, except for men during a baccalaureate service, the national anthem, any benediction that may be offered by a chaplain or other authority, and sometimes the singing of the alma mater if the local custom requires it. Although military and civil uniform, national costume, and clerical garb etc. are worn beneath the academic robe, traditionally only the biretta in conjunction with clerical garb will replace the academic cap. All other costumes forgo the normal headwear in favor of the appropriate academic version.»

In Spain many universities use the academic biretta: When the authority who presides uses the biretta, when one who is to be invested as a doctor «honoris causa» enters the room, when speaking at a solemn academic act, at the end of an academic act when the presidency rises. The biretta is always placed or removed after being seated or before arising.

Such is the variety of practice and custom in this regard. In other similar situations, such as the wearing of judicial robes at «red Masses» and for the military, it is best to defer to local tradition, unless a practice is clearly disrespectful to the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

I think that the rule of thumb mentioned above, of at least following the practice of the bishop with the miter as well as removing the biretta to receive any blessing, will avoid any such disrespect.

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Follow-up: When the Holy See Is Vacant

Pursuant to our comments on praying for the pope’s intentions (see Feb. 26), a reader asked regarding the Holy Father’s published intentions for the Apostolate of Prayer. These intentions have already been published through 2014.

Such intentions will remain in force unless the next pope explicitly changes them. The publication of these intentions always takes into account the inevitable uncertainty of any future event, including the possible vacancy of the Holy See. They will always be the pope’s intentions even if the pontiff who formulated them no longer sits upon St. Peter’s Chair.

If the new Holy Father takes no action, then it can be presumed that he tacitly approves and adopts the intentions already approved by his predecessor. He is not obliged to do so, just as he is not strictly obliged to carry out a previously approved agenda of activities.

These intentions, however, are often incorporated into religious calendars and other resources that require long-term planning and advance printing; thus it is highly unlikely that the new pope will change the intentions. He will probably begin to indicate his personal intentions from 2015 onward.

Therefore, unless there are express indications to the contrary, those engaged in the wonderful Apostolate of Prayer may continue to intercede uninterruptedly for those intentions already assigned.

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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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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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