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Today, few people are aware of the fact that the Pope has his own particular Mass ritual. Special ceremonies and liturgical customs are present at solemn papal liturgies which are not found in the ordinary rites of the Roman Church. The reason for these special ceremonies lies in the identity of the Bishop of Rome himself: besides being the principal hierarch of the Latin Church (thus, until recently bearing the title Patriarch of the West), the Pope is the Father and Head of the Universal Church. Symbolic of this universal headship is the presence at solemn papal functions of the Greek deacon.
As Bishop of Rome, the Pope follows the rites of the Roman Church. However, until 1969, at the most solemn feasts of Christmas and Easter, the papal mass followed a unique, codified ritual, which included ceremonies performed by specific functionaries of the Papal Court and the Roman Curia. For instance, the Pope was assisted not merely by ordinary ministers but also by his closest collaborators, the cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, as they are officially entitled. The senior cardinal-bishop functioned as the principal assistant-priest, one cardinal-deacon ministered as the deacon of the Mass and two others as deacons of honour. In addition, a curial priest served as the Apostolic Subdeacon, so entitled by way of the fact that the See of Rome is entitled the Apostolic See because of the succession of its bishops from the Apostles Peter and Paul.
Another unique feature of this special papal ritual was the participation of Oriental clergy: in addition to the Cardinal and Apostolic Deacons and Subdeacons, the ceremonial prescribed two Byzantine-rite clerics, entitled the Greek Deacon and the Greek Subdeacon. These deacons were taken from the Greek College (Ukrainian Isidore Dolnytsky was Pius IX’s favourite) or from the Italian Byzantine-rite monastery of Grottaferrata, near Tivoli. This monastic community is not “uniate” per se, because it has always been in union with the Pope of Rome. The principal liturgical function of the Greek Deacon and Subdeacon was to sing the epistle and gospel in Greek after they had been sung in Latin by the Apostolic deacons. At the conclusion of the epistles, both subdeacons kissed the feet of the Pope, and after the singing of the gospels, the Pope kissed both Latin and Greek texts.
In addition to the ministration of the Greek deacons, the Pope himself maintained certain vestments and sacred vessels which perhaps, at one time, were common in the East and West. Over his right hip he wore a subcinctorium, which resembles a Byzantine prelate’s epigonation. The Eucharistic bread was also covered by an asterisk; a safeguard in the form of a star, which is placed over the Eucharistic bread at every Byzantine Eucharistic Liturgy. In addition, in common with the old Byzantine custom, the papal liturgies preserved the ancient usage of only two liturgical colours. Red and white were the colours of Roman senators and imperial court officials, and the Bishop of Rome was granted these colours in his personal vesture as an insignia of his rank. While the Pope now dresses almost exclusively in white, pieces of his vesture are still red, typically his outer garments such as his hat, shoes, cloak and his mozzetta. When the civic capital of the Roman Empire moved to Byzantium (renamed Constantinople) the Byzantine rite maintained this pristine Roman colour scheme, as did the Pope of Old Rome, who continued to wear white liturgical vestments for joyous celebrations and red vestments for penitential occasions and for commemorations of the martyrs.
Some argue that the presence of the Greek deacons goes back to a time when the Byzantine Rite was still commonly celebrated in Rome. However, their presence at this solemn courtly rite is likely a medieval innovation designed to illustrate the ecclesiological understanding of the Pope’s role as Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church. Indeed, recent scholarly research (of the late Father Franck Quoëx) has shown that as each and every ritual of the Solemn Papal Mass was carefully and hierarchically choreographed for such a purpose. For instance, during the first part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word, the Pope pontificated from a great throne, surrounded by the Curia and Court. During the second, Eucharistic part of the Liturgy, however, he divested himself of some of these symbols, thereby assuming the role of an ordinary bishop.
During the reforms of the Roman Rite following the Second Vatican Council, the solemn papal mass was abolished but some of its unique elements were retained in papal ceremonies. The custom which has received the most attention occurs at the funeral of the Pope himself, where, as a remnant of the ancient practice, the dead Pope continues to be vested in red, his traditional mourning colour. However, because the dual colour scheme has been abandoned, confusion has ensued as to who is to wear papal mourning. Traditionally, the Pope did not celebrate funerals but only presided from the throne. He alone mourned in red (Papa luget in rubra), while the celebrant of the Mass and sacred ministers wore black or purple. Benedict XVI has partially restored some of these ancient customs: for the funerals of cardinals, he has returned to presiding from the throne and administering the absolution, vested red papal mourning; also, the asterix has recently been used to cover the Sacred Species.
Throughout the reign of John Paul II, the Greek deacon began to appear more frequently at solemn papal masses but was not longer taken exclusively from among the a monk of Grottaferrata Abbey. Sometimes he was Greek, other times Russian, Ruthenian or Ukrainian etc. and he proclaimed the gospel in the liturgical language of his own Particular Church. Any signs of inequality between the Latin and Greek ministers were been suppressed. Due to the universal and superior mission of the head of the Roman Church, subsequent to the Council of Trent, the Roman Church began to consider its rite as being superior to other rites. Such a theological trend used to be reflected in the old papal liturgy during which the Latin deacon was accompanied by seven candle bearers whereas the Greek deacon was flanked only by two. Also, only the Latin deacon carried the gospel book and the Greek ministers sat farther away from the papal throne. These distinctions were not carried over into contemporary papal ceremony, in accordance with the solemn decree of Vatican II on the equal dignity of all rites. Today, both Latin and Byzantine deacons carry gospel books in procession and both are flanked by an equal number of candles. There have even been occasions where the Byzantine Deacon took precedence. An historical example happened at the opening of the Synod for Europe in 1999, when the Byzantine deacon alone proclaimed the Gospel in the Old Church Slavonic language (the common liturgical language of the Slavic Churches). Pope Benedict XVI has returned to the custom of a Greek deacon for his Christmas and Easter Masses. However, he also sanctioned the greatest and most controversial innovation of all: a Greek Orthodox deacon proclaimed the gospel at a Papal Mass where the Patriarch of Constantinople assisted at the Liturgy of the Word.
Despite examples of his presence at notable papal liturgies, the role of the Greek Deacon has been left relitively undefined since 1969. At each celebration, he has been instructed to do different things because no one was certain as to what his role should be, other than singing the gospel. In order to help solve this conundrum, several key questions need to be answered: For example, what liturgical postures were prescribed (or assumed) by the Greek ministers at papal masses prior to and following the 1969 reforms and why? And further, what role should the Greek Deacon play in the procession or the incensing at the current liturgy? Traditionally, the presence of Greek ministers at papal mass has emphasized the universal mission of the Pope but how can the Greek Deacon’s role be defined today, in accordance with ecumenical considerations and a current understanding of the role of the Roman Pontiff vis-à-vis the Eastern Catholic Churches and even the Orthodox Churches? Answers to these questions will emerge from further historical-liturgical study of the ceremonies of the papal rites. Such research will undoubtedly reveal the reasons for the Greek Deacon’s continued presence at these rites and lend to the dignity required in celebrating one of the principal Christian sacramental rituals.