Cardinals concelebrating

In Paul Turner's Blog by Paul Turner

Q: I write concerning the practice of when a bishop or cardinal will preside at a Mass when a celebrant of a lower rank presides. I have read that, as the diocesan bishop is the chief shepherd of his diocese and he has the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders, his concelebrating at the Mass at which a priest presides would not be appropriate. Rather, the Bishop, himself, should always be the celebrant. But there are exceptions to that rule. For example, if a priest is celebrating the funeral Mass of his mother and the Bishop attends as a sign of fraternal support, the bishop may preside at the Mass but not formally concelebrate. In presiding, he sits within the sanctuary and is usually vested with a surplice over his cassock. I understand this principle; it makes sense to for the reason documents like the Ceremonial of Bishops and other liturgical/doctrinal documents of the Church suggests (i.e., the bishop having the fullness of Orders and being the chief shepherd of the diocese).

Where I become confused is where the distinction is not between a bishop and a priest, but between a Cardinal and a bishop. I have witnessed Masses, such as the ordination of a new bishop, where a visiting Cardinal will not concelebrate the Ordination Mass.  A bishop is the principal celebrant but will rather preside by vesting in a cassock and surplice and sitting within the sanctuary. The idea here, too, seems to be that the bishop is of a lower rank when compared to a Cardinal. What is confusing to me is that most Cardinals are also bishops. As I understand it, there is no such thing as a Cardinal having a “fuller sense of the sacrament of Holy Orders” than a bishop. 

Could you help me to understand why Cardinals will not concelebrate at Masses where a bishop presides? Thank You.


A:  I don’t know of any legislation on this. I suspect that you are correct—a visiting cardinal may opt not to concelebrate as a perceived deference to the bishop, but he is a bishop, and it seems that he could concelebrate.

If any followers on the blog have some insight, please let me know.


It’s an interesting conversation, and there really isn’t consistent practice in its regard – some cardinals will concelebrate, vested as such, while others will always “preside” in choir dress.  As to those who do “fully” and actually concelebrate, I wonder if the comparison might be made to a monsignor concelebrating at a Mass presided by “just a priest.”  Monsignor and Cardinal are both honorary designations, and do not, as such, add to the character of the man.   And so a cardinal might very well choose to concelebrate with a brother bishop and priests, just as commonly and frequently as a monsignor (who doesn’t take himself too seriously) might concelebrate with brother priests.

What I find far more concerning is the increasingly common desire/need of seminarians to vest in cassock and surplice – even when there are altar servers – and literally, preside at Mass.  The need/desire to be seen as distinct from “the people” is alarming in terms of the clericalism which it is already exhibiting.  How will they serve those whom they’ve “grown up” believing are different from them, which, I fear, means “below” them.

Perhaps a cardinal or bishop would be so kind as to establish a norm – or at least make a powerful statement – on the matter.

Thanks so much for this forum!


Thanks for your contribution today.