ASK FATHER: Should priests wear the biretta when preaching? Wherein Fr. Z rants.

From a priestly reader…


I cannot find when to use the Biretta at the Homily, should it be worn, if so, then does one wear at for the Epistle & Gospel readings in the vernacular/English?
Thank you for your precious time.

Use of the biretta! Finally something important, instead of all these questions I get about whether or not X is a mortal sin, or why some in the Church seem determined to commit ecclesial mass-murder and suicide. Refreshing.

A long time I ago, I coined a term “birettaquette” for this critical dimension of clerical comportment.  It has made the rounds, I think. I have some other posts about birettas, and berettas, in the archive.   Gosh, I’m getting nostalgic.  That’s a bad thing, right?

Ad ramos.

Should the biretta be worn when preaching?

This is covered by local and community custom these days. I don’t believe there are specific rubrics or responses from the old Sacred Congregation for Rites that cover this. Pun intended. No, wait. There is one: if memory serves The Pontificale Romanum (that governs ceremonies of bishops) instructs the priest to wear the biretta when preaching. However, that is in a pontifical ceremony. I’m not sure it applies “downward” to the Masses of merely mortal priests.

Fortescue, again if memory serves, opines that it should be worn when preaching, but I think Wapelhorst does not.  It makes no nevermind.  Auctores scinduntur and we can make up our own minds.

I believe that the SSPX priests do not use the biretta when preaching. As a matter of fact their biretta use seems quite limited, perhaps because when they were formed Archbp. Lefevbre, who had been a religious, deemphasized it. The FSSP, influenced in its origins from the SSPX has greater use by far, as does the Institute of Christ the King, whose members I believe may also eat and sleep wearing birettas.  A legit choice, by the way.  Before central heating people used sleeping caps and the biretta is not strictly liturgical.  Priests wore and can still wear the biretta when out and around in the cassock.

It is daily wear, as you might see in the movie Going My Way, when the old Irish priest is strolling outside around the grounds.

And then there are the authoritative don Camillo movies!

We could also get into the removal of the maniple and, in some places, the chasuble for preaching.

The idea is that at that moment the priest steps out of Mass, as the sermon was not perceived as part of the Mass, and then puts them back on when finished and Mass “resumes”, like halting and restarting a clock. In the post-Conciliar view, the sermon is part of the Mass, not a-part.

This usage view reveals something about readings as perceived by the Novus mind or the Vetus mind.

In celebrations of the Novus Ordo you often get the sense that you are in a didactic setting, where things are being described, related, explained, taught. Versus populum orientation of the altar magnifies this as does the vernacular.

In the Vetus Ordo the readings are also sacrificial in nature. This is why in the traditional Roman Rite the readings are always read by the priest celebrant at the altar, which is the place par excellence of sacrifice. In 1962 there was a daft shift in this in regard to the Epistle and Gospel which dopey changes are fit only to be entirely ignored. The main point is that even the uttering of the words of Sacred Scripture in the Mass is the raising of a sacrifice, as incense rises heavenward, and so forth.  Therefore, the readings have to be read by the priest even if they are then sung or read by someone else (subdeacon, deacon, layperson in some places).

It occurs to me as I write that the Novus Ordo practitioner emphasis of the separation of elements underscores how the dimension of sacrifice was obscured in the Novus Ordo regarding readings.

Firstly, in the Novus Ordo there are two books, a Missal and a Lectionary.  Bugnini back in the day wanted to make sure that the priest could never say Mass from one book ever again.  The use of a second book isn’t just because the number of readings was multiplied.  It was a separation of word from sacrifice. In the Vetus Ordo, all the readings are in the same book as all the elements for the Sacrifice.  The use of a separate book for the singing of the readings by subdeacon and deacon is purely a matter of utility and not a theological statement.

Next, in the Novus Ordo design of some churches and sanctuaries there is such an emphasis on the word, that the ambo is given just as much emphasis as the altar, sometimes even being placed in such a way that they have equal positions next to each other.   I’m sure you’ve seen that in places.

I’m digressing, but you see how all of these things are interlaced.

The biretta doesn’t carry nearly the significance as sacred vestments or altars and ambos. However, it did develop from the scholar’s doctoral cap. Therefore, from its origin it seems not unreasonable to wear it while preaching.

That said, some reflection on these matters could provide a priest with a sort of “examination of conscience” about his preaching.  It is not for nothing that the Council of Trent took the matter of quality of preaching (and therefore formation) in hand and called for a book for priests to guide their sermon and instruction, the Roman Catechism.

I do not see an absolute conflict between the idea of “stepping out of Mass” to preach and the sermon being “part of Mass”.  Here is a real point of “mutual enrichment” that Benedict XVI wrote about.  The two views of the sermon seem on the surface to be antitheses.  But are they really?  The priest has choices to make about his preaching.  These two ways of thinking about the sermon could provide some orientating course corrections.

To the point about birettas, there is no hard and fast rule, authors are divided, and local custom and the preference of the priest governs this all important question.

Now back to the lesser stuff, like is it really necessary to go to confession (yes), is is eating alligator permitted on Fridays of Lent (yes), and whether certain acts are mortal sins even in marriage (of course).

I’ll conclude with this, in Italian, but authoritative and thematically and visually apt for our sad days, when a flood of what can only be called persecution has driven many of the faithful who desire traditional worship out of their “homes”, their churches and chapels.  Don Camillo stays at the altar and, unable to say Mass because of the flood, and reminds people that one day the flood water will subside, the sun will return to shine, sorrow will diminish and divisions will be healed.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Not says:

    A great dearly departed Priest I knew, used to say the points of the Birretta was to stop the demons from their constant attacks.

    On a comical note, spellcheck kept making Birretta ,Beretta. I guess it is a weapon.

  2. TheCavalierHatherly says:

    :The Pontificale Romanum (that governs ceremonies of bishops) instructs the priest to wear the biretta when preaching. However, that is in a pontifical ceremony. I’m not sure it applies “downward” to the Masses of merely mortal priests.”

    I would argue that we ought, as in matters of etiquette, apply downward from the highest case to the lowest possible case, notwithstanding a serious impediment. This would reflect the case of Court to Kitchen Table. For example, one should observe table manners to the permitted extent, but obviously a sandwich is not eaten with a fork and knife.

    This has the great advantage of elevating our everyday lives. Which was the original purpose of popularizing the courtly rules of ettiquette. And, as my wife has so wisely pointed out, etiquette is a form of asceticism, whereby we are made disciplined, and, as Cicero and St. Thomas understand, we put the ease of others above our own . It is a way of fulfilling the injunction to love our neighbor. And it is difficult, and requires the areté proper to a Homeric hero. (Here, as elsewhere, Neitzsche was dead wrong.)

    The glamorization of barbarism has left its obvious marks upon Church and State.

  3. Zephyrinus says:

    Reference the Comment from “Not” (see, above) about spellcheck playing fast and loose with things Latinesque, my intended use of “Asperges”, during an Article on Zephyrinus Blog, was initially published by spellcheck as “Asparagus”.

    Food for thought !!!

  4. redneckpride4ever says:

    In my experience:

    The SSPX guys wear a biretta sometimes (but not always) as they approach or enter the sanctuary. I have yet to see one of them wear it during a homily. I have also seen zero-use Masses. Use is definitely limited.

    I have seen an FSSP priest wear one during a homily and remove whilst bowing his head when speaking our Lord’s Name.

    I have also seen my territorial NO pastor use one. It was the NO feast of Christ the King, and was the only NO Mass I’ve seen biretta use along with Gregorian chant. Ad orientem, Latin Agnus and Sanctus and a kneeler to receive communion are standard for him, so really no surprise he stepped up an important feast day.

  5. Kentucky Gent says:


    Thanks! I love asparagus.

  6. ex seaxe says:

    When I was a child, in the 1950s, we were clearly instructed that the Mass is in two parts; the Mass of the Catechumens, and the Mass of the Faithful. That was also the way that Thomas Aquinas described it. So these parts are distinguished by communal names, emphasising that our worship is a communal thing. The attitude you take here is that of a chantry priest, offering the Sacrifice for the community no doubt, but not with the community. That is a natural outcome of basing the 1570 Missal on the Missa privata of curial officials, but it is not what the Council of Trent asked for in Session XXII.
    The concern they expressed that “the hungry sheep look up and are not fed” is addressed again by VII, and the 1965 revised rubrics very neatly solve that problem and restore the sense of community, without detracting from the unique role of the priest in offering the Holy Sacrifice. Indeed I would say that by reserving the altar for the Mass of the Faithful they enhance awareness of the sacrificial purpose.

  7. TheCavalierHatherly says:

    The distinction between the Mass of the Catechumens and the Mass of the Faithful comes from the ancient Church. The unbaptized were removed from the liturgy for the Mass of the Faithful. Only the baptized could be present at the Holy Mysteries.

  8. Notsoserious09 says:

    Can anyone tell me the name of the painting? The one with the angels watching as the Monk weeps as he depicts the crucifixion?

  9. Kenneth Wolfe says:

    Please repost the excellent “birettaquette” bullet points. From the humor (don’t sit on the biretta, and don’t use two hands to put it on like a football helmet!) to the succinct instruction (carry it when processing and recessing if you are sitting in choir) it was really well done. I’ve sent it to several clergy over the years.

  10. Zephyrinus says:

    Kentucky Gent.

    Thank You to you, also (see, above).

    I love Kentucky Blue Grass.

    But not with Asparagus !!!

  11. TheCavalierHatherly says:


    It’s “Fra Angelico visité pars les Anges” by Paul-Hippolyte Flandrin.

  12. Son of Saint Alphonsus says:

    ex seaxe,

    You need to go back to your Baltimore Catechism and look up what those terms mean. They do not mean what you seem to think they do. You might also need to consult something that goes a bit deeper like the Baltimore Catechism No. 4 or the Roman Catechism.

    It’s better if you do this yourself and see it with your own eyes. Then you have the information from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and need not take the word of a rigid traditionalist.

  13. eamonob says:

    Some of the traditional priests in our archdiocese wear their biretta while preaching the homily. They remove it and bow their head whenever they say the name of Jesus.

  14. Philmont237 says:

    My experience with the ICKSP was this: they wear the biretta to preach, as well as to proclaim the epistle in the vernacular just before preaching. However they removed it to proclaim the Gospel in the vernacular.

    After removing the maniple and chasuble, the priest would go to the center of the altar at the bottom of the steps. The server would bring him his biretta. They would genuflect together, and the priest would put it on. The server would go back to his seat as the priest approached the ambo. He would reas the epistle, remove the biretta, read the Gospel, and then put it back on.

    At the conclusion of the homily, he would meet the server back in the middle, who would then take the biretta from the priest.

  15. Notsoserious09 says:

    Thank you,

  16. diaconus_in_urbe says:

    Going out on a limb here – kinda in the way a rookie boxer may take on Mike Tyson, but here we go…

    I take issue with the use of “always” in this sentence: “This is why in the traditional Roman Rite the readings are always read by the priest celebrant at the altar, which is the place par excellence of sacrifice. ”

    This strikes me as anachronistic. Properly, the epistle is sung by the subdeacon, and the Gospel is sung by the deacon (specifically, towards liturgical North – not the altar). I figure any analysis of the Vetus Ordo has to be made according to the rites and details of the Missa Solemnis (I agree with Dom Gueranger, on this point). The plain historical fact being that any use of the Vetus Ordo which was not the so-called Missa Solemnis was an abbreviation thereof. That is, the Low Mass (i.e. Missa Lecta), or High Mass (Missa Cantata, etc.) always had the Missa Solemnis as its formal and theological reference point (even if that fact had been forgotten). This is a point made in the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia: “In low Mass the ceremonies for the Gospel are, as usual, merely an abridgment and simplifying of those for high Mass.” Further it states that, “according to the PRESENT law that he [the celebrant] is also to recite whatever is sung by any one else” (EMPHASIS ADDED). The historical data shows that this was not always the case. Also, the same Catholic Encyclopedia states that the placement of the Missal on the North end of the altar, “is only an imitation of the deacon’s place at high Mass.”

    Consequently, to understand the Missa Catechumenorum, and the meaning of the rites thereof, it makes sense that the reality of the diaconate (and the subdeacon by extension) and the ancient Catechumenate have to be taken into account – especially given the name of the part of the Vetus Ordo in question being the ‘missa’ literally, the ‘sending’ of the Catechumens (an event which happened after the sermon) – literally, the Missa Catechumenorum. Given the ancient deacon’s role with the catechumens, his prominent role in the first half of the divine liturgy makes sense (here, I use the term ‘divine liturgy’ to broaden the discussion to things both East and West). Further, the fact that the Missa Catechumenorum and the Mass of the Faithful were historically distinct events my explain the artifact of the sermon being a ‘break in the action,’ so to speak.

  17. Iconophilios says:

    Ah, that old ‘Birettas for Seminarians’ project!
    I remember calling the number and putting my name on that list in 2017. I am now in my penultimate year of seminary studies and have yet to hear back.

    Usquequo, Domine, oblivisceris me in finem?

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