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A Lengthy Renaissance Sermon at the Papal Chapel

In the early 16th century the two administrators of the cappelle pontificie (papal chapel) in Rome had their hands full with the task of ensuring an orderly and timely mass for the pope. Paris de Grassis was the Master of Ceremonies who was in charge of the liturgy for each papal mass. Giovanni Rafanelli the Master of the Sacred Palace,1sometimes known as the “Inquisitor of Depraved Heretics,” selected the preacher for each mass and was responsible for keeping the content and length of the sermon in order. The latter of his titles was certainly not favorable, nor was it completely descriptive of his duties. For, the only “heretics” that Rafanelli ever interrogated were those who either preached longer than the allotted 30 minutes or veered off the approved topic and outline. John O’Malley recounts one such instance during the papacy of Julian II:

Rafanelli, de Grassis, and an unnamed Franciscan were the principal figures in one of the most chaotic incidents to occur during a cappella. It was the second Sunday of Advent, 1512. The pope was not present for the Mass. The sermon, as de Grassis perhaps with some exaggeration describes it, began with a commentary on Christ’s passion, and then it shifted to an account of all of the wonders wrought by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as by the saints, from the creation of the world until the present. By this time the sermon was well on the way towards the hour and a half it was destined to last, a length three or four or five times beyond what was normal. The cardinals, many of whom were now laughing kept signaling de Grassis to make the friar cease and desist. Needless to say, de Grassis readily received these signals, but his efforts to comply only incited the friar to raise his voice and to shout more loudly. De Grassis at this point turned his wrath on Rafanelli for allowing such nonsense in the first place. With that, the Master of the Sacred Palace finally bestirred himself, rose from his place, and took his turn in trying to silence the preacher. This, too, had no effect. Only the ringing of the bell and the laughter of practically the whole chapel were able to bring the sermon to a close, but not before the friar launched into a eulogy of the absent Julius II. Rafanelli and de Grassis, of course, were not amused. When it was all over, Rafanelli severely reproached the friar for not staying with his original text. De Grassis was more direct. He told the Franciscan that if he ever again dared appear in the papal chapel, he would have him thrown out.2

  1. Since Vatican II this position is known as “The Theologian of the Pontifical Household.”
  2. John W. O’Malley, Praise and blame in Renaissance Rome: rhetoric, doctrine, and reform in the sacred orators of the papal court, c. 1450-1521, (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1979), 19.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.