The Pontifical is practically an episcopal ritual, containing formularies and rubrics for the sacraments and sacramentals which may be celebrated by a bishop, including especially the consecration of holy chrism, and the sacraments of confirmation and holy orders. However, it does not include the rites for the Mass or the Divine Office, which can be found in the Roman Missal and Liturgy of the Hours respectively. Because of the use of the adjective pontifical in other contexts to refer to the Pope, it is sometimes mistakenly thought that the Pontificale Romanum is a book reserved to the Pope. It could be argued that it is the book of those entitled to the use, in certain contexts, of the pontificalia, i.e. episcopal insignia. These are not always limited just to bishops, but according to current Latin Catholic Canon Law can in certain circumstances be used by others including abbots and rulers of dioceses or quasi-dioceses who have not been ordained bishops.
The Pontifical has its sources mostly in texts and rubrics which existed in the old sacramentaries and Ordines Romani and were gradually collected together to form one volume for the greater convenience of the officiating bishop. The earliest pontificals date from the late ninth century. From the mid-tenth century, one particular compilation, known to historians as the Pontificale Romano-Germanicum, became dominant, and was widely copied. Nevertheless, manuscript Pontificals were given various descriptions and a pontifical might well be described with varying degrees of accuracy as a Liber Pontificalis, Liber Sacramentorum, Liber Officialis, Ordinarium Episcopale or a Benedictionale.
Under Clement VIII, a standard version was published for the use of the entire Roman Rite, under the title Pontificale Romanum. It was reprinted by authority with many variations many times. until 1962, after which it was recast and restructured according to the decisions of the Second Vatican Council.
The service book should not be confused with the collection of papal annals called Liber Pontificalis, probably first compiled in the 5th or 6th century.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches, the equivalent of the Pontifical is the Archieratikon (Greek: Ἀρχηιερατικόν; Slavonic: Чиновникъ, Chinovnik). This book is often in a large format and contains only those portions of Vespers, Matins, and the Divine Liturgy which pertain to the bishop (hierarch). It also contains those rites (ordination, the consecration of a church, etc.) which are normally performed only by a bishop.
- Coredon, Christopher (2007). A Dictionary of Medieval Terms & Phrases (Reprint ed.). Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer. p. 223. ISBN 978-1-84384-138-8.
- A convenient though partial and outdated list is given by Victor Leroquais, Les pontificaux. Manuscrits des bibliothèques publiques de France, 4 vols. (1937).
- See the photographic reprint: M. Sodi & A.M. Triacca (edd.), Pontificale Romanum, editio princeps (1595-1596), Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Città del Vaticano, 1997.
- A version published by Pope Leo XIII is transcribed on .
- See the photographic reprint: A. Ward & C. Johnson (edd.), Pontificale Romanum, reimpressio editionis iuxta typicam anno 1962 publici iuris factae, CLV-Edizioni Liturgiche, Roma, 1999.