TO DEFEND CATHOLIC TRUTH
AND UPHOLD CATHOLIC RIGHTS
March 19, 1999
Feast of St.
Vol. 17, No. 2
By Duane L.C.M.
October 16, 1998, marked the twentieth anniversary of the election
to the See of Peter of Pope John Paul II. If my calculations are correct, only three other
popesSaint Peter, Pius IX and Leo XIIIhave had longer pontificates. 1998 also
marks the thirtieth anniversary of the reform by Paul VI in 1968 of the pontifical
household and the creation of the office of "Chaplain of His Holiness."
While this papal honor is fairly new, its
origins and significance go back deeply into church history. In the Middle Ages with the
rise of the papacy and the expansion of the papal bureaucracy, the popes personal
attendants acquired a multitude of tasks. At first this was on an ad hoc basis.
Someone might ask the pope for a favor and the pope would refer the petition for study to
one of his trusted chaplains. As petitions and staff increased, a certain specialization
naturally developed and some chaplains would advise in matters of benefices or finance
while others might serve as referees in matters involving canon law. This is probably the
origin of the prelate clerics of the apostolic chamber and of the auditors (judges) of the
Roman Rota, respectively. Few in number during most of the history of the papacy, these
groups of prelates began as actual functionariesnotaries, judges, secretaries and
personal attendants of the popewho as their status grew came to be accorded the
style of "monsignor."
The title "monsignor" came into
ecclesiastical use at the time of the Avignon papacy (1305-1376) when the popes lived in
France and papal power and papal bureaucracy reached its apogee. Certain important clerics
at the papal court there were then accorded the French secular style of monseigneur
or "milord." The title became monsignore in Italian with the return of
Pope Gregory XI (1370-1378) to Rome in 1377. At first this lofty title was used only for
ecclesiastical grandees like cardinals. But after 1630, when Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644)
gave cardinals the title of "eminence," the old style of monsignore went
to senior papal officials beneath the rank of cardinal and to any secular prelate
(including bishops) entitled to wear the prelates dress, the rochet and mantelletta.
In time another group of monsignors grew
up inferior to the prelates di mantelletta. These were the prelates di
mantellone, who included the papal chamberlains and the papal chaplains. As the
Italian suggests, the cloak of the latter was longer. In the hierarchy of jurisdiction in
any one spot the ranking prelate wore a short elbow-length cape or mozzetta.
Prelates of lower ranklike protonotaries apostolic and domestic prelateswore a
mantelletta or knee-length sleeveless cloak. Prelates of the lowest ranklike
papal chamberlains and chaplainswore a long floor-length cloak or mantellone,
a large purple mantle which covered the cassock and reached to the feet. The arms passed
through the lateral side openings of this cloak. In this finely-graded system,
jurisdiction, actual or notional, determined ones attire. Thus as choir dress in the
sanctuary a cardinal outside Rome, a primate in his region, a metropolitan in his
province, and a residential bishop in his diocese wore a mozzetta over his rochet
and cassock. In other places (and in all places in the case of an auxiliary bishop) the mantelletta
replaced the mozzetta.
The choir cassock of prelates di
mantellone was purple with purple trim of a lighter hue. During papal chapels or
functions over their purple cassock and purple silk cincture went the mantellone,
which was made of wool in winter and of silk in summer. Outside Rome they could add purple
socks and a purple tassel on their ecclesiastical hat. During liturgical celebrations they
wore a surplice over their purple cassock. Their house dress was a cassock or simar of
black with purple buttons, buttonholes and trimmings worn with a purple silk cincture.
Their ferraiolone, or cloak, was of plain black silk. Their biretta was of silk and
lined with purple taffeta but otherwise it was entirely black like that of a simple
If their dress distinguished them from the
senior honorary prelates so did their style of address. In English-speaking countries the
lesser monsignors were "Very Reverend" to distinguish them from "Right
Reverend" prelates di mantelletta and "Most Reverend" bishops.
The first type of these
lesser monsignors, the papal chamberlains, had provided the popes ecclesiastical
retinue. The papal chamberlains were divided into four grades, participating,
supernumerary, nonorary chamberlains in purple attire, and honorary chamberlains extra
From the days of Pope Leo the Great
(440-461) the pontifical household had included papal chamberlains who were personal
attendants on the pope in his private apartments. The number of papal chamberlains was
never large, although their proximity to the pope meant that many chamberlains would enjoy
notable ecclesiastical careers and some were even promoted to the sacred purple. Their
privileges were considerable. They ranked ex officio as papal Lateran counts,
Knights of the Golden Spur, and nobles of Rome and Avignon.
In time, to honor a distinguished
ecclesiastic, to clothe with an honorable office an ecclesiastic sent abroad on papal
business, or simply to augment the splendor of a ceremony by the attendance of a larger
retinue, honorary or extraordinary papal chamberlains were created. Some extraordinary
chamberlains, moreover, because of the more frequent service they provided in the papal
antechamber, had enjoyed the ration of bread and wine that went to the papal familiarius
or member of the extended papal family. Out of the class of extras without such a ration
grew a new class of more purely honorary chamberlain, the honorary chamberlains in purple
attire. Finally, as rulers of the Papal States which before 1870 stretched across central
Italy, earlier popes traveled much more than "prisoners of the Vatican" like Leo
XIII and Pius X. This fact of life lead Pius VI to create a new class of chamberlain, the
honorary chamberlain extra urbem or outside the City, to attend him on his travels.
Outside Rome, they dressed in purple like other papal chamberlains. But since their
service did not extend to Rome, in the City they could not use the style and other
privileges of their rank.
PAUL VI'S REFORMS
AFTER VATICAN II
This, then, was the
origin and development of the four grades of papal chamberlain in the papal household at
the time of the second council of the Vatican. The council set in train a whirlwind of
reform and in 1968 among the first institutions to be reformed was the papal household.
There was the desire to end the divorce between canon law and theology (i.e., between
jurisdiction and orders) and the desire to underscore sacramental orders (especially of
the episcopacy). Thirdly, there was also the influence of the constitution on the liturgy,
Sacrosanctum concilium, article 34, with its watchword, "noble
simplicity." These guiding reform principles might be summarized in three themes,
"sacramental," sacred," and "simple."
Among the clerics of the papal court, the
reform found a byzantine maze of some fourteen grades of monsignori and reduced
this complex corps of "milords" to classic simplicity. The Pauline reform found
domestic prelates, four kinds of protonotaries apostolic, four varieties of papal
chamberlains, and five types of papal chaplains. It left the pontifical clergy divided,
like Gaul, into three parts, protonotaries apostolic, honorary prelates of His Holiness,
and chaplains of His Holiness. The chamberlains were now a more priestly-sounding category
calledmore appropriately in an ecclesiastical household"chaplains of His
The accent on the sacramental meant that
the sacramental orders of bishop and priest would be stressed rather than the jurisdiction
the papal clergy happened to exercise. For this to happen papal prelates had to cease
dressing and being addressed like bishops.
Thus, the use of the miter by
protonotaries apostolic was prospectively abolished and the use of the rochet (or
episcopal surplice) was severely limited to a handful of papal prelates resident in Rome.
The upshot was that among the secular clergy the rochet was once again restricted to
bishops, and the surplice (again) became the choir vestment of all clerics beneath that
At the same time the mozzetta was
made the emblem of the episcopal order and now all bishops, diocesan and auxiliary, could
wear it and wear it everywhere and not merely within their own jurisdiction as before.
Since attire was now grounded in ones sacramental order, the mantelletta and mantellone,
which had been bottomed on the wearers jurisdiction, were now superfluous. Hence,
except for a handful of papal prelates resident in Rome who retained the mantelletta,
these garments were also prospectively suppressed. The mantellone, moreover, being
the livery garb of the chamberlains, was essentially secular attire for the retinue of a
temporal sovereign. Its abolition thus in addition gave a less secular and more sacred
look to the pontifical household.
The sacramental principle had actually
been embraced a century earlier when Pius IX and Leo XIII had assigned to bishops the
purple skullcap and biretta in order that there might be a well-marked difference between
the appearance of bishops and that of simple priests. Paul VI would extend to the clerics
of the papal household this policy of assigning specially colored gear to particular
sacramental orders. If the purple biretta had become and episcopal ensign, now a black one
would become an ensign of the priesthood. Accordingly, almost all clerics of the
pontifical household who lacked the episcopal character would henceforth wear a black
biretta in token of their priesthood. In this way the entire "priesthood of the
second order" would be covered alike.
This nineteenth century pro-episcopal and
color-coding policy Paul VI would also extend more rigorously in his reform of the
pontifical household. While honorary prelates of His Holiness retained the purple choir
cassock, their ordinary attire was their black cassock or simar with red trim. Only
supernumerary protonotaries apostolic might now wear the purple ferraiolone or
cloak of silk. The papal chamberlains had been the retinue of the popes as secular rulers
and for them purple was a livery color. Now, to stress their presbyteral order rather than
this secular function their purple cassock was abolished. Instead, after the reform, with
marked simplicity papal chaplains would wear more priestly garb, the traditional ensign of
clerics, the black cassock. Henceforth, on all occasions their old house cassock, which
was black with purple buttons, buttonholes and trimmings, and a purple silk cincture would
serve sufficiently to mark them off at once as priests and as chaplains of His Holiness.
For choir dress, like other priests, they would don a surplice over their cassock as they
The same aim was evident in the reformed
styles of address for clerics of the pontifical household. The reform did away with
superlatives like "Right Reverend" and "Very Reverend for honorary
prelates. Henceforth, the superlative form of address became an exclusively episcopal
prerogative among secular clerics. In the future with but a few exceptions, "Reverend
Monsignor" became the sole style of address for clerics of the pontifical household,
the "Reverend" betokening their priesthood and the "Monsignor"
markingas it had since the days in Avignontheir membership in the pontifical
This, then, is a survey of the history and
origin of the title of chaplain of His Holiness. The office may be new, but it has deep
historical roots. With speed, precision and theological clarity the Pauline reform
incorporated the reform principles of Vatican II into an integral restructuring of the
pontifical household that transformed the four grades of chamberlains into a single and
coherent class of chaplains of His Holiness whose function and appearance was now priestly
in its structure, dress and style of address.