Galles on Monsignors, Musical and Otherwise

The recent news that Pope Francis has abolished two of the three remaining ranks of monsignor and limited the one remaining to priests over 65 has elicited much comment, particularly in tradition-minded circles.  When I read this, I was immediately reminded of a series of articles in Sacred Music which presented a good history of papal honors for the clergy in general, as well as certain notes of interest to historians of Church music.  You can read Duane LCM Galles’ three part article Musical Monsignori: Or, Milords of Music Honored by the Pope here:

Part I Fall 1995 (pp. 16-21) 

Part III Spring 1996 (pp. 13-17) 

Here are some interesting quotes:

Part One

The oldest honor for clerical church musicians is the office of canon which arose out of the group of clerics in the see city who gathered around the bishop to sing the daily solemn Mass and the liturgy of the hours. These became the cathedral canons and, where centers for the solemn liturgy developed outside the cathedral, these centers came to be known as collegiate churches, because such churches were staffed by a college of canons or team of priest colleagues.

Because of their proximity to the bishop, canons became his closest advisors and administrative assistants and, by the beginning of the second millennium, when the Roman cardinals were winning the right to elect the bishop of Rome, cathedral canons got the right to elect the diocesan bishop and to administer his vacant or impeded see. The upshot was that the erstwhile church musicians became leading figures in the local church administration, the canons’ manifold administrative duties soon got in the way of their musical and liturgical duties and the latter suffered.

In order to fulfill their liturgical and musical duties in greater comfort canons had developed certain distinctive vestments to be worn during the long offices in choir in unheated stone churches. In time, these came to be distinctive insignia of canons and part of their distinctive privileges of dress. In some cases the granting of these distinctive vestments would become part of the papal system of clerical honors and provide the precedent for the honors of dress bestowed on papal prelates.

In the twentieth cantury Rome began creating honorary chapters of canons. There had long been honorary or supernumerary canons in chapters of canons. Franz Xaver Witt (1834-1888), who founded in 1868 and lead for many years the German Caecilia Society and revived interest in renaissance polyphonic sacred music, was made an honorary canon of the suburbicarian cathedral of Palestrina. Likewise, his successor Franz Xaver Haberl (1840-1910) had ad honorem his canon’s stall in choir there. Honorary canons have a stall in choir and the title and dress of a canon, but they cannot participate in chapter nor in the revenues of the chapter nor have they liturgical duties. But now entire chapters were constituted as honorary. An example is the parochial Church of San Sosio Martyr in Fractamaiore in the Diocese of Aversa, Italy, made a collegiate church ad honorem in 1923. The pastor was to become the archpriest and sole dignitary of the new collegiate church and its ten curates would be the canons. The archpriest was conceded the use of a cap-pa magna in choir equipped with a muskrat (muris pontici pellibus) cape in winter and a red silk one in summer; the canons got for choir dress a red mozzetta and all could wear the rochet with red lining under the lace of the sleeves. Their choir duties were attenuated and the curate-canons were removable at the will of the bishop and so lacked the life tenure normal to canons.

The tradition of Roman involvement in the erection of collegiate churches reached
its apogee when the Holy See began in 1783 bestowing the title of minor basilica on certain distinguished churches. The title and its associated privilege arose among the distinguished collegiate churches of Rome and came to be a sort of papal “ennoblement” of a church. For the church’s canons the title brought the privilege of wearing the prelate’s rochet and the cappa magna in choir. The basilica in limine was a purely Roman type of collegiate church with purely Roman privileges. It was now being inserted into the local church and today minor basilicas with special links to the Roman pontiff are to be found throughout the Catholic world.

The canonry had begun as a local liturgical and musical function and had later become a local clerical honor. By the nineteenth century and with its culmination, the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the creation of chapters of canons under Canon 392 had become entirely co-opted by Rome, and the conferral of chapter dignities by Canon 396 had been reserved to the Holy See.

Part Two

“The most ancient college of domestic prelate was the protonotaries apostolic. Descended from the scribes who wrote down the confessions of the martyrs in the early church, these papal notaries came by the reign of Pope Gregory the Great (590- 604) to form a scola notariorum or college of notaries headed by a primicerius or precentor. Not only did this papal corps have the function in the apostolic chancery of authenticating curial documents, but notaries also served as papal nuncios and papal judges delegate.”

At the turn of this century Pius X effected notable reforms in the papal household through his 1905 reform of the papal household, Inter multiplices, and his 1908 reform of the Roman curia, Sapienti consilio. These measures aimed at structuring the Holy See on more functional lines and at codifying and simplifying the privileges of the clerics of the papal court.  In his reform Pius X placed the protonotaries apostolic at the apex of the minor prelates of the papal household. While his 1905 motu proprio pruned some of their extensive privileges, Pius X, nevertheless, left the protonotaries apostolic with many privileges. Like cardinals and bishops, they were by law privileged to maintain a private chapel where Mass could be offered. Before Vatican II, Mass could only be celebrated in a sacred place (such as a church or private chapel) and the erection of a private chapel required an apostolic indult. Hence, the right to such a chapel was a coveted privilege.

Although the origins of many of the offices of the pontifical household are very ancient, it will be seen that the current mass of monsignors is largely a phenomenon of the nineteenth-century when the centralization of the Roman Church reached its apogee. Clerics and laity alike were transformed into supplicants for papal honors and all grace and favor, all perquisites and precedence, were seen as deriving from the pope and were fitted into a Roman honors system. The pope became the sole fons honorum in the western church and all honors were seen as in his gift.

Purple silk became the tangible mark of Roman favor, and taking purple silk ever more copiously came visibly to mark the progress of a clerical career. It signaled the success of the young upwardly-mobile ecclesiastic much as a progression of post- nominal initials marks the advance of a British civil servant.

In the first paragraph of Inter multiplices Pius X explained that the reason for reforming and codifying the privileges of minor papal prelates was to protect the episcopal dignity. He noted that bishops were successors of the apostles and, even given the primacy of honor and jurisdiction due the successor of Peter, bishops were sacramentally his peer. Nevertheless, over time, concessions of privileges to minor prelates and extravagant interpretations of them had encroached on the episcopal dignity. His aim was to prune such excesses.

Over the centruies papal indults had conceded the use of the miter and of other pontificals and of increasingly splendid choir dress to minor prelates, to abbesses, and to the canons of cathedrals and other distinguished collegiate churches. Sometimes, as in the case of canons of minor basilicas, this splendid dress was the use of the violet cappa magna or of a rochet or of a violet mozzetta or of the mantelletta or even of a purple prelatial cassock with train. All of the papal concessions to canons and other ecclesiastics had the effect of making bishops look bland by contrast with these minor prelates, for as yet bishops, like simple priests, wore but black birettas and black skullcaps.

Earlier papal initiates had likewise attempted to redress this situation. In 1867, by his brief, Ecclesiarum omnium, Pius IX granted to all bishops the privilege of wearing the purple skullcap. Two decades later in 1888 by the motu proprio, Praedaro divinae gratiae, Leo XIII permitted all bishops the exclusive privilege of wearing a purple biretta in order that there might be a well-marked difference between the appearance of bishops and of simple priests. These two pieces of legislation set the tone that Pius X and Vatican II would follow and, in particular, established a policy of assigning specially colored headgear to particular sacramental orders. With bishops now wearing purple skullcaps and purple birettas, purple came to seem the color of the episcopal order and not merely of the papal court. This nineteenth century pro- episcopal and color-coding policy, Paul VI would extend more rigorously in his post- Vatican II reform.

Part Three

The deepened ecclesiology of Vatican II implied that ecclesiastical honors, like church life, would be restructured on the conciliar model. The church marches forward in time on her pilgrimage to her heavenly end and so the post-conciliar perestroika could not be merely a return to the status quo ante of the early period. Thus, all honors would not be local. There would be roles for both the local Church and the universal pastor.

While the principles of subsidiarity and collegiality demanded that locally-based initiatives and honors be respected, lamentably, most of the reform thus far has been at the center. Little had been done in the local church except as a sort of revanche against the age of papal monarchy. Today there appears in many places to be a distaste for papal honors, whether for musicians or others. Nor has there been much effort to create an honors system within the local church — except that in some places the order of deacon is now conferred on the sort of laymen who thirty years ago would have received the Order of Saint Gregory.

Since the coming into effect of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the Latin Church has permitted the restoration of the system of musical honors which flourished during the early period. The new Code places entirely within the power of diocesan bishops the erection of collegiate churches and the creation of chapters of canons within them. Three years ago in these pages I published a canonical map showing how this might be done entirely without resort to Rome. To canonical clients faced with the suppression of their parish church I have suggested the transformation of parochial churches into collegiate churches. These would be centers for the solemn liturgy and for the preservation and cultivation of sacred music and they might be staffed on a part-time basis by retired or semi-retired priests and so not exacerbate the shortage of priests. While becoming burgeoning centers for the preservation and cultivation of the treasury of sacred music, such collegiate churches and their chapters of canons would be the creation solely of the local bishop. The recourse to Rome in vogue for at least the last five hundred years has been rendered unnecessary by the 1983 Code. Once again the local church can honor its senior clerical musicians by making them canons (or honorary canons) of a collegiate church of its own creation.

If the reform of the honors system at the local Church level lagged, that on the papal level was accomplished almost at once.  Basically the Pian structure of 1905 was maintained, but the obsolete elements were removed or updated in accordance with Vatican II principles. Though radical, the reform respected acquired rights and hewed to precedents, while at the same time excising necrotic matter with the deftness characteristic of a skilled surgeon. For few reforms are cut from whole cloth.

Protonotaries apostolic created before the reform retained their privileges, but they were also permitted to abandon the use of the mitre, which henceforth would become an exclusively episcopal ensign among the secular clergy. This permission was necessary, for canon law does not allow someone who enjoys privileges by virtue of his membership in a class individually to give up the right to those privileges. Were a member of a group free to surrender such rights, the rights of the whole group would be harmed. Thus, the reform was careful to retain the rights of the group while permitting individual members of it to renounce their right to the mitre. Pontificalia insignia did provide that protonotaries apostolic created after the reform should not have the use of the mitre and so its use was abolished prospectively. From such prelates the reform took no vested right.

After the reform there were but two grades of protonotaries, numerary and supernumerary. The former were the old participating protonotaries while the latter were the old protonotaries ad instar. The canons of the Roman major basilicas, who in the 1905 legislation had been called supernumerary protonotaries, now lost that designation, although they continued ex officio to enjoy the privileges of supernumerary protonotaries in their own rich store of privileges. At the same time they expressly remained part of the pontifical household, even if it is no longer seen as necessary to create for them some special rank within the papal prelature of grace.

The class of titular or “black” protonotaries, which Pius X had merely reformed, was now sub silentio abolished. By 1968 this group was composed largely of episcopal vicars general. In the Vatican II ecclesiology, which sees the Church as a communion of communions, it was no longer necessary to fit episcopal vicars general, vicars capitular, and diocesan administrators into a papal cursus honorum. Like the diocesan bishop, they derive their rank from the local Church they serve. Their bishop is the head of that local Church and they are his vicar or locum tenens. No longer is the Church seen as the ecclesiastical analog of a unitary state in which bishops are but heads of prefectures.

At the same time, with the advent after Vatican II of the episcopal vicar to the list of local ordinaries (cf. canon 134), the suppression of this class of “black” protonotary exhibited great good sense. But for this reform many of the clerics in today’s episcopal curias would have had a just claim to be ranked as titular protonotaries and this grade of prelate would have become quite glutted.

The Pauline reform insisted on calling domestic prelates what they had in fact by and large become in the nineteenth century, honorary prelates of His Holiness. Moreover, their old Latin name, antistites urbani, was de trop after Vatican II had placed the accent on sacramental orders, especially the episcopal order. It is, after all, as antistite nostro that one prays for the diocesan bishop in the Latin original of the Roman canon of the Mass. No wonder the reform speedily decreed that new honorary prelates of His Holiness should never bear this quasi-episcopal title nor use the rochet (episcopal surplice).

The mantelletta and mantellone were also prospectively suppressed, for, henceforth, the reform would ground privileges to ecclesiastical attire in the sacramental order of the wearer rather than in the jurisdiction he held. This reform aimed at ending the divorce between theology and canon law, orders and jurisdiction. Thus before the reform, as choir dress, 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.  After the reform, like a cardinal, any bishop — auxiliary or diocesan — could wear his mozzetta anywhere in the world, for now it was a badge of his episcopal consecration rather than of ordinary jurisdiction. In short after the reform garments ceased to be emblems of jurisdiction. Given the new sacramental principle, the mantelletta and mantellone were now rendered obsolete and so they were no longer appropriate dress for clerics of the pontifical household.

Like so many other reforms after Vatican II, it was more a culmination of earlier reforms than a new departure in itself. With great care it followed principles of reform laid down by Vatican II and these themselves were often only further developments on earlier papal reforms. But the Pauline reform of 1968 and 1969 is notable in that it followed these principles systematically and with determination at the highest level in the church.

Some may cavil at the Pauline reform for its relative colorlessness. But Sacrosanctum concilium, article 124, set forth the relevant aesthetic canon: “noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display.” Perhaps this aesthetic has not worn well after a quarter of a century when Bauhaus has become passe and when the post- modern style cultivates the baroque fancy for the boldly curvilinear and the brightly colored.  But to blame the reform for the vagaries of fashion is unjust. With speed, precision and theological clarity the Pauline reform incorporated the reform principles of Vatican II into its reformed system of honors for clerics.
This, then, is the post-conciliar reform of the honors system for clerical church musicians. It remains to be seen if bishops will exercise their faculty to erect collegiate churches and create canons (and canonesses) to encourage the cultivation and preservation of the solemn liturgy and the treasury of sacred music. These have now languished for three decades in the American Catholic Church, but with encouragement they may once again be cultivated, preserved and honored in a manner hallowed — as we have seen — by the most venerable traditions of the local Church.

Galles also published in the Summer 1985 issue of Sacred Music an article called “Papal Musical Knights” (pp. 13-20). 

It would seem from here, then, that, the whole complicated system of clerical honors was an organic outgrowth of a rich liturgical life, which also had its counterpart in the administration of the local church.  Secular canonical life at the diocesan level and the papal court over time

became conflated.  St Pius X and Paul VI both effected reforms based on ecclesiological and practical principles.  But neither succeeded in decentralizing the whole system.  Perhaps bishops who can no longer candidate priests for the capella papale under the present rules have another option.  If the present desire for decentralization is real, then what is to prevent diocesan ordinaries from establishing their own forms of clerical honorifics?  What would prevent them from breathing life into an often defunct, but ancient, tradition of collegiate chapters of canons, which would lead an exemplary liturgical and common life, and also bring back some of the color and diversity of the Roman Church?  Considering that paonazzo is the color of episcopal livery, and not just cappella papale, could it not also be integrated into the clerical vesture of local chapters of canons, whose constitution would not be subject to Roman interference?  Just a thought…  

9 Replies to “Galles on Monsignors, Musical and Otherwise”

  1. Thanks so much for this brief history. After moving to my current diocese, I was startled to discover the large number of monsignori here who mostly seem to have been promoted several decades ago at a very young age (around 30 y/o) and for what seem to be fairly negligible reasons (although most of them were unusually good-looking!) since at age 30 it would seem most young priests have not accomplished too many notable things.

    On the other hand, there are some truly outstanding pastors notable for their faithfulness and orthodoxy and the building and impeccable maintenance of large parishes or for their scholarship and erudition who have never received any official recognition whatsoever.

    Re: Papal Knightships for musicianship, I've seen such honors conferred on church "musicians" whose singing is so poor that people can barely keep from snickering and laughing.

    In other words, at least in my neck of the woods there seems to be little rhyme nor reason for the conferring of such honors, and I applaud the Pope's decision to abolish the whole practice until further notice.

  2. I'd be far more impressed if he tossed out dissident clerics. This is just a distraction. I guess it makes "progressives" feel good.

  3. Well, I'm a traditional-minded Catholic and I find it a definite step in the right direction, at least in my diocese where there is an entire quite sizable class of monsignori, all of the approximate age, all of the same progressive bent, who have, as far as I can see, wreaked tremendous havoc in terms of their faulty catechesis and sloppy liturgies (and in other areas as well which I will not detail.)

  4. This abolition of the classes of lesser prelates is just more window-dressing (or undressing). Would that the Pope could focus more on removing careerist bishops – who have both sacramental and juridical authority – rather than the easy target of the Monsignori. I doubt very much that this move will be very popular and we look forward to it being reversed in a future Pontificate less concerned with 1970's hang-ups.

  5. Perhaps that's the next step. I don't imagine Pope Francis is too fond of bishops and clergy who like to hide in their ivory towers and chanceries and rectories, no matter what their theological/ideological predilection might be, and I'd have to agree with him there.

    If you can find a progressive cleric who is actually with his people all the time, I'll take that any day over a "conservative" who locks himself away from the people and is terrified that he might have to interact for three minutes with a layperson. The problem is, at least in my experience, that neither the progressives nor the conservatives are very fond of interacting with" the great unwashed."

    To tell you the truth, the most pastoral priests I know are traditionalist priests. Go figure. I'm not advocating for the SSPX in any way, but their priests are invariably patient, kind, approachable, and willing to go the extra mile to help a soul in need.

  6. Or perhaps because they are not swamped by the minutiae and office obligations that seem to go along with administering your average parish. Good priests can get caught up in the mail and messages that pile up. Having said that, it is a good reminder that we, yes, I am a parish priest, need to be among our people. This is the better part.

  7. I remember many years ago a rather 'recalcitrant' priest referring to protonotaries apostolic as 'mule bishops'!
    well, maybe he was just jealous. He later left the church.

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