The 'Cappa Magna' of Canons in Malta

Photo by Dr. Bao Dang
In Malta there is a curious version of the "cappa magna" that is worn by canons.  This custom comes from Rome, where canons of the collegiate churches wore them during the good old days.  The side stole was originally the train, tied to signify that the beneficiary has no jurisdiction.  In some ways it resembles the "cappa fluens" seen in the See of Milan, used by Ambrosian provosts (pastors) and canons.  This is also similar to the "cappa parva" of the canons of Westminster Cathedral in London who have the privilege of the Lateran choir dress.  

The photo here is of Fr. Nicholas Doublet, a canon of the Basilica of St. Helen in Birkikara, Malta.  His Maltese-style cappa magna was tailored by Gammarelli in Rome.  The chapter of canons in Birkikara dates back to 1630 when Don Filippu Borg of the then church of St. Helen petitioned and obtained from Pope Urban VIII the establishment of a chapter of canons.  This act from the pope was in the form of the papal bull, Sacri Apostolatus Ministerio.  The St. Helen's of today is a spectacular church that was built after, consecrated in 1782.  The church was named a minor basilica by Venerable Pius XII in the Holy Year 1950.

The aim of chapters of canons has always been to create an institution where priests flourish.  Where they can come together for priestly fraternity, to pray together the choral office and share a common life, for the spiritual and material good of themselves and the faithful.  Functioning together as a chapter requires both structure and proper liturgical and meeting space.  The chapter has choir stalls in the sanctuary behind the high altar with a special chair for its provost.  It also has a special chapter room hall adjoining the church that was designed specifically for this purpose, completed in 1862.  The hall is the perfect size and has a barrel vault decorated by a local artist, Giuseppe Muscat.  In the past the chapter has had up to eighteen members and a provost.  They come together in their chapter room to discuss the parish, share ideas, administer the chapter's property, and draw up pastoral plans for the future.  The arrangement of the chairs around the table represents the way in which the canons would sit in council.  Presiding from the middle would sit the provost, the dean and the chancellor.  The walls depict the coat-of-arms of the past and present members of the chapter, a common custom that is seen here.

In the Vatican during the golden age of papal liturgies can be seen Bishop Petrus Canisius van Lierde, O.E.S.A.  He was Prefect of the Papal Sacristy (Praefectus Sacrarii Apostolici) and Vicar General of Vatican City State and as such his duties brought him to the side of the pope during liturgies.  He was Sacristan for four papal conclaves and had the job to administer Extreme Unction to the dying Pontiffs.  Bishop van Lierde was an ardent admirer of liturgy and liturgical traditions.  In fact, the first part of the mandate of his Order, the Eremitani di S. Agostino (founded in 1256) was the "divine cult" (culto divino).  Since 1352 the sacristan of the Apostolic Palace has belonged to this Order.  Clement VIII elevated the papal sacristan to the dignity of bishop.  With the Lateran Treaty in 1929 Pius XI included in this position also the role of Vicar General of the Vatican City State.  On April 17, 1964 he visited the church of St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minnesota, for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the parish at the invitation of the pastor, the Rt. Rev. Msgr. Rudolph G. Bandas, the most influential and traditional of the Vatican II periti from the U.S.A.

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