The Papal Court (Aula Pontificia)

Photo: OC-Travel
One of the treasures of the past that deserves mention -- and has always been cherished with deep affection -- is the Papal Court (La Corte Pontificia).  This was, by habit and tradition, a mystic band of brotherhood; what was supposed to be a corporation of the best and the bravest, a cache of high-ranking dignitaries who assisted the popes in carrying out specific roles, some of them honorary (while nevertheless of immense cultural import), in ceremonies that were liturgical or civil in character.  These devotees of the papacy supported the popes in the governance and administration of the Holy See -- and before the year 1870, this also included the Papal States.  As I have always said, the Vatican reckons in centuries and plans for eternity, in habitual dignity.

Recently while paying a visit to the papal summer villa at Castel Gandolfo and walking the marbled corridors of the piano nobile, I took these photos to give our readers a rare glimpse of the elegant uniforms of the traditional Papal Court. 

The Papal Court was unexpectedly abolished in 1968 by the prolix of Pauline motu proprio, to the dismay and consternation of many.  In a fit of modernization, the court, which had seemed an imperturbable pillar in a hostile world, was suddenly disbanded (reorganized) by order of Pope Paul VI to the horror of many.

The secular media celebrated and encouraged the storm of change.  Some Vatican insiders speculated the change as having been a form of "bureaucratic retribution" on Paul VI's tormenters in the Vatican, stemming from his exile to Milan in 1954.  Others suggest the life in the Sacred Apostolic Palaces behind the Leonine walls had developed into an atmosphere of febrile intrigue and slight madness, reminiscent of the decaying courts of old Peking.

Either way, change was in the air for post-war Europe.  The old mores were on the brink of collapse in the face of a fast-approaching cultural revolution.  It was taken for granted the papal court was untouchable, operating in a fourth dimension outside of time.  World revolution was catching up and the Church was not immune however.  In the 1960's the overwhelming mantra became a call for "Le nouveau!"  This was the spirit of revolution that quickly developed into a perpetual urge for the new; all things new for the sake of the new.  The world and Church were drawn into this storm by the next step, a cultural obsession with renunciation and experimentation, which became like an artifice abjuring the past.  The false assumption was that the real is what can be measured, the ideology of Empiricism.  On the contrary, the Papal Court was not an idea or theory or a special privilege.  It was a fact and a vocation, a higher calling to full-time service. 

The benefit of membership in the Papal Court was that the ruling class were not just giving something of themselves, but were giving everything.  The high baroque court life adopted in Rome during the Counter-Revolution became the epitome of high culture.  The ostentatious display was for God, a scene through the thicket of halberds and fanned by the drooping tendrils of the customary ostrich feathered fans.  Even the most anti-Catholic Victorian travelers did not fail to appreciate the rare quality of the traditions and ceremonial, preserved and fostered for centuries. The papacy provided a spectacle found nowhere else in the world.  Then came the changes of the 1960's.  This brings to mind a quote or two from Carlyle.  "Nothing that was worthy in the past departs; no truth or goodness realized by man ever dies, or can die; but is all still here, and, recognized or not, lives and works through endless changes." 

For indeed, "Every noble crown is, and on earth will forever be, a crown of thorns."  The Court was not an accident but rather the intentional creation of men who worked hard to build on the past and against the enemies of the Church.  In obedience to their filial piety to the pope, and by the grace of God, this creation of a flowering of Christian culture lasted for many centuries and may once again return in various forms.  "The important thing about history," Marx said, "is not to understand it but to change it."  Perhaps this is why the devil worked so hard to destroy a good thing.  History according to this doctrine, is an instrument in the hands of the secular party, re-conceived to be put in the services of the revolution.

Most of the members of the Colosseum-like Court were Italian members of the Roman aristocracy while some foreigners affiliated with the Holy See were admitted.  Their safety and guaranteed employment had been underwritten by the popes for centuries.  After the Lateran Treaty the members of the Court held both Kingdom of Italy (later Republic of Italy) and Vatican Passports and all the extras this carried, including Vatican license plates and shopping privileges in the Vatican City State.

The positions of the Court are listed in old volumes of the Annuario Pontificio, the annual Vatican yearbook (a sort of telephone directory), that continues to be published yearly with updated names and titles.  Viewing editions of this book from before 1967, one can see the various titles and positions.  Clergy were mostly monsignors, of which there were, in those years, sixteen grades; the three highest were known as protonotaries apostolic.

For laymen, the Camerieri Segreti di Spada e Capppa Partecipanti were lay positions, mentioned already during the reign of Pope Paul IV (1555).  Their positions, held by princes and marquis included il Foriere Maggiore (Forerius Maior), Il Cavallerizzo Maggiore (Praefetus Stabuli), Il Sopraintendente Generale delle Poste (Praefectus Tabellariorum)as well as the Commandants of the the Noble and the Swiss Guard.  The highest position for a laymen was Il Gran Maestro del Sacro Ospizio, the Grand Master of the Sacred Apostolic Hospice (Magister S. Hospitii), held since 1811 by a member of the Ruspoli family after the ancient Conti family became extinct. The position was last held by Principe Don Francesco Ruspoli (1899-1989).  The second highest lay position was the Foriere Maggiorelast held by Marchese Don Giulio Sacchetti (1926-2010), of a noble Roman family from Florence.  Also not to mention the lay positions of Governor of the Vatican City State (Governatore della Città del Vaticano, which was the newest lay position, created in 1929, with a new uniform unveiled for the occasion) and the lay Assistant Princes at the Throne (il Principe Assistente al Soglio).

Although many of the old Roman families are still in existence today, some are in their terminal stage for lack of hereditary successors or heirs.  These once great families threaten to disappear, as some rivers do, in deserts of barren sand.  By God's grace some of the heirs are still practicing Catholics.  In many ways, these things are culturally determined while we are living on capital from past generations.  The past was abolished and we have reaped the wind.  Names still seen today in and around the Vatican include: Colonna, Orsini, Ruspoli, Massmio, Barbarini, Torlonia, Del Drago, Pallavicini, Borghese, Odescalchi, Sacchetti, Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Pacelli and more.  Extinct papal families include the Savelli, Caetani, Conti and Aldobrandini families.  The Papal Court was a way of keeping the men in these families closely involved in Vatican life.

Many of them were members of the Papal Noble Guard.  Indeed, the history of Christian nations has continuously seen armed forces while Catholics have a strong tradition of military service and valor.  In 1931 King Alfonso XIII of Spain requested that the Noble Guard be open to nobles from other Catholic countries.  The answer from the Pope was a firm "no."  Today, heirs are often stuck in a desiccated state of inertia feeling profoundly unsuitable and powerless in preserving their historic dynasties. 

As a young student in Rome, through various connections and at various events, I was privileged to meet and come to know some truly historic personages, already venerable in age, who were once members of the Court in its twilight years.  One that stands out in memory is Prince Sforza Ruspoli (born in 1927), whom I first met at his castle in Cerveteri, near Rome.  On public TV and in interviews I saw him defend the Papal Court, a vanished kingdom with vanquished cultural traditions of past generations of the baronial class of Rome; traditions which had been in existence for centuries.  Prince Ruspoli would sometimes attend the usus antiquior in Rome in protest of the bedlam of modern cacophonous liturgies.  In his Roman instinct to preserve, he felt the air of mystique had been lost in many areas of Church life.  He believed firmly in aristocracy as a higher vocation and the hierarchy of persons and values as something divinely ordered and evidenced in our human nature.

Interestingly, after the Second Vatican Council many in the Church began to deny the hierarchical structure of the Church, which actually Lumen Gentium affirms in Chapter III.  Chapter IV is on the laity, defining a unifying purpose between various diverse roles in the Church, making reference to different roles as a celebration of legitimate diversity confirmed in the Bible (32), "For just as in one body we have many members, yet all the members have not the same function, so we, the many, are one body in Christ, but severally members of one another" (Rom. 12:4-5).  Every person has a different role and function in the Mystical Body.

The Roman aristocracy still exist today.  Let us pray for them and hope the young members will pursue Catholic marriage and family life. They are the "black nobility" (in Italian, aristocrazia nera), the old Roman ruling families who were loyal to the papacy during the Masonic Revolution of 1870 when the Papal States were overthrown and dissolved.  Many interesting facts of these histories can be read in the excellent traditional Catholic magazine on Catholic culture available in Italy, Radici Cristiane.

Readers may be interested to know that some relics of the Court are on display for public viewing at the Papal Summer Villa of Castel Gandolfo.  Following the initial opening of the papal gardens and villas under the present pontificate, the papal palace is also open for the first time to the public.  Tickets may be purchased online or at the entrance. The Vatican Museum site has more information on its page for Villas of Castel Gandolfo.  These displays were previously seen at the Lateran Palace museum, gathering dust for decades, a museum which since has, quite unfortunately, closed indefinitely.

It has been said wonder is the basis of worship.  The Catholic imagination has always been keen on wonder.  Newman's position was clear: "The heart is commonly reached, not through reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description.  Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us."  Indeed, his view that conceptual truth is extracted by the intellect from the ground of the imagination stands true.  There is no imagination like the Catholic imagination -- one need only visit the Sistine Chapel to see this.

Step by step, the steady cultural triumph of -ism's, rationalism, liberalism, modernism and now post-modernism, chipped away, questioning all things, denying the authority of the Church, teaching people that God is not real and nothing can be proven.  It did not help when the Italian cinema began with hallucinatory insights to make a mockery of Catholic life, while insisting on the positive establishment of disbelief in all things Catholic, teaching people that no matter how much they profess, the facts of Christianity are not real because nothing is real to us.

It must have been a sight to behold the effect which the thundering salutation and benefit of the Court had upon the Church and world.  It seemed to rejuvenate historic families with majestic roles and functions, all on colorful display.  It was a spectacle to behold, a triumph for the Church as was never beheld in the lifetime of any of us born years after it was abolished.  At papal liturgies members of the Court were seen with the Sistine Choir resounding with the chords of "Tu Es Petrus," to which came back the mighty antiphon of admiration: "Viva il Papa!" ("Long live the Pope!").

Some of them walked in procession with the Pope, as lay chamberlains attending the papal throne in the papal cortege, dressed in their picturesque Spanish uniforms with white ruff around the neck and gold chain over the breast.  Others sat in the tribunes set up in St. Peter's in glittering array.  The ladies and dames resplendent in their black abito scuro gowns and flowing mantillas and colorful ribbons of papal insignia.  And the men, bearing the various insignia of royal orders and military decorations of honor.  The royal houses of Europe and beyond were well represented among them.  Then came the Pope, borne aloft on the sedia gestatoria in his raiment with a baldacchino canopy over his head and accompanied by flabbelli of ostrich feathers on either side.

One enormous benefit of the policy of the Papal Court was that it helped to make global peoples and their rulers know and treat the Church as the divinely appointed and unerring guide of humanity in all things spiritual; in all that pertains to the higher life of the soul as well as the striving after the rewards of the life eternal.

The Court bore witness to sovereigns, magistrates and subjects that the Church is the epitome of high culture.  That it is the immovable, the indestructible, bulwark of morality, social and civic order.  A fearless and ubiquitous assertor of that heaven-descended authority without which there could be no respect for law, no manly and conscientious obedience in the subject, no sense of responsibility in governments.  Without the divine authority and influence of the Church in human society, mankind relapses into anarchy and barbarism as seen today.  In the office of the Roman Pontiff, in whom is centered this divine authority, the duty of teaching and guiding the entire human family and caring for its spiritual welfare and eternal salvation.  The popes are to be revered, obeyed, and cherished as the living image of Christ's own love for mankind, and as the depositary of His saving power over the world.

Such, in brief, is the great and necessary truth which the Papal Court has been inculcating ever since its establishment in various forms through the centuries.  Today we live in a time of restoration, of returning to the paths of our fathers, with obedience to the Church of Christ, filial love and reverence for Christ's Vicar on earth.  The presence of the Papal Court in that world congress of sovereigns and princes, lifts up the hearts of heroic Catholics.  It greatly aids the resolve to celebrate the papacy in a manner worthy of the Vatican City State as a sovereign nation as well as the greatness of our ancestral faith.  There is more need than ever in today's world.

I myself first learned about the Papal Court as a young boy in the 1980s while paging through a dusty old book on Pius XII in our parish library in the church basement while my mom had a meeting with church ladies.  As a high school student in 1996 I was pleased to watch  EWTN's interview of James-Charles Noonan, author of The Church Visible which had been recently released.  I was intrigued by the subject and could not wait go get my hands on this fine new book, which references the Papal Court.  I first read it at the library of the St. Paul Seminary and then purchased a copy for myself, a cherished resource on the subject.

The 1960's was a time of global cultural revolution, social turmoil, and moral upheaval.  In those years the Church was busy sifting through the sands (also dealing with the anti-war movement), while focusing its gaze upon the future -- a perceived world of simplicity and poverty.  In some ways the Church was going through an experience similar to the Enlightenment or the French Revolution.

For those interested in reading the Papal motu proprio of Paul VI dissolving the Papal Court, see the online version of Pontificalis Domus in English.    For more information on the Papal Household today and its reorganization, see Wikipedia.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.