The Cappa Parva of Mons. Petrus Canisius Jean van Lierde: Prefect of the Papal Sacristy

In old photos of papal liturgies the figure of the Dutch Augustinian Monsignor Pietro C. van Lierde, OSA (1907-1995) stands out. He is often seen, vested in black and holding a tall lit candle. Bishop van Lierde was an Augustinian friar ordained in 1931, a member of the Order of St. Augustine (Ordo Fratrum S. Augustini). This great order was founded in 1244 and was placed among the mendicant orders by order of Pope St. Pius V, who ranked them fourth after the Carmelites.  

At age 43 Bishop van Lierde was appointed successor of Bishop Alfonso de Romanis, OSA, who since 1937 had been Sacristan of His Holiness and Vicar General for the Vatican City State. Van Lierde was therefore consecrated bishop in 1951. His duties as sacristan included being on hand for the daily Mass of the pope and serving the Mass, if needed. In the image above he can be seen holding a candle for a liturgy at the Lateran Archbasilica.

Due to longstanding tradition going back to the end of the thirteenth century, the sacristan of the Papal Palace was a privileged member of the Order of St. Augustine. This office was entitled with certain privileges, including this version seen here of the abbreviated cappa magna. It was tailored in Rome in black wool and ermine, seen above on the figure of Bishop van Lierde. The side stole was originally the train, tied to signify that the beneficiary had no jurisdiction. Other times he is seen in a black mantelletta, as seen below.  

In some ways his cappa parva resembles the "cappa" of other canons (seen below), including the "cappa fluens" seen in the See of Milan, used by Ambrosian provosts (pastors) and canons. Or the cappa parva of the canons of Westminster Cathedral in London, who have the privilege of the Lateran choir dress. 

This privilege of an Augustinian as the Prefect of the Papal Sacristy was ratified by a papal bull by Pope Alexander VI, issued in 1497, granting this role to the OSA forever. The holder of the office was also rector of the Vatican parish of Sant'Anna. 

To this office also belonged the duty of preserving in his tabernacle a consecrated host, which had to be consecrated every week and kept in readiness in case the pope would fall ill -- one of the duties of this role was to administer Extreme Unction and Holy Viaticum to the Roman Pontiffs. For this reason, the Sacristan always traveled with the pope and during a conclave he celebrated daily Mass and administered Holy Communion and other sacraments.  

Bishop van Lierde is best remembered as having been sacristan in four papal conclaves between 1958 - 1978 and as the one who administered Extreme Unction to both Pius XII and John XXIII. He worked in the Vatican until his retirement at age 83 in 1991. 

While Augustinian friars still perform the duties of papal sacristans, the appointment of an Augustinian bishop-sacristan lapsed under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. The tradition of his cappa parva was sadly done away with in 1968 at the time the Papal Court was abolished and replaced with the Papal Household. 

When Bishop van Lierde passed at age 87 a chapter closed in Vatican history. I hope the full liturgical prerogatives of this office will one day be restored. Further, I would like to one day gain access to the Sacristy of the Vatican Basilica in order to photograph the old cappa to share with readers.   


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