A Cappatal Idea: Reflections on the Cappa Magna and treading the line between Traditionalism and Modernity.

by Gregory Chilson

The Cappa Magna is a fascinating Episcopal garment. A cloak with an extended train which a Bishop or Cardinal can wear as they process into a church. It is not a daily garb however, you will only see it on the most solemn of solemnities. It is and was therefore seldom worn, even before the second Vatican council which saw the simplification of many aspects of the Church’s liturgical life. Sitting in the pew, you knew that if a member of the episcopacy wore it, they ‘meant business’. It is made from a kind of silk called moire that undergoes a process called ‘calendaring’. Briefly, the particular kind of calendaring that gave the Cappa its distinct pattern is called ‘watering’ and is one of several different methods. The silk is folded and strongly pressed under ribbed rollers, until the material is paper thin. The silk takes on a rippled effect and receives a glossy finish, almost as if it were the top layer of running water. As a result it is often called ‘watered silk’. It goes without saying that it is a highly prized article of clothing.

Nevertheless, it has become an object of light controversy in the liturgical life of the Church. I recently came across a brief article by Deacon Greg Kandra on Patheos entitled, “The story behind the Cappa Magna”. In it, the Deacon notes the defence given by Msgr. Patrick Brankin, in response to the criticisms made against the Bishop Edward James Slattery of Tulsa, for using the Cappa Magna. Msgr. Patrick Brankin wrote that:

The Cappa Magna does indeed represent the finery of the world, its power and prestige. That is why after his entrance wearing it, the prelate is publicly stripped of this finery and humbled before the congregation. Then, vestment by vestment, the bishop is clothed in the new man of which St. Paul speaks, including the baptismal alb, the dalmatic of charity, the stole of pardon and the chasuble of mercy. When finally clothed in Christ, the prelate makes a second entrance into the church to begin the Eucharistic celebration in persona Christi, the visible head of the body, the church. It was a clear statement that the power and prestige of the world have no place at the altar, but it is expressed in a liturgical ritual or symbol, which, unfortunately, are often lacking in the contemporary rites and thus hard to grasp.”

A contrasting view was offered by Deacon Kendra in the article, where he confesses:

I would be hard-pressed [like the silk? excellent pun, intentional or not] to imagine someone like Pope Francis—he, of the frayed sleeve and scuffed shoes—wearing this sort of vestment. And I think most modern cardinals and bishops would elect to don something simpler, even for big events. If the pontiff believes bishops should smell like their sheep, it might be a challenge to find sheep who smell of watered silk.”

There have been other articles online that demonstrates that this particular item of clothing has quietly become the posterchild of a larger question confronting the Catholic Church in the 21st century. What is the role of traditionalism in the world, when modern society seems to move farther away?

The prudence Deacon Kandra expresses in the passage above is noteworthy and is due consideration. It demonstrates a legitimate desire to address the possible criticism of voices extra Ecclesiam that condemn Catholicism of being out of touch. These may even be criticisms from fellow Christians, both Catholic and those from other denominations which see traditional aesthetics as a sign of a Church that has forgotten its mission. Tropes abound in one’s mind of the reformers, who shook the Cathedrals to the ground for unforgiveable embellishment, to contemporary criticisms often made from scripture such as “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” (Luke 3:11).

Looking at Kendra’s statement above, I see two statements that follow this line of thinking which ought to be addressed. Firstly, that the Church benefits from keeping in step with the sentiments of western secular society, particularly when dealing with tastes in aesthetic. Secondly, this hypothetical society desires a Church that wears frayed sleeves and scuffed shoes. The Cappa Magna, has enabled us to question and reflect on the role of traditionalism in the Church, and scrutinise all modes of thinking concerning liturgical practice.

Before we address these two statements, perhaps it would be best to firstly take ourselves outside of the faux exceptionalism with which we tend to treat our temporal context from that of previous generations. The debate concerning aesthetic in the Church is hardly a new one. One only needs to look back to the 12th century, and see the fallout that took place in Western monasticism to see that history tends to repeat itself. Following a program of monastic reform under Benedict of Aniane, the Benedictine house at Cluny became the hub of high liturgical in Europe. It’s chants grew in complexity and services longer and more intricate. Its chapels were adorned in finery and art that they could achieve a glimpse of heaven on earth. The power of this beauty in worship was itself not a problem. Things began to turn when aesthetic beauty which aids in worship, seemingly became an end in itself, and therefore, an obstruction to prayer. The reactions of some in the religious world could not help but compare it to the words in St Benedict’s rule ‘Let nothing take precedence over the divine office’.1 An excess in opulence and its effects is well recorded. C. H. Lawrence noted that one of the customaries of Cluny revealed the demanding schedule of daily choir duties which exceeded 8 hours. “This was much longer than the time allocated to the divine office in the Rule of St Benedict”2 Lawrence affirmed. This amongst other reasons, spring boarded the arguments of Carthusian and Cistercian monks who would boast a harsh and frugal and according to some, reactionary style, with churches bare of anything other than a single cross. From one extreme, came the reaction of another side of the spectrum. It should briefly be mentioned that similar debates about aesthetic can be seen when we step into broader religious tradition, whether with the admonishment of images in Deuteronomy, or the differing attitude to icons in the Shia and Sunni Islamic traditions.

You might be asking, ‘What significance if any does this story have for this glorified cape?’ Well, I believe that despite the correct prudence expressed by some in the Church, who fear that the Cappa Magna is a symbol of an out of touch church, I reply, this is not only unwarranted, but this is to categorically misunderstand the role of aesthetics in the Church.

Returning to the two statements above. Does the Church benefit from keeping in step with the sentiments of western secular society when dealing with tastes in aesthetic? Goodness no. Fear that the Cappa is ‘out of touch’ is to already view liturgy from the perspective of the secular world. We know however, that this is not what draws souls into the Church. Where else in western society, do we see the beauty of creation as we do in traditional craft? It preserves techniques that humans have developed, and hands them down from generation to generation. When we see watered silk, we do not deny its significance as a material, nor do we doubt its value. It speaks of a quality in man that he can create and produce in a way that is unique in the animal kingdom. So when the Church uses it in its liturgy, a message is sent to the world – namely – ‘what we are doing here, is ruddy important’, no half measures. The point to take home, is that the Cappa does not become important in its own right. It carries a symbolic message also. If it were but a garment, it would best be burned or sold for charitable causes. The Cappa when properly understood, cannot be seen as it has been described. Returning to Brankin’s words above, he writes;

The cappa magna does indeed represent the finery of the world, its power and prestige. That is why after his entrance wearing it, the prelate is publicly stripped of this finery and humbled before the congregation.”

Thus this garb, comes to serve as a profound liturgical tool, steeped in symbolism. To humble, to humiliate, to level all before God, with whom we are called to meet in the liturgy. It could even be argued that the Cappa Magna is a profoundly honest article of clothing. It doesn’t hesitate or deny that the world is filled with varying levels of beauty, inequality, distinction, etc. But when the Bishop takes the cape off, and stands before God with his congregation, he sends a message which we find in scripture. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). What else could drive this point home, than watered silk?

Coming to our second statement, does this hypothetical society only desire a Church that wears frayed sleeves and scuffed shoes? This hypothetical society might think it does, but in reality such a view is paradoxically opposed to its true desires of beauty and sanctuary. Whilst frayed sleeves and scuffed shoes might appeal to those surface stereotypes of frugality, problems arise much like with the Cappa when displayed for their own sake. Scuffed shoes become profoundly dishonest, in a way no different than a Cappa for its own sake. Hierarchy, financial inequality, extreme hunger and greed have, do and will probably always exist in the world. This is not an invitation to accept it, the Church’s followers are all called to fight for those who suffer. It would be a mistake however to see the state of a clergyman’s shoes as having a bearing on the injustices of the world. The liturgy is a sanctuary from the world, before we return to do good works. What desire can liturgy inspire, if it offers a reflection of the world when addressing God? Moreover, whilst society might hold the Church hostage for its ‘shameless opulence’ countries in the west prevail on an economic model that requires its average citizen to spend hundreds of pounds, euros and dollars on smartphones, laptops and gadgets in a never ending consumerist spiral.

Perhaps the best way to summarise this paradox, is to refer it to the prince of paradoxes, G. K. Chesterton. When responding to a newspaper article that called for the Church to move with modern society, he replied “We do not want, as the newspapers say, a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world.” This quote will be well known to young Catholics who migrate Catholic social media, as it highlights the very sentiment which many fear could be lost when we seek more extraordinary instances of the mass. Thus, the Cappa Magna ought not to be viewed as a block or hindrance, which halts communications between the Church and ‘society’. No. The Cappa Magna, this misunderstood liturgical tool, which celebrates the goodness of creation, the honest presentation of current creation, and the expectation of true liberty in the next life ought to be exonerated. So long as it points to prayer, and conversation with God, the Cappa Magna is closer to the Christian message, than attempts to mimic the thoughtless paroxysms which society flings against the Church.

1 Benedict of Nursia, Rule of St Benedict, Ch 43

2 C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, London: Routledge, 2015, p.89

American Bishops and Institute Superiors” by Phil Roussin is licenced under CC by NC ND 2.0