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Monsignori in the Sanctuary

Peregrinus Goes Abroad

Part 1: See America First; Chapter 20


NB: this chapter was written circa 1931, and since then, a few changes were made regarding the dress of prelates, first by Pope Pius XII and second by Pope Paul VI. Here is a website that offers the updated information on this interesting subject.

You can also click on the side images to open a gallery featuring a short description for each pictorial example of some of the prelatial garments mentioned in this article.

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“May I have a few minutes of your time, Father?” said the Pastor, seating himself in the Liturgiologist’s big arm chair. The old Priest turned from his typewriter and motioned to his cigar box. “I have to tell you that I got a little communication from Rome this morning (it’ll be in the papers tomorrow) and I’m about to change my color.”

“Congratulations, Boss,” beamed the Liturgiologist. “You deserve it. And it’s only the prelude to what everyone knows is coming to you. I suppose Sartor & Co.[1] will make up your outfit?”


“That’s just what I wanted to talk about, Pere,” said the Pastor. “I’ll be frank with you, and not pretend that I’m not pleased. A dash of purple is, after all, rather satisfying. But I certainly do not want more than I’m given now. Tell me, just what do I have to get, and, more important, what do I have to do.”


The Liturgiologist went to his book shelves and picked out a slim volume. “Here is Nainfa’s Costume of Prelates,” he said. “You’ll find most of your incipient questions answered here. You’ll wear purple silk in summer, and broadcloth in winter (Nainfa, op. cit. edition of 1926, pages 48 and 82). In this your costume differs from that of a Bishop, who does not use a silk cassock, mozetta or mantelleta unless he is an Assistant at the Pontifical Throne and is actually living in Rome. Not even custom authorizes a silk cappa magna.[2] But custom, in this country, seems to favor the use of silk by Bishops. Nainfa, however, gives the strict Roman etiquette. You’ll never wear black, except on Good Friday and on the death of the Pope.”


“What about funerals?” asked the Pastor. “I’ve seen some Bishops at the funeral of a Bishop or Priest, in black, while the Monsignori were in purple.”


“Quite correct,” answered the Liturgiologist. “On such occasions the Monsignorial purple denotes a lower rank than the Episcopal black.” (Nainfa, op. cit. page 229, 83, 48.)


“But when should I wear this purple outfit?” asked the Pastor. “One would rather not put on too much style, and personally I much prefer the black house cassock with the purple sash.”


Simar, if you please, Pere,” laughed the Liturgiologist. “‘House cassock’ is not exactly correct, for Prelates have a simple cassock without train, very seldom seen in this country but used where the Clergy appear in the streets and elsewhere in their proper ecclesiastical garb. What you have in mind is the ‘zimarra’ or, with its sash, etc., the ‘abito piano.’[3] You may quite properly wear it in church on ordinary days when going to say Mass or hear confessions or exercise other priestly functions. But you should wear your purple on Sundays and Holy days, even in Advent and Lent, when the Bishop wears black. It is your proper dress as a Prelate, and personal modesty or other considerations should yield to loyalty to the Holy Father who has deigned to elevate you to the prelatical rank you so richly deserve. (Nainfa, op. cit. page 22 ff.) Monsignori of your rank (Domestic Prelate) vest for Mass over the rochet, as a Bishop does. They make use of the hand-candlestick,[4] as a Bishop does.”


“That brings up a point I wanted to ask you about,” said the Pastor. “Are there any special ceremonies for me to learn?” How should I don when present at functions?”


“Just as you have always done, dear Father,” said the Liturgiologist gravely. “If we had liturgical choirs in our churches,[5] you would be given a special seat. But as we have not, you will find a kneeling bench ready for your among the other clergy. You comport yourself with your usual modesty and dignity, that is all. If, during a function, those in the Sanctuary are ‘incensed’ you, as Prelate, will receive the attention before others of lower rank.”


“I’m not supposed to wear a skull-cap, am I?” queried the Pastor.


“Certainly, if you care to,” snapped the Liturgiologist, the light of battle gleaming in his eye. “There seems to be an impression in this country that only Bishops should wear the ‘calotte’ or skull-cap. They, of course, have the exclusive right to wear the purple calotte.[6] But the skull-cap is common to all clerics, from its function, viz. to cover the tonsure. Not wearing the tonsure in this country we have gotten out of the way of wearing the calotte. But that does not deprive us of our right to it. (Nainfa, op. cit. page 114 ff.) Our national clerical costume, a concession to supposed conditions,[7] makes us careless of other details, as, for example, the colored stockings which Prelates are supposed to wear, and ordinary clerics not! Then, too, our assumed indifference to ‘pomp and circumstance’ (against which Nainfa gently inveighs; op. cit. page 222) has resulted in a widespread carelessness of such details, which goes along with our culpable slovenliness in regard to ceremonial in general.”


“Well,” murmured the Pastor, thoughtfully, “as I said, I don’t want to seem to put on too much style, but I certainly do want to do the right thing. It seems to me that such honors as these have come to me to me are really more official than personal, and that if one has the rank he is more or less bound to fulfill the obligations, slight through they may be, which go with it.”


Verum est pro te!”[8] exclaimed the Liturgiologist. “I see the Antiquary driving in.” Wonder what has he on his mind!”




1 A witty reference to the name “Sarto” which means “tailor” in Italian. This was the last name of Pope St. Pius X.


2 Latin for “great cape” referring to cape with a long train worn by bishops on solemn occasions.


3 This Italian term refers to a formal type of cassock with cape that would be worn for “black tie events” and other solemn occasions. The name is derived from Pope Pius IX (hence, the piano from Pian) who instituted its use.


4 That is, the bugia.


5 Meaning the chancel or presbyterium.


6 The French word for skullcap.


7 This statement is in reference to the clergy in American wearing a clerical suit when in public.


8 Latin phrase meaning: “It's true for you!”.


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