‘Is the cappa magna making a comeback?’, asks Declan Kelly

In recent weeks I have found myself thinking of and praying for Fr John Dermody. Born in the parish of Cappatagle in the diocese of Clonfert some 160 years ago, stories about him are still legion within the parishes he served. Older people will swear he was born with a “cross on his back” made of hair, which they firmly believe presaged his “powers.”
On one occasion, having been summoned by a displeased Bishop John Healy to give an account of himself, Dermody reportedly grew so irate that he created from thin air a hive of angry, swarming wasps which chased the bishop and his terror-stricken aides from the room. Such stories are, of course, the stuff of nonsense.
One of the real reasons people recall his memory so vividly is because he was `silenced.` A tendency to speak too plainly and, sadly, a fondness for `the jar` conspired against him.
One would imagine that things have changed radically in the Church since then but have they? I find it disturbing that clerical students are to be virtually sequestered within St Patrick`s College, Maynooth, and consider it a regressive move. How does one live a semi-cloistered existence for seven years and then face into the hurly-burly of an urban parish?
I also find it troubling that clerical trappings most identified with John Dermody`s era are making a vigorous comeback, particularly the cappa magna. The cappa magna is a pendulous garment of watered silk and of an inordinate length, the most of which is usually carried as a train. Some undoubtedly derive comfort from the knowledge that clerical tailoring is alive and kicking in the early twenty-first century, though one must harbour serious reservations about the prudence of prelates of Christ wearing such an obviously costly item at a time when many catholics are living in distressed economic circumstances. And while I fully support the wearing of clerical attire for witness value, I seriously doubt that there are many catholics who are anxious to see some who bear the title Monsignor go about in garb better suited to a production of The Gondoliers than to a working Irish parish. In point of fact, these kinds of occurrences coupled with the silencings of recent times, are highly counterproductive and only serve to highlight a growing disconnect between catholics on the ground and the institutional Church.
Don`t get me wrong. I am far from being a screaming liberal, but it breaks my heart to see a Church which I have tried to serve loyally for a decade and which has so very much to offer to society push itself further and further away from the people of God.
If real renewal is to happen, then we must begin at the most fruitful source of renewal and that is the Gospels. It is only by listening carefully in our hearts to Christ`s words “I came not to be served but to serve” that we will find a way forward. The Church in Ireland is down but certainly not out. It can still be salvaged through vibrant preaching that begins with the daily experiences of people, through dedicated household visitation by clergy and religious that affords people a listening ear and open heart so lacking in today`s world and also by letting God`s people have an active role in the Church that has been a part of so many of their lives from first memory. So many good men and women in my own diocese and dioceses throughout the country struggle to bring Christ`s peace to people every day. They deserve every support.
I genuinely wish Archbishop Charles Brown every blessing and success in his difficult new duties. May I respectfully suggest that if he wishes to succeed beyond all expectation in facilitating a renewal here, he incorporate as part of his brief a regular visitation of every diocese which includes calling to the houses of working catholics and listening to their stories. In so doing he will greatly bridge the divide between people and the institutional Church in Ireland.
John Dermody lies in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in east Galway. He died in 1908 yet it is his memory (and not that of any of his former superiors) that the people recall. While that is partly due to the mystique generated by his silencing, it is also due to the reality that he was regarded as “a man of the people” and one who shared their sorrows, joys and anxieties. Come back Fr Dermody, all is forgiven.
Fr Declan Kelly is a Parish Priest in the diocese of Clonfert who is currently on sabbatical.

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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    I don’t suppose any Irish prelate will be sporting a cappa magna in the foreseeable future. “It takes many humiliations to create humility” (St Bernadette Soubirous).

  2. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Thanks, Declan – but you leave us begging for more! Why was John Dermody silenced, and why do you think he is so well remembered? If it wasn’t actually for deploying swarms of bees at bishops, or downing whiskey, what was it for?

  3. Careful, Father Kelly, by speaking with so much intelligence and sense, you could be silenced next. -:)

  4. “Come back Fr Dermody, all is forgiven.” Yes, and the same for George Tyrrell, a great theologian and prophet, born too soon.

  5. Martin Murray says:

    If some are wondering what a cappa magna is, have a look at 3 minutes of this video of a vatican cardinal visiting Knock shrine only a matter of months ago.
    Fitting attire for a imperial prince ok, but for a follower of Jesus Christ? Tragic really. Even funny if it were not for the seriousness of the mentality of much of our Church leadership that it reveals.

  6. Br Brian Grenier CFC says:

    I suspect that there might be a 1st century advertisement (yet to be unearthed) which reads as follows:
    The ridiculous garment in question should have no more of a market than waterproof tea-bags, in articulo mortis cards, and designer-label shrouds.

  7. I’m not a particular fan of the cappa magna at all, but in fairness it’s only used for Pontifical High Mssses which, by definition, are now very rare. How many times have they been seen in Ireland in the last decade? I’d be surprised if it was more than once per year, if even that.
    It’s a ceremonial vestment; it’s not worn when out and about and is not very common at all. It’s hardly worth worrying about.
    By the way, a false dichotomy is often set up when discussing these matters. It’s as if those who wear them are by definition proud and austere in their relations with others. Contemporary practice would tend to indicate the contrary. In any event, the cappa magna is now so ridiculous that it takes humility to wear it.

  8. Wonderful essay from Fr.Declan Kelly. He has hit all the right buttons, to use a common phrase. Now that I have had my 8 minutes of fame on Nationwide – Andy Warhol said 3 were enough- am I now a celebrity?
    Hope all is well in Ballina, Fr.Brendan.
    God bless,

  9. Brian Eyre says:

    As a father of 2 children I find it abhorrent that Brendan Boland’s father, who was in the building at the time of the investigation,could not participate because of Canon Law regulations.
    The 3 priests, present at the investigation, separated the boy from his father at a time when he needed him most. It also showed a tremendous lack of sensitivity as he was being asked very intimate questions. By excluding him from the room they passed over his authority as a father.
    The rights of parents over their their children is sacred and is above any Canon Law regulation and especially when we are talking of a minor as was the case of Brendan at that time.The presence of parents is all important for their children especially when the situation is stressful such as when the child has to go to the doctor, dentist or go to hospital.
    Everybody knows this then how come these 3 priests acted differently was it because of this allpowerful and unchallengeable Canon Law or that somehow they lost contact with basic human values.
    The training they received in the seminary and the role that they were given later as priests needs to be examined. Human family values should be part of any priests preparation.
    Brian Eyre – Catholic married priest – Brazil

  10. Stephen Dean says:

    Martin you are so right, it is very tragic but also very sad. The simplicity of Jesus’s message has been corrupted and transformed over the centuries into an institution that were Jesus alive today he would not recognise or relate to, and if he spoke out he would be silenced by those that purport to convey his teachings.

  11. Sean, can we agree that we should go easy on the costumes (6) and (7) above?

  12. I attended that Mass in Knock celebrated by Cardinal Burke and it was a beautiful Mass worthy of God, the Church was overflowing with very many young people. Christ never objected to fine dress worthy of someone’s state in society. You should look at what the Church teaches regarding modesty.
    Also regarding seminary training, a priest is there to offer the sacrifice of the mass and forgive sins in conformity with Christ and his priesthood. How can a priest come to know and love Jesus if he doesn’t have the silence for prayer and meditation?

  13. Gene Carr says:

    We should remember that Christ was a King and even as a man belonged to the Royal House of David. Is it not fitting that he be served by well dressed courtiers? Besides it creates employment for skilled tailors.

  14. I also recently watched a newsreport – set in the eastern United States. A Catholic priest wearing a cappa magna. Nothing exceeds like excess.

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