If you want to see sparks fly, just bring up the cappa magna, the elegant long train sometimes worn by ecclesastical dignitaries. Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa got a lot of press – not all of it positive – for wearing the cappa magna at the splendid pre-Vatican II Mass last April 26 at the National Shrine.

Msgr. Patrick Brankin, communications director for Slattery’s diocese in  Okalahoma, wrote a letter to America magazine defending his bishop:

… 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.

It’s a clever defense, but I don’t think it works. The finery of the world, power and prestige, have no place in the liturgy…but these are OK for church leaders outside the liturgy and right up until the liturgy begins?? That sounds like a schizophrenic split between liturgy and daily life. Is it helpful for the faithful, as they prepare for the liturgical celebration, to be reminded one last time of their celebrant’s worldly power and prestige?

One would hardly want the celebrant to process into church once with whiskey bottles and bank deposit slips for money he pilfered from the collection basket, and then process in a second time without these worldly objects, to show that drunkenness and thievery have no place at the sacred altar. This is not meant as a cheap shot, but as a colorful example to get at the central issue. And that issue is, what imagery is appropriate for the leaders of Christ’s flock, within and outside of the liturgy? Given the example of Christ himself on this earth, and given his words about humble service and not lording it over others, what is appropriate vesture for bishops?

Perhaps you would frame the issue differently. However you see the issue, please discuss it among yourselves. Be nice, everyone.