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(Latin capellanus , from capella , chapel ).

The origin of capella has been a fruitful source of controversy. The opinion most favoured is that which Du Cange (Gloss. Med. et Inf. Lat.) has drawn from earlier writers, viz. that the word is derived from the capa or capella of St. Martin of Tours . This was a short cloak preserved as a relic by the Kings of France. They carried it with them when they went to war and on the field enshrined it under a tent. This tent gradually received the name capella , and the custodians of the relic were thence called capellani . Others think that the word capella simply signifies a covering, and that the name arose from the tent-like structure erected by the kings of France to canopy the altar for soldiers in the field, and that the word has no relation to the relic of St. Martin.


If the derivation of capella from the capa Sancti Martini be the correct one, we must look for the origin of court chaplains in the clerics who were guardians of the sacred relics in royal palaces. Gradually these clerics were empowered to say Mass in the oratories committed to their care, and thence there was but a step to endowing them with spiritual jurisdiction for the benefit of those living in the palaces. They became the confessors and instructors of all who frequented the court chapel. When such chaplains had increased to a large number, in France, an arch-chaplain was appointed as their superior. From the time of Charlemagne onwards, this latter office was committed to abbots and bishops, and its holder became an important personage in the realm. Not only had he spiritual jurisdiction over the chaplains and members of the royal court, but he was also entrusted with the expedition of such ecclesiastical concerns as were brought to the cognizance of the sovereign from various parts of his kingdom. Both in the Holy Roman Empire and in France, the arch-chaplain or palatine chaplain long held the office of high chancellor of the realm. In France, the arch-chaplain was also grand almoner. The revolution of 1789 swept away the office, but it was restored by Pope Pius IX in 1857 and lasted to the fall of the Second Empire.


There are a large number of clerics whose duty it is to say certain prescribed Masses or to procure their celebration, or to take part in various church services, such as choir service. Such persons received their support from a pious foundation erected for the purpose. Such chaplaincies are called either ecclesiastical or lay. They are ecclesiastical if the property donated by a founder has been formally erected into a benefice by the proper spiritual authority. If however, the property designed for the purpose of procuring certain acts of Divine service has not received ecclesiastical erection it is called a lay chaplaincy. The latter is, strictly speaking, not a benefice in the canonical sense of the term. When a founder erects a chaplaincy, he is at liberty to define the duties of the person who is to enjoy the benefit of his foundation. Thus he may prescribe that a certain number of Masses be said by the chaplain; he may designate the intention for which they are to be offered, the altar at which they are to be said, and other like prescriptions. He can also determine whether the chaplain is to say the Masses personally or only be responsible for their celebration. The Church has always been most liberal in confirming the conditions prescribed by such founders and insisting on their due observance. If the testator has left his goods to a layman, with the obligation of procuring the celebration of certain Masses by any priest whom he shall choose, such chaplaincy is called mercenary, and it does not partake of the nature of an ecclesiastical benefice, as the latter requires generally that the holder should be appointed for life. The controllers of such mercenary chaplaincies can of course be laymen, or even women or children. At times the name of lay chaplains is given to such persons. A chaplaincy is called collative if the founder bestows his goods for spiritual purposes in such a way that the bishop is to erect the foundation into a benefice, for no layman can erect a sacred edifice or institute a spiritual office without the episcopal authorization. Such benefices are called collative because the bishop collates or confers the right to hold them upon the acceptable candidate even if such candidate has been presented or nominated by lay authority. To exclude the episcopal confirmation would be to make it impossible for the chaplaincy to be held as an ecclesiastical benefice. Hereditary or family chaplaincies are those to which, by the will of the founder, the holder of the benefice is to be nominated by the testator's heirs or assigns. In such cases also the confirmation of the bishop is of absolute necessity. If the chaplaincy be attached to a definite edifice or to an altar in that edifice, it may not by common law be removed to another place. Instances, however, are on record where the Holy See has sanctioned the removal of such chaplaincies from one castle of noble family to another, where the request has been made by the heirs of the founders.

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When the founder of a chaplaincy has not expressly stipulated that the beneficiary is to celebrate personally the prescribed Masses, it is not requisite that the chaplain be in Sacred orders as he can procure otherwise the celebration of the Masses. If it be an ecclesiastical benefice, however, the incumbent must at least be a cleric. When the founder explicitly stipulates that the chaplain is to be a priest, the condition must be adhered to. If, however, he says merely that the chaplain is personally to celebrate the stipulated Masses, then the benefice can be given to a simple cleric, provided he is of such age that he can receive the priesthood within a year. If the foundation requires that the chaplain take part in the Divine Office in a cathedral or collegiate church, then personal service is obligatory on the beneficiary, nor can he employ a substitute, if by obtaining the benefice he becomes a mansionary of that church. In cases where a daily Mass is one of the conditions of the foundation, it is generally held that the chaplain can occasionally intermit this duty for a proper cause. He can also, if hindered by sickness, omit the application of the daily Mass for a fortnight, without being obliged to secure the fulfilment of the foundation requirement by another priest. If the chaplain is obliged to offer his Mass for a definite intention specified by the founder, he may not receive an alms for another intention and satisfy both by the same Mass. As to residence the chaplain's office depends on whether his chaplaincy be lay or clerical ; if lay, he may be arbitrarily removed by the one who has the right of appointment, unless the will of the founder be expressly to the contrary; if clerical, the chaplain, like all other holders of beneficies, is presumably appointed for life, unless the laws of foundation provide otherwise.


This name is given in Europe to those priests who render assistance to a parish priest, who cannot care for his whole parish owing to the large number of the faithful within its confines. The position and duties of such parochial chaplains are in many ways analogous to those of vicars and curates (see CURATE; VICAR). The Council of Trent allows parish priests to appoint the chaplains necessary for their parish, but in most dioceses custom has reserved their appointment to the ordinary. In case the appointment be made by the parish priest himself, he may delegate the chaplain to perform the necessary offices, with the exception of the hearing of confessions. The latter authorization must come from the bishop. Chaplains have no fixed powers. The bishop or the parish priest can make the limitations they judge proper. Whenever they exercise the care of souls, it must always be with dependence on the parish priest as to time and method. They need a special delegation of the pastor to assist validly at a marriage. The support of parochial chaplains is to be derived from the parish funds, unless they possess a benefice in the church having the annexed obligation of assisting the parish priest. In the latter case, they are irremovable. When their faculties have been conferred by the bishop, they do not lose them by the death of the parish priest.


Benefices possessed by chaplains are often attached to the residence of distinguished families. In many countries of Europe, noblemen or their ancestors have provided for the sustenance of such private chaplains. Often such a priest takes on himself the duty of instructing the children of the house. If the position of the domestic chaplain be really of the nature of a benefice, it follows the rules already given for beneficed chaplains; otherwise the incumbent is considered as an auxiliary chaplain of the parish or diocese where he resides.


According to various decrees of Roman congregations, the chaplains of nunneries must be men of mature age, if they can be procured. This rule is so strict that if the bishop without necessity has appointed a junior to the position, the superior may refuse to receive him. (S.C. Ep., In Messan., 1602.) Chaplains unworthy of their charge are to be immediately removed. As a rule, regulars are not to be appointed chaplains in convents unless there be a dearth of secular priests. The chaplain receives his faculties from the bishop, except in the case of nuns who are subject to some order of regulars. Only in the case of exempt nuns can the chaplain administer all the sacraments to them, to the exclusion of the parish priest. As a rule, convent chaplains should not be appointed for life. If a convent claims to have the right of presenting an irremovable chaplain to the bishop, the latter should forward the claim to Rome to obtain judgment upon it. If this is favourable, a perpetual chaplain is to be approved.

Chaplains of public institutions, such as colleges, hospitals, prisons, etc., receive their power from the intention of the bishop when appointing them or from the laws of the foundation if there be one. As a rule they are allowed to say Mass and preach in the community chapel, and to exercise various quasiparochial functions for the community.


Attached to the pope's chapel are various grades of chaplains. The private chaplains are those who assist the pontiff at the altar when he celebrates Mass, and are assisted by the honorary private chaplains, who minister directly to the pope only occasionally. There are also the private clerics of the chapel, the common chaplains and the supernumerary chaplains. Honorary chaplains "outside the city" are those who assist the pope only when he is outside Rome. The honorary private chaplains were instituted by Pope Clement XII ; the common chaplains by Pope Alexander VII. In 1907, Pope Pius X confirmed to the common chaplains the title of Monsignore and their distinctive dress.


Priests appointed to minister to the needs of the army and the navy are commonly called military chaplains. In Catholic countries where the numbers of such chaplains have been large, the governments have usually appointed a chaplain-major. Unless this appointment has been sanctioned by the Holy See, such chaplains-major possess no spiritual jurisdiction over the other chaplains. The common law of the church is that military chaplains should be approved by the ordinary of the place, not by the chaplain-major, otherwise confessions and marriages performed by them are invalid. When there are exceptions to this rule, it can only be in virtue of a special papal indult. Such indults have been granted for various countries. In Spain the vicar-general of the army has jurisdiction independent of the ordinary. In France military chaplains have been abolished since the separation of Church and State. Chaplains were formerly granted to the French soldiers only when their barracks were far from the parish churches. In 1887, Pope Leo XIII concluded a convention with the United States of Columbia in which various privileges for military chaplains were confirmed. In some countries, as Austria and Prussia, the chaplains are distinguished into parish priests, curates, and assistants. They are subject to an army vicar Apostolic, who generally receives episcopal consecration. The exemption of military chaplains in Austria from the jurisdiction of the ordinary dates from 1720. For the British Army and Navy, a decress was issued by the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda, 15 May, 1906. It declares that the pro tempore Archbishop of Westminster is the ecclesiastical superior of all commissioned army and navy chaplains. As regards the former, he is to treat with the Government concerning their nomination, and take such measures as he shall deem expedient for their spiritual well-being. They are to report to him semi-annually, or at least annually, whatever concerns their state and occupation. Commissioned chaplains (except in Ireland and India ) are to receive exclusively from the archbishop the faculties which he may grant them in virtue of his ordinary or delegated jurisdiction. These faculties they may exercise in the place determined by the archbishop, in favour only of the soldiers, their wives, and families. When a chaplain is transferred, his faculties endure until he has taken charge of his new station; but as soon as he receives notice of his transfer, he must inform the archbishop of it. As to their conduct as clerics these chaplains are subject to the local ordinary, to whom their special faculties must be shown, though his consent is not needed for their exercise so long as it is not extended to civilians.

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On retirement from a chaplaincy in the army, the priest must return to his former diocese. In South Africa the local clergy are to supply the place of chaplains as far as possible. The Archbishop of Westminster alone is to treat with the Government for the appointment of navy chaplains, and is to grant them faculties which may be used in any part of the world, but only on shipboard. If, however, by the arrangement of the commander of a ship, it be necessary for the chaplain to exercise his faculties on land, he must if possible notify the ordinary of the place, not to obtain authorization, but simply to show proper deference, except in the case that the exercises his functions for others than the members of the navy, for them he is obliged to have recourse to the ordinary of the place where he is (Acta S. Sedis, Vol. XL, fasc. 5). In Ireland the military chaplains are subject to the local bishops. The Provincial Council of Dublin in 1853 requires that army chaplains report to the bishop at stated times the religious condition of those under their charge. In the United States Army probably the first chaplains commissioned by the Government were those appointed during the Mexian War. At present the Government appoints a limited number of chaplains for the army and navy. To administer the sacraments to soldiers in garrison, army chaplains need the approbation of the ordinary; when the soldiers are mobilized, chaplains may exercise their functions anywhere without such authorization. Navy chaplains (cf. Smith, op. cit. infra.) seem to fall under the general law that faculties must be obtained from the bishop of the port whence the vessel sails. However by the general decree of 4 April, 1900, they would have faculties on shipboard from the mere fact that they were approved by their own proper ordinaries.

Deacon Keith Fournier Hi readers, it seems you use Catholic Online a lot; that's great! It's a little awkward to ask, but we need your help. If you have already donated, we sincerely thank you. We're not salespeople, but we depend on donations averaging $14.76 and fewer than 1% of readers give. If you donate just $5.00, the price of your coffee, Catholic Online School could keep thriving. Thank you. Help Now >

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