I blinked in surprise when I saw the photographs. On June 18, the Archbishop of Liverpool – a diocese associated with the drab vestments and liturgy of the 1970s – processed into St Mary’s Shrine Church, Warrington, wearing a cape of violet silk whose train was so long that it stretched into the next postcode.

Archbishop Malcolm McMahon was sporting the cappa magna (“great cape”), a flamboyant pre-Vatican II vestment that hadn’t been seen in his neck of the woods for decades. But then this was a prelude to a pre-conciliar ceremony: he was ordaining two priests of the traditionalist Priestly Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP) using the Old Missal, something that hadn’t happened anywhere in England and Wales for over 40 years. He also celebrated a Tridentine Mass watched by the Bishop of Shrewsbury, Mark Davies, sitting in the choir.

The Vatican-sanctioned ordination of two priests who will never use the vernacular Missal was a remarkable event in England, unthinkable until recently. But it was the cappa magna that caught people’s attention. Most Catholics have never seen one. My only glimpse of this fabled garment was in 2008, when Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos celebrated the old liturgy for the Latin Mass Society at Westminster Cathedral. His cape was scarlet rather than violet, because he was a cardinal, but miserably truncated, scarcely longer than an ironing board. Apparently this was a “modern” cappa magna: the train was shortened before it was shunted away altogether.

Judging by this month’s photographs, the FSSP supplied Archbishop McMahon with the real thing. His cape was not just long but gorgeously plump and opulent, like a prop from a costume drama. The Borgias, perhaps. Which, for many post-Vatican II Catholics, is precisely the problem. They think the cappa magna – which can stretch to nearly 50 feet – reeks of worldly pomp. When Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa wore one in Washington DC a few years ago, they wrote to protest.

Bishop Slattery’s spokesman had a clever riposte. Did they not realise that the great cape is supposed to represent “the finery of the world, its pomp and prestige”? That is why the bishop (who may be a cardinal) is “publicly stripped of this finery and humbled before the congregation”. He has his silk choir vestments removed – and then re-enters in priestly garb.

Alas, the symbolism of vestments is one of many things that went out with the council. For “progressive” Catholics, the cappa magna is – appropriately, you may think – like a red rag to a bull.

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