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The Chapter of Limerick

Purpose | Chapter of Limerick | Archdeacon | Restored Chapter 1912
1983 Code of Canon Law | Vicar General

The Purpose of a Chapter

A 'chapter' is a body of clerics with specific functions and a 'canon' is a member of a chapter. There are various kinds of chapters, each having its own rules, rights and privileges. There is evidence that their existence goes back to early Christian times although the term 'chapter' is not found in pontifical documents until the 12th century, when communities of all kinds were much more common than they are today. Chapters of monks and of secular priests were the most common form which they took.

In Ireland, because of its general monastic structure of organisation, all the earlier chapters were monastic. It is not until the middle of the 12th century that Secular Canon as they existed on the Continent are clearly recognised. In fact, practically all the Irish Secular (Cathedral) Chapters were founded during the second half of that century or the beginning of the 13th.

From the beginning, amongst the most important chapters was that of the cathedral, grouped around the Bishop to assist him with his duties. Only the Holy Father has the right to erect any chapter, which he does normally at the request of the Bishop in the case of cathedral chapters. The rights of these canons are laid down in writing at the time of the erection of the chapter or are introduced over the years by custom permitted by the Bishop. There are, however, certain things that the Bishop cannot do without the consent of the chapter and other things which he cannot do without consulting the chapter. Such consultation is designed to prevent precipitative action on the part of the Bishop, but he is not bound to follow it.

The Chapter of Limerick

In the case of Limerick, seemingly the Chapter was founded by Bishop Donatus O'Brien between 1204 and 1206. This included both Dignitaries and Canons. Later on, as on the Continent, the members of the Chapter themselves carved out a place for themselves in the appointment of members.

The consent of the chapter in this Diocese is now understood as required for the alienation of immovable property, and for the uniting or forming of parishes. The counsel of the canons as such is not required for any particular matter but, as shall be seen shortly in connection with the College of Consultors, is in fact quite extensive under that head. It is not clear from historical ecclesiastical jurisprudence in whom the power to appoint to cathedral chapters resides. It would appear to differ from place to place. The general opinion is that from the outset the right is invested simultaneously in the Bishop and the Chapter. In the more recent past the view used sometimes be aired that this process was respected by the Bishop on the one hand and the Canons as a whole on the other appointing to vacancies in rotation, that is, on every second turn. In Limerick, for many years now, a contrary custom prevails whereby, after a secret ballot of candidates considered suitable and made known only to the Bishop, he personally chooses the new member or members. There was a custom whereby the Canons, on their own, attended the celebration of Mass before meetings and of taking up a collection from among them-selves for the purpose of defraying any expenses which the Cathedral might incur by reason of arranging the meeting on its premises, which was then the cathedral church and sacristy. As regards the general revenues of the Chapter members themselves, they could be quite substantial in medieval times. They were of two classes, the Prebends and the Communia. The former derived from the privileges of individual canonries at the disposal of the Bishop. The latter were held in common by the Chapter from sources available to the Bishop in different ways such as tithes etc. They were usually the source of income also of dignitaries who did not hold prebendaries although in many cases dignitaries were at the receiving end of both types of revenue. This financial system has been abolished by most chapters today, including that of Limerick. The long-standing obligation on the Canons of reciting the Divine Office in whole or in part on the occasion of meetings has also been in extensive abeyance. So also the appointment of new members by letter, although that might well be reintroduced.

The number of officers of a Chapter are normally laid down in the Decree which erects it. They largely follow the same pattern in all cathedral chapters. The members were originally intended to be readily available on occasions of solemn liturgical ceremonies performed at the cathedral. Hence the impressiveness and solemnity of their robes.

At the time of their original historical inception, the members of the Cathedral Chapter assumed the government of the diocese during an episcopal vacancy of the See and proceeded to elect the new Bishop. Until the 12th century the laity participated with the clergy in the election but Rome soon reserved the election exclusively to the Chapter, who, on the vacancy appointed a Vicar Capitular to administer diocesan affairs, within strict limits.

From the outset too the members of the Cathedral Chapter normally consisted of a Dean, an Archdeacon, a Canon Theologian, a Canon Penitentiary, a Precentor, a Chancellor, a Treasurer, and the holders of prebendaries (that is lands or other benefices from which they received income). The Dean was the most important dignitary who served as the President of the Chapter. The Canon Theologian was charged with the duty of delivering public lectures on doctrine at prescribed times. The canon Penitentiary was endowed with ordinary jurisdiction to hear confessions and absolve from censures reserved to the Bishop. The Canon Precentor saw to it that the recital of the Divine Office and the sacred music that might accompany it was satisfactorily conducted. The nature of the prebendary Canons has already been explained. The Chancellor had the duty of seeing to it that the acts of the Curia were drawn up and kept safe in the archive of the Curia. The Treasurer had the obligation to ensure that the Prebendary and Communal monies of the Chapter be administered. In addition, the Bishop had the right to appoint some honorary canons who did not have any right of participating in the recitation of the Divine Office or have any voice in the chapter.

The Archdeacon

The history of the office of Archdeacon is one of the most complex and colourful of all the dignitaries. The term began to appear fairly frequently from the 5th century on. The office gradually acquired many functions which over time became juridically defined. One of the most important of them if not the most attractive was that of overseeing the behaviour of the subordinate clergy, their training and calling to the priesthood. Also, next to the Bishop he became the regular organ of supervision of the diocese, with a special role in respect of the prevention of damage to its property.

The Archdeacon was generally a priest and a member of the Cathedral Chapter. So exalted and far-reaching was his position that he was often not appointed by the Bishop but chosen exclusively by the Chapter and sometimes even by the King. By the 12th century, however, his office began to be more circumscribed, especially with the introduction during that period of the office of Vicar General, to which passed the greater part of the business once transacted by the Archdeacon. His powers were now the same as those of the Canons Prebendary of the diocese but he enjoyed more prestige and precedence than canons other than the Dean, Theologian, Penitentiary and Canons Prebendary.

It is rather fascinating to note that when chapters first came to be established, the Archdeacon was not a dignitary of the chapter as his office was independent of the cathedral body, but his membership was frequently regarded as fitting and convenient. In Limerick a rather unique system prevailed from the beginning. From the start, he was member of the Chapter and ranked next to the Dean but as from the end of the 13th century he ranked next after the four other dignitaries, i.e., Canon Penitentiary, Canon Theologian, Chancellor and Precentor. The Chapter of the Diocese of Limerick, established along these lines, existed from Medieval times to the Reformation, when it was interrupted by the events of that time and some subsequent centuries.

While in basic respects it conformed to the general pattern common to Western Christendom, it did have its peculiarities. Originally, it would appear to be made up of a Dean, a Precentor, a Treasurer and an Archdeacon, together with eight Canons Prebendary, while some years afterwards a Chancellor was added. Before long too the functions of the Chapter were to partake in the administration of the temporalities rather than the recitation of the Divine Office, the latter being assigned to Vicars Choral. It was the Chapter that saw the Diocese through some of the most difficult years of persecution following the Reformation when there was no Bishop resident in the Diocese. The number of Canons of the Chapter varied from time to time. The office of Treasurer seems to have gradually died out as its duties became less important and were taken over by other members of the Chapter. However, in 1912, in virtue of a Decree of 7 January of that year, issued to the Lord Bishop of Limerick, Edward Thomas O'Dwyer by the Holy See, the Cathedral Chapter of the Diocese was restored to the new cathedral of St John, together with the Chapter's appropriate rights and duties and connected with the original chapter set up in the City of Limerick.

Decreto Sacrae Consistorialis Congregationis diei 7 lanuarii 1912, SSmus D. N. Pius PP. X. ecclesiam S. loannis Baptistae in urbe vulgo Limerich ad Cathedralis honorem et gradum per-petuo evexit ac extulit, cumiisdem iuribus et privilegiis quibus vetus cathedralis ecclesia ab acatholicis ante duo saecula occupata fruebatur, ibique cathedrals Capitulum instituit iisdem dignitatibus et canonicatibus constans ac vetus illa ecclesia, adiectis tamen canonici theologi et poenitentiarii titulis et officiis.

Romae, e Secretaria S. C. Consistorialis, die 10 Martii 1912.


The Statutes for the internal ordering of the Chapter were laid down and confirmed by Bishop David Keane on 29 April, 1924. They specified that a meeting of the chapter should be held twice a year, that the members should attend in choral dress and recite the small hours of the Office of the day, and that they should assist at a sung Solemn Mass. (The specification that the Mass should be a solemn one was deleted in 1966).
After the Mass, the members were to convene in the sacristy of the cathedral to conduct their affairs in private, under the Presidency of the Bishop or the Vicar General in his absence or by one of the senior Canons in his absence. The necessary taxes to cover the occasion should be collected.

If necessary, further meetings could be held on the initiative of the Vicar General, the Vicar Capitular or any three members of the chapter. All meetings of the Chapter should have a Secretary, who should give three days notice of the meetings. Should he fail to do so, this should be done by the primary dignitary or senior canon of the chapter.

As regards special meetings, notice should be given of the business to be dealt with. It was the duty of the Secretary to keep custody of the Chapter Minute Book and before each meeting to read out clearly the account of the previous meeting.

Confidentiality should be maintained regarding all matters about which the law prescribes this or the meeting decide on it.

The Restored Chapter 1912

As constituted by Bishop O'Dwyer in 1912, the restored Chapter of the Diocese of Limerick consisted of a Dean, an Archdeacon, A Canon Theologian, a Canon Penitentiary, a Chancellor, and Prebendary Canons, namely, those of Killeedy, Croagh, Ardcanny, Tullybrackey, Athnitt, Ballycahane, Kilpeacon, Disert, Donoughmore, Effin and St Munchin's. A further dignitary of Chancellor was also added to the Chapter. The question of adding still another dignitary, that of Precentor was discussed but deferred for the time being. This office was not formally incorporated into the Chapter until the meeting of 19 October, 1989, when it was done at the instance of Bishop Jeremiah Newman. The foregoing is therefore the current composition of the Chapter.

If any member cannot be present at a chapter meeting, he must inform the Secretary of this and the reason for it.

During the centuries of their existence, chapters, whether cathedral or otherwise, have undergone profound changes in the nature of the functions associated with their respective members. Those of Deans, Canons Theologian and Canons Penitentiary remained much the same as also did those of the Canons Prebendary. The creation of the office of Vicar General, as has already been adverted to, reduced those of Archdeacons but these latter did retain a very prominent rank as representatives of the Bishop, with all the external trappings pertaining thereto. Vicars General, when introduced, were not members of chapters and this tradition still prevails, but their importance in the diocese is such that they are usually brought in as occupiers of some capitular dignitary or prebendary. The precise practice in Limerick seems to have varied over the years, as the Minute Book of the Chapter shows. All members of the chapter had the onerous responsibility of electing a Vicar Capitular when the See became vacant, together with the responsibility of advising the Bishop in the matter of the alienation of diocesan property. While the Dean retained the privilege of precedence within the Chapter itself, the Archdeacon in view of custom held precedence otherwise in succession to the Bishop.

The following is the Latin text of the full body of Statutes adopted by the Chapter on 29 April, 1924:
Statuta Propria
Capituli Ecclesiae Cathedralis

Quum Sancta Sedes benigne annuens postulations Eduardi Thomae O'Dwyer Episcopi Limericensis statuit per decretum Sacrae Congregationis Consistorialis die 7 ma januarii, 1912, Ecclesiam Sancti Joannis Baptistae in civitate Limericensi ad cathedralis honorem et gradum cum suis juribus et privilegiis perpetuo evehere, ibique capitulum cathedrals instituere ad normam, attentis rerum adjunctis, capituli in diocesi Limericensi olim existentis ad exsequenda omnia quae necessaria erant ut rite institueretur hoc capitulum dignata est deputare praedictum Eduardum Thomam O'Dwyer qui proinde juxta terminos decreti supradicti instituit et erexit capitulum Ecclesiae Cathedralis Limericensis utinunc existit. Capitulum autem statuta jam condita interni suiregiminis causa per actum capitularem cum approbatione Episcopi die 29 ma Aprilis, 1924, denique confirmavit prout sequuntur: -

i.Conventus Capituli ordinarius habendus est bis in anno, id est, feria tertia post Dominicam in Albis et prima feria tertia mensis Octobris.

ii. Omnes capitulares tenentur his duobus conventibus interesse et veste chorali induti recitare parvas Divini Officii horas et assistere celebrations Missae Solemnis quam unusquisque vicissem cantare ipse debet aut ad hoc provisionem facere per aliquem e clero Ecclesiae Cathedrali adscripto.

iii. Dicta recitatio Divini Officii et celebratio Missae Solemnis peragendae sunt apud altare majus Ecclesiae Cathedralis et sacris peractis omnes capitulares conveniunt in sacristia privata ad negotia diocesana pertractanda. Huic conventui praeses erit Episcopus aut Vicarius Ceneralis aut in horum absentia una e dignitatibus capit-uli aut canonicus antiquior juxta ordinem praecedentiae.

iv. Omnes capitulares erunt obnoxii taxae ab ipso capitulo fixae ad sumptus necessarios solvendos.

v.Praeter conventus ordinarios specialis conventus quavis occasions potest convorcari instantia Episcopi vel Vicarii Ceneralis vel Vicarii Capitularis vel trium membrorum Capituli.

vi. Convocatio conventus ordinarii et specialis fiet per secretarium qui dabit trium dierum notitiam conventus habendi. Defectu secretarii convocatio fiet eodem modo per primam dignitatem vel canonicum antiquiorem.

vii. In convocando conventu speciali notitia fiet negotii specialis in conventu tractandi.

viii. Munus secretarii erit apud se custodire librum in quo facit relationem rerum quae in capituli conventibus fiunt, et in unoquoque conventu alta voce legere relationem respectu conventus immediate praecedelitis.

ix. De negotiis in unoquoque conventu tractatis secretum servandum est in quantam jure praescribitur et insuper inquantum in ipso conventu determinatum erit.

x.Si quis capitularis conventui interesse non potest de hac impossibilitate et de ejus causa secretarium certiorem facere tenetur.

+ David
Episcopiis Limericensis.
Robertus Canonicus Kirby,
Secretarius Capituli.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law

This system was potentially changed radically by the New Code of Canon Law, which came into force on 1st Advent, 1983. Apart from the right to consultation in regard to the alienation of church property and right of election of the Vicar Capitular, chapters as such were downgraded to little more than ceremonial appurtenances. This was due mainly, if not entirely, to the influence of the Church in the United States of America which never had cathedral chapters, their functions being carried out by what were known as Colleges of Consultors. By reason of the influence wielded by the then American Church, it was proposed that the powers formerly vested in Cathedral Chapters by Canon Law be transferred to Colleges of Consultors raised to Church-wide status. Effectively this left Cathedral Chapters bereft of most of its former powers. Interestingly enough, they did not exist at all in some dioceses, including a number of Irish dioceses, which had their own methods of fulfilling what the chapters did else-where. The new change therefore did not concern them. On the Continent of Europe things were very different. There the cathedral chapters were extremely powerful 'animals' who did not take kindly to the new proposed arrangements. The resulting impasse was got over by Canon 502, par. 3 of the New Code of Canon Law, which decreed that the functions assigned by it to the College of Consultors under Canon 501, par 2 and Canon 502 par. 1 and 2 could be fulfilled by the Cathedral Chapter of a diocese with the consent of the Episcopal Conference. This consent was applied for and obtained through the Irish Episcopal Conference by Most Reverend Jeremiah Newman as a consequence of which the Cathedral Chapter of the Diocese of Limerick is also its College of Consultors. This means that it has very extensive and heavy duties. They are duly listed in the Code of Canon Law. Some mean that the Bishop cannot perform certain acts without the consent of the Chapter, others that he has to consult them. There is also to be a President over each chapter. Since 1912 when Bishop O'Dwyer restored the Chapter, the function of President appears to have been exercised as circumstances demanded by the Bishop and various members of the Chapter. During the episcopacy of Bishops Keane, O'Neill and Murphy, it was exercised by the Bishop. This custom has been followed by Bishop Newman.

The Vicar General

The Role of the Vicar General in the chapter is an extremely important one and its history is complicated. After the Bishop, the Vicar General is the highest official of a diocese. if there are more than one Vicars General the geographical delimitation of their functions is effected either by written decree of the Bishop or, more usually, by mutual consent and custom. The appointment itself should be made in writing. The Vicar General should take an oath before the Bishop to discharge his duties faithfully, must transact business under the authority of the Bishop according to law, and preserve secrecy according to the manner prescribed by law or by the Bishop. As often as the good governance of a diocese requires it, the Diocesan Bishop can also appoint one or more Vicars General as outlined already. Each wields the same ordinary power as the universal law gives to a Vicar General. Vicars General are freely appointed by the Diocesan Bishop and can be freely removed by him. A Vicar General ceases when the period of his mandate ceases (that is, if such a period has been laid down at the time of his appointment), or by resignation, or by removal by the Diocesan Bishop, or when the episcopal See falls vacant. If the office of the Bishop himself is suspended, that of Vicar General is also suspended unless there be case of a Vicar General who is himself a Bishop. At the installation of the restored Cathedral Chapter of Limerick, the Vicar General is the first listed member of the Chapter. This obviously implies that any further Vicars General that may be appointed in the Diocese should also be members of the Chapter.

In each diocese there must be a Chancellor who, is a member of the diocesan Curia that is, the general body of all institutions and persons who assist the Bishop in governing the diocese. By way of custom he is usually a member of a diocesan chapter but in the Statutes of the Chapter of the Diocese of Limerick he is specifically included as such. His duties can vary over a wide range as the Bishop may call on him at any time in the co-ordination of the work of the diocese.

The practice of having a Treasurer as member of a chapter varies over time and place. In Ireland, at least, it would seem to be the exception rather than the rule. There is no provision made for one in the present Limerick Cathedral Chapter although there was formerly. Finally, one of the most interesting facts about the Limerick Chapter is that among the few known seals of a member of a medieval Irish chapter is that of,) Precentor of Limerick (See Caulfield, Sigilia ecclesiae Hibernicae illustrate, 1853).

Bishop Jeremiah Newman

Purpose | Chapter of Limerick | Archdeacon | Restored Chapter 1912
1983 Code of Canon Law | Vicar General

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