Reform May Be Coming to the Chapter of St Peter's Basilica

Until the middle of the 20th century, the chapter members had to be in the basilica on a daily basis to pray the hours, be in adoration, and serve in the liturgical celebrations.

Pope Francis prays the rosary before an icon of Our Lady of Help in St. Peter's Basilica May 1, 2021.
Pope Francis prays the rosary before an icon of Our Lady of Help in St. Peter's Basilica May 1, 2021. (photo: Daniel Ibanez / Vatican Pool)

VATICAN CITY — That members of the chapter of St. Peter’s Basilica were prevented from participating in Pope Francis‘ rosary for the end of the pandemic has fueled speculations that the pope will reform both the chapter and the organization of St. Peter’s Basilica. 

The Chapter of St. Peter was established in 1043 by St. Leo IX. It was intended to guarantee a regular prayer in St. Peter and, in the earlier years, to assist the pope in managing the goods of St. Peter's patrimony.

The patrimony consists of several donations to the papacy, including real estate, in and outside Rome. According to a source who served as a member of the chapter, “It is complicated to give comprehensive figures of the patrimony. Management of an important chunk of it was already transferred to APSA.”

The Chapter of St. Peter is chaired by the Archpriest of St. Peter‘s Basilica and is composed of him, the chapter’s vicar, and 34 members. The members are chosen among the most remarkable personalities of the Catholic Church when they retire.

They are “professionals of prayer,” according to Benedict XVI, who labeled them as such in 2007 during a private audience with the members of the chapter. The commitment to prayer is central in their activity. Until the middle of the 20th century, the chapter members had to be in the basilica on a daily basis to pray the hours, be in adoration, and serve in the liturgical celebrations.

Members of the chapter are now mainly involved on Sundays and feasts or in the commemoration of the Roman Pontiffs. They also take part in celebrations with the Pope in St. Peter's Basilica.

Some of them went to the Basilica May  to participate in the rosary for the end of the pandemic presided by Pope Francis. The Italian newspaper Il Messaggero broke the news that the chapter members were denied access to the basilica. 

Il Messaggero also stresses that the “members of the chapter seem to be Pope Francis' target” and adds that the Chapter of St. Peter is “one of those sectors the Pope wants to bring some order to.”

According to a chapter source who spoke to CNA under condition of anonymity  so as to speak freely, the rejection of the chapter members May 1 is not an indication of papal hostility against their members.

“They (the organizers) simply were not counting with their presence, and so there were no spots for them to sit,” the source said.

Due to COVID restrictions, all the spots in the basilica are strictly regulated, and it is then harder to include people who are not on the list or who come unannounced.

But according to the same source, even if the episode was not linked to any perceived papal hostility to the chapter, its reform is underway.

The reform “will mostly deal on the role of the chapter members,” the source told CNA, and explained that its members will keep their prayer duties in the basilica, and they will be more involved in liturgical celebrations. Since the Vatican has prohibited private celebrations at the basilica, chapter members will celebrate some of the authorized Masses.  

The important changes, instead, will be coming on the financial side. The chapter members got a compensation for their services, funded directly with the revenue of St. Peter‘s patrimony. For some, this was a way to secure income to retired clerics, for others it was a contemporary form of sinecure. After the 2020 pandemic, Pope Francis cut their monthly salary. The members of the chapter were reimbursed for their service thanks to a solidarity fund set up by St. Peter’s Basilica.

Most likely the rest of the real estate and goods belonging to St. Peter's patrimony will be transferred to APSA, which will be designed as a sort of Vatican central bank. At the end of the reform, all the Vatican investments will be centralized and managed by APSA.

The first dicastery transferring its funds to APSA has been the Secretariat of State. The process will also likely involve all the other Vatican dicasteries with their patrimony, such as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the Vatican City State Administration.

The reform of the Chapter of St. Peter will go along with a reform of the organization and schedule of St. Peter's Basilica. Pope Francis already decided to forbid private Masses. Mauro Cardinal Gambetti, the new archpriest, wants to go further and have only two Masses per day, in Italian, broadcast by the Vatican communications service.

According to the CNA source, “these reforms have generated expected turmoil among the chapter members,” but “there is very little, if anything, (we) can do about it.” 

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