Thursday, December 09, 2021

A Boy-Bishop for the Feast of St Nicholas

Chavagnes International College, a Catholic boarding school for boys located in Chavagnes-en-Paillers in western France (near Nantes), is well known for cultivating a strong liturgical life. In accordance with the old English tradition, a boy-bishop is appointed from among the students on the feast of St Nicholas, who presides over the celebration of Vespers and presides over the high table for the meal following. (See below for a bit more about this tradition.) These photos are reproduced with the College’s permission, and our thanks.

His Excellency with his chaplains.
The tradition of the boy-bishop, elected each year on December 6th from among the choristers of cathedrals, colleges and large parish churches, dated in England back to the 12th century. The bishop would symbolically stand down at the moment in the Magnificat when the choir sang “deposuit potentes de sede” (He hath put down the mighty from their thrones.); then the boy bishop would ascend the throne at the words “et exaltavit humiles.” (And He hath exalted the lowly.)

Apart from the celebration of Mass, and the important Vespers and Lauds of Christmas itself, the boy would officiate at many services and make decrees as to the obligations of the other choristers (usually extra food, less work, etc.) It was a popular custom. Eton College elected two boy bishops each year, and all the cathedrals had them, including St Paul’s in London. The boy’s reign would come to an end on Holy Innocents’ Day, after he had himself preached a sermon at Mass. His fellow scholars would then have to give him a penny as a Christmas offering. Like many similar traditions in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it served to teach children about the dignity of high office, and especially the importance of the bishop’s role in the Church. It also demonstrates to those in authority the fragility of honor and rank, a warning that they should not cling to earthly honors.

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