The Cloak Keepers: the origins of the chaplaincy
In the 4th century, around what is now modern-day France, a group of clergy members were selected to guard an important Catholic relic — the Cloak of Saint Martin. These cloak-keepers — cappellani in Latin — took their name from the sacred relic they guarded, becoming known as chaplains.
The legend of Saint Martin tells of a Roman soldier who approached the gates of a city, observed a beggar and promptly cut his cloak in half to clothe the man. Saint Martin, as the story goes, exhibited spiritual compassion for the stranger. And the stranger found comfort in the cloak.
For years, chaplains stood as the guardians of sacred relics like the cloak. In addition to their original duties, chaplains soon began serving as the personal ministers of kings. They would hold mass during royal feasts, work alongside the king’s notaries and serve as royal scribes.
In this new role, chaplains became recognized more for their direct service to the monarchy as advisers in both secular and spiritual matters.
Today, ministers and other members of the clergy who are appointed to serve within a public institution —hospitals, prisons, military branches or schools — are known as chaplains. These clerical leaders are tasked with providing empathetic, spiritual and pastoral support to the public from within a secular organization.