ROME — On Monday afternoon, Massimiliano Gammarelli, the head tailor of the family that has been dressing pontiffs for centuries, ran a lint brush over the white cassock that Pope Francis will wear at his installation Mass on Tuesday. He clipped stray threads with shears and yelled at a priest who bent down to kiss the hem. (“Don’t dirty it!”) As his cousins checked their watches, he meticulously folded the frock, wrapped it in tissue paper and packed it into a silver box for delivery to the Vatican.
In his first week as pope, Francis’s inclination toward simple cassocks has led the Vatican, cardinals and church watchers to see substance in his pared-down style and insist that the clothes really do make the infallible man. But while some of the church’s leaders have cheered his humbler fashion sense, Francis’s preference for dressing down could be bad news for some of the prelates who like to dress up — not to mention the vestment purveyors who clothe them.
“He’s like a king. He decides and we obey,” Gammarelli said as he leaned against shelves stocked with expensive violet, pink, green and red fabrics. “If the cardinals start coming in asking for new clothes, we’ll know that he has asked them to add things. But if he wants them to remove things, how will I know?”
Gammarelli said he had heard rumors that the pope wanted a simpler dress code for his cardinals, but wouldn’t allow himself to get too concerned unless an edict was issued. “If so, we’ll adapt,” he said. “There’s no choice.”
Benedict XVI, who last month became the first pontiff to resign in 600 years, was a proponent of the restoration of the church’s older rites, and he reached deep into the church’s closet of vestments and regalia to emphasize its rich tradition.
He wore violet copes; blue, full-cut chasubles with abstract designs; and furry white Easter mozettas for the spring season. He donned an assortment of hats, including the camauro, a Santa Claus-esque red wool cap with an ermine trim that dated back to the 12th century; a red Saturno, a full-brimmed number named for ringed Saturn; and a precious mitre studded with jewels.
The emeritus pope, as Benedict is now known, is not the church’s only fashion plate. Cardinal Raymond Burke is perhaps best known for arguing, as archbishop of St. Louis, that Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights should be denied Communion. In Rome, where he is now prefect of the church’s tribunal, he has also earned a reputation for operatic regalia. He is one of the few cardinals who dons cappa magnas, the long trains of watered silk that can look like scarlet lava flowing down from his throne. His velvet gloves and extravagant brocades prompted Vatican officials to ask him to “tone it down a bit,” according to noted religion reporter David Gibson.
“The vestments, everything, are part of a tradition,” Burke told Gibson. “We need to understand that and not just discard it and say, ‘Well, it was all just an ugly accretion.’ ”
(“I’m sorry,” Burke said when reached by phone. “I won’t be able to respond.”)
There have been other signs that the fans of high-church trappings might be losing influence.
Vatican reporters buzzed during Francis’s first Mass as pope when he was caught on video seeming to have cross words for Monsignor Guido Marini, the Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations, as they proceeded into the Sistine Chapel. According to the BBC, in the minutes after his election, Pope Francis rejected a red cape with ermine trim presented to him by Marini, who is famously more fastidious about liturgical details than his predecessor. “No, thank you, Monsignore,” Francis, 76, is reported to have said. “You put it on instead. Carnival time is over!” The Vatican, which has made simplicity its new watchword, said they could not confirm or deny the report.
But it does seem in keeping with Francis’s past statements. After the 2005 conclave, when he was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, he bemoaned vanity in the church to an Italian reporter, saying “look at the peacock; it’s beautiful if you look at it from the front. But if you look at it from behind, you discover the truth. . . . Whoever gives in to such self-absorbed vanity has huge misery hiding inside them.”
The pope’s new style has been well received. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the head of media relations for the American bishops conference, wrote in a newsletter on March 14, the day after the pope’s election, that “Instructions for what to wear for upcoming meetings suggest that the simple style he is known for continues. Today, the cardinals were advised to wear the black house cassock rather than the more formal red choir robes with white surplice.”
That invitation delighted Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who, after finding himself in the center of a priestly sex-abuse scandal, needed some good news. “At our meeting today with Pope Francis, I noted that [he] is still wearing his older black shoes,” Mahony tweeted on March 15. “I pray that he keeps them as a sign for us all.” The next day he added, “So long Papal ermine and fancy lace! Welcome simple cassock, and hopefully, ordinary black shoes! St. Francis must be overjoyed!!” His new look also pleased the critics in the front row. Vatican blogger Rocco Palmo noted approvingly that the new pope’s black pants were visible underneath his white cassock.
In an interview, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, said that the trappings in themselves were not bad for the church.
“Symbols are still very important, but it’s how you use the symbols that make them work for you as opposed to getting too caught up in them,” Wuerl said. Francis, he added, “indicated just by stepping out onto the balcony in a white cassock that ‘yes, I will still be a pope, but there’s also going to be some simplicity to this.’ ”