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Vintage Vestments: The Philosophical Threads Woven Into Papal Garments

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

ROME -- With all the pundits analyzing Pope Benedict XVI's views of U.S. foreign policy and the woes of the Catholic Church, we know there are those of you out there with a simple plea: Can someone please tell me when popes started wearing lace, and ermine collars?

A long time ago, that's when. And that's the point.

For those paying attention to Vatican couture, Benedict has been causing a buzz since he came into office by reviving the more ornate clergy styles that go back in some cases to the 15th and 16th centuries. Taller hats (or mitres). Red velvet capes (or mozzettas). Heavily embroidered smocks (or chasubles).

This may go over the head of the typical viewer flipping through the channels today and watching Benedict celebrate Mass at Nationals Park. But for those concerned about the direction of the Roman Catholic Church, it is stuff to obsess over. Does it mean Benedict wants to take the church back into the past, and if so, in what ways? Or does it simply mean this cultured, piano-playing German theologian has an appreciation for the drama and theater of religion?

Traditional Catholics have been over the moon since Benedict was installed and started reviving ancient aspects of church life, including making it easier for priests to say the Latin Mass (yes, you need permission to do that) and encouraging the wider use of Gregorian chants and Renaissance music for worship, as opposed to contemporary spiritual genres such as jazz or gospel. They see his clothing choices as a powerful symbolic message saying one thing to a contemporary world: The Catholic Church ain't changing -- not on duds, and certainly not on abortion or gay marriage or priestly celibacy.

Noting that Benedict is choosing styles from the decades, even centuries, before Vatican II (the council in the 1960s that sought ways to modernize Catholicism), some reformers express concern about what the pontiff's clothing choices might indicate.

They "worry that this old-fashioned 'character' also comes with an old-style authoritarianism," David Gibson, a biographer of Benedict and well-known Catholic blogger, wrote in a recent essay published by the Religion News Service.

Why the pope is wearing fur and lace is a subject of some sensitivity. In 25 years as head of the Vatican's orthodoxy-enforcing office, Benedict developed a reputation for rigidity, even if that meant damaging the careers of Catholic theologians who challenged conventional thinking.

One day last week in his office overlooking St. Peter's piazza, Benedict's top liturgical official played down the gossip, saying Benedict isn't trying to bring the church back into the Dark Ages. Monsignor Guido Marini, formally known as "Maestro delle Celebrazioni Liturgiche Pontificie," or the papal master of ceremonies, said through a translator that Benedict simply wants Catholics to see the full range of their worship tradition.

"These aren't new things," sniffed Marini, a tall, elegant man who wears a black cassock with buttons from neck to the floor.

At Ghezzi, one of several shops on Via de'Cestari in Rome that sells elaborate clerical garb, manager Maria Ardovini said bishops and priests pay close attention to this stuff.

"When he's wearing some specific vestments, a bishop might say, oh, 'I saw him wearing that the other day, can you make it?' He's a trendsetter, you could say that," said Ardovini, a short, smiley woman who has been working on clergy fashion for 40 years. "Benedict is very much a traditionalist."

Ardovini was all chatty until she was asked about Benedict's red shoes, and rumors that they are Prada. (Most people who looked into this closely agreed that they're not.) "Please don't say that," she said, her smile fading. "It's blasphemous."

Certainly more attention is paid to Benedict than to the average clergyman, but any bishop or archbishop can wear clothing similar to what the pope is wearing, only with different adornments.

This all contrasts with Pope John Paul II, whose clothing choices were simpler. "He would just wear whatever was given to him," Ardovini said.

"John Paul was largely not proactive in liturgical choices. He was focused more on the bigger picture than Benedict," said the Rev. Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. "Benedict has a much keener interest in liturgy."

The buzz this has created can't be underestimated. Pecklers notes that he was once approached by an Orthodox bishop who said "you have no idea what it has meant to us" that Benedict is wearing an ancient form of pallium, or woolen cloak. The bishop told Pecklers that the clothing change, in the bishop's eyes, means Benedict wishes to unify the Eastern and Western churches.

You thought the cover of Vogue was influential. Many of the vestments Benedict has been wearing are in the Roman style, experts said, as opposed to the Gothic style that became more popular after the Second Vatican Council. However, Pecklers has written, sometimes Benedict picks items that combine Gothic and Roman, like the chasuble he wore on Ash Wednesday -- longer in the front than the so-called "fiddle-back" chasuble of the Roman period (named for its violin-like appearance) and wider at the bottom.

"On his mind very clearly is concern about growth of secularism in the developed world, loss of faith, loss of religious conviction," Pecklers said. "So there is clearly a sense of his returning to basic foundations, helping his flock return to what is foundational."

Whatever Benedict wears during his trip, it will be certainly dissected by bloggers like Rocco Palmo, who writes Whispers in the Loggia, a must-read for hard-core Catholics who want to know every piece of gossip about the church and which bishop is getting transferred where.

Last night, Palmo noted what Benedict wore to a meeting with bishops at the National Shrine: a white cassock, a linen and lace white alb (the layer over the cassock, but with sleeves), a fur mozzetta (or half-poncho) and a large cross with "major bling." Today, he said, Benedict's vestments would be watched by Catholics intrigued by ceremonial beauty. By those who want to "understand what is hidden." In other words, he said, "10,000 liturgy geeks."

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