Papal Fashion Statements  

Posted by Joe Rawls



Michael McGough has a very interesting article in the April 6 Los Angeles Times about Pope Benedict's sense of style. No, not the Prada shoes. We're talking about his recent choices in liturgical vestments. On a number of occasions during Lent and Holy Week His Holiness has presided while attired in chasubles, copes, and other vesture of a style popular between the Counter-Reformation and Vatican II. His revival of these garments has provoked great joy in the hearts of Catholic traditionalists and equally great dread in the already-gloomy souls of post-Vatican II progressives.

Why? It's because liturgical vestments don't just visually differentiate the various actors in the drama of worship; they are also encoded statements of particular theologies. This is true regardless of what church we're talking about. The evangelical megachurch pastor in his Hawaiian shirt; the low-church Anglican in surplice and stole; Pope Benedict XVI in a baroque fiddleback chasuble; all are conveying visually what they think is the purpose of worship, and. indeed, Christianity itself.

There are two major types of chasuble, the large colored overgarment worn by the priest celebrating Mass. The gothic style (seen in the first picture of the Pope) is the older and in fact originates in the early patristic period, when it evolved out of what was essentially a poncho. It tends to be cut very fully.

The Roman style (colloquially known as the fiddleback) seems to have first appeared in the late 15th century and can be though of as a gothic chasuble pared away to what is basically a sandwich-board. Fiddlebacks (seen in the second photo of Benedict) can be very simple, but are somewhat notorious for being made of rich brocade or ornamented with very elaborate embroidery. They are frequently worn with lace albs.

Fiddlebacks passed out of style during the years following Vatican II, when the liturgical language went from Latin to the vernacular, popular music replaced Gregorian chant, and the priest faced the people instead of towards the east with his back to the congregation. Gothic chasubles got even larger than they had been--unless chasubles were eliminated altogether, which happened in more than a few places.

For reasons I don't fully understand, the fiddleback became associated with theological conservatives who accepted Vatican II begrudgingly, or else objected to what they thought were abuses perpetrated in its name. It became one of the party badges of traditionalists who hankered for a return to the Latin Mass and uncompromising ecclesiastical authority.

So when Cardinal Ratzinger--affectionately known to his opponents as "God's Rottweiler" or "Der Panzercardinal"--became Pope Benedict XVI, progressives feared the worst. So far, little liberal blood has actually been spilled, but the Pope has signaled a return to traditional liturgics. Most significantly, he issued a motu proprio--a kind of executive order--last summer making it much easier for local parishes to offer Latin Masses for interested congregants. The Pope seems to want to restore the Tridentine Mass to a place of honor alongside the vernacular liturgy, rather than abrogating the latter.

If clothes make the man, then perhaps in this case vestimentum papam facit.

This entry was posted on Sunday, April 13, 2008 at Sunday, April 13, 2008 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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