Pope Benedict XVI As “Fashionisto” And The Liberace Of The Vatican

The famous red shoes. 

Picture from BBC.

While I am not Catholic, I have long found Vatican intrigue, papal politics, and the history of the popes fascinating.    So when Pope Benedict XVI landed on our shores I saw him as a newsmaker who would speak out on issues that relate to so many in the country.  I watched to see how the media would cover the story, and the type of political reactions his trip would create.

And I was interested in his clothes.  Really. 

The way any pope dresses has just been interesting to me over the years since they have the ability to create the image they wish to convey to those who follow.  And Pope Benedict XVI never misses a chance to dazzle with his attire.  Sort of the Librace of the Vatican.

The New York Times online had a well written column on just what caught my eye this week.

It has long been known in Rome that Pope Benedict XVI is a fashionisto. Not simply for his affinity for highly polished red-leather shoes (John Paul’s were more likely to be scuffed oxblood tie-ups), which were reputed to be Prada (no, say Vaticanologists, they are made by a single cobbler), nor simply for his predilection for (by some reports) Serengeti sunglasses. Rather, it is his use of vestments and other liturgical attire not seen since at least the 1960s that has some Catholics surprised, bemused, befuddled, charmed and, in some quarters, disturbed.

Vestments carry meaning in the church. During the different liturgical seasons priests will change the colors of the chasubles (the large poncho-like garment) that they wear during Mass. During “Ordinary Time,” that is, most of the year, we wear green vestments. During Lent and Advent, purple. During Easter and Christmas, white. On the feast days of martyrs, red. Special meanings are attached to each vestment: the stole, the scarf-like cloth worn under the chasuble, or over an alb, symbolizes authority. Many of these vestments date back to Roman times.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the use of some of the more elaborate vestments (or “vesture”) has been scaled back, if not discontinued, especially under Popes Paul VI and John Paul II. According to some friends in Rome, John Paul sometimes wore whatever vestments were provided for him at the parish, cathedral, or outdoor venue where he was celebrating Mass. He seemed to have simpler sartorial tastes.

Benedict, however, has brought back a number of items of papal clothing not seen for decades, sometimes centuries. In an article for Religion News Service, David Gibson, author of “The Rule of Benedict,” noted the pope has worn “the high mitre of Pius IX, a 19th-century pope known for his dim views of the modern world, and on Ash Wednesday he wore a chasuble modeled on one worn by Paul V, a Borghese pope of the 17th century remembered for censuring Galileo.”

On Good Friday of this year, the pope appeared in the “fiddleback” vestments familiar to Catholics from pre-Vatican II Masses. And around Christmastime he often turns up in a camauro, a red-velvet cap familiar to art history students: no papal portrait in the Renaissance seemed complete without one.

Keith Pecklers, S.J., a Jesuit professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, noted in an article in The Tablet, a Catholic magazine based in London, that many see a wider agenda at work. “Conservative critics, then, see these changes in papal vesture as indicative of a wider papal liturgical reform under way,” wrote Father Pecklers. “Perhaps they are correct, although the reality appears to be much more enigmatic and complex.”

In general, says Pecklers, these innovations are a reminder that this is a tradition-minded pope. After all, last year the pope relaxed the restrictions on the celebration of the Latin Mass, as a way of reminding Catholics of its centrality in the tradition of the church. (The move angered some Catholics who saw the move as a retrenchment, and even a rejection of the reforms of Vatican II.)

Benedict is also an aesthete, and I mean this in a positive way. He is a highly educated and cultured man who enjoys quoting St. Augustine, loves listening to the opera, and relaxes by playing Mozart on a piano in the papal apartments. So besides indicating his theological views on tradition, his use of ornate vesture may simply represent his personality.

Still, his elaborate garments are not without its critics. “What does that have to do with Jesus?” a friend of mine asked the other night, referring to his mozzetta. “What does it have to do with the poor carpenter from Nazareth?” Hearing someone speak about the need to listen to the “cry of the poor” may be made more difficult when it comes from someone wearing watered silk.

But for Benedict these seem not to be in conflict. The tradition of the church — which includes a call to live simply, care for the poor, and work for justice — also includes the tradition of not only the arts, and of liturgical artistry. The pope embraces these traditions even if it may sometimes make him look outmoded or overly concerned with his appearance.

Finally, when I see him “arrayed in splendor,” to quote Scripture, it makes me think that perhaps Benedict also grasps that many Catholics want their pope to look like the part. It reminds me of something that Brooke Astor, the New York socialite, used to say. When asked why she dressed up for every single event, for example, a meeting at a poor school in Harlem, she said, “People expect to see Mrs. Astor, not some dowdy old lady.”

Many Catholic expect to see the pope, and Benedict, in his finery, does not disappoint.

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