The secular media, not fully understanding why Pope Benedict XVI has opted for certain modifications in liturgical vesture, have resorted (as usual) to describing these variations in terms of the trivial, even ridiculous. An obvious recent instance is that of the Holy Fathers red leather shoes occasioning the empty rumor that they were fashioned by the Milanese Fashion House of Prada. Earlier examples of variations in non-liturgical papal apparel were Benedicts decision to wear the 12th century papal winter hat called the camauro (last worn by Good Pope John XXIII) or the 13th century papal cape known as the mozzetta (used last by Pope Paul VI).
Every Roman Pontiff is obviously free to choose whatever papal vesture he desires, within the protocols of papal tradition. Our present Holy Father happens to be an acknowledged scholar of liturgy its history and theology, as well as its practice and hence is highly attuned to what various modifications might mean to the Church and to the world. And every Pope is also free to modify his vesture, or even innovate, as regards nonliturgical papal vesture.
Benedicts return to the color of red for his shoes should be understood by anyone with a catechism knowledge of the Faith as signifying martyrdom which is also the reason for the red cassock worn by cardinals. As John Paul II emphasized in his inaugural homily as Pope, the papacy is in itself a commitment to martyrdom. John Paul, in that homily, cited the ancient Quo vadis? legend, wherein St. Peter, departing Rome during Neros Persecution, met Christ heading toward Rome, to be crucified anew causing Peter to turn around and rush back. John Paul would have loved to remain in Krakow; and Cardinal Ratzinger begged the Holy Father more than once to release him from his Roman duties, to return to his beloved Bavaria to do theology. Yet he knew that he could not decline the crushing burdens of the papacy as he neared the age of 80.
Most of Benedicts variations in vesture have been in the context of liturgy. A powerful example is his returning to an earlier form of the Pallium, the stole-like garment worn by Archbishops in their Sees and presented to them by the Holy Father as a sign of their pastoral jurisdiction. When Benedict introduced the new Pallium, its meaning was immediately recognized by the Orthodox Church, since it dates back to 1054, the sad year of the schism between Rome and the East. A Serbian Orthodox bishop is quoted by Jesuit scholar Father Keith F. Pecklers as saying, You have no idea what that has meant for us in the Serbian Orthodox Church (London Tablet, 8 March 2008). It is an obvious sign of the Popes desire for the reunification of all Christendom.
Benedict has focused especially on the principal liturgical vestment of the priest at Mass; namely, the chasuble. Although this is a difficult modification to describe and requires knowledge of the evolution of the chasuble, the trend seems to incorporate both the Roman and the basic Gothic styles. (At St. Bernards in Rochester, we used the Roman, but it is rarely used in most American churches today.)
The Holy Father, one expert writes in the 8 July 2008 issue of LOsservatore Romano, doesnt wear Prada, but Christ. And his concern has nothing to do with the accessory, but with the essential. This is the meaning of the liturgical paraments with which Benedict XVI is concerned, to make the truer reality of the liturgy more comprehensible to the people of our time.
Always in his choice of liturgical papal vesture, Pope Benedict has deep reasons, stemming from a lifetime of study and reflection in liturgy. Some modifications have already been taken as hints of the beginnings of a wide and profound liturgical reform. What is certain is that Benedict XVI clearly sees every aspect of liturgy not only as worship but also as a precise teaching moment.
For some guidance as to how all this will be realized, one can simply read the Popes masterpiece on the liturgy, entitled The Spirit of the Liturgy (a title which he borrowed, of course, from his teacher, the great theologian, Msgr. Romano Guardini). Like that of John Paul II, the goal is to celebrate liturgy in a more essential manner. (Ibid., Intro.)
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.