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c. 2008 Religion News Service (UNDATED) During Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the U.S., Catholics will listen intently to what he says, and how he says it, all in hopes of figuring out if Joseph Ratzinger has indeed become a kindly German Shepherd or whether he remains, as he was known, God’s Rottweiler. Yet as […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) During Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the U.S., Catholics will listen intently to what he says, and how he says it, all in hopes of figuring out if Joseph Ratzinger has indeed become a kindly German Shepherd or whether he remains, as he was known, God’s Rottweiler.

Yet as important as Benedict’s words will be, it may be just as important to check out what he’s wearing.

The pope’s choice of liturgical vestments and other papal accouterments speak volumes not only about his personal tastes but also about his vision of the church’s future, and its past.

With increasing regularity, Benedict has been reintroducing elaborate lace garments and monarchical regalia that have not been seen around Rome in decades, even centuries.

He has celebrated Mass using the wide cope (a cape so ample it is held up by two attendants) and high mitre of Pius IX, a 19th century pope known for his dim views of the modern world. 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, he donned a “fiddleback” vestment dating to the Counter-Reformation era of the 16th century, and he has used a tall gilded papal throne not seen in years. And that’s not to mention the ermine-trimmed red velvet mozzetta, a shoulder cape, or the matching camauro, a Santa Claus-like cap that art students will recognize from Renaissance portraiture.


Now comes word that Benedict has commissioned a set of 30 new vestments modeled on those worn by the notorious Medici pope, Leo X, a corpulent, corrupt fellow who at his election famously declared, “Let us enjoy the papacy since God has given it to us.”

Leo proceeded to do just that, paying the bills by selling indulgences and church offices and provoking Martin Luther into nailing his 95 theses to a church door in Germany. (News leaks about the pricey vestments irked the Vatican and have reportedly delayed their introduction until Pentecost in May, when the furor may have abated.)


So what’s going on here? Church conservatives are of course ecstatic, filling the blogosphere with the kind of gushing chatter that only liturgical couture _ especially of the haute variety _ can inspire.

Church liberals, meanwhile, are less enthusiastic. They wonder whether these clothing choices are part of a wider campaign, along with the restoration of the old Latin Mass, to turn the clock back on the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

The answer is, as always, more complex than that, and it starts with Benedict’s personal esthetic. He is a proud Bavarian who “breathed the Baroque atmosphere” as a child and still plays Mozart to relax. He speaks Latin as well as he does English, and he has always been as fastidious about his liturgical wear as he is about his doctrinal pronouncements.

Catholicism’s sacramental imagination invests great meaning in symbols, and each retro lace surplice and gilt-trimmed mitre that Benedict dons sends a message.

“He is a very patient man, very methodical, very German, and little by little he is re-directing things,” says the Rev. Guy Selvester, pastor at St. Matthew’s Church in Edison, N.J., who confesses to being “a papacy geek” since he was a kid.

“He is slowly trying to say that he wants to restore a particular kind of character to the liturgy.”

Nervous reformers worry that this old-fashioned “character” also comes with an old-style authoritarianism, and Selvester agrees that some high-style clerics can fancy themselves churchly princes.

But, he says, that is not the case with Benedict. “There is a difference between being conservative and being traditional,” he says.

Benedict’s choices are about tradition _ an effort, Selvester says, to “show a continuity with the entirety of the papacy. He wants to say, `I am the successor of John Paul, Pius IX, Leo X, and Peter the Apostle.”’


Yet such an assertion is also a way for Benedict to take sides in a raging debate within Catholicism about whether and how the church can change _ not just in fashions _ and whether Vatican II marked a shift in church teaching or a recovery of longstanding traditions that do not constitute a break with the past.


In a recent interview with Catholic News Service, the pope’s new master of ceremonies, a tradition-minded 43-year-old Italian priest, Monsignor Guido Marini, said the increased use of older liturgical elements merely reflects “development in continuity” _ a catchphrase for those who seek a “reform of the reform” of Vatican II, as the pope has often called for.

Indeed, Benedict’s sartorial styles may say more about his wish to anchor the present in the past than a desire to return to a glorious history that may have been less than holy. His larger goal is to show that the church doesn’t change willy nilly; his taste in vestments and vintage accessories is another means to that end.

Critics will note that placing the last 40 years in the context of a 2,000-year span can be a way of diminishing the import of recent changes that Benedict doesn’t like, and that the pope tends to make his counterpoint by drawing on styles from the most sumptuous eras of church history.

Still, there are some long-standing traditions that even he avoids.

For example, the sedia gestatoria, which bore popes aloft like Roman emperors, has likely been definitively supplanted by the popemobile. And pontiffs used to be crowned with a tall, three-ringed tiara of precious metals known as the triregnum. Paul VI was the last pope to be crowned, in 1963, and he donated his tiara to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, where Benedict will preside at two events.

Despite the fond wishes of some liturgy buffs, Selvester doesn’t expect the pope to duck downstairs and try the tiara on. “That’s not going to happen,” he said with a laugh.

Some traditions, it seems, even Benedict would rather forget.

(David Gibson is the author of “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World” and “The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful are Shaping a New American Catholicism.” He wrote this article for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)


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