Catholic Herald: Arco on the theological value of Benedict XVI’s vestment statements

The insightful Anna Arco has a good article in The Catholic Herald, WDTPRS’s favorite Catholic newspaper of the UK.

You will like this, I think, unless you … well… you’ll see what I mean.

My emphases and comments.

Benedict XVI proclaims that baroque is back

The Pope’s sartorial choices are provoking rage among liberal Catholics, says Anna Arco. But there is a deep theological point to his finery
Priests dance on roller-skates and ridiculously lacy surplices flutter down the catwalk. Copes made entirely of mirrors are followed by chasubles and mitres covered in blinking neon lights, while eerie atonal music reaches its crescendo when glittering, heavy, overly embroidered hyper-Baroque vestments glide through the darkened room. The audience at the "clerical fashion show" consists of decaying, ancient aristos; and Rome’s old guard is presided over by an ageing cardinal, so decrepit that he falls asleep during the silken extravaganza. [Reminds me of some parishes I have seen.]

For many, any discussion of liturgical dress conjures up this scene from Federico Fellini’s 1972 film Roma: it seems like the theatre of the absurd and the surreal, a vestige of a former, more decadent time in the Church’s history, more interested in form than in substance, that is far removed from what is essential in Catholicism today. It is often seen as a subject that should long have been relegated to the dusty storerooms of the collective memory, much like the pre-conciliar vestments have been consigned to museums, depots or sold to junk shops and decorators. Ecclesiastical dress, be it ancient or modern, has the power to provoke strong emotions.

"The sartorial choices of Benedict XVI fill me with indescribable anger,"
lamented one Tablet reader last week, [Remember Fr. Pecklers’s article?] reacting to the Pope’s choice of vestments on Ash Wednesday which were based on patterns from Pope Paul V’s pontificate. "What message is all this ostentation giving to the poor and deprived in the rest of the world? What need have the cardinals, or the pope, for ermine-trimmed capes, red velvet shoes, chasubles commissioned in the style of the 17th-century pope, priceless lace albs and surplices, ornate gold rings, jewelled mitres (or even mitres at all)? ‘I am the Way,’ said Christ; what would he think of all this richesse? " On the other side of the spectrum (quite literally) the bonanza of tie-dyed blue and yellow that the Pope wore for the Mass in Mariazell in Austria was met with a mixture of grim mirth and despair.

The liturgical reforms of Vatican II changed attitudes to sacred vestments. They came in part to be a physical symbol of the renewal of the Church that the Council was hoping for, but also for some of the overly liberal interpretations of the Council documents which led in turn to some liturgical excesses never envisaged by the Council Fathers.

In 1971, shortly after the liturgical reforms were implemented, Mgr John Doherty, the executive secretary of the Liturgical Commission of the Archdiocese of New York, wrote: "The Church’s attitude toward the use of vestments of our time grows out of her present view of her mission and image. While firmly committed to sacred vestments in the performance of the liturgy and to maintaining the basic tradition of the past, the Church will see adaptation and creativity grow and increase, based not on a Roman or a Catholic or a baroque model, but arising from varying cultures and local expression."  [We must have good and authentic Catholic inculturation.  But it is important to understand what authentic inculturation is.  WDTPRS has written about this many times.]

Many old vestments were discarded; opulent Renaissance and Baroque vestments especially were relegated to museums, warehouses or simply thrown away. In the mainstream Church, the poncho-like Gothic shape of the chasuble (the vestment worn by the celebrant) replaced the rounded shield shape of old Roman vestments; maniples stopped being used and abstract images and shapes replaced traditional patterns. Albs, the white vestment worn under dalmatic, chasuble, and cope, lost their lace and became simpler.

Since Pope Benedict replaced Pope John Paul II’s creative Master of Ceremonies, Archbishop Piero Marini, with Mgr Guido Marini last year, a number of changes have crept into the papal wardrobe. With the liberalisation of the 1962 traditional form of the Mass, which requires the use of items that have fallen out of use like the maniple and the biretta, he has slowly started mixing the old with the new.  [Gravitational pull, boys and girls, gravitational pull!]

As Archbishop Marini’s favourite liturgical designers, X Regio, said in a 2005 interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, what the Pope wears sets trends. For the Palm Sunday procession this year Benedict XVI wore an old-fashioned cope, a long mantle-like liturgical vestment which was less widely used in the mainstream Church after the reforms of the 1960s and 1970s (although it was not suppressed), while the cardinal deacons wore dalmatics which were similar in style. The Pope’s chasuble during the Mass was plain, in the modern Gothic shape.

Pope Benedict’s renewed use of older forms of liturgical vestments is more than just a taste for showy clothes and is in keeping with his concept of the liturgy, which is informed not by a nostalgia for an older Church or by an elaborate "aestheticism" but by his profound understanding of the reforms instituted by Vatican II and what he sees as their place in both the long history of Church tradition and its philosophical and theological underpinnings. [This is a direct shot, in the WDTPRS line, at critics of Pope Benedict and indeed anyone attached to traditional forms of worship!]

As the Australian theologian and philosopher Dr Tracey Rowland argues in her excellent new book Ratzinger’s Faith; The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, beauty plays an important role in Pope Benedict’s faith, not as an optional pedagogical tool or a "question of taste" but as an integral part of his understanding of Christ. While Dr Rowland does not write about vestments, she outlines Pope Benedict’s theology and how it informs his understanding of the liturgy. Beauty and God are inseparable and for Pope Benedict the liturgy is "a living network of tradition which had taken concrete form, which cannot be torn apart into little pieces, but has to be seen and experienced as a living whole".

Summing up Pope Benedict’s attitudes both to some of the liturgical malpractices which came out of certain interpretations of Vatican II and the need for beauty in the liturgy, Dr Rowland writes: "Beauty is not an optional extra or something contrary to a preferential option for the poor. [Right!] It is not a scandal to clothe silken words in silken garments.  [Marvelous phrase!  I think I need this book.] Catholics are not tone deaf philistines who will be intellectually challenged by the use of a liturgical language or put off by changeless ritual forms. However, banality can act as a repellent."   [Remember that great artic"le in the National Review? "…if good music does not always save the soul, bad music never does.” ]

As the discussion about liturgical vestments heats up (which by the looks of things, it will) [D’ya think!] the Pope is said to have ordered a new series of vestments copied from pre-Tridentine vestments which he was to wear last Sunday. It is worth remembering one catchphrase which has qualified Benedict XVI’s papacy so far: the hermeneutic of continuity.

By wearing older, pre-conciliar style vestments to celebrate the Novus Ordo, a practice common in his native Bavaria as well as other pockets of the world, the Pope is sending a signal that the post-Vatican II Church should not turn its back on its long history, but rather that it should celebrate it.

Well done!

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  1. fr.franklyn mcafee says:

    Is the author calling the ancient conical chasuble a pancho?I have several full Gothic chasubles with as much ornamentation on them as a Roman vestment would.They were custom made by Slabbinck of Belgium.Now I am ordering from Tridentinum and St.Bedes (Australia). If anyone is worried about the cost of precious vestments and the needs of the poor they should consider this;those who truly LIVED POOR saw no problemn in spending money on vestments and sacred vessels.St.John Vianney almost put his parish in debt with his purchase of cloth of gold vestments.St.Francis of Assisi insisted on only the best for the Mass.Blessed
    Teresa of Calcutta had no problem with donating a prize to puchase gold tabernacles for her convents.Social activist Doroth Day used to rail against the money spent on rectories and bishops’ residences.But she said there could be no limiton what one spent on churches or the adornment of them.Reminds me of the rebuke Judas gave to the woman who poured the nard on to the feet of Jesus,and Jesus’rebukeof Judas for saying this.

  2. Florentius says:

    The comments on beauty are spot-on. We have largely lost this concept in the “post-Christian” West today. For my part, I think this is not by accident. It has been the goal of the left to inflict ugliness on their enemies since the days of Stalin–and perhaps before.

    To quote points 22 and 23 of the “Current Communist Goals” as read into the
    U.S. Congressional Record in 1963:

    22. Continue discrediting American culture by degrading all forms of artistic
    expression. An American Communist cell was told to “eliminate all good
    sculpture from parks and buildings, substitute shapeless, awkward and meaningless forms.”

    23. Control art critics and directors of art museums. “Our plan is to promote
    ugliness, repulsive, meaningless art.”

    They have done their work frighteningly well since then–even within the Church.
    All one need do is read Ugly as Sin by Michael Rose.

    Thank God we have a Pope like Benedict who recognizes the value of beauty.

  3. I agree, well done. I for one am inspired when I see the Pope in classic vestements (as I’m discernig to be a priest). The Faith tha we have isn’t just 40 years old, it’s much older, and we should always celebrate that tradition.

  4. Fr. McAfee: I don’t think she used “poncho” in a negative way, but rather as a mere description. I usually say “fuller” or “cloak-like” when referring to this style.

  5. TJM says:

    So, I guess the Church should spend a fortune on new vestments, to replace the old baroque ones, so the Church would “appear” to have
    solidarity with the poor or some such nonsense. Did it ever occur to these goofs that the poor might like a feast for the eyes and could appreciate
    their beauty just the same as those who are financially more successful? Did it ever occur to them that the poor might wonder if the money being spent by the Church to look “poor” could have instead been spent on them? Or, maybe they wouldn’t be poor, if they were employed by companies or tailors to make splendid, baroque vestments, which would surely require more artisans and time than the “poor” appearing burlap or tie-dye models? Just asking. Tom

  6. Mary Jane says:

    St. Josemaria Escriva said something to the effect that when lovers began to exchange bags of cement, then he would cease to offer beautiful things to the Lord.

    I suffered through enough Masses with celebrants in wash-and-wear, thank you. The worst was one with a large yellow smiley-face on the front and back.

    And beauty draws one to truth like a magnet.

  7. Florentius says:

    The comments on beauty in this article are spot-on. Beauty is a concept that has been largely lost in the “post-Christian” West. And if you ask me, it wasn’t by accident. The left has been promoting ugliness since at least the days of Uncle Joe Stalin. Take, for example, points 22 and 23 from the “Current Communist Goals” as read into the U.S. Congressional Record in 1963:

    22. Continue discrediting American culture by degrading all forms of artistic expression. An American Communist cell was told to “eliminate all good sculpture from parks and buildings, substitute shapeless, awkward and meaningless forms.”

    23. Control art critics and directors of art museums. “Our plan is to promote ugliness, repulsive, meaningless art.”

    And they’ve done their work frighteningly well–even within the Church. All one need do is read “Ugly as Sin” by Michael Rose for confirmation.

    Thank God we have a Pope like Benedict XVI who recognizes the value of true beauty and is going out of his way to promote it.

  8. Flambeaux says:

    IIRC, several famous confessors have noted that those who protest loudest that the purchase of beautiful things for the Lord would have been better spent on the poor are the one’s most likely to have their hands in the till, so to speak.

    And, further, if memory serves, St. John the Evangelist attributes the same rationale to Judas’ protestations about the waste of precious perfume that Fr. McAfee mentions.

  9. Royce says:

    I see two ironies at work here:

    First, those hideous vestments we saw immediately before Marini I was canned were probably more expensive than the Pope’s latest vestments. Modern art may look cheap, but it rarely is!

    Second, I am amazed that people who would complain about the amount of money spent on vestments would be worked up about bringing older things out of storage. Doesn’t this save money? How can using older vestments (which of course, IS FREE!) be better than buying new ones? The real extravagence was when all the old stuff was thrown out to be replaced by the new junk!

  10. Mar says:

    As to the poncho: there is Gothic (conical one, the real thing) and there Gothic (a circular peace of fabric, \”poncho vero\”, very much not traditional). Michael of St. Bede Studio has more on that:

  11. Volpius says:

    Here is a little test for you all who said this?:

    “Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?”

    Now replace ointment with vestments.

  12. Volpius says:

    On a side note is it no longer a sin to malign priests or others consecrated to God? I was under the impression this was a sin against the second commandment.

    Been angry at the Pope is simply not acceptable in my understanding of who the Pope actually is.

  13. Patrick says:

    Volpius beat me to it. I was going to make a point about Judas and the price of the nard. I think the point is a good one, and replacing nard with vestments is valid. I think it was in WDTPRS last week that someone made the point that the production of the vestments in and of itself is an economic boost, and thus fights poverty.

  14. Frederick Jones says:

    I can remember seeing perfectly good chasubles and copes displayed for sale in antique shops in Spain. Meanwhile the parishes from which they came bought expensive new ones. A bit of careful stewardship and conservation would have saved a lot of money. As it is the parishes are in debt. Catholics often may not know of the Anglican Bishop Laud who spoke of “the beauty of holiness” and sought to revive ceremonial destroyed by the Reformation. On a much larger scale Benedict is doing the same for the Catholic Church.

  15. Patronus says:

    “On a side note is it no longer a sin to malign priests or others consecrated to God? I was under the impression this was a sin against the second commandment.”

    There is nothing immoral about charitably criticizing or disagreeing with a non-infallibly statement/position of the Pope, so long as you can present worthwhile arguments and do not incite the faithful at large to rebellion.

    Serious wrath is always sinful.

  16. Volpius says:

    I know that, if it was done in the spirit of charity it would not be maligning. However I do not believe the words “The sartorial choices of Benedict XVI fill me with indescribable anger” are paticularly charitable do you?

    Does not “indescribable anger” = Wrath?

    What a terible thing to be filled with feelings of wrath towards the person of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI and all because he decides to recycle some old vestments.

    I cannot think of anything better for the environment, if only we would all make do with our Grand Fathers clothes instead of insisting on having fashionable new ones of our own [sarc.]

  17. Mark says:

    “..there is the ‘option for the poor’: the poor Christ is God’s option in person.”
    Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 1996, “A New Song for the Lord”

  18. Stanislas Wojtiech says:

    One small addition: how can The Catholic Herald be your favourite newspaper, if the financer is a anti-Catholic sentimented man who is called a “fanatical Zionist” by Lord Gilmour, and if this same Damian Thompson and Anna Arco argue against Catholic teaching on homosexuality. In fact Damian called for support at a gay sex rally in the United Kingdom, a grotesquely un-Christian action. Despite all their insights on the liturgy, the Roman Catholic faith is more than liturgy alone. It is doctrine too. Doctrine of faith and morals. Rejecting homosexual acts.

  19. It is not uncommon in a city like Chicago to see old vestments used to upholster chairs. What the Church rejects for the glory of God the world is only too ready to use for its vainglory and vanity.

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