L.A.Times speculates on Pope Benedict’s vestments for US visit

A reader alerted me to this item in the L.A. Times.  Here it is with my emphases and comments.

Papal dress code

When Pope Benedict XVI visits the U.S., what he wears could send a message to Catholics.
By Michael McGough
April 6, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States later this month has inspired speculation about what the pontiff will say [both in words and subtler signs…] to his sometimes restive American flock. Will he use a lecture at Catholic University in Washington to chastise Catholic colleges and universities for succumbing to secularism? [probably] Will he make more than an oblique reference to the pedophilia scandal that led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as the archbishop of Boston (a city not on the pope’s itinerary)? [I guess, no.]

And there’s another interesting question for American Catholics on both the left and the right: What will the pope wear?

When Benedict celebrates Mass in Yankee Stadium on April 20, he will be clothed in the raiment of his office — a poncho-like vestment called a chasuble and the double-peaked bishop’s cap known as a miter. Asking if the pope will be dressed up is like asking whether the pope’s Catholic.

But the Catholic Church is a house with many rooms, and those rooms have different clothes hanging in the closets. To the delight of conservative Catholic bloggers, [! – Clearly a few of the usual suspect blogs are shaping the discussion.] Benedict — the pope who has ordered wider use of the Latin Mass of the Council of Trent — has lately been donning elaborately embroidered vestments and miters in what is called the "Roman" style, in contrast with the neo-medieval "Gothic" style that made a comeback after the Second Vatican Council.

The Gothic style features short, squat miters and full, flowing chasubles. The Roman style, a product of the Baroque era, produced the super-tall miters beloved of anti-Catholic polemicists (the cartoonist Thomas Nast portrayed bishops as crocodiles, with the two points of their miters forming jaws) and chasubles reduced to the point that they resemble an embroidered sandwich board. This style of chasuble is known as the "fiddleback" because the front portion is shaped like a violin.

Fiddleback chasubles and skyscraper miters were the norm in the Roman Catholic Church through the early part of the 20th century. The Gothic style, which hearkened back to the 12th century, was viewed with suspicion in Rome partly because it was favored by priests of the Church of England who wanted to reestablish their church’s Catholic heritage. (Ironically, some of those "Anglo-Catholic" clergymen were imprisoned in the 19th century for wearing what Protestant-minded Anglicans regarded as the "rags of popery.")

But the Gothic revival was also supported by some Roman Catholic scholars, the same scholars whose studies laid the groundwork for the liturgical reforms [the Liturgical Movement] — including Mass with the priest facing the congregation [Which was mostly an ideological drive, and the vestment issue got wrapped up in that controversy, before the Council.] — that followed the Second Vatican Council. In a 1931 book celebrating Gothic vestments, the influential Benedictine monk E.A. Roulin fulminated against the "horribly heavy" and "vulgar" fiddleback chasuble.

When I served Mass as an alter boy at in Pittsburgh in the early 1960s, the vestments were all Gothic, the fiddlebacks of the 1940s and 1950s having long been mothballed. I didn’t realize, until I read Garry Wills’ "Bare Ruined Choirs," that Gothic vestments were associated with liberal Catholicism.  [Not that anyone should ever read Wills about Catholicism… but, there was a time when this was so.]

After Vatican II, the pope caught up with Pittsburgh. When Pope Paul VI celebrated Mass in Yankee Stadium in 1965, he wore a flowing but not particularly elaborate Gothic chasuble and a mid-sized miter. His successors — John Paul I and John Paul II — also favored Gothic chasubles, though they occasionally donned skyscraper miters. 

Then the papacy passed to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a critic of post-Vatican II liturgical practices who traced his own vocation to the priesthood to a youthful infatuation with the old Mass as it was celebrated in Baroque-loving Bavaria. [I think this may betray something of the position of the writer.  Some critics of Pope Benedict’s choices chalk his motives up to mere personal preference.]  In a 1997 memoir, Ratzinger recalled how "it was a riveting adventure to move by degrees into the mysterious world of the liturgy which was being enacted before us and for us at the altar."

Assisted by Archbishop Piero Marini, the papal master of ceremonies he inherited from John Paul II, Benedict sported Gothic vestments and modest [?] miters for a while. But last year, the pope replaced Marini with a prelate with the same last name, Msgr. Guido Marini. With the assistance of Marini No. 2, Benedict has returned to his liturgical roots, sporting [Note the deprecatory word choice.] massive miters, celebrating Mass in the Sistine Chapel with his back to the congregation [This is typical… it is also a canard.  But readers of WDTPRS know well enough why this is an inaccurate description of what is really going on in ad orientem worship.] and leading Good Friday services vested in a fiddleback chasuble. The pope’s aides say that his choice of vestments is designed to demonstrate continuity with the church’s past. Liberals are more inclined to see it as a slap at the spirit of Vatican II.  [Gee… I wonder who is right?]

Even some Catholics might wonder why so much attention is paid to the pope’s preferences in vestments. If hemlines can rise and fall, why not miters? Besides, special robes for priests and bishops are a tradition, not a matter of faith, and whether Gothic or Roman, ecclesiastical vestments originated in the everyday civilian dress of the Roman Empire. "The first Christians were waiting for the second coming of Christ, which they expected in their own lifetime and so made no attempt to formalize their religion," writes Janet Mayo in "A History of Ecclesiastical Dress." "They certainly had no desire to adapt or create specifically Christian clothing."  [Yes… but we should not fall into the trap of a false archeologizing, either adopting things simply because they are old or even eschewing things because in ancient times people had certain expectations.  Over the centuries our needs and knowledge have deepened with time for reflection.]

But that was to change. The introduction of vestments [ummm… has the writer read the Old Testament description of how GOD designed the vestments for those set apart among the People of God, the clergy?] coincided with a greater distinction between clergy and laypeople and the belief that only ordained priests and bishops could "validly" celebrate Mass [No… that was of divine origin, not merely a human development.] and bring about the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. To a greater or lesser extent, the churches of the Reformation rejected this view. They emphasized the "priesthood of all believers" and defined the Mass (or Eucharist) as a memorial meal rather than as a sacrifice offered by the priest for the forgiveness of sins. Not so coincidentally, many Protestant churches also did away with or simplified clerical vestments even as the robes worn by Catholic prelates were becoming more elaborate and over the top.  [I think the writer has stumbled into a rabbit hole, unless he is carrying on a subtle polemic.]

But in the late 20th century, there was a remarkable convergence in the way the Eucharist was celebrated and in the way it was interpreted. Vestments, lighted candles, even incense became common in Episcopal, Lutheran and even Methodist churches, even as Catholic Masses began to be celebrated in the vernacular to the accompaniment of treacly folk hymns.  [Good word choice.]

Meanwhile, Catholic theologians reached surprising common ground with scholars from other churches on issues that long had divided the two forms of Christianity. Most notable was a 1971 document in which theologians and bishops from the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches reached what they called "substantial agreement" on the meaning of the Eucharist — an agreement that was too much of a compromise for Ratzinger and other Catholic conservatives. [So… who was right?]

The typical American Catholic wouldn’t be aware of this theological fence-mending, but he would notice, on visiting a Lutheran or Episcopal Church, that the service didn’t seem very different from what went on at his parish: It would be in English, the minister would be wearing a (Gothic) chasuble, and at some point the congregants would offer one another the handshake of peace.  [A sad statement, in a way.  The services really should give different impressions, right?  Lex orandi lex credendi after all.]

That is precisely the problem for Catholics known as "rad trads" — radical traditionalists. [grrr] They prefer their Mass in Latin, their priest in a fiddleback and their pope sporting a miter tall enough to touch the heavens. It’s not about fashion, they would say, it’s about faith. We’ll see if they get their wish when Benedict suits up at Yankee Stadium.  [This is annoying and unfair.  Not only "rad trads" want those things.  However, the writer probably wanted to work in that catchy phrase and also, probably, show them some subtle disdain.]

Michael McGough is senior editorial writer for The Times.


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  1. Boko Fittleworth says:

    Look, this guy was an altar boy before VII, so he clearly knows what he is talking back and we should just shut up and listen to our betters.

  2. Diane says:

    As we pray each morning during Lauds: “40 years I endured that generation….”

    Enough said.

  3. M. Beauregard says:

    Can anyone explain why Pope Paul VI did not wear the pallium when he celebrated
    Holy Mass at Yankee Stadium in 1965? As a side note, this trip in 1965 was
    the first time the public witnessed a pope in “modern” vestments. Therefore,
    what our Holy Father wears this month here in the United States may send a strong

  4. Petrus says:

    I know at the National Shrine when he does vespers with the Bishops he will be wearing a cope from the early 1900s that was donated to the Shrine back in the 60s or so. As for the mass in DC i’m not sure what he is wearing.

  5. Maureen says:

    “The first Christians were waiting for the second coming of Christ, which they expected in their own lifetime and so made no attempt to formalize their religion,” writes Janet Mayo in A History of Ecclesiastical Dress. “They certainly had no desire to adapt or create specifically Christian clothing.”

    The earliest Christians already wore white baptismal robes. You don’t get more ecclesiastic than that.

    *sticks out tongue*

  6. Hung Doan says:

    This article is very uncharitable and irritating. He reduces the folks who make note of what the pope wears as “the rad trads,” as fanatical misfits who care about what he wears instead of what he says. Well, news flash, he’s the pope, he can wear whatever he pleases. Furthermore, it is true, what the pope will wear is an external reflection of what’s going on in his noggin. I do that everyday whenever I decide which clothes I wear. Priests do that by the style of vestments they choose (Haha and at times by the shade of violet they use during Advent, blue or violet?). Additionally, these externals are about continuity to our past, right? Vatican II was not about rupture, but the contemporary Catholic psyche seems to think that it was. If that were true, then we might as well just identify ourselves as Protestants (seems like all the modernations in Catholic circles already are). We need to reclaim the Catholic identity! What the pope wears merely is supposed to be continuous with his predecessors; the reason why this doesn’t seem that way is because of the JPII generation. One Pope’s preferences (for instance, no Easter Mozzetta) somehow suddenly become “liturgical law” (i.e. no more Easter Mozzetta for good). That’s simple ignorance and biased towards one Pope’s reign.

    Give this Pope(and his MC) a chance. What he says is just as good and beautiful (if not moreso) than what he wears. I think that all the trappings will bring alot of curiosity about the Church. This author needs to think positively (it seems newer converted Catholics are more Catholic than the older generation “we know what’s better for you” Catholic, like this author).

    I know…I’m preaching to the choir….

  7. jarhead462 says:

    What’s that smell?
    Oh, I know….it’s a Mainstream Media agenda.

  8. Brian C. says:

    Diane wrote:

    As we pray each morning during Lauds: “40 years I endured that generation….”

    (*laugh!*) Call me dense, but I never made that connection, before! That’s too good! I’ll never be able to pray the Divine Office the same way again, though…

    (Maybe you can explain to my wife why her husband now occasionally “snorts” during Lauds…! :) )

    In Christ,

  9. TJM says:

    What I find amusing about this article is that the author is very fixated on externals. When the changes first came, my liberal
    priest used to say to me, “why are you so fixated on externals.” I would then respond, “well, Father, you certainly must be
    because you’re the one changing all of the externals, as you call them.” He got mad because I was a young man pointing out the
    illogic of his statement (and hypocrisy). Tom

  10. Thus spake Petrus:
    I know at the National Shrine when he does vespers with the Bishops he will be wearing a cope from the early 1900s that was donated to the Shrine back in the 60s or so. As for the mass in DC i’m not sure what he is wearing.

    Hmmm… isn’t the last Papal Tiara donated to the Shrine as well? Wouldn’t that be neat?

  11. G says:

    Is “sport” deprecatory when it is used to refer to wearing of gothic vesments and “modest” miters?

    (Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

  12. WFW says:

    Here’s a video clip from a local news station about the Papal mass in DC with a quick picture of the pope’s chasuble and some other things. http://video.nbc4.com/player/?fid=20875#videoid=237717

  13. Little Gidding says:

    Although the service at my wife’s Episcopal Church is the same, in the ways that the writer says, to the Mass at my Catholic church down the street, it is not at all the same at its heart. My in-laws, greeting me as I return from Mass, have often asked me genially, “What went on at your service today?” When they ask each other that question they always talk about who they saw at the service, or about the homily or, more frequently, the music, which, I cheerfully admit, is usually very good and often professionally performed, although occasionallly the music performances seem to expand out, taking up more and more of the service. They might also talk about the adult-ed meetings after the service, where various speakers hold forth. Our priests are really quite good preachers and I usually have something to offer my in-laws on that score. But I have occasionally had the desire to respond to the question, “What went on at your service today?” with the answer, “The Son of God was offered up on the altar in sacrifice for our sins and we consumed His body and blood.” My in-laws sometimes venture the opinion that they believe pretty much what Catholics believe about the Eucharist, but at other times, after attending Mass with me, they will admit that this event is not the same thing that happens at their church. They recognize this because of the remarkable reverence and silence of the children at Mass (excepting, of course, the infants–but even that is different, because the infants are brought to Mass and not sent off to Sunday School), the reverential attitude of the celebrant during the Consecration and the distribution of the hosts, and even the sober sedateness of the congregation during the exchange of Peace and when receiving Communion. All of this, they do understand, even as outsiders, points to something very different at the center of the Mass, despite similarities of form between it and the Episcopal service. This is only fortified by the difference between the preaching at my church and the preaching at theirs. The readings are often the same on any given Sunday, but the homily at my church will straightforwardly assume that the events of the Gospel are historically real and relevant, while the homily at their church will almost always silently bracket the historical truth and, instead, treat it only as a sort of transvalued metaphor for an edifying psychological reflection on our own lives. Really, the differences are vast, even though there are similarities of form. Even my in-laws do understand the difference because they can see how the forms are ordered and conducted, and how such forms that are present in the Mass and not in their service–such as genuflections, periods of silence, careful attention in handling the bread and wine, ringing the bells at the Consecration, and incensing the altar–obviously point to the great silent Mystery at its center.

  14. Mark W says:

    This guy obviously worked hard on this piece. He writes that he was an “alter boy” (apparently they don’t have copy editors the the Times) and then two paragraphs later he includes a quote from then Cardinal Ratzinger with “altar” as the spelling.
    Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V.

  15. Gleb says:

    True, the article is polemic. But the author didn’t make up the term “rad-trad” and neither did the liturgical anarchists. We have mainstream orthodox bloggers to blame for that ugly term, a response to name calling by some traditionalists. I have stopped reading a number of blogs I used to enjoy because they employ that particular smear, which I consider to be uncharitable and even unchristian (in addition to being ill-defined). It doesn’t help to convince anyone about the importance of regular ecclesial status or full communion with Rome.

    We need a Father Z for the orthodox but liturgically unreformed Novus Ordo folks to formulate some rules of engagement for them.

  16. Michael C. says:

    It all looks pretty disapointing. Squat mitre, minimalist vestments, untraditional chalice, an even more untraditional altar, on and on. Glad I decided not to go to the New York Mass. I prefer to imagine the Pope in the context of the Solemn Papal Mass when I think “Papacy.” It a really strange feeling to know that the daily low mass a block away is conducted with more solemnity than the Pope’s.

  17. Duane LCM Galles says:

    I reject the notion that “Roman” styed vestments are pre-Vatican II and “Gothic” styled vestments are post-Vatican II. Maundy Thursday last at my parish the sacristan made note that the “Gothic” vestments being worn that evening were a pontifical set made for the 1941 International Eucharistic Congress held in Saint Paul and Minneapolis. That the verboten would be specially made for such a a high-profile event and also be worn by the Pope’s (we are talking about Pius XII) cardinal legate is inconceivable! Moroever, during my youth in a small Minnesota town during the 1950’s, we used both “Gothic” and “Roman” vestments at Mass.

  18. Gleb: I admit that I have used it myself from time to time.

  19. Syriacus says:

    Was the AmChurch litnik lobby ultimately stronger than Don Guido? (Semi-rethorical question)

  20. Michael C. says:

    The SCR forbade Gothic vestments in 1925. They were not a part of the received liturgical tradition and were justifiably treated as an antiquarian novelty. The SCR reversed that decision in the 50s, I think, around the same time the new Holy Week came out and people stopped caring whether something was traditional.

    The fact that Gothic vestments have almost universally replaced traditional Roman vestments says that there was more ideology involved than people usually think. Modern vestments aren’t exactly Gothic either. They would look horribly out of place in any medieval sacristy. Your average Roman vestment is closer to what would have actually been found in a 13th century church. We can’t really speak of a historical “Gothic style” either, since the Gothic is really just the conical chasuble evolving (organically) into the fiddleback. To reject Roman vestments in favor of an earlier form is to reject an organic development because it’s not to our liking. We shouldn’t do this with texts or rubrics, and we shouldn’t do it with vestments either. If vestment design were really just about taste, which wouldn’t be that good either (is liturgy about taste?), you’d expect some liberals would end up choosing Roman vestments. But they don’t. Always Gothic.

    It’s not just about rejecting Roman chasubles, but every post-medieval (or post-antique) “accretion” in the liturgy. Have a look at Dom Roulin’s book if you don’t believe me. Everything post-medieval (mitres, slippers, gloves, gradines, fixed altars, baroque tabernacles, even the pallium) had to go. It’s antiquarianism, pure and simple. Why the liturgical movement chose to draw the line at 1400 I don’t know, but soon after more aggresive reformers would follow their lead and choose to draw the line at 300. Gothic vestments were approved just as the liturgy was starting to fall apart in the 1950s. In the average Catholic’s mind, Roman vestments really are pre-Vatican II, and I think they’re right to think so.

  21. a cubs fan says:

    I had to laugh at your comment. Mr. McGough begins his article with the same tired old canard used by every other disgruntled liberal Catholic. I’m surprised that since Summorum Pontificum was promulgated Fr. Z has never kept a tally of authors who started their articles with the line “When I was an altar boy…” Perhaps some genius psychologist has diagnosed these people with “ex-altar boy syndrome.” These are the people who, when explaining their dissatisfaction with their Church on any matter, and in order to forfend all possible contradiction, begin by pompously stating: “I was an altar boy.”

  22. Bill says:

    Michael C: You would do well to read this article: http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2008/02/styles-and-tradition-in-chasuble-of.html

    You might want to do a bit more research as your post isn’t fully accurate.

  23. Peg says:

    You mean the whine “When I was an altar boy…”

  24. dominic1962 says:

    I read a book by a Benedictine (maybe it was the same one, can’t remember) that absolutely decried Roman vestments (tunicles, dalmatics, chausibles and copes) not to mention practically every other sort of accessory. While I agreed with some of his points (especially with the surplices that look like lace T-shirts or the affinnity for putting lace on every little piece of linen possible) it got tedious for the constant bashing of everything that had been the received tradition in the Roman Church. Stoles with the “spade” shaped ends-horridly ugly and un-“liturgical”. Tall mitres are presumptuous and unbecoming. Roman copes were ponderous and irrational with their large false hood etc. etc. etc. ad naseum. While the pictures of his own chosen style were admittedly pretty decent (‘Gothic’ style but with fine silk damasks and nice embroidery), often what we have now are polyester horse blankets and ponchos. Oh well, supposedly the real “beauty” is in all the folds and flowing nature of said horseblankets and ponchos despite the ugly or bland patterns and colors and wholly unworthy material and execution.

    Wouldn’t the more “Catholic” approach be to accept both with maybe a nod to the “Roman” style as the properly and organically developed style. Pope Pius XII made it rather clear that to decry the so-called recent “innovations” as works of the Holy Spirit and to try to pull things out of the past would be a false sense of archaeologism.

    It is also funny to look back at the Liturgical Movement circa 1920 and see that it was rather reasonable, even if many things were questionable in their prudence or scholarship. I wonder if they had any idea where their ideas would lead 40 yrs. later?

  25. Michael C. says:


    I’m sure you were reading Dom Roulin’s book, Vestments and Vestiture.

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