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 rollerskates 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.
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 essenhal 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-conciliarvestments have been consigned to museums, depots or sold to junk shops and decorators. Ecclesiastical dress, be it ancient or modem, has the power to provoke strong emotions.
-The sartorial choices of Benedict XVI fill me with indescribable anger.lamented one Tablet
reader last week. 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 hi 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."
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 Il's creative Master of Ceremonies, Archbishop Piero Marini, with Mg 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.
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 modem 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 11 and what he sees as their place in both the long history of Church tradition and its philosophical and theological underpinnings.
As the Australian theologian and philosopher Dr Tracey
Rowland argues in her excellent new book Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XV7, 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 tom 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. It is not a scandal to clothe silken words in silken garments. Catholics are not tone ;leaf 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.
As the discussion about the
vestments heats up (which by the looks of things, it will) the liope 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.