Pope Benedict XVI recently wrapped up his high profile visit to the US, his first after becoming pope. Benedict attended many functions that drew wide media attention. He visited the White House on his 81st birthday, held mass at several cathedrals as well as in the Yankee Stadium, met with victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, presided over inter-faith seminars and visited a synagogue and Ground Zero in NYC. Amidst all that, he had a message for Catholics as well as the rest of the world - a message that E.J. Dionne, of the Washington Post calls "countercultural." Actually, I would call it more "counter-counter-cultural" - two negatives adding up to a definite positive here for tradition. The current Pope wants to revert to the stricter culture of the Church, as it was prior to the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) of nearly half century ago in which both Benedict and Pope John Paul II were participants. Writes Dionne:
The most jarring word that Pope Benedict XVI is using during his visit to the United States is "countercultural." The American sense of that term is shaped by the 1960s: free love, drugs, hippies, rock music and rebellion. Needless to say, that's not what Benedict is preaching.
That word is the key to understanding how Benedict's message runs crosswise to conventional liberalism and conservatism. Benedict came to the United States as a quiet but forceful critic of "an increasingly secular and materialistic culture," as he put it during yesterday's Mass. Almost any American who paid attention to his sermon had to be uncomfortable because all of us are shaped by the very forces he was criticizing.
Benedict directly challenged an assumption so many Americans make about religion: that it is a matter of private devotion with few public implications.
Not true, said the pope. "Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted," he told the country's Catholic bishops on Wednesday. "Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel."
I have some thoughts regarding Pope Benedict's admonition to society and his take on the church's role in shaping moral and cultural forces that guide our lives. But rather than get into a serious discussion on where I agree or differ with the pontiff, I wish to point to a sartorial analysis of the pope's message.
I am not terribly attentive to religious rituals (relating to any faith) and ecclesiastical attire. Whatever little I do know is the result of casual observation of real life, art, movies and TV news. I am aware that compared to the relative austerity of Protestant churches, worship rituals in the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Church are elaborate and their clergy more impressively dressed . But I have scant knowledge of the various details of priestly garb and their significance (see here for a list of papal vestments. The nineteen linked pages describe what adorns the pope from head to toe). Despite my inattention to holy haute couture, I couldn't help but notice since his ascension to the papal throne in 2005, that Benedict XVI is a nattier dresser than John Paul II. While John Paul did dress as befits a pope, Benedict seems to favor a touch more ermine, velvet, silk, lace, fringe, embroidery and papal bling than did his predecessor. Apparently, the current pope's choice of clothing and accessories reflects more than simply a keen sense of fashion and aesthetics. Like E.J. Dionne, who parsed the pope's words and found old world conventionality, David Gibson of Religious News Service studied the pontiff's style and concluded that Pope Benedict is signaling a deeper, more orthodox philosophical message through his tasteful and intricate papal regalia.
During Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the U.S., the first since his election three years ago, 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 God's Rottweiler, one of the many monikers he earned during a long tenure as the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog.
Yet as important as Benedict's words will be in introducing the pope to an American audience that knows little about him, 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 miter of Pius IX, a 19th-century pope known for his dim views of the modern world, and 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.
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 are understandably less enthusiastic. They wonder whether these clothing choices are part of a wider campaign — along with the restoration of the old Latin Mass and other liturgical renovations — to turn the clock back on the Vatican II reforms.
The answer is, as always, more complex than that, and it starts with Benedict's personal esthetic — that of 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, and the church's sacred rubrics, invest great meaning in symbols, and each retro lace surplice and gilt-trimmed miter that Benedict dons sends a message.
"He is a very patient man, very methodical, very German, and little by little he is redirecting things," says the Rev. Guy Selvester, pastor at St. Matthew's Church in Edison, N.J., and a heraldic designer 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," Selvester says.
And 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.' "