12 June 2016

Papal footwear

Sometimes it is suggested that we should see a significance in the fact that the beloved Pope Emeritus, our Holy Father Benedict XVI, continues to wear 'papal white'.

A historical error is embedded in this proposal. For Popes to wear white simpliciter has a complicated history but, briefly, is a fairly recent innovation. Traditionally, the papal colour was red (with a dash of white undergarment). This is another reason why it was a pity when the newly elected Bergoglio declined to wear the traditional red papal overgarments offered him by Mgr Marini.

Benedict XVI as pope made his knowledge of this clear by changing the colour of the crosses on the papal Pallium from black to red. And also by resuming the wearing of red shoes. Similarly, and most significantly, he ceased to wear them when he abdicated. He now appears in brown shoes.

Because he is no longer Pope.

It is a shame that his successor has given up the traditional chromatic indications that he is Pope. Or rather, has decided that he believes "white means Pope". Such ruptures in continuity (and misunderstandings) diminish the power of all symbolism. But ...

There is only one Pope, and his name is Francis. And wearing white doesn't make a man a pope.

Incidentally, white cassocks must show the dirt, and need cleaning, very much more often than a black cassock would. A sympathy for all things ecological would suggest that Pope Francis should give up the wearing of a white cassock. Appearing as an ordinary priest in a black cassock would also be a real sign of humility. Patriarch Bartholomew is not ashamed to appear in black.

I wonder how old the custom is of the Patriarchs of Moskow and Romania wearing (some) white.

11 comments:

vetusta ecclesia said...

I have heard that the custom of papal white dates from Paul V who retained his Dominican habit.

In the days when the choir dress of the Canons Regular of the Lateran was a white cassock and rochet and a purple/reddish mozetta merriment was caused when canons thus garbed met the Pope!

Hannes said...

Interesting article! Concerning your last question: On the first sight, it looks much like a westernization, doesn't it? However, I suppose it isn't, as (consult Google) in Russia (not in Romania and Serbia, though) the Metropolitans also wear the white Klobuk.

mark wauck said...

Hmmmmm. And yet Benedict tells us that this business of the "Pope Emeritus" (yes, I have my reasons for those "") wearing white began because he had no other duds in the Vatican that he could wear, doncha know. This despite the fact that I have it on absolutely excellent authority that there is a tailoring establishment in the Swiss Guards barracks that caters to the clerical elite and could whip up a fab cassock in whatever color(s) in a matter of hours.

Vincent said...

Of course it's something that people in our climates don't see very often, but it is common for priests in hot parts of the world to wear white cassocks. Even in Italy, I've seen priests walking around in them.

John said...


The story goes that Pope St Pius X developed the habit as a seminarian of using his black cassock as a pen-wiper and, to the despair of the papal laundry, absent-mindedly continued the practice as pope in his papal white.

Don Camillo SSC said...


I have even seen a priest in this country, during a very hot summer, wearing a "tropical" white cassock. There is nothing peculiarly papal about white as such.

GOR said...

Given Pope Francis’s concern about ecological and environmental matters, I would have thought that he would advertise that concern by wearing…Green!

But that might give rise to some confusion and the query: “Is the Pope Irish…?”

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Humbler than Jesus are the modern men who have occupied the Chair of Peter for Jesus let His enemies crown Him king whereas the modern Popes have not even let their friends Crown them with the Triregnum.

ABS supposes it is because what the Triregum signifies and whereas Jesus submitted Himself to mockery, the modern popes would not be too keen on being mocked for wearing the Triregnum signifying their power over Presidents and Prime Ministers etc.

And to think that it really was not all that long ago - Pope Pius XII - who publicly told the entire world that he was their Father.

Well, that ain't making Popes like Pius XII anymore :)

Jacob Hicks said...

Ah - but a priest wearing a white cassock would have it trimmed in black with black buttons.

Fr. Yousuf said...

There is the Legend of how the white cowl came to Russia involving borrowing parts of the Donation of Constantine https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legend_of_the_White_Cowl

a white cowl or hood is worn by Metropolitans and Patriarchs in the Russian, Ukrainian, Czech & Slovak, & Polish Churches and the OCA. Also Finland, though I think the title of the Bishop who gets the white cowl is "Archbishop". White cowls amongst Eastern Catholics are Ruthenian & Ukrainian.

A white cowl is worn by Patriarchs alone in the Churches of Serbia, Romania, & Bulgaria.

For nearly all Orthodox the cowl is now worn over a Kamilvka (a fez like hat). The Patriarchs of Russia and Georgia use a more archaic style without a kamilavka, but also with additional embroidery adornments, called a kukulion. The Russian one is white, and the Georgian one is black.

Fred W. said...

I think Pope Francis is signalling that he wants to be a Dominican.(Why else have Cardinal Schonborn do the theological 'splaining?)And if he had a domini canis -perhaps an Argentinian Dogo, he could finally move into the papal apartment, no longer pine for companionship, and veritatisly guide the bark of Peter.