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The curious case of a Papal fur hat

Posted 26-12-2005 at 10:58 by Acrylic-bob

When I was a boy, I spent some time as an altar boy in the service of the Sacred Heart Church in Accrington. My period of service ended before the Second Vatican Council swept a lot of the more interesting and colourful ritual away. It was a time when public displays of catholic piety filled the streets of Accrington and the Blessed Sacrament was carried in procession through the town to the accompaniment of brass bands, banners and schoolchildren dressed in white. The boys wore red sashes and the girls were chastely veiled.

It was a time when the church was more confident that it was right and everyone else was wrong and was not afraid to say so. The ethos of the time is now largely consigned to memory and my memories of that time are permeated with the fragrance of beeswax and incense, which can still provoke instant recall. As a child I was impressionable and stood in awe of the magisterium of the church; which was exactly the intended response. We were taught a form of Christianity in which the church still clung to the last vestiges of Roman Imperial power; there were still prayers said for the Holy Roman Emperor, albeit in sede vacante since Napoleon Bonaparte forced Joseph II to give up the title after the battle of Austerlitz two hundred years ago (1805). The Pontiff still wore his tiara and was carried in procession on the shoulders of twelve footmen in the Sedia Gestatoria (a tradition that has its origin in the Sedia Curulis of ancient Rome) and was flanked by clergy carrying ostrich plumed fans (flabella). Ermine, another symbol of temporal power, was often seen adorning the shoulders of the prelature.

At a local level, the campery was hardly less histrionic and obscurantist. As a child from a very poor family it was a rare privilege to be permitted to handle objects of church plate made of gold and silver set with precious stones, the acres of coloured silk and satin, heavy with gold brocade and jewel bright silk embroidery, white altar linens starched as stiff as cardboard and Brussels lace of filmy delicacy.

For many people the imposing ritual life of the church helped to consolidate abstract principles and beliefs. Nebulous and faltering faith was given solidity and the morale of us poor christian soldiers was buoyed up by the constant visual reference to the ancient and enduring temporal, and thus spiritual, power of the church. Unlike vacillating politicians, we were taught, the Vatican thought in terms of centuries! The implication being that any decision, which took so long to reach, had, of necessity, to be the right one.

Then along came Pope John XXIII, a nice, fat, jolly sort of man with big ears and a comforting grandfatherly smile, who was quite a change from his dour and ascetic predecessor. Pope John’s relatively short reign famously opened a window in the church and the gales which then blew through it have swept away not only the accretions of centuries but quite a lot that may have been essential to the function and relevance of the church. The Singing Nun and her mimsy successors were given their head and now the Church is largely shorn of its grandeur. The Pontiff no longer dares to wear his tiara, indeed he is no longer even crowned! While he may still be the head of the smallest state in the world and the inheritor of the ancient imperial Roman title Pontifex Maximus (Supreme Bridge Builder), he is more used to referring to himself as “The servant of the servants of God”. The Flabella, the Sedia Gestatoria and the yards long Cappa Magna are no more. Gone are the forty-hour expositions and the public processions. Passed into history is the everyday use of latin and the Tridentine Rite which accompanied it. Political Correctness and the need to apologise have taken the place of triumphalist certainty and the consequent fall in congregations and the number of new vocations hardly comes as a surprise.

So far, so gloomy, or so I thought until I noticed a couple of recent news articles. His Holiness, the new Pope, Benedict XVI, was hailed as a conservative’s conservative and an arch reactionary before his election and we were all preparing ourselves for a period of direst theological and doctrinal rigour during his papacy. After all, while he was in charge of the former Holy Office, he was not known as “God’s Rottwieler” for no reason at all. And, as expected, some of his papal pronouncements on the moral and spiritual laxity of the times have raised more than a few hackles.

The glimmer of light, if glimmer it is, comes not from His Holiness’s pronouncements, but rather from his choice of dress. All too often we are content to accept the received wisdom, which states that certain actions are unthinkable. Thus it is “unthinkable” that any country would contemplate withdrawing from the Euro Zone, or it was until Italy began to think the unthinkable. Similarly, it is said to be “unthinkable” that any Pontiff would re-introduce any of that which was lost as a result of Vatican II.

Consider then: The Pope, like our own dear Queen, is a figure whose every action, word and gesture is acutely observed and minutely examined for nuances of meaning, as may be expected in any system where position and power depend upon patronage. And in a system of patronage like the Roman Curia, where ageing queens make up the vast proportion of the hierarchy, you may easily imagine that the examination is intense, to say the least. Having been a part of the curia for many years you might also imagine that the Pope is not unaware of this. After all, he is not a stupid man; he would not have risen to the position he now occupies if he were. In the absence of any explanation we must now speculate on an odd change of dress. Since Paul VI, the papacy has favoured modern fabrics and a simplification of style over traditional forms. And, as has been observed, many items of traditional vesture are now no longer worn. When was the last time you saw a priest wearing a biretta? Benedict appeared in public last week wearing a Camoura. I should explain that the Camoura is a form of biretta reserved soley for the use of the pontiff and is a red velvet cap lined with ermine. It is recognisable from portraits of popes of the 15th-19th centuries but has fallen out of favour recently, the last pope to wear it was John XXIII. OK, I accept that the pope is elderly and might feel the cold and were this an isolated thing I might brush it off as one of the stylistic eccentricities of age, a bit like slippers with bobbles on.

But it isn’t isolated. The Times, reported last week that Benedict has ordered the refurbishment of a renaissance Stole. Of note here is the choice of the word “refurbishment”. He has not ordered a copy of the vestment, he wants to wear the 400+ year old vestment itself. He has also been observed wearing Red Slippers! Then, On Christmas Day, at Mass in St Peters. He decided to wear a vast gold silk Cope and Mitre, which clearly date from before the turn of the last century. The Times reported Mgr Charles Burns, the former Vatican archivist, who said he hoped that the Pope would also revive the papal sedan chair, the sedia gestatoria, last used by Paul VI.
“Some traditions are worth returning to,” he said. “The chair means everyone can see the Pope.”
What is going on here? Are we witnessing the resurgance of ultra-montane catholic triumphalism. Or are these the actions of an old man for whom the privileges of office have become to tempting to resist?

Time alone will tell, but if I were the singing nun, I wouldn’t want to invest in a new guitar just yet.

Interesting note here, The Times has got it's facts wrong. The last pope to use the Sedia Gestatoria was in fact John-Paul I.
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  1. Old Comment
    garinda's Avatar

    Re: The curious case of a Papal fur hat

    Oh what a Christmas treat. As usual beautifully written, and some very interesting points raised.
    Posted 26-12-2005 at 11:14 by garinda garinda is offline
  2. Old Comment
    MoreJoe's Avatar
    Dear Acrylic Bob,
    Thank you for content, vocabulary, punctuation, wit and style.
    I notice that postings of more recent generations lack much of that. If you served at Sacred Heart did you by any chance know the Bentley twins, Fred and Harry? And do you know what became of them?
    Yours Sincerely,
    Posted 23-09-2008 at 21:44 by MoreJoe MoreJoe is offline

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