Monday, April 07, 2008

RatziWear: For Good... or Givhan

Earlier today, the Pope attended a commemoration of the 20th century martyrs sponsored by the Sant'Egidio movement at its Roman base, the Basilica of S. Bartolomeo all'Isola (the titular church of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago). The evening liturgy of the word also commemorated the 40th anniversary of Andrea Riccardi's first "School of Peace."

Yet while the pontiff spoke movingly, both of the movement and the ecumenical group who gave their lives out of witness to the faith...

In the defeat and humiliation of those who suffer because of the Gospel there is strength that the world does not know,” he said. “It is the strength of love, helpless and victorious even over the apparent defeat. It is the strength that defies and defeats death.”...

“Stopping at the six altars devoted to Christians who fell under the totalitarian violence of Communism, Nazism, killed in the Americas, Asia and Oceania, in Spain and Mexico, and in Africa, we ideally retrace the painful events of the past century. So many died as they fulfilled the Church’s evangelising mission. Their blood is mixed with that of indigenous Christians to whom the faith was communicated. Others, often living in a minority situation, were killed out of hatred for the faith. Lastly quite a few immolated themselves so as not abandon the needy, the poor, the faithful in their charge, fearing no danger. So many, they are!”

“Even the 21st century began in the sign of martyrdom. When Christians are yeast, light and salt of the earth, they too become the object of persecution as did Jesus. Like Him they are ‘signs of contradiction’. Fraternal co-existence, love, faith and choosing the weak and the poor, which marks the existence of the Christian community, often rouse violent loathing. How useful it is to look at the bright witness of those who came before us in the sign of a heroic faithfulness that can lead to martyrdom!”...

“The Word of God, love for the Church, preference for the poor, communicating the Gospel are the stars that guided you, witnessing under different skies the one and only message of Christ. I thank you for your apostolic work; I thank your for caring for those who come last and for searching peace, which sets your community apart.”

...when all's said and done, you'll probably just hear more about B16's having donned the white damask Easter mozzetta again, albeit seemingly without the green shoes that, according to the ecclesiastical fashion-crowd's more committed types, are supposed to go along with it.

In these days of visual media, the triumph of eye over ear (remember: "Video Killed the Radio Star") is hardly a surprise. To use another example, more folks seem to remember what Papa Ratzi wore at Austria's Mariazell shrine last September rather than what he actually said there (...for the record, the homily was much better). Or there's the whole saga -- seemingly apocryphal, but just as ensconced in the public mind -- over the Pope's (non-)Prada shoes.

With all this as backdrop and Touchdown DC less than eight days away, it's why the "traveling Vatican" might want to brush up on who Robin Givhan is and how, if B16 & Co. overplay the treasure chest card, her insights could end up overtaking, well, the message as next week's lasting impression.

As the fashion editor of the Washington Post, smart money would wager that, given the papal penchant for retro vestments, mega-mitres and the so-called "bling box" -- all visible from the pontificate's first day, yet ramped up notably since Msgr Guido Marini took over as Benedict's chief liturgist last October -- Givhan's Christmas is coming early this year... as in next week.

(Case in point: the world remembers less of what Condoleezza Rice said at a German army base in early 2005 than that the Secretary of State looked like something out of The Matrix.)

For better or worse, that was Givhan's doing. And in a word, no matter what you think (or don't) of the papal gustibus, just be ready.

As a primer from the national press -- i.e. a reminder that the RatziWear employed on these shores will impact the PopeTrip coverage and, ergo, public perception come showtime -- yesterday's LATimes offered a rather scholarly, heavily-linked take on the pontiff's "Dress Code":
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, 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 -- including Mass with the priest facing the congregation -- 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.

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....

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 massive miters, celebrating Mass in the Sistine Chapel with his back to the congregation 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.

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."
Get ready, folks -- the restored antique gold pastorale is looking to be on its way. And that's just the start.

PHOTOS: Reuters(1,2); AFP/Getty(3)