Some time ago in journalistic circles the fact that the American
magazine Esquire, in its annual review of figures who are the
epitome of elegance, pointed to Benedict XVI as the man who chooses the
best accessories gave rise to a certain amused perplexity.
This choice, with a frivolity very typical of an age
that tends to trivialize what it does not understand, happened at a time
when Benedict XVI had attracted unprecedented attention in the media by
resuming the use of certain articles of dress rooted in Papal tradition
such as the camauro, a winter hat of crimson velvet bordered with
ermine, or the saturno, a broad-brimmed hat, oftenly used by some
of his Predecessors such as John XXIII.
Recently a rumour has spread that the red leather shoes
which the Pope generally wears were designed by Prada, the famous
Milanese fashion house. It is, of course, untrue. Today's superficial
trend did not even realize that the colour red clearly symbolizes
martyrdom, just as it was not understood that these rumours were
incongruous with the simple, unassuming man who, on the day of his
election as Pope, revealed to the faithful thronging St Peter's Square
and all the world the sleeves of a modest black pullover.
Yet, as often happens, those inappropriate frivolities
concealed a paradoxical kernel of truth: in fact, sometimes, even
confusion and stupidity manage to perceive — in a fragmented, confused
and erroneous way — realities that truly exist. And the truth is that
Benedict XVI is profoundly concerned about dress but with a very
different kind of concern.
St Irenaeus said towards the end of his life that all he
had done in his life was to let mature in his soul what Polycarp, a
disciple of St John, had sown there.
In a memorable point of his brief autobiography, Joseph
Ratzinger reveals that since his childhood he had learned to live the
liturgy, thanks to the seed sown in him by his parents, who gave him the
Schott, the Missal translated into German by the Benedictine monk
The fragment has a germinal beauty which can be compared
to that contained in the "episode of the Madeleine" in Proust's most
important work: "Naturally, being a child I did not understand every
detail, but my journey with the liturgy was a process of continual
growth in a great reality that overcame every generation and form of
individuality, which became a source of wonder and new discovery".
The liturgy, a legacy of Tradition
This concept of the liturgy as a patrimony inherited
from Tradition is in contrast with certain contemporary views that claim
a detailed knowledge, without a sound foundation and are easily
adaptable to concrete circumstances. It is, ultimately, a knowledge that
is "original" at all costs — as though Tradition were not the supreme
form of originality, since it permits us to bind ourselves to the
"origins" — which has contaminated certain liturgical trends, emptying
the rite of meaning.
The seed that the parents sowed in that child were later
to bear fruit in works such as God and the World in which
Ratzinger sought to show the meaning of the historicity of the liturgy
as a gift that Christ offered to the Church, a gift that grows with her
and is an incentive to "rediscover her as a living creature". He was to
dedicate to this living creature his Introduction to The Spirit of
the Liturgy, a book in which — in continuity with Guardini's
classical title — Ratzinger defends the concept of Tradition, which is
not static "but which cannot be reduced to a mere arbitrary creativity
either", examining in-depth a conception of liturgy as participation in
Christ's encounter with the Father, in communion with the universal
Like his teacher Guardini, Ratzinger wishes the liturgy
to be celebrated "in a more essential manner". And here "essentiality"
does not mean poverty, at least not in the sense in which some have
wished to give priority to the social dimension over the liturgical
celebration (whom Jesus clearly answers in the Gospel passage of the
anointing in Bethany); essentiality means "intimate need", the search
for an inner purity which in no way can be interpreted as static purism.
In caring for the liturgy we must contextualize the
importance — visible to anyone who is not completely bemused by
frivolity — that Benedict XVI attributes to vestments and particularly
to liturgical adornments.
The priest does not choose these adornments because of
an aesthetic whim; he does so in order to put on Christ, that "beauty
ever ancient and ever new" of which Saint Augustine speaks.
This "putting on Christ", a central concept of Pauline
anthropology, requires a process of inner transformation, an intimate
renewal of man that enables him to be one with Christ, as a member of
Liturgical adornments represent this "putting on
Christ": the priest transcends his identity to become someone else; and
the faithful who participate in the celebration recall that the journey
inaugurated with Baptism and nourished with the Eucharist leads to the
heavenly dwelling place, where we will be clothed with new garments,
made white in the blood of the Lamb.
Thus liturgical adornments are an "anticipation of the
new garment, of the Risen Body of Jesus Christ". They are an
anticipation and hope of our own resurrection, a definitive stage and
permanent dwelling-place of human existence.
In short, the Pope does not wear Prada, but Christ. And
his concern has nothing to do with the "accessory", but with the
essential. This is the meaning of the liturgical paraments with which
Benedict XVI is concerned, to make the truer reality of the liturgy more
comprehensible to the people of our time.