Why does the Pope wear white?

Pope Benedict XVI in white cassock

Pope Benedict XVI wearing the white papal cassock in 2007

White goes with everything, especially on Easter Sunday in Rome. However, wearing white is not a fashion statement and it’s not the reason a pope wears white.

Small ‘t’ tradition holds that it was was Pope Pius V who started the tradition of the white Cassock. He belonged to the religious order called the Dominicans, or the Order of Preachers, who were also called the Black Friars because of the black cloak or cappa which covered their white Habits.

Antonio Ghislieri, elected to the Petrine office on January 7 1566 as Pius V, wished to continue wearing the white cassock of his Dominican confreres. Some sources contest this story on evidence that portraits painted before the time of Pius V show popes wearing a white cassock [see additional notes below].

What is certain is that white is the colour that symbolizes holiness and purity throughout sacred scripture and in capital ‘T’ Tradition (the living teachings or Magisterium of the Church from it’s institution by Jesus to the present day) and it is a record of history that St. Pope Pius V, as his very name indicates, lived a holy and pure life [see additional notes below].

“His interior state reflected the whiteness of his exterior garments, you might say”[1],  and it has been noted that the reason why popes since Pius V continued to wear white is “a tribute to the sanctity of the Dominican pontiff, who refused to shed his community’s habit on his election to the papacy” [2] that we may understand as a sign of humility and piety.

Next time you wear white on April 30th, Pius V’s official feast day, remember “his holiness,” say a prayer and consider what you might do on that day to grow in inner whiteness.

What’s the proper term for “pope hat”?

Pope Benedict XVI wears a mitre

Pope Benedict XVI wearing a mitra pretiosa

The distinctive “pope hat” is actually one type of mitre. A mitre is a tall, pointed ceremonial headpiece worn by bishops, cardinals and the pope. Others who wear a mitre (such as some abbots) must have special papal permission. The term mitre comes from a Greek word (mitra) meaning “headband.” Although the exact history of the mitre is somewhat unclear, its shape and design have developed over time. Some version of it has been worn by bishops in the Church for at least 1,000 years. The current shape is created by two identical pieces of stiff fabric that are sewn together at the sides. Two rectangular pieces of fabric called lappets hang down the back of the mitre and are tipped with red fringe.

There are three different types of mitre. The simple, unadorned version is called the mitra simplex. The mitra auriphrygiata and the mitra pretiosa are elaborately embellished with jewels and embroidery. The type of mitre worn is determined by the occasion. It is always removed when the wearer is praying. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains:

The mitre is distinguished from the other episcopal vestments in that it is always laid aside when the bishop prays; for example, at the orationes of the Mass, of the Office, in conferring Holy Orders, at the Canon of the Mass, etc. The reason for this is to be found in the commandment of the Apostle that a man should pray with uncovered head (1 Corinthians 11:4).

What is the Angelus?

Pope Benedict XVI leads his final Angelus as pope

Pope Benedict XVI leads his last Angelus as pope at Vatican (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

The Angelus is a three-part devotional prayer traditionally recited in the morning, at noon and in the evening. It commemorates The Annunciation (the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary) and the Incarnation of Christ. The name of the prayer comes from the first line in Latin (Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae/The Angel of the Lord appeared to Mary). Historically, churches rang bells at 6:00 AM, 12:00 noon, and 6:00 PM to remind the faithful to pray the Angelus. The text includes 3 verses with responses and 3 repetitions of the Hail Mary followed by a concluding prayer. If people are praying the Angelus together in a group, the versicles (marked “V”) would be said by the leader and the responses (marked “R”) by the people, as follows:

V: The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.

R: And she conceived of the Holy Spirit

All: Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death.

V: Behold the handmaid of the Lord.

R: Be it done unto me according to thy word.

All: Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death.

V: And the Word was made Flesh.

R: And dwelt among us.

All: Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death.

V: Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God.

R: That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

V: Let us pray. Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts; that, we to whom the Incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an Angel, may by His Passion and Cross, be brought to the glory of His Resurrection. Through the same Christ our Lord.

All Amen.

The Angelus is also commonly said in Latin. It is customarily replaced by the Regina Caeli, another prayer focusing on the glory of Christ’s Resurrection, during the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost.

Is the bird named after the Catholic cardinal, or vice versa?

Northern Cardinal (the bird), whose color and crown of feathers was reminiscent of the Catholic Cardinals.

Northern Cardinal (the bird), chilling.

Cardinals (the bird found in North and South America) were named sometime in the 17th C, and named after the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church (originally, the cardinales were the principle priests of a major see, usage traced to the 5th C).

Cardinal Dolan with cappa magna.

North American Timothy Cardinal Dolan displaying his plumage.

Why does the Vatican coat of arms include an umbrella when the See is vacant?

ombrellinoWhen the little umbrella appears in the papal coat of arms (the umbraculum in Latin or the ombrellino in Italian), replacing the papal triple tiara or mitre, it is a sign that the church is in the period of sede vacante, when the See is empty awaiting the election of a new pope.  The umbrella-topped seal graces official Vatican documents, the masthead of the Vatican daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, and special postage stamps issued to commemorate the sede vacante.

A red and yellow umbrella has been connected with the papacy for centuries, tied to the time when umbrellas or canopies were trappings showing the honor and importance of earthly and spiritual dignitaries.  In renaissance Rome the umbrella was adopted as part of the papal regalia; red and yellow being colors of the papacy.  The umbrella was carried in processions to protect the pope from sun and rain.

Basilicas throughout the world have red and yellow umbrellas near the altar.  The umbrellas are half-open, indicating readiness to welcome the pope, since a basilica has a special bond with the Roman See. When a pope is present in a basilica the umbrella is opened fully.

Just as each basilica’s red and yellow umbrella signifies that the basilica awaits a papal visit, the umbrella on the coat of arms in the sede vacante is a sign of the Church awaiting her new pontiff.

Update: Here is the Coat of arms of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church during the Sede Vacante:camerlengo Tarcisio_Pietro_Evasio_Bertone_01_png

Update: As of 8:00 PM Rome time, February 28, the Vatican website was changed to reflect the sede vacante, showcasing this coat of arms.

Vatican website

Also as of February 28, 2013 the papal twitter page shows the umbrella-topped coat of arms and the user name “Sede Vacante.”

Screen shot 2013-02-28 at 5.47.17 PM

Does the red shawl, or stole, that the new pope wears on the balcony have a name? And is that particular stole ever worn again?

From the reader: “It seems every time I see Benedict XVI in the stole it’s different, with his coat of arms instead of the intricate design that looks like Mary.”

Election of Benedict XVI papal stole

Photo originally found on msnbc.com; Source: EPA/MARI/VATICAN POOL

You’ve got the name right: the scarf-shaped, colored garment that hangs down straight on either side of the Pope’s neck is a stole.  Bishops and priests all wear stoles of a similar shape to mark that they are the recipients of Holy Orders.  (A deacon’s stole is different — it crosses the body from one shoulder.)

The stole that Pope Benedict XVI wore in the first time he stepped out on the balcony after his election in 2005 had likely been prepared for the new pope, whoever he would be, in advance.  The BBC reported in 2005  about that election,

 The papal tailor will have prepared garments to dress a pope of any size – small, medium or large – but some last-minute needlework may be required.

So that first papal stole would have been a  sort of “generic” papal stole — because no one yet knew whose coat of arms to put on it!

After the election, at least on solemn occasions, the pope’s personal papal coat of arms appears on the stole that he wears; but he can wear a simpler one.


Where does the papal coat of arms come from?

First, let’s define what a coat of arms is before someone thinks we are talking about Burlington Coat Factory. A coat of arms is a shield of sorts. It is used to cover, protect, and identify the wearer. Historically, though the origination is linked back to the Middle Ages when armor bearings were given to soldiers and nobility, an ecclesiastical heraldry was also developed for clergy, giving way to the papal coat of arms.

Popes often use their own family shield or otherwise create their own, made up of a specific shape (the chalice being the most commonly used shape in ecclesial heraldry), several important symbols and surrounded by elements that indicate the person’s dignity, rank, title, jurisdiction and more.

Let’s take Benedict XVI’s papal coat of arms as an example.

source vatican.va

Pope Benedict XVI’s papal coat of arms – source vatican.va

Taken from the Vatican’s website:

The shield chosen by Pope Benedict XVI is very simple: it is in the shape of a chalice, the most commonly used form in ecclesiastical heraldry.

The field of Pope Benedict XVI’s shield, different from the composition on his shield as Cardinal, is now gules (red), chape or (gold). The principal field, in fact, is red.

In each of the upper corners there is a “chape” in gold. The “chape” [cape] is a symbol of religion. It indicates an idealism inspired by monastic or, more specifically, Benedictine spirituality. Various Orders and Congregations, such as the Carmelites and the Dominicans, have adopted in their arms the form of the “chape”, although the latter only used it in an earlier form rather than their present one. Benedict XIII (1724-1730) of the Order of Preachers used the “Dominican chief” [heraldic term: upper part of the field] which is white divided by a black “chape”.

Pope Benedict XVI’s shield contains symbols he had already used in his arms when he was Archbishop of Munich and Freising, and subsequently as Cardinal. However, they are arranged differently in the new composition.

The principal field of the coat of arms is the central one which is red. At the point of honour of the shield is a large gold shell that has a triple symbolism.


What’s a crozier?

A vestment and crozier used by John Paul II while he was Archbishop of Krakow.

A vestment and crosier used by John Paul II while he was Archbishop of Krakow.

A crosier (also spelled crozier) is a tall staff, or walking stick with a crook at the top, used by bishops at liturgical functions. Because a staff was used by shepherds, it is symbolic of the bishop’s role as successor to Christ, the Good Shepherd.

The top of a crosier is often ornamented with carvings. A crosier may be made of wood or metal. The picture at right is a crosier and chasuble used by John Paul II while he was Archbishop of Krakow.

A crosier is given to a bishop at his consecration. St. Isidore explained that a newly consecrated bishop received the crosier “that he may govern and correct those below him or to offer support to the weakest of the weak.”

The bent or crooked top of a crosier symbolizes the bishop’s role as one who should draw in or attract souls to the ways of God. For that reason, when a bishop carries the crosier within his own diocese, the opening is turned outward. When he is outside his own diocese, the opening is turned inward. It is always carried in the bishop’s left hand.

Many times, a pope will use a staff or crosier that was used previously by other popes.

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI

Modern popes often use a staff with a curved cross at the top rather than a crozier. The staff used by Pope Benedict, pictured right, was also used by Popes John Paul I and II.

What is the Chair of St. Peter?

Everything you need to know about the “Chair of St. Peter” is covered in this article by Jimmy Akin at the National Catholic Register.

Yes, there is a physical object known as “the Chair of St. Peter.”

A picture of the Throne of St. Peter

Throne of St. Peter, covered over by an evocative sculpture by Bernini

It is housed at the Vatican, at the back of St. Peter’s basilica.

February 22 is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

And there is more to the story….

The “chair of St. Peter” is a physical object — an actual chair, that might possibly really have been a chair that St. Peter used — but it represents a spiritual reality.  Like the “chair”-man of a committee, a “chair” represents authority — in this case, papal authority.  On the infallibility of papal teachings about faith or morals, Mr. Akin writes:

Although the pope’s infallible pronouncements are called ex cathedra (Latin, “from the chair”) statements, he does not have to be sitting in the physical chair (which is rather high off the ground in any case).

In fact, he doesn’t have to be seated at all.

He simply has to use the fullness of his authority as the successor of Peter to definitively teaching a particular matter pertaining to faith or morals.

This use of the full extent of his teaching authority is referred to figuratively, as him speaking “from the chair” of St. Peter.

It’s a figurative expression, not a reference to the physical object.

So when we say that the new pope will take “the chair of St. Peter,” or some such thing, we really mean just that he will be assuming the papacy.

It’s kind of like saying that such-and-such a monarch “ascended the throne” on the date that he or she took power.  Maybe the monarch actually climbed up and sat on the throne for the first time that day, and maybe not.  It means “assumed the roles and responsibilities of the office.”  The piece of furniture — like the “office,” for that matter, which in normal parlance refers to a kind of workplace — is a stand-in symbol of authority.

Nevertheless, the physical object that is the “chair of St. Peter” is a venerated relic precisely because of the authority that it represents.


Read the rest of Jimmy Akin’s article, “9 Things You Need To Know About the Chair of St. Peter,” at the National Catholic Register.

Why are there keys on the Vatican flag?

The Vatican, as a sovereign entity, has its own flag.  The yellow-and-white background features a coat of arms, which includes two keys.  One key is silver, the other is gold, and they are crossed in front of a crown with three layers.

flagThe symbol of the key is found frequently in the Bible as a sign of authority, specifically in Matthew 16:19, where Jesus said to St. Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Catholics understand this passage to mean that in using the image of keys, Jesus was invoking the words of Isaiah 22:22, where Eliakim, a humble servant, was given the keys to the House of David.  In Biblical times, the king’s steward wore the keys to the palace on his shoulder, and was trusted with opening and closing the gates.  All that the keys unlocked belonged to the king, but the steward was trusted with its safekeeping.  With His words in Matthew, Jesus was establishing Peter and those who would follow him as stewards of the Church.

The keys on the Vatican flag are visual reminders of this Biblical passage.  The golden key represents Peter’s and his successors’ power to bind and loose in heaven, and the silver key represents authority on earth.