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Dress code

When Pope Benedict XVI visits the U.S., what he wears could send a message to Catholics.

April 06, 2008|Michael McGough | Michael McGough is senior editorial writer for The Times.

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."

But that was to change. The introduction of vestments coincided with a greater distinction between clergy and laypeople and the belief that only ordained priests and bishops could "validly" celebrate Mass and bring about the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. To a greater or lesser extent, the churches of the Reformation rejected this view. They emphasized the "priesthood of all believers" and defined the Mass (or Eucharist) as a memorial meal rather than as a sacrifice offered by the priest for the forgiveness of sins. Not so coincidentally, many Protestant churches also did away with or simplified clerical vestments even as the robes worn by Catholic prelates were becoming more elaborate and over the top.

But in the late 20th century, there was a remarkable convergence in the way the Eucharist was celebrated and in the way it was interpreted. Vestments, lighted candles, even incense became common in Episcopal, Lutheran and even Methodist churches, even as Catholic Masses began to be celebrated in the vernacular to the accompaniment of treacly folk hymns.

Meanwhile, Catholic theologians reached surprising common ground with scholars from other churches on issues that long had divided the two forms of Christianity. Most notable was a 1971 document in which theologians and bishops from the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches reached what they called "substantial agreement" on the meaning of the Eucharist -- an agreement that was too much of a compromise for Ratzinger and other Catholic conservatives.

The typical American Catholic wouldn't be aware of this theological fence-mending, but he would notice, on visiting a Lutheran or Episcopal Church, that the service didn't seem very different from what went on at his parish: It would be in English, the minister would be wearing a (Gothic) chasuble, and at some point the congregants would offer one another the handshake of peace.

That is precisely the problem for Catholics known as "rad trads" -- radical traditionalists. They prefer their Mass in Latin, their priest in a fiddleback and their pope sporting a miter tall enough to touch the heavens. It's not about fashion, they would say, it's about faith. We'll see if they get their wish when Benedict suits up at Yankee Stadium.

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