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Pope Francis’s first revolution – his clothing

Pope Francis appears on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica for the first time (CNS)

The first decisions required of a man elected in the conclave are prescribed. He must answer the question: “Do you accept?” He must choose his name. After those momentous decisions, the ceremony has its own momentum that carries the newly burdened man along.

On March 13, 2013, Pope Francis made another decision in those first few minutes. It signaled early on what sort of pope he would be. He decided he would not dress as other popes before him did. That he knew so soon and with such confidence that he would not do as his still living predecessor did, and as that long line of those before Benedict did, gave us an early indication of how Pope Francis conceived of himself as successor of St Peter.

The white papal cassock – technically a “simar” as it has the shoulder cape indicating the rank of a bishop – is basically the pope’s ordinary clothes when he is visible to others.

And not just when with others. In the 2010 interview book, Light of the World, Peter Seewald, who had spent a lot of private time with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, asked about the sartorial side of papal life: “Instead of a cassock, does he sometimes wear a sweater in his free time?”

“No,” replied Pope Benedict XVI. “That is a legacy left to me by the former second secretary of Pope John Paul II, Mgr Mieczysław Mokrzycki, who told me: ‘The Pope always wore a cassock, and so must you’.”

So he did. It was indicative of Benedict’s humility that he accepted instruction on this point from John Paul’s junior secretary. Even in his free time he would conform to the office placed upon him.

When the pope is eating breakfast he wears his cassock. When he is doing something more solemn – blessing the entire world as universal pastor of the Church from the central loggia of St Peter’s, or receiving dignitaries of state in that same official capacity – he customarily dresses differently. That’s why on such occasions popes wear the mozetta – a red (or white) elbow-length cape worn over a surplice.

Pope Francis’s decision to set aside the mozetta and wear the same thing all the time – whether at breakfast at Santa Marta or solemnly blessing the world at Easter – was taken immediately. It indicated then that the Holy Father was comfortable acting independently of consultation with others, that an assertion of papal will would be made against traditional norms of deportment, and that gestures would be a key mode of papal leadership.

There are limits, of course, to how the pope might dress. It would be inconceivable to imagine the pope in a white suit, a businessman with a flair for the dramatic, à la Ricardo Montalbán in Fantasy Island. But for other senior prelates, this pontificate has marked a turn towards more worldly attire, with the business suit being the Holy Father’s preferred garment.

For example, the cardinals on the “C9” began meeting in their filettata cassocks, as was expected from any cleric in the presence of the Holy Father. I remember as a student in Rome that seminarians without their own cassocks would quickly borrow one if they were going to be presented by their bishops to the Holy Father. Now the C9 meets in business suits, where the pectoral cross can be discreetly hidden in a jacket pocket.

As the pictures from last month showed again, even curial priests and bishops on retreat with the Holy Father wear a business suit, though there are a recalcitrant few who wear their cassocks.

That a new expectation was in place was never more clear than in March 2017, when the newly elected prelate of Opus Dei, Mgr Fernando Ocáriz, was received by the Holy Father. The prelate of Opus Dei would not greet the sacristan in his chapel in anything other than a cassock, but he obediently appeared in a business suit to greet Pope Francis. He may well have had to borrow one, like seminarians once did for cassocks.

Does it matter? It is not of supreme importance, but it is important. Clothes may not make the man, but do reflect something real about him. The Catholic Church has given rather a lot of thought to clerical dress, reflecting upon what it means to be in the world but not of it. The business suit for priests – introduced in countries where religious persecution of Catholics was common – is a shift towards a more worldly Church.

The cassock still remains the default attire for priests, according to the 2014 Directory for the Ministry and the Life of Priests, even though modifications have long been approved for most English-speaking countries. Still, in the presence of the pope it was expected. Then again, Church law also requires concelebrating priests to wear chasubles at Holy Mass if possible, a norm that is always disregarded at the Pope’s daily Mass in Santa Marta.

Clerical dress – for himself and for others – is not the most important decision Francis has made. But it was the first one.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca

This article first appeared in the March 9 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here