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In praise of the saturno – and other clerical hats

Priests in saturnos (Vecchio/Three Lions/Getty Images)

The saturno is something happy, celebratory, and joyful. It’s the kind of hat that only the God of surprises could dream up for his priests

As a boy I was fascinated by the kippah a Jewish friend wore upon his head. I did not understand it. Why did he wear it? I never asked. But I always looked, and pondered how much it set him apart. There was a part of me that coveted this small woven dome he wore upon his head. Without him ever telling me, I came to understand that what my friend wore so casually meant only that he belonged to God.

So when I first saw Catholic bishops wearing the zucchetto, my first instinct was to presume they were wearing Jewish kippot, perhaps preserved and passed on for two millennia, since the days of those twelve Jewish men who became apostles of Jesus Christ. Alas, the origins of the zucchetto are medieval, though not without apostolic significance. The zucchetto was also sometimes called the soli-deo, since like the kippah, it indicates that the wearer belongs only to God. A biretta or mitre might be worn over the zucchetto, but not instead of it — for the zucchetto, like the kippah, says what is most fundamental about the man.

Angels are said to cover their faces before God, and the Apostle Paul talks about women covering their heads before God in his first letter to the Corinthians. The veiling was apocalyptic in the etymological sense, that is, St Paul saw in a woman’s veil a kind of prophetic unveiling of the glory of humanity before the light of Christ. It’s hardly a surprise that in an age utterly confused by our humanity, by the very difference between men and women, that veiling is making a come back.

The kippah, the zucchetto, the mitre, the veil, might all be classed as hats that speak — as head covering that communicates. Hats once denoted identity and status and function. The mortarboard you probably threw up into the air at graduation is a distant relative of the birretta — a reminder of how hats, and Christianity, are culture-producing. A friend writes that he looks down his nose on tricorn birrettas every time he dons his four cornered one. In truth, few of us even know why that’s a funny joke because we have largely forgotten what hats mean, and so we have also forgotten the way in which the Church speaks through them without words.

The capella romano is making a come back too. Sometimes it’s wryly called a “saturno,” because, with a hearty laugh, it looks just a bit like that ringed planet circling the heavens. But unlike the zucchetto, the birretta, or the mitre, the saturno serves no liturgical purpose. Aside from the pope’s own, which is red, the hat itself does not indicate status — though bands around it may. It does it’s job of keeping the head covered, but strictly speaking, it isn’t necessary. The saturno is entirely gratuitous.

The wearer feels both it’s humor and humility. The saturno is something happy, celebratory, and joyful. It’s practical, and speculative, and funny all at once. If any hat could buy you a drink, tell you a joke, and cause you to think about God’s goodness, it almost certainly would be a walking, talking saturno.

Theologically, then, the saturno is very much like grace itself. It isn’t something we expect or can presume. It’s the kind of hat that only the God of surprises could dream up for his priests. Fifty years ago, it may have made sense to set aside useless hats. But today it seems more theologically needful than ever to recover them. And perhaps the saturno needs to be recovered most of all precisely because of its sheer gratuity, precisely because it speaks of grace in a graceless world.

In fact, after a few pints with my Dominican friends, I may even pound the table to insist that to deny the saturno today is to deny the gratuity of grace itself! It is to deny that the Church must look different than the world, even as she is very much in (and sometimes sadly of) the world. To embrace the saturno is to embrace the Church as herself something to wonder about again. It is to remind the world of a heavenly city which orbits Rome, and every other city on God’s green earth.

As the great historian Robert Wilken once wrote, “The Church is a culture in its own right. Christ does not simply infiltrate a culture; Christ creates culture by forming another city,” another city which can speak through hats and head coverings that speak about God and which let the world see that there is another City, one which adorns the head reverently, one which laughs, and prays, and civilizes, one which produces culture precisely because “it has its face, like the faces of angels, turned toward the face of God.”