The hats that speak

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

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. 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 the Jewish kippah, perhaps preserved and passed on for two millennia, since the days of those 12 Jewish men who became Apostles of Jesus Christ. Alas, the origins of the zucchetto are medieval, though not without apostolic significance. The zucchetto was 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 reputed 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 comeback.

The kippah, the zucchetto, the mitre and the veil might all be classed as hats that speak, as head coverings that communicate. Hats once denoted identity and status and function. The mortarboard you probably threw up in 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 good 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 comeback too. Sometimes it’s wryly called a saturno, because it looks 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 its job of keeping the head covered, but strictly speaking, it isn’t necessary. The saturno is entirely gratuitous.

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, 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.

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The great blaze of publicity for St John Henry Newman has rightly attended to his life and works, his virtue and sanctity. But his life, it must be said, is a miraculous sign which points to its divine cause. What the miracle of his converted life, and the miracles effected by his prayers, show us is not simply the man, but God through
the man.

Since the early Church, the relics of the martyrs, and the prayers of the saints, have all been inextricably united to the miracle of miracles, Jesus Christ, true Man and true God. It is by this graced union to the Lord that we may see John Henry Newman as he is, as sanctified, deiform, an agent of God’s active power and presence with us; now, and for all eternity.

Every person, old and young, lay and clergy, believer and unbeliever, who watched the canonisation of Cardinal John Henry Newman was not simply watching the end of a process of canonisation. They were witnesses to God. God is present in history, God is at work in His Church, and God is at work among the citizens of His City on pilgrimage.

What does it prove? What does the world care of St John Henry Newman? It proves something incredible. It proves by miraculous signs that the Church then is the Church now, and that God will not cease to gather a people unto Himself until the end of time. And it is by such incredible signs that Christianity is now, and shall always remain, credible.

CC Pecknold is Associate Professor of Theology and a fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Read his columns at CatholicHeraldUS.com and follow him on Twitter: @ccpecknold