Does what a pope decides to wear matter? It’s an interesting question that surprisingly has more to it than many realize, and it’s also a question that has garnered a lot of attention over the past couple of years. Esquire (not that I make a habit of reading it) named Pope Francis the “Best Dressed Man of 2013.” It’s a provocative and intriguing choice, since Pope Francis has so far made a name for himself by conspicuously rejecting ornate, traditional liturgical and ceremonial vestments in favor of the most simple, nondescript attire one can find. The fact is even more pronounced given the contrast with his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who dusted off many of the older, traditional papal vestments in the sacristy of Saint Peter’s. So famous was Benedict’s choice in stunning vestments, and his preaching on beauty, that some called him the “pope of the aesthetics.”
A narrow take on Benedict’s sartorial choices may declare that the Bavarian pope suffered from excessive papal vanity, pomp and bling. How can a Church that professes a “preferential option for the poor” witness its chief shepherd parading around in gold, silver, red leather shoes, lace, and ermine? From the Esquire piece:
Pope Francis has been big on symbolic gestures—paying his own bill at a hotel owned by the Church or washing the feet of inmates (two of whom were female) on Holy Thursday—and the black shoes and unadorned, simplistic regalia are just an outward acknowledgement of his progressive orthodoxy. “Pope Francis understands that menswear is meant to express the character of the man wearing the clothes,” says Mary Lisa Gavenas, author of The Fairchild Encyclopedia of Menswear, before adding: “No rapper-style popewear for him.”
True, the opulent jewelry and fur-lined capes of yore have given way to humbler dress, and this break from aesthetic tradition says a lot of the man and what he hopes to achieve while doing his earthly duties.
Why are the writers so eager to project symbolism onto the present Holy Father’s choice in vestments, but were/are utterly blind and closed off to any symbolism behind Benedict’s choice in vestments? The message here is obvious. If we were not concerned with digging deeper, these inane statements might make a certain degree of sense. And in the mainstream media, where surface-level observations are pretty much all that matter, these assertions have carried significant weight. That Pope Francis embraces simpler vestments conveniently fits into the narrative of humility, poverty and a less strident brand of Catholicism, set against Pope Benedict’s supposed arrogance, exorbitance and Catholicism-on-steroids approach, embodied, of course, in lavish liturgical garb. The choice of Francis as “best dressed” and the comments the editors make in the article prove this point. This is but one line of attack against the papacy of Benedict.
The Pontiff dressed to reflect the beauty of the faith.During his nearly eight years on the throne of St. Peter, Benedict has always looked absolutely perfect, sartorially speaking, whether garbed in elaborate vestments for an Easter liturgy or clad in the simple but meticulously tailored white caped cassock (it’s called a “simar” in church lingo) that he wears on more ordinary occasions. …
I don’t believe that aesthetics is mere window-dressing. In her 2005 book “The Substance of Style,” economics pundit Virginia Postrel wrote: “Aesthetics is the way we communicate through the senses…. Aesthetics shows rather than tells, delights rather than instructs. The effects are immediate, perceptual and emotional.” Plato argued that the beautiful, while not exactly the same as the good, is a kind of complement to the good that points to the good and shows off the good via sensory media.
That is what I believe is exactly Benedict’s aim. Over the last couple of decades, the Roman Catholic Church has been besmirched with ugliness, scarred by clerical sexual predation abetted by clueless and self-promoting bishops. Benedict has used beauty to demonstrate tangibly that the Catholic faith that he and the members of his church share is itself beautiful and indestructible, and that it shines through despite all human efforts to wreck it. …Pope Benedict XVI has been the pope of aesthetics, the pope who plays Mozart on the piano for his own private entertainment and who can write theological books in such lucid, limpid prose that ordinary people can read them for pleasure. He has reminded a world that looks increasingly ugly and debased that there is such a thing as the beautiful — whether it’s embodied in a sonata or an altarpiece or an embroidered cope or the cut of a cassock — and that earthly beauty ultimately communicates a beauty that is beyond earthly things.
The chief purpose of the whole external worship is that man may give worship to God. Now man’s tendency is to reverence less those things which are common, and indistinct from other things; whereas he admires and reveres those things which are distinct from others in some point of excellence. Hence too it is customary among men for kings and princes, who ought to be reverenced by their subjects, to be clothed in more precious garments, and to possess vaster and more beautiful abodes. And for this reason it behooved special times, a special abode, special vessels, and special ministers to be appointed for the divine worship, so that thereby the soul of man might be brought to greater reverence for God. (Summa theologiae I-II, q. 102, a. 4)