Liturgical Dress According to Ratzinger
Juan Manuel de Prada


Some time ago in journalistic circles the fact that the American magazine Esquire, in its annual review of figures who are the epitome of elegance, pointed to Benedict XVI as the man who chooses the best accessories gave rise to a certain amused perplexity.

This choice, with a frivolity very typical of an age that tends to trivialize what it does not understand, happened at a time when Benedict XVI had attracted unprecedented attention in the media by resuming the use of certain articles of dress rooted in Papal tradition such as the camauro, a winter hat of crimson velvet bordered with ermine, or the saturno, a broad-brimmed hat, oftenly used by some of his Predecessors such as John XXIII.

Recently a rumour has spread that the red leather shoes which the Pope generally wears were designed by Prada, the famous Milanese fashion house. It is, of course, untrue. Today's superficial trend did not even realize that the colour red clearly symbolizes martyrdom, just as it was not understood that these rumours were incongruous with the simple, unassuming man who, on the day of his election as Pope, revealed to the faithful thronging St Peter's Square and all the world the sleeves of a modest black pullover.

Yet, as often happens, those inappropriate frivolities concealed a paradoxical kernel of truth: in fact, sometimes, even confusion and stupidity manage to perceive in a fragmented, confused and erroneous way realities that truly exist. And the truth is that Benedict XVI is profoundly concerned about dress but with a very different kind of concern.

St Irenaeus said towards the end of his life that all he had done in his life was to let mature in his soul what Polycarp, a disciple of St John, had sown there.

In a memorable point of his brief autobiography, Joseph Ratzinger reveals that since his childhood he had learned to live the liturgy, thanks to the seed sown in him by his parents, who gave him the Schott, the Missal translated into German by the Benedictine monk Anselm Schott.

The fragment has a germinal beauty which can be compared to that contained in the "episode of the Madeleine" in Proust's most important work: "Naturally, being a child I did not understand every detail, but my journey with the liturgy was a process of continual growth in a great reality that overcame every generation and form of individuality, which became a source of wonder and new discovery".

The liturgy, a legacy of Tradition

This concept of the liturgy as a patrimony inherited from Tradition is in contrast with certain contemporary views that claim a detailed knowledge, without a sound foundation and are easily adaptable to concrete circumstances. It is, ultimately, a knowledge that is "original" at all costs as though Tradition were not the supreme form of originality, since it permits us to bind ourselves to the "origins" which has contaminated certain liturgical trends, emptying the rite of meaning.

The seed that the parents sowed in that child were later to bear fruit in works such as God and the World in which Ratzinger sought to show the meaning of the historicity of the liturgy as a gift that Christ offered to the Church, a gift that grows with her and is an incentive to "rediscover her as a living creature". He was to dedicate to this living creature his Introduction to The Spirit of the Liturgy, a book in which in continuity with Guardini's classical title Ratzinger defends the concept of Tradition, which is not static "but which cannot be reduced to a mere arbitrary creativity either", examining in-depth a conception of liturgy as participation in Christ's encounter with the Father, in communion with the universal Church.

Like his teacher Guardini, Ratzinger wishes the liturgy to be celebrated "in a more essential manner". And here "essentiality" does not mean poverty, at least not in the sense in which some have wished to give priority to the social dimension over the liturgical celebration (whom Jesus clearly answers in the Gospel passage of the anointing in Bethany); essentiality means "intimate need", the search for an inner purity which in no way can be interpreted as static purism.

In caring for the liturgy we must contextualize the importance visible to anyone who is not completely bemused by frivolity that Benedict XVI attributes to vestments and particularly to liturgical adornments.

The priest does not choose these adornments because of an aesthetic whim; he does so in order to put on Christ, that "beauty ever ancient and ever new" of which Saint Augustine speaks.

This "putting on Christ", a central concept of Pauline anthropology, requires a process of inner transformation, an intimate renewal of man that enables him to be one with Christ, as a member of his Body.

Liturgical adornments represent this "putting on Christ": the priest transcends his identity to become someone else; and the faithful who participate in the celebration recall that the journey inaugurated with Baptism and nourished with the Eucharist leads to the heavenly dwelling place, where we will be clothed with new garments, made white in the blood of the Lamb.

Thus liturgical adornments are an "anticipation of the new garment, of the Risen Body of Jesus Christ". They are an anticipation and hope of our own resurrection, a definitive stage and permanent dwelling-place of human existence.

In short, the Pope does not wear Prada, but Christ. And his concern has nothing to do with the "accessory", but with the essential. This is the meaning of the liturgical paraments with which Benedict XVI is concerned, to make the truer reality of the liturgy more comprehensible to the people of our time.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 July 2008, page 8

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