Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
Who will be in charge of the church when Pope Benedict steps down? And why would they name important bishops after a red bird? And why do bishops wear Jewish Yarmulkas?
Your last question first. The little hat is called a zucchetta, an Italian word that means a little squash, etymologically related to zucchini. Use your imagination. It looks like a little hollowed out gourd. I’m not making any of this up. There is one theory about religious head gear in general. The theory holds that God, looking down from heaven, uses religious head gear to tell who’s who. "Oh, that fellow with the turban, he’s a swami. That’s a Lubavitcher Hasid and that one’s a Sattmer Hasid. And over there, the fellow with the electric red-purple gourd like thing on his head, that’s a bishop!" This theory is ridiculous, pay no attention to it, but the different head gear does help us to know who the players are, even without a score card. The truth is that zucchettas were probably worn originally to keep one’s head warm in the cold stone cathedrals of Europe. Priests were formerly tonsured, which means that as a mark of the renunciation of worldly fashions, they would have a clump of hair shaved off the top of their heads leaving a bald spot right on the top. This needed covering because the human body loses the most heat from the head. It has always been well known that the clergy need to maintain warm brains, especially bishops. Thus the zucchetta.
Priests used to wear black zuchettas, but this is no longer the custom. We lower clergy have no real need to keep our brains warm, just so we remember where the keys to the hall and the broom closet are kept, but bishops still wear the zucchetta, white for the pope, red for the cardinals and fuscia for bishops. (Fuscia, pronounced few-shuh, as mentioned, is a color somewhere between red and purple.) You may well ask when and how these colors were chosen, and why, to which I wold respond, “I have absolutely no idea.” My guess would be, sometime in the middle ages. And why those particular colors for those particular ministries, I would respond why not? The pope wears white since the times of Pope Pius V, (1566-1572) He continued to wear his white Dominican habit instead of the red that popes usually wore. The Cardinals wear crimson red to represent the blood of the martyrs. And bishops wear purple because of their position of leadership in the Church. In the Roman and Byzantine empires, purple was limited by law so they also wear the black in their everyday clothing, as priests do, to symbolize poverty and renunciation of worldly fashions. At least those are the usual reasons given for the colors.
Perhaps the real reason is because they are really neat colors. Some may say that the bishops shouldn’t wear anything distinctive, because they are just humble servants. These critics haven’t read much Bible apparently. The high priests of the Bible wore colors so flashy that they would even embarrass a dentist on a golf course. God seems to like color. The birds and the flowers are not beige. Even beetles, of which God seems inordinately fond, have iridescent colors. As far as I can tell the only place that iridescent fuscia matching a bishops beany appears in nature is on certain flowers and certain insects.
The Great and Blessed John Paul wore brown shoes made by a humble shoemaker. The press was entranced. Pope Benedict wore red shoes. The press went ballistic. It was rumored that he was wearing designer red shoes made by Gucci. This was not true. His shoes were also made by a humble shoemaker to whom, when he was plain old Joseph Ratzinger, he had gone for years to have his shoes repaired.
But why red? Red shoes were the papal custom for centuries, hearkening back to the day of the pre-Christian Roman high priests who wore red shoes. When Christianity was made the state religion of Rome, and the emperors abandoned the city to its fate, only the pope was left to keep order. He donned the shoes and the title that had belonged to the old Pontifex Maximus (Latin for “the supreme bridge builder”) who had been the head of the state religion. It was meant to provide orderly transition for the old religion, but it was also a statement that “the kingdom of the world has become the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ.” (Rev.12:10) The blood of the martyrs had overthrown Rome and its government religion that had tried to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth. The red shoes of the pope are a reminder that the blood of the martyrs has triumphed! But the press which is as deep as a puddle and as smart as a gaggle of fashion models decided that brown was better than red. I call these people the beige people. Religion should be beige not passionate fuscia or crimson. God, with his love of birds and beetles and meadows in spring is certainly not beige. If anything God is a love of bling and baroque.
The Catholic Church has gone through many periods of art and architecture. The Romanesque, the Gothic, the Renaissance, the Baroque when too much was not enough. The Rococo, enough already, and then the Neo-Gothic and the Neo-everything until the 1960's which initiated the beige period of Catholic art. Gray vestments were all the rage. The banners were burlap, the altars were made out of lumpy stone that reminded people of Neanderthal living room sofas. This is the era which gave us some of the most awful architecture known to history. To shock was more chic than to enlighten and uplift. Failure to love the emperor's new clothing and ugly architecture indicated that one was less than sophisticated.
Churches looked liked spaces ships from the planet Ugly, and religious art looked like an explosion in a hardware store. This was the era that gave us such prize winning abstractions as the Los Angeles Cathedral that looks (to me) like some futuristic detention center. Over its entrance is a hermaphroditic statue of the Blessed Mother that looks more like Susan Powter, the buzz cut weight loss guru of the 1990's. This was the era that brought us the modern basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe which has a conveyor belt in front of the miraculous image of the Blessed Mother, so that no one spends too much time in front of an image of near divine beauty and subtlety.
We are finally waking up from the beige era of Catholicism and none too soon, so if you don’t like that splendor of the Catholic liturgy and the beautiful cathedrals that are meant to be the palaces of the poor, then I’m sure you can find some politically correct beige religion that doesn’t get too excited about anything. By the way, the bird was named for the Catholic Cardinals, and not the other way around.
Who will be in charge until the next pope is elected? The College of Cardinals will be and they will be called to order by dean of the college, currently Cardinal Angelo Sodano. College in this context does not mean an educational institution. It comes from a Latin word meaning “a bunch of guys who we got together to do this particular job.” The College of Cardinals advises the pope when he calls them together in a consistory (another fancy-schmanzy Latin word meaning a “get together.”) The college also meets when the pope dies, or resigns, for a conclave that elects the next bishop of Rome, i.e. the pope. (Conclave is another Latin word that means “lock down,” literally “with a key.”)
The College of Cardinals does not have full papal authority during the sede vacante period. More Latin. “Sede vacante” means an empty chair, the chair being the chair of Peter. This is not to be confused with the term “empty suit.” It is said that ancient Rabbis traveled with a special chair in which they sat when teaching. It is the teaching authority that is vacant so the authority of the college is a practical authority. Neither the college nor a Church council ever have the teaching authority of the pope. They assist the papal authority. They never replace it.
Now we know the important answer to the pressing theological question “Why do Cardinals wear red beanies?” But you may ask, “What is a Cardinal anyway? Is he a Super-Bishop?” No, dear reader, all bishops are super-bishops. A cardinal is something quite special, but that answer will have to wait for next week