Before we explain all those fascinating hats, just a little more about the vestments. You may have noticed that they come in different colors. This goes back to the Jerusalem Temple. The Bible is very clear about the way the priests of the Temple dressed. The Bible says, “…you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother (the first high priest), for dignity and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2). The priest’s clothes are described in Exodus 28, Exodus 39 and Leviticus 8. The high priest wore eight sacred vestments.
- Priestly undergarments “to cover their nakedness” Good idea. (Exodus 28:42) We wear street clothes under our vestment, but we do wear an amice mentioned above.
- Priestly tunic from the neck to the feet, with sleeves reaching to the wrists. (Exodus 28:39 and Exodus 28:40), just like our white alb.
- Priestly belt embroidered with blue, purple and scarlet (Exodus 28:39, 39:29) for the high priest plain white for the regular priest, just like the cincture we wear.
- The turban. The High Priest wore a broad, flat-topped turban. The ordinary priests wore cone-shaped turban. The modern bishop wears a miter. (More on this later)
- The High Priest wore two ephods, a sleeveless robe with blue, purple, and scarlet,
- and another over it, a sort of vest.
- A breastplate with twelve gems, each one carved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel, and finally
- A golden plate fastened to the miter with an inscription, “Holiness unto the Lord.”
Essentially a Catholic bishop is wearing the same sort of garments — amice, tunic belt, miter, dalmatic and chasuble — no breastplate with gems and no gold plate, but the miter does have two small stoles attached to it as signs of office. The reason I mention all this stuff is to point out that it comes from the same instinct to worship the Lord in “holy attire.”
We even have a special color scheme though it is not quite the same as the high priest’s. We wear green for the ordinary times, white or gold for feast days, red for the feasts of martyrs or of the Holy Spirit and purple for the penitential seasons of Lent and Advent. In addition rose vestments can be worn for the fourth Sunday of Lent and the third Sunday of Advent to remind us that the feast is coming and the penance will be over. Black is now rarely worn but may still be worn for the feast of All Souls Day. You can tell where we are in the liturgical year by the color the priest is wearing. Catholics are always either feasting or fasting, just like our Jewish neighbors. We get the concept of the religious calendar from the worship of ancient Israel. Every year is marked with feasts and fasts to remind us that we are journeying through time just as Israel journeyed in the desert. The celebrations of the liturgical year and the feasts of the saints are signposts on the way to heaven.
Now just for the fun of it. The Hats! Why do we wear all those strange hats? Have you ever been in a gothic cathedral in Europe during winter, or summer for that matter? It’s cold — sometimes very cold. The first and most probable reason that hats are worn for religious rituals is to keep the head warm. I have also heard the theory that God, looking down from heaven, finds it easier to tell who is who by the hats. This is ridiculous. I don’t even know why I mention it. You and I, however, can get an idea of who is who by the hats. We already know about the pointy hat that a bishop wears. It is an adaptation of the miter worn by the high priest in the Temple.
There is also a kind of crown that was worn only by the pope that is not used these days, but you will see it represented in art, on the papal flag, the papal seal and in architecture. It is called the Papal Tiara. It was used in former times for a papal coronation. It is a single pointed version of the miter and around it are three crowns or bands. These mean that the bishop of Rome has authority over the three locations of the church: heaven, earth and purgatory.
Under the miter a bishop wears what is called a zucchetto. I am not making this up. Zucchetto means “a little pumpkin” referring to the head of the wearer. It resembles a Jewish kippah or yarmulka (skull cap). The pope's zucchetto is white. A cardinal’s is red, a bishop’s is violet. Priests and deacons may wear a black zucchetto, though almost no one ever does anymore outside the Vatican. Franciscans frequently wear a brown zucchetto. The zucchetto is never worn with modern clothes, only with vestments or the cassock, the long black tunic worn by priests, (again, red for cardinals and violet for bishops and white for the pope.)
There is another hat worn by priests, that is pretty rare now. It is called the biretta, not to be confused with the small pistol of similar name, nor with the Italian word for a quick beer. It is an academic hat, just as the mortar board hat worn for graduations. It was worn in the middle ages by judges and the clergy and as such the priest wore it in confession and processions, taking it off at the beginning of Mass.
All the hats are doffed in the presence of someone of higher rank and in the Mass all the zucchettos, miters, tiaras and everything comes off for the part of the Mass when the Lord is present in the form of bread and wine.
Why do all this? Isn’t it a bit pompous? Maybe. But it is also a bit humble. We all used to get dressed up for special occasions. Now people wear flip- flops and cut-offs to their grandmother’s funeral, because the most important thing is that I, ME, MOI, should be comfortable. Who cares what my flip-flops and gym clothes say about my respect or lack of respect for those around me. After all no one is so important that I should be uncomfortable just to impress them. Keep thinking that and one day the Judge of all will ask you. “Where is your wedding garment for the great feast of heaven?” (Matthew 22:12) And you will say, “Lord, I thought flip flops and gym shorts would do.” We wear these things for the Lord, that He should be worshiped in the beauty of holiness. They remind us that we belong, not to the present age, but to a world that has always been and is yet to come.
These things take us back to the Temple. In fact most of our liturgical customs remind us of the Temple. The bread, the wine, the oil, the palms, the holy water, the incense, even the bells take us back to the Temple. The high priest wore little bells on the hem of his garments when he entered the most holy precincts. We still use bells when we enter into the most holy parts of the Mass. Our traditional chants probably came from the style in which the ancient psalms were sung in the Temple in Jerusalem. All of these things remind us that we have the renewed, rebuilt Temple of which we are living stones.
When the Temple of Herod was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, the Pharisees salvaged the moral and ethical content of the Torah but they no longer had a Temple. Those members of Israel who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah found a new Temple, the Church and we still offer sacrifice as we have done for four thousand years. The smells and bells and funny hats and all the other obscure and interesting things that inhabit Catholic worship are all about the symbolism of the Temple. They exist to remind us that this is not just about the everyday world. It is about eternity. It is the constant reminder that the Lord is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow!
Next week: Church architecture. The houses of God, the foretaste of heaven or spaceships from Planet Ugly?