The Value of Vestural Traditions: A Call For Ecclesiastical Self-Confidence

Let's put out into the deep for a moment to speak about the 'dreaded' and 'taboo' topic of traditional vestural elements such as tufted fascia, buckled clerical shoes, the mantelletta as used traditionally by prelates outside their area of ordinary jurisdiction, the cappa magna and all such traditional vestural items generally (including the humble and less taboo cassock). Things that are today seeing a very quiet but natural and arguably organic revival in various places (even places one might not have expected).

An example of buckled clerical shoes, traditionally worn with the cassock within and without the liturgy.
There was a time when it was thought one shouldn't display an interest in these things -- never mind utilize them. The fear was that you would be viewed as being too focused on "tat" rather than substance. On the flip side, some really believed that was the case if you were interested in these things and it was used as a point of derision, mockery, abuse and shaming (which, it goes without saying, is neither charitable, nor Christian).

One certainly saw this in the 1990's and into early 2000's as well, and you can still find these ideas out there at least amongst certain generations, but it would seem that is fast on its way to becoming obsolete as a concern. Why is that this mainly seems to exist amongst the older generations, blurring a bit in the middle aged generation, and virtually non-existent for those in their 20's and 30's. Younger generations simply don't have any of the polemical and ideological baggage around this subject that came about and found life in those short few decades following the Second Vatican Council. Their interest in them is neither ideological nor political. Rather they come by them honestly and find them to be yet another interesting piece of the rich patrimony of their Church. They enjoy seeing them, and seeing them used, and they don't feel particularly guilty or shy about it. Why should they after all? Most of them already know that to be Catholic is to be counter-cultural these days; it's certainly not a way to go about becoming popular or in favour if that is your goal, and whether you are wearing buckled shoes or tennis shoes that won't change one iota for the reasons for that are doctrinal and moral, not vestural and liturgical. For these younger generations, and many others for that matter, these vestural items are just one more part of the picture that shows forth the full richness of the Catholic patrimony that speaks to something outside of the mundane and everyday -- which is what they seek from the Church.

They also seek authenticity, integrity and identity. In the face of a time and culture which is indifferent at best, or maligns the Church and Christianity generally at worst, use of these items (just like use of Latin, the steadfast proclamation of unpopular or unfashionable teachings, and rich and beautiful ceremonial in the liturgy) speaks to a mature, self-confidence on the part of the Church. It speaks of an institution that sets its own terms rather than one always trying, but never succeeding, in "keeping up with the times." It speaks to an institution not in need cultural affirmation and blessing but rather one which instead seeks to define culture and confidently sets its own course, self-assured in its own relevance and mission.

Visible here are the mantelletta, tufted fascia and, more well known, the cappa magna. Pictured is Augustin, Cardinal Bea in Baltimore in 1963.
Put another way, many don't want a church that 'blinks' in the face of a challenge, but rather one which rises up to it, confident and strong. They want a leader; not a follower, and this is manifest in many ways, right down to these sorts of seemingly small categories -- for signs and symbols, as we know, matter, and that applies as much here as anywhere else.

One key turning point for those of the older generations who have been scarred (and perhaps scared too) by these ideological battles of the past was the revival of many of these sorts of traditional vestural elements by Pope Benedict XVI himself. Pope Benedict restored things such as the consistent use of the red papal shoes, the winter and Easter mozzetta; he also wore the red papal saturno and so on. In short, he set an example whereby the message was clear: there is nothing wrong with these things; they are a part of our identity and symbols of continuity within that identity and they continue to be worth using, even reviving. Indeed, if they weren't of any value at all, why even bother, especially when some will indeed -- as they did -- get ideological and polemical about it? (The very fact that someone can get ideological about these things is proof enough, incidentally, that there is indeed something to these things; they aren't meaningless tat.)

The red papal shoes. The media in the time of Benedict XVI often portrayed his vesture as personal fashion choices, some calling him "the most fashionable pope ever" (demonstrating the love-hate relationship that can exist with these things). However, these were not fashion choices by the pope. In the case of the red papal shoes, they are a tradition and  symbolize the blood of the Christian martyrs. 
Pope Benedict XVI wearing the winter mozzetta
Pope Benedict XVI wearing the traditional white Easter mozzetta 
Now, are these things the substance of the faith? No, of course not. Are they as important as the sacred liturgy? Most certainly not. There is clearly a hierarchy here but the existence of a hierarchy of values doesn't mean they cannot or do not have any inherent value themselves. The fact is, and Pope Benedict XVI led the way in showing this by example, they do form part of a Catholic lexicon; one that speaks (and confidently at that) to our Catholic identity and culture and continuity with the same -- one that has been and continues to be recognized as such even outside the Church.

If some, perhaps, get overly fixated about these things -- and that can certainly happen as with anything -- it must be remembered that what is partially to blame for this are precisely the ideological attacks and politicization that has occurred around these things following the Council. A big deal was made about them in opposition to them, and as such, some responded accordingly in the other direction. Which raises a related point: an inordinate fixation can also be manifest on the part of those who are overly fixated on being against them. For most however, it is just an honest and innocent interest tied to the reasons noted above, and the revivals seem to mainly take that form. It's not politicized, it's not ideological, it is simply attached to Catholic identity, continuity and confidence.

It seems important to no longer let these fears or negative fixations drive this narrative -- for the narrative is no longer accurate and there are opportunities here to be seized. Whatever may have been in the 80's, 90's and early 2000's, in 2018 these things are not only not "tat" they are rather hooks and a means of engagement -- and such engagement can and often does lead to even deeper things. Indeed, not infrequently even non-Catholics have been heard to express missing these iconic symbols.

This reflection has not been about the law it should be noted; nor is it intended to be, but if 'Ut Sive Sollicite,' which issued many directives around things such as these, seems something of a dead letter today de facto, surely the time has now come for the Church to make it a dead letter de jure. Doing so will help to de-politicize these matters, restoring them to the broader life of the Church in the same way the motu proprio, Summorum Pontiicum, did with the usus antiquior itself.

If there were advice to be given to clergy in the light of all this, it would seem to be this:

Don't politicize these things of course but don't shy away from them either. Stop feeling sheepish about them -- you may as well feel sheepish about all Catholic traditions and teachings if so. There's no need and it's certainly not how many of your younger flock tend to look at these things, not to mention many others besides. Keep things in perspective of course, making the sacred liturgy your first priority, but be confident in our Catholic patrimony.

Will some mock? Yes, you can absolutely count on it. Christ didn't shy away from mocking however. The reality is that ideologues and enemies will always find one way or another to mock and deride and if it is not one thing, then it's another. If anything, acceding to their mockery only invites more derision, demonstrating weakness, and that doesn't invite  respect. You can also be assured, however, that many others, even those outside the Church, find these things of interest and appeal.

In short, we beg you, please stop 'blinking.' Instead, be bold and confident in our patrimony and start to lead the conversation again.

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