The Carnival is Over

As Pope Francis was vesting in papal white to greet the world for the first time as pope, he gave an indication that may set the tone for his pontificate.  Politely declining the red cape (mozzetta) bordered in ermine fur much beloved of his predecessor, he reportedly said: “No thank you, Monsignore… The carnival is over.” (BBC and Corriere della Sera).  It was, you remember, Lent, and carnival had finished 4 weeks earlier.  Whether this report is accurate or not (and it probably is one of those urban myths about the new pope, debunked by the National Catholic Reporter) it does point to the inevitable change in style between Benedict XVI and Francis.

While it is still very early days of his papacy, and unwise to read too much into a single incident, I believe this signalled an important apostolic sensitivity.  He had no intention to dress up and present himself to the world in a luxurious ermine-lined cape.  Instead, he appeared on the balcony in simple papal white.  So far he has shown none of the carnival excess often associated with Roman style – indicating, rather a dress code informed by the Jesuit Constitutions in which St Ignatius writes: “The clothing should have three characteristics: first, it should be proper; second, conformed to the usage of the country of residence; and third, not contradictory to the poverty we profess.”

Pope Francis’ liturgical style also indicates a preference for the noble simplicity called for by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II.

“The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.”

I was recently in the unlikely position of explaining to a close Muslim friend the vestiges of Byzantine court vesture still found in Catholic liturgical dress.  In contrast with the stark beauty of the Kalahari Desert where we were on a camping holiday, Farouk decried the ‘frippery’ of the Catholic Church as a scandal to many people.  I had to explain how much of this ‘frippery’ is said to date back to the Imperial court or to academic institutions, and that it points to the Church’s deep and ancient roots, a tradition which we take seriously.

Of course some Catholics might be able to tell Farouk that the lambswool pallium with which the Pope was invested symbolises his pastoral role, shared with metropolitan archbishops, dating back to an era when shepherds might indeed carry sheep over their shoulders. Similarly the walking stick (crozier) that a bishop carries evokes the symbol of a pastor’s crook.  However, for the vast majority of ordinary Catholics, the origins, purpose and colours of the chasuble, dalmatic, mitre, zucchetto, biretta (with or without pom), tabarro, camauro, pellegrina, ferraiolo, mozzetta, red shoes, surplice and cotta are lost in the mists of history.  Whilst some purists might complain about this wholesale ignorance I think it shows instead how much these adornments on the rungs of the ecclesiastical ladder are completely irrelevant to the life of ordinary Catholics. They are so removed from everyday concerns and experience as to appear affectations: a counter-witness to the gospel of the carpenter with his fishermen, tax-collector and tentmaker apostles.

Like carnival, such trappings can be a diversion – an attempt to construct a fantastical liturgical space, an idealised ritual context in which to honour and worship God – entirely out of touch with the reality of the day.  Carnival is a time of escape: garish, gaudy costume, an unreal world of excess.  Occasional sensory overload might be desirable, but continuous escape into this world can indicate a pathology, an unreadiness to deal with some of the harsher dimensions of life.  With this pope familiar with the brutal reality of the slums of Buenos Aires, I suspect that the carnival is indeed over.

In any case, St Francis and ermines around the world will be rejoicing at their new lease on life.

Fr Peter Knox SJ

Rev. Prof. Peter Knox, SJ (born Johannesburg 1962; entered the Jesuits 1983; ordained 1996), is a Professor of Theology at Hekima University College in Nairobi, Kenya, and serves as Deputy Principal Academic. He previously worked at the Jesuit Institute in South Africa.
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