Opinion: Pope Francis’ none-too-subtle Vatican ‘dress code’

The same outfit: Pope Francis bestows a pallium on Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford, Conn., on June 29.
(Riccardo De Luca / Associated Press)
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Vaticanologists — the Catholic version of Kremlinologists — are journalists and scholars who scrutinize even the most trivial actions for clues to the thinking of the pope. A subset of this group (in which I include myself) pays special attention to what Pope Francis wears.

As I have written before, compared with Pope Benedict XVI, Francis has been “dressing down,” eschewing ornate vestments and sky-high jeweled miters (the double-pointed headdress worn by Catholic and Anglican bishops). This isn’t just a matter of fashion preferences: Benedict’s fondness for Baroque vestments was viewed by both liberals and conservatives in the church as a coded endorsement of the theology and style of worship of pre-Vatican II Catholicism.

The latest example of the papal “dress code” is Francis’ decision to trade in a distinctive papal version of a yoke-like woolen vestment known as the pallium for the common-variety one worn by other archbishops. (The pope is Bishop of Rome but also Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, which includes dioceses around Rome.) Francis wore the simpler version of the pallium at a recent ceremony, at which he bestowed that same vestment on a passel of new archbishops.


Here’s a description of the switcheroo by the Catholic blogger Rocco Palmo. (B16 is Benedict XVI, not a Bingo call.)

“Six years after the chief [Master of Ceremonies] Msgr. Guido Marini devised a ‘papal pallium’ adorned with red crosses for B16, at today’s rites Francis ditched the model, restoring the same black-crossed version worn by centuries of his predecessors and identical to that given every other archbishop.”

Palmo suggested that the pope’s decision to wear a garden-variety pallium was meant to “more fully underscore the woolen vestment’s intended symbolism over the centuries — namely, a visible sign of the bond between the archbishops of the entire church and the See of Peter.”

But there’s another interpretation, which will gain force if Francis continues to wear the simpler pallium on other occasions: that he wants to deemphasize the difference between himself and other archbishops.

That would be consistent with Francis’ preference for referring to himself as Bishop of Rome rather than pope or pontiff. And it may be another signal that he is interested not only in demystifying the papacy but in downsizing it as well.

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3