The Hat-Swapping Pope

Here's everything you need to know about clerical headgear, explained for the uninitiated.

Fr Dwight Longenecker
18.12.2013 // PRINT
AFP/FILIPPO MONTEFORTE
The Associated Press tells the story of two American college students who swapped hats with Pope Francis. Katie Rich of Minnesota and Ethan Mack from Maine bought a white zucchetto (clerical skullcap) and took it with them to the Pope’s regular Wednesday public audience.

As the Popemobile passed by Katie and Ethan, they held out the zucchetto with a note that said, “Boston College loves our Jesuit Pope!” Located in Chesnut Hill, Massachussets, Boston College is a Jesuit foundation.

Ethan Mack held the zuchetto out and one of the Pope’s guards accepted it from him. Pope Francis asked the driver to stop; the Pontiff then read the note, smiled, checked the cap for size, nodded, and then put it on.

The Pope then handed the zucchetto he had been wearing to the guard, who gave it to the students, and the Pope continued wearing the students’ skullcap for the rest of the audience. This whole episode leads me to reflect on the fact that when I am asked why I became a Catholic, I sometimes joke that it is for the hats.

Everybody is familiar with the high pointed miter worn by bishops. The miter evolved from a cloth crown worn in the Byzantine court. It became a metal tiara in the Middle Ages, and then evolved into the fabric, folding headgear worn by bishops and abbots when presiding at Catholic worship. For those who like Catholic hat trivia, the altar server often wears a shawl-like veil called a “vimpa” to hold the bishop’s miter and crosier. The server is also called the “vimpa”.

For readers who are unfamiliar with the rich tradition of Catholic clerical headgear, here’s a quick rundown: the Boston College students gave Pope Francis a zucchetto. The pope wears a white one, cardinals wear scarlet ones, and bishops wear violet. Priests may wear black ones, and one historical exception is that Franciscan friars may wear brown. The word zucchetto means “little pumpkin,” because the skullcap looks like a small pumpkin cut in half.

The biretta is a square-shaped hat with three fins and a central pom on the top. Originally a hat signifying academic accomplishment, the biretta evolved one way to become the modern mortarboard worn at graduation and evolved differently for clerical use. Now the biretta shows clerical rank and is awarded at the ceremony of promotion in the Church. Again, priests wear black, bishops wear violet, and newly elevated cardinals get a red silk biretta instead of the large, broad-brimmed galero that used to be awarded. The Pope doesn’t wear a biretta (though white birettas are worn by canons of the Order of Premontre).

While the zucchetto and biretta indicate rank by color, the ordinary traditional hat for a priest is the capello romano or saturno. Its called the saturno because its round low crown and wide round brim is reminiscent of the planet Saturn. Not seen much anymore, saturnos can still be obtained made from genuine Norwegian beaver for winter and black straw for summer wear. The saturno is worn with the cassock as outdoor wear, and it doesn’t have a ceremonial purpose like the zucchetto and biretta. Sometimes you’ll spot a Pope wearing a red leather saturno with a special hat band for trim.

Pope Benedict seems to have been more interested in the traditional headgear for popes than Pope Francis. He sported a red saturno and also resurrected the camauro, which is a red cap made of velvet or wool with white ermine trim. Pope John XXIII was the last Pope to wear the camauro regularly. Benedict XVI wore it several times, but I doubt very much if Francis, with his simpler tastes, will bother. When the weather’s cold, he’ll probably just pull on an old, white woolen hat.

Now that you know your Catholic clerical headgear, make sure that you visit Rome with your parish priest that he’s properly attired. Who knows – the Pope might spot his hat and decide he wants to swap, and you wouldn’t want to be unprepared.


Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s latest book, The Romance of Religion, will be published in February. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.

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