Whenever I appear to offer Mass at a new parish, it is generally the case that upon exiting people have questions for me. Specifically, they have one question, “What’s the deal with the hat?” I’m only too happy to answer questions of this sort. Friends, let us not be indifferent to the fine craft of millinery – beauty in all things, yes?
The clerical hat, called a biretta, that has emerged from the mysterious depths of the past and made its appearance in the rubrics for a solemn mass and other ecclesiastical functions has a long and unclear history. The word itself seems to be derived from birrus, referring to a hood on a cloak, showing the gradual path by which hats in general seem to have evolved. The biretta was not always as resplendent as it is today and began life as more of a skull cap with far less luft (luft is everything, especially in the finely-tuned world of cycling caps, which you will notice are also referred to as birettas). The need to take it on and off during Mass led to the development of the three ridges at the top, which offer a natural handhold. In the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the biretta is less well known (thus the confusion when mine shows up on the scene) but remains a valid sartorial option because, of course, it has a long and venerable place in liturgical tradition. It, along with the maniple, has never been repressed.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on the infamous head-covering passage in 1 Corinthians, part of which is St. Paul explaining that a man who prays ought to uncover his head, explains the spiritual meaning of the hat, writing,
First…man existing under God should not have a covering over his to show he is immediately subject to God… Secondly, to show that the glory of God should not be concealed but revealed; but man’s glory is to be concealed. Hence it says in Ps 115 (v. 1): ‘Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name give the glory.’
Perhaps this is my own private devotion, but it seems to me that the biretta is worn specifically that it might be taken off. The Sacred Ministers wear it in procession to the foot of the altar and it is immediately removed. It is only recovered while seated, while preaching, and upon reaching the foot of the altar again for the recessional. To apply this more personally, although I expect other priests would say the same, the reason I wear the biretta is because it helps me pray better. I am reminded that in climbing the steps to the altar I enter a sacred space – I am humbled before the presence of God and the glory of a priest is but a reflection of the glory of Christ. In offering the Mass I am not about to put on a show or draw attention to myself, I am there to intercede for the faithful and become a sacrificial victim.
This is heady stuff (ahem) and may seem in our iconoclastic age to even be a tad ridiculous, but as the Venerable Fulton Sheen reminds us, God also has a sense of humor:
Do we not say that a person has a sense of humor if he can “see through things” and do we not say that a person lacks a sense of humor if he cannot “see through things”? But God made the world according to such a plan that we were constantly to be “seeing through things” to Him, the power, the wisdom, the beauty, and the source of all that is. In other words, the material was to be a revelation of the spiritual, the human the revelation of the divine, the fleeting and the passing, the revelation of the Eternal.
In other words, hats are serious business and simply because they are of the physical realm doesn’t mean that they don’t have spiritual implications, but this also means that the point isn’t quite the hat itself. So we have some freedom to exercise a bit of whimsicality about it, and God is perhaps smiling along with us. Father Hunwicke strikes the appropriate note when he describes his biretta in a tone that I feel justified in interpreting as akin to the love of an old friend,
My own biretta, in constant use since I was deaconed in 1967, has lost the pristine gloss it possessed when I first bought it in Vanpoules. Having sustained showers of rain more often than I care to remember when I was stumbling across country churchyards in front of an undertaker, or panting up the irregular hillside of the cemetery at High Wycombe, or going round the village on sick calls during winter blizzards, it is somewhat faded and warped.
My own beloved biretta isn’t of quite so august an age, but yes the sheen is beginning to slowly diminish to a color I can only describe as “Not Black,” and yes it only makes me love it more. The applicable analogy is the sight of the handful of respectable gents one unfailingly glimpses ensconced in the cracked leather chairs of the sitting room in any club of a certain standing such as, say, The Drones, who appear to the untrained eye to have collected their wardrobe from the bottom of a pile of tweed suits at the local charity clothing shop. In fact, the suits are almost certainly Savile Row and were purchased sometime past during their glory years at Oxford. They now have holes in the elbows and are threadbare across the collar but are only more beautiful for their age. The point being that old things are wonderful, whether it is a particular old thing or more generally speaking an ancient tradition. A biretta falls into both categories.
Birettaquette is vital, and we must mind our manners. A priest doesn’t wear a biretta haphazardly or as an expression of individuality, but instead conforms to a set of well-prescribed rules. In this, I find comfort in following the constant ritual practice of the Church, which diminishes my own personality in the liturgy. Mindfulness is a necessity and, as Fr Z. reminds us, the most important rule is DON’T SIT ON IT! Because, “That crunch sound makes angels weep.”
It would be a shame to disfigure so magnificent a hat as a biretta. In this matter, the pom is everything. If it falls flat, I suspect the ability of the priest to chant “on key” (in scare quotes because learned musicians assure me that there is no “key” to speak of in the modern sense) falls flat as well. Don’t ask me how, it’s a mysterious, spiritual quality and, as we all know, God’s grace escapes human sensibilities. Much like a bird of paradise sings joyfully under fantastic plumage, a celebrant too will benefit from a proper pom. My take on this is a bit unorthodox I know because, technically speaking, the pom is not necessary to the Roman Biretta. Rumor has it that it’s a French accretion, so priestly fathers, be aware that you may be betraying your finely honed sensibilities of Roman simplicity by placing the pom upon your brow. In my opinion? Worth it.