The Biretta

One of the delights in reading old books that comment on the liturgy, is that they often provide profound explanations of the meaning of the various things we say and do during the sacred liturgy. One example of this is in my post from yesterday, where I explained what a certain hand gesture meant at the start of the singing of the Gloria at Mass.

Now it is important to recognize that in many cases, these meanings were applied retroactively and were the fruit of contemplation of the centuries-long celebration of the Church’s mysteries by her ministers. It is not as if some committee sat down at some point beforehand and determined that a certain gesture should be inserted into the liturgy to signify a certain thing. In many cases, what was done developed organically, in terms of local customs that later became consolidated and more widespread practice. Commentators, scholars, and saints then recognized meaning in those gestures and shared them for the edification and instruction of all.

So, to the issue at hand… What is the meaning of the biretta? The biretta is the “three horned hat” (tricorno), square in shape with three fins on the top, sometimes a pom (as shown in the photo of the present author above), sometimes without (I have one of those also). There are also variations for different statuses and different contexts. For example, monsignors can have some color on their birettas (piping and poms, depending on rank), whereas bishops can have some variations including the base color being different, and cardinals always have a red biretta with no pom on it. Then there are the academic birettas, which have four fins if the person holds a doctorate (three if their degree is a licentiate) and may have colored piping to signify which discipline they studied. (See something about mine HERE.) Academic birettas are worn for academic functions, not during the liturgy. Other birettas, like the one in the photo above, are worn during liturgical offices/celebrations.

But what is the meaning of this unusual hat? The answer is that there really isn’t one. At least, not in the sense that it finds some root in biblical precedents or some other meaning that various authors have promoted down through the years. Practically every old book that comments on these things that I consulted only rehearsed the history/origin of this hat, including an etymology of its name, and then described its proper use. None of them attributed some mystical sense to it.

Whereas certain hats, like the Bishop’s miter (the “pointy hat”) have biblical roots going back to the Old Testament, the biretta more or less grew out of local customs that then developed and became widespread. In the last 50 years or so its use had practically faded, being a casualty of the mania to throw out so many of our traditions and “simplify” our worship — though now it is enjoying a “comeback” as often younger clergy (not always) discover the “treasures new and old” in the Church’s storeroom (Matthew 13:52).

For me, one of the things that the biretta accomplishes is to help obscure the priest’s individual persona. I have written about this before in connection with the sacred vestments (see HERE) — the priest is called to “clothe himself with Christ” and not put his own ego on display while celebrating the sacred mysteries, since he acts in persona Christi capitis. Consider, for example, St. John Chrysostom’s mystical vision of what the priesthood is in the context of Holy Mass:

For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances; and very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself, instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers.

Fearful, indeed, and of most awful import, were the things which were used before the dispensation of grace, as the bells, the pomegranates, the stones on the breastplate and on the ephod, the girdle, the mitre, the long robe, the plate of gold, the holy of holies, the deep silence within. But if any one should examine the things which belong to the dispensation of grace, he will find that, small as they are, yet are they fearful and full of awe, and that what was spoken concerning the law is true in this case also, that what has been made glorious has no glory in this respect by reason of the glory which excels.

For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshipers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? Oh! What a marvel! What love of God to man! He who sits on high with the Father is at that hour held in the hands of all, and gives Himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp Him. And this all do through the eyes of faith!

(First posted here)

The priest is indeed called not to put his own personality on display but to represent Christ. Thus he covers his street clothes, he maintains custody of his gaze (see HERE), he doesn’t tell cheap jokes and try to entertain, he says “The Lord be with you” instead of “Good morning” as a greeting, etc. It’s not about the priest, it’s about Christ.

I think for many priests who have “rediscovered” the use of the biretta, the above consideration factors into it.

There is also the incarnational element. The biretta is not kept on for the whole celebration. It is worn during the procession in and the procession out. Otherwise, it is worn only while sitting or preaching. But even then, it is doffed or removed whenever there is a mention of the Holy Name, the name of the Blessed Mother, or the name of the day’s saint. These physical gestures of removing it at certain times emphasize the reverence that is due to the One and the ones whom we honor and celebrate.

Is there some profound meaning attached to this hat? No, not really. But its use has been found beneficial for many: for their own identity as priests, for their own piety.

That said, it is clear that others besides priests may wear the biretta. Seminarians may do so in certain cases, as well as deacons, priests, bishops, and cardinals. Even a few religious orders (such as the Norbertines, the feast of whose founder, St. Norbert, is today — June 6) have a biretta, though many religious orders have other customs of head-covering. The pope is the only bishop who traditionally does not wear a biretta in any context.

(I am happy to endorse Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s Biretta for Seminarians Project — HERE)

Whether we’re talking about hand gestures or headgear, to many nowadays these considerations seem as so much minutia and wasted time. There are, indeed, many who want our worship to be casual and “free”. Look at the designs of so many modern churches, reflective of this mentality, and thus not really looking like sacred spaces. See and hear how some clergy ad lib prayers and otherwise make the liturgy up. I personally welcome the rediscovery of our interesting and unique traditions — even those things that do not have mystical meanings attached to them –; especially when they help us to recover greater solemnity and sacrality in what we do and how we carry ourselves.

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