The subject of that odd square hat that goes on round heads has come up in the blog of my dear brother in the priesthood, Fr Jonathan Munn in Get a hat, get a head! I still have the birettas I wore at seminary. Most of us wore them with a pom-pom, but some of us went like the Oratorians, more romano, with a tiny loop of thread instead of the pom-pom like on the Cardinal’s red biretta. We were in full reaction against Gallicanism and our MC encouraged us to go the whole hog. Romanità!

I very rarely wear a biretta these days. I suppose I have grown slack like the French priests of after World War II. I returned to Anglicanism and adopted more of a pre-baroque aesthetic. Many of my Roman things have remained like “fiddleback” vestments. My lace albs are retired and I have a couple of good English plain albs. Nevertheless, I belong to a diocese in the ACC where many of the Roman customs of my old seminary days are observed. I think that diversity in such matters is a good thing. At Synod Masses, I have not as yet been asked to function as deacon or subdeacon, so have generally served in a lesser capacity which involves not wearing a biretta. Idem when I play the organ at my Bishop’s church, I wear a surplice and put on my stole for Communion. I have nothing against the biretta, but it just no longer seems to be part of my ecclesiastical dress.

Another aspect has made a difference to my coiffure – my long hair. I tie it up into a ponytail when in ecclesiastical dress, probably not unlike the fashion of the eighteenth century. That would not exclude the wearing of a biretta when celebrating Mass in one of our parishes in England or functioning as deacon or subdeacon. Liturgically, it is worn when the cleric is sitting (and by all clerics in choir for the Office) or by a priest on his way to the altar and on leaving it to return to the sacristy. For my hair, I use a simple black elastic hair tie, since the old black ribbon as was worn with a bag wig would look absurd these days. I only wear my three-cornered hat when on boating events like the Route du Sable, which of course has nothing to do with my priestly life.

The biretta has also been worn with outdoor dress in Italy: the cassock without a cincture and a cape, as can be seen in the Don Camillo films made in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. It was generally a mark of being a member of the clergy in one’s own parish, and the capello romano, the Roman hat, was worn elsewhere. Some of us wore our birettas round seminary, but found they quickly got grubby and wore out. It would seem to be an abuse for seminarians to traipse around in birettas. They are better worn in chapel for the Office and Mass only.

I can’t imagine a Canterbury cap being used liturgically. As Fr Jonathan explains, it is floppy and soft, and takes both hands to put it on and take it off. It is really part of a cleric’s street dress. I ought to do some research into liturgical head dress in pre-Reformation times. The Orthodox “stove pipe” might give us some idea, but it can’t be put on and taken off in the fashion of a Roman biretta as the clerics cover and uncover (for example for the Gloria Patri at the end of each psalm). Some of the Oriental Churches have their clerics wear special hoods or even turbans.

The four-cornered (horned) biretta is a part of academic dress, typically for a doctorate in theology or canon law. Allegorical interpretations and numerical symbols are interesting, as is the explanation Fr Jonathan gives. In England, there is the academic “mortar board” that has quite a lot in common with the Roman biretta, but I have never seen it used liturgically. Another part of academic dress is the university or college hood. At one time, the hood could be used to cover the head. We could conclude that medieval clergy, like monks, used a hood when sitting during Office and Mass.

Wearing a hat for a gentleman has always been the done thing. Working men in the early twentieth century wore a cap. As a schoolboy, I wore a cap with the school’s arms like on my blazer pocket. At St Peter’s in York, headwear had been done away with when I was there (uniform was a brown jacket and dark grey trousers, a white shirt with a brown or sports tie – best suit on Sundays for chapel), but the usual public school hat is a top hat or the straw boater. The bowler hat was de rigueur for bank and other office workers in the City of London until very recently. My Bishop is very fond of his trilby. I have never been much of a one for hats, though I appreciate a hoodie with the hood up when I am in casual dress in cold weather. As mentioned, when in clerical dress, I tie my hair up into a low ponytail and am either bare-headed or might wear my Roman hat.

Many things from my old seminary days have dropped out of use. I never had buckled shoes. I gave my feraiolo away to a friend who wanted it. I can’t stand the Roman collar, and would like to wear something softer under the cassock collar, perhaps a very simple jabot. Given the choice, I would go fully eighteenth century, but one does not have the right to draw one’s priestly state into ridicule. There are limits! Many were quite outraged by the way some of us dressed at Gricigliano. It is important to be simple and unselfconscious. It takes courage to wear clerical dress in public, so our style needs to be simple and plain. Being plain is also a part of spiritual asceticism, and I see a considerable amount in the example of John Wesley, the Curé d’Ars and others.

Fr Jonathan approaches another subject – the Bishop’s mitre. In liturgical Churches like ours, it is important to retain the mitre. It is the symbol by which everyone recognises the Bishop. All the same, there are rules governing its use. It is not worn outside liturgical services or with street dress.

Anachronism? In secular life, I am far from being a dapper! I wear a suit only reluctantly and when necessary, either with a clerical shirt or collar and tie. It is rarely necessary in my life, since I do my secular job at home. Where I live in France, the cassock is seen as a symbol of traditionalist clergy with right-wing ideologies, and the clerical suit as a conservative priest from a Roman Catholic diocese like Versailles. I occasionally wear the clerical suit, for family ceremonies where I am expected to be seen as a priest but behaving very discreetly. The long hair helps to set me apart from the hackneyed stereotypes!

In an ideal world, a priest is a gentleman and looks after his attire. He behaves with courtesy in society, knows how to hold a knife and fork and covers his face when sneezing or coughing. Such was my upbringing at home and at school. In the world as it has become, we are much of the time in the catacombs – obliged to be discreet and show our priestly character differently. Sometimes we have to be hidden to serve God and his people another time and in another place. I am very conscious of this. Also I am married, and I was too naive to believe that a lay woman would have any real understanding of the priestly vocation or sympathy with it – in spite of protestations to the contrary. One has to be very careful, and know how to wait and discern.

I’m not much of a “biretta man” but I have nothing against their appropriate use.

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10 Responses to Birettas

  1. As I am unqualified to write about fashion statements, liturgical or otherwise, I shall remain silent. And while I was tempted to say, “Except perhaps to titter”, I shall refrain from such uncharitable expressions.

  2. Ian says:

    Just a small observation, Father. I recall in the early 1990s attending Mass at St Gabriel’s, Warwick Square for the Vigil of Charles, King & Martyr. The three sacred ministers wore copes and mortar boards. I do not know if this was supposed to represent some sort of tradition, or if it was pure affectation.

    • It sounds very odd. At our Anglican ordinations, the Bishop wears a cope, and puts on the chasuble just before the Offertory. I have never seen the liturgical use of mortar boards. A Google search brought up this old article by Fr Hunwicke on the biretta. So much for “bobbles”. I’m glad I left the Institute of Christ the King before they introduced all the blue stuff!

    • ed pacht says:

      It would appear that an Old High Church interpretation of the Ornaments Rubric used the cope instead of the chasuble (and perhaps also for dalmatic and tunicle? That I don’t know), My understanding is that Laud was consistent in his use of the cope. As for headgear — that sounds strange. Are you sure they were mortarboards? Could they have been overly stiff Canterbury square caps?

      • Ian says:

        I am pretty certain they were mortarboards, even though it was a very long time ago. I recall much comment being made about it all at the time. The whole performance was distinctly odd. I was told afterwards that the Mass was arranged in connection with a meeting of a dining club which claimed to be a continuation or revival of a suppressed Irish Cathedral Chapter. The clerical and lay members all held canonries or lay offices in the supposed chapter. They were all unmarried (if one can still use that euphemism!). The Diocese of London was like that back then.

  3. Warwickensis says:

    Conceivably, the “mortar board” used could be the “Bishop Andrewes” cap used for Doctorates in Divinity from Cambridge. Archbishop Laud is famously pictured in such a cap. It’s a floppier version of the “mortar board”.

    • Ian says:

      I suppose it could have been – it is such a long time ago. But that would hardly be less odd, and to the best of my knowledge the then Vicar (now a Priest of the Ordinariate) was not a Cambridge DD.

      • Warwickensis says:

        I seem to remember a picture of Abp Cosmo Lang flanked by two priests in Bishop Andrewes caps – they probably weren’t DDs either. Perhaps it’s just a breed of Anglicans replacing the biretta with an “Anglicised” version?

  4. Ian says:

    Probably not in the least bit relevant, but the Supreme Magus of the Societas Rosucriciana in Anglia has a similar hat. See page 2 of this:
    for a not very good picture!

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