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The Use of the Biretta


Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy

Chapter 26


“You have no further need of my services, Father,” said the Doctor, on finding the Antiquary out in the driveway, inspecting the no longer new “Scoot,” at the wheel of which sat proudly our corpulent yet energetic friend, the Liturgiologist. “All you need now is to take things easy for a while longer, and get plenty of fresh air. Get Father, here, to take you out for a good ride, not too long, every day.”


The Liturgiologist beamed on the medico. “Just what I’ve been telling him,” he said. “But he wouldn’t listen to me. Now it’s ‘Doctor’s orders’ and he’ll have to!”


“Nothing less than that would get me into that machine with you at the wheel!” laughed the Antiquary.


“Oh, Father is a good driver,” put in the Doctor. “I’ve been watching his progress in the manly art, and I assure you he knows his business.”


“Dear me,” murmured the Antiquary, “have I been ill so long!”


“Climb in, Pere, while the Doctor is with you and get your first taste of the new regime.”


Once bundled into the “Scoot,” the Antiquary gave the usual interesting exhibition of reflexes, inhibitions, and those other psychic and physical phenomena known in the vulgar tongue as “back seat driving.” There was almost need of the Doctor’s ministrations when the Liturgiologist encountered traffic, but they got back safely to the rectory, where the medical man pronounced the Antiquary’s cure complete. “If you’re strong enough to stand that ride, Father, you don’t need my medical services. But you may want me in my surgical capacity!”


It was only then that it was discovered that the Antiquary, in the excitement of his trip with the Liturgiologist, had worn his biretta all the time!


“Serves me right,” said he, when the laughter had subsided and the Doctor departed, “I know well enough I’ve no business wearing it outside of the church.”


“Why not?” queried the Liturgiologist, with a suspicious glint in his eye. “Surely, Pere, you haven’t the strange notion (which, to be sure, even some of the high binders share) that the biretum is only to be worn during the liturgical functions. Wapelhorst says, ‘Biretum juxta rescriptum (S.R.C.D. 2877) non est chorale indumentum’ and further, ‘Biretum non est tegumentum destinatum ad solas functiones liturgicas.’”[1]


“Did you say ‘biretum?’” slyly asked the Liturgiologist.


Tta, ttum, tum!” replied the Liturgiologist with a grin. “Latin, t-u-m; Eyetalian, t-t-a; English ‘cap.’[2] Fortescue says, ‘Clerks in holy orders have, in choir, a biretta, a square black cap with three ridges.’ Actually the ‘square cap’ is an appurtenance of the cassock (like the cloak or ferriola[3]), so the practice of the elder generation of clergy in wearing it most of the day, and even on occasion, when out for a drive, has the S.R.C. to back it.”


“But in church,” remarked the Antiquary, “it would almost seem that the biretta is put on only to be taken off!” “Precisely,” acceded the Liturgiologist. “Its practical utility as a protection to the head may be said to be obsolete. It remains a garment of dignity, worn ‘in accessu’ and ‘in recessu,’[4] in choir when the clergy sit (not worn, of course, if the Blessed Sacrament is exposed), in Processions without the Blessed Sacrament or a relic of the Cross, during sermons, while hearing confessions, and while the exorcisms at baptism are being said.”


“How about the Dirge?” asked the Antiquary. “Some priests wear it for the Libera at Requiem Masses.”[6]


“Wapelhorst’s remark that it is worn by ‘the officiant and sacred ministers parati[5] outside the sanctuary,’ cannot refer to this abusive custom,” was the Liturgiologist’s rejoinder. “But in going to the church door to meet the corpse, for example, and returning to the sacristy after dismissing the funeral party, the sacred ministers wear the cap.”


“I must get a new one, Pere,” said the Antiquary sadly. “This old velvet one is getting shabby.”


“Hooray,” jeered the Liturgiologist. “Get a proper one this time!”


“Whatderyermean, proper one?” bridled the Antiquary.


“‘Velvet,’ says the precise Nainfa, in his book, The Costume of Prelates, ‘is exclusively reserved to the Pope.’ Not, of course, that his Holiness wears a velvet biretta, because in ecclesiastical etiquette ‘they ain’t no sich anymile!’[7] The academic four-horned velvet cap is really not a biretta at all. ‘Prelates use a silk biretta, but the cap of priests and clerics of lower rank must always be woolen,[8] and the cap should be ornamented by a tuft, not a tassel, and no cords’!”


The Antiquary ruefully regarded his battered old velvet biretta which had a tassel, and cords, and was lined with green.


“Black lining for priests, purple for papal chamberlains, crimson for other monsignori, green for bishops, red cardinals,” chanted the Liturgiologist. “I mean the lining, of course, according to Nainfa.”


“Never mind the inside of the thing,” said the Antiquary. “Run me down to Pusco’s[9] till I can get me a new outside!”

“Pharisee!” murmured the Liturgiologist.


1 The Latin rubrical texts read: “According to the rescript (2877), the biretta is not a choir vestment” and “The use of the biretta is not solely reserved for liturgical functions.”


2 Here the Liturgiologist is humorously giving the vowel endings for each language: in Latin, birettum (ttum), in “Eyetalian” (I-talian) biretta (tta), and in English, cap,  t-t-a (as in the musical rendering of t-tah!).


3 A type of clerical cape with an open front and ribbon ties at the neck.


4 Latin for “in accessing—entering” and “in recessing—leaving”.


5 The Latin term for the sacred ministers who are “vested” in Mass vestments such as the dalmatic and tunicle, or even cope.

6 See the article, Some biretta-quette for more on this rubrical matter.


7 Referring to a brand of clothing, but also tongue-in-check for “any such animal”.

8 That is, of broadcloth.

9 An abbreviated anagram for the (in)famous religious supply company.

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