Dear Good Shepherd Parishioners,
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been wearing a peculiar look- ing hat at different parts of the Mass on Sundays and weekdays, and you may have wondered what it is. I thought I would use my column this week to shed some light on this seldom used liturgical garment called the biretta.
A biretta is a square cap with three or four pointed ridges, often adorned with a pom or tassel at the top center. It is worn as a ceremonial hat by Catholic clerics of many ranks, from cardinal down to seminarian. Cardinals wear red birettas, bishops wear purple, and priests, deacons and seminarians wear black.
The word biretta is Italian, although it likely evolved from the Medieval Latin word “birrettum.” This word literally means hooded cloak. Centuries ago, the biretta was simply a cap similar to the “pileus,” a skullcap worn by the Catholic clergy. The cap was worn under larger hats for a simple reason — protection against the cold. Given its practical benefit, church clerics and secular officials began to wear the early biretta in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Priests traditionally wore the biretta during High Masses, more elaborate ceremonies that included singing, the use of incense, and the participation of deacons and sub-deacons. The Catholic Church no longer classifies Masses as either High or Low, but Catholics some- times still use the term “High Mass” to describe special, or more solemn occasions.
In the past 50 years or so, the biretta has fallen out of use. Honestly, I am not sure if anyone can give an answer as to why, but it is something I personally like to use at Mass.
Just like anything we do repeatedly, the Mass can become something we take for granted, or view as mundane and ordinary. When this happens, we can go into “autopilot” at Mass and not really pay much attention to what is going on or think about what we are doing. This is even true for the priest at Mass!
One way we can fight against these tendencies at Mass is to make intentional actions against them by doing things that increase our sense of reverence. Ways of doing this include taking time for silence before Mass, looking over the readings before Mass, or wearing more formal clothing among other things. I feel that the biretta is something small that, when combined with other things, adds a level of solemnity and formality to the celebration of Mass which, even in ordinary time, is something which we should strive never to view as ordinary, or to approach out of a sprit of routine.