Ask Father Leo: Why do religious leaders wear ‘goofy’ hats?

Dear Fr. Leo,

I’m sorry but those bishops’ hats (mitres?) seem just goofy to me. Where did they come from? What is the meaning behind the headgear worn by bishops, archbishops, the pope, etc? – Q

Dear Q,

In one sense they are kind of silly, but then so is just about every other kind of ornamental headgear if you think about it. Just look at any European monarch! But like all symbolic garments, it has a rich history in the life of the Catholic Church.

One of the remarkable things about the Church is that it does not eliminate a culture, but rather lives within that culture and transforms it from within. As such, when we encounter something in a culture that is useful for promoting the gospel, we make use of it, often modifying its original. For example, the very shape of our church buildings has its origin in the Roman basilica, or public building. The use of symbolic colors to help an illiterate population in medieval Europe was also used by the Church to help people understand the liturgical calendar. Even Christmas trees and wreaths have their origins in the cultures of northern Europe. This continues in the present day. Locally, if you have ever been to St. Andrew Kim Parish on Lake Otis, you will notice that the Korean community uses a gong instead of chapel bells during the Eucharistic prayer. And of course, one of the most powerful expressions of respect for the written Word of God is the way the Samoan community at St. Benedict’s enthrones and processes the Book of the Gospels.

It’s the same with the bishop’s ceremonial headdress. The word itself comes from the Greek language and simply means “cap.” Most sources agree that its use originated in the Church of Rome, certainly by the fifth century, with the pope wearing a short, conical cap, a symbol of his rank as chief shepherd. Eventually, the privilege of wearing the mitre was granted by the pope to other prelates, and eventually to all bishops as well as abbots and even some abbesses, and other clerics such as protonotary apostolics, and certain chapters of canons. As the practice went north of the Alps, the shape of the mitre changed. By the 14th century, it took on its current look with the two peaked “horns” and the two “lapets,” the bands which hang down the back. During the Renaissance, mitres got outrageously tall and elaborate, but in recent decades they have shrunk down to more dignified dimensions.

The mitre is very rich in symbolism. On one hand, it represents the bishop’s authority as chief legislator. Innocent III wrote in the 12th century, “the two horns are the two testaments and the two fringes are the spirit and the letter (of the law.)” The two horns also recall the rays of light that shone from the head of the great lawgiver, Moses, as he descended Mt. Sinai with the two tablets of the Law. The prayer that is said when the mitre is placed on a new bishop’s head recalls the “helmet of salvation” that St. Paul refers to in his Letter to the Ephesians, 6:17.

Contrary to what you might think, there is no historical basis to the idea that the mitre symbolizes the “tongues of fire” that rested upon the heads of the apostles and the Blessed Mother at Pentecost. However, the idea has come into fashion in recent years.

So, yes, it may be a silly hat, but it is a silly hat with over a millennium of history within the life of the Church and rich in symbolism, representing, among other things, the bishop’s authority to govern within his diocese as successor to the apostles.


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