The pope is globally known as the most prominent Christian figure. He meets with presidents, kings, and parliaments, and speaks on the most pressing issues of the day at places like the United Nations.
For Catholics, however, he is more than just a figurehead or inspiring leader. He is the Vicar of Christ himself, the rock on which the Church was founded, the guardian of the deposit of the faith, and the supreme authority on faith and morals. He is the beloved Holy Father to whom Catholics look for guidance, moral teaching, and practical wisdom.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 882, summarizes the popes office as follows:
The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.” “For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”
Suffice it to say, there’s much more to the pope than meets the eye!
But speaking of appearances, have you ever wondered why the pope wears white when priests and bishops wear black? Well, here’s why!
The History of the White Cassock
The garment the pope ordinarily wears is a white cassock. The origins of the white papal garments are usually attributed to Pope St. Pius V (1566-72), due to the fact that he was a Dominican friar before becoming pope, and Dominicans wear white. Pius V simply wanted to preserve his white Dominican cassock, the logic goes.
While this story makes sense, the truth is a bit more complicated, because the first recorded mention of a pope wearing white actually occurs nearly 300 years before Pope St. Pius V!
The earliest documents describing papal attire focus primarily on his red cloak, with red being the most prominent color associated with the papacy. No mention is made of a white cassock until Pope Gregory X ordered a document outlining papal ceremonies, known as the Ordo XIII, compiled in 1274.
In the Ordo, the ceremonies for the pope’s coronation were described in detail. Upon taking office, the pope was to wear a red cope, mozzetta, and shoes and a white cassock.
But if the white cassock has nothing to do with the Dominican order, what does it represent?
Fortunately, we don’t have to wonder. William Duranti, Bishop of Mende, one of the greatest medieval liturgists, tells us in his book Rationale, in which he interprets the many symbols of papal ceremonies:
“the Supreme Pontiff always appears dressed in a red cloak. Beneath it, however, he wears a white vestment: because white signifies innocence and charity; the external red symbolizes compassion… in fact the Pope represents the person of the One who for our sake stained his clothing red” (III, chapter XIX).
So there you have it. While the true origins of the papal white are lost in the shrouds of time, it goes back to the earliest centuries of the church. And the meaning is clear: white represents innocence and love — two attributes of Christ himself, whom the pope represents as his vicar on Earth.