The first decisions required of a man elected in the conclave are prescribed. He must answer the question: “Do you accept?” He must choose his name. After those momentous decisions, the ceremony has its own momentum that carries the newly burdened man along.
On March 13, 2013, Pope Francis made another decision in those first few minutes. It signaled early on what sort of pope he would be. He decided he would not dress as other popes before him did. That he knew so soon and with such confidence that he would not do as his still living predecessor did, and as that long line of those before Benedict did, gave us an early indication of how Pope Francis conceived of himself as successor of St Peter.
The white papal cassock – technically a “simar” as it has the shoulder cape indicating the rank of a bishop – is basically the pope’s ordinary clothes when he is visible to others.
And not just when with others. In the 2010 interview book, Light of the World, Peter Seewald, who had spent a lot of private time with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, asked about the sartorial side of papal life: “Instead of a cassock, does he sometimes wear a sweater in his free time?”
“No,” replied Pope Benedict XVI. “That is a legacy left to me by the former second secretary of Pope John Paul II, Mgr Mieczysław Mokrzycki, who told me: ‘The Pope always wore a cassock, and so must you’.”
So he did. It was indicative of Benedict’s humility that he accepted instruction on this point from John Paul’s junior secretary. Even in his free time he would conform to the office placed upon him.
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