It’s always good to spice up headlines by combining nouns with the word “Gate”. Readers are instantly transported to the murky times of presidential cover-ups and “Deep Throat”. Besides Watergate, there’s Contra Gate, Travel Gate, and of course, Goose Gate. Wait, what? Well, I’ll have more to say about that last one soon enough. As an aside, as if we hadn’t already had an aside — making this a digression to a digression, which is a new one — you might like to check out this exhaustive list of -gate scandals.
I have doubly digressed. My point, now that I have arrived at one, is to note the strange controversy around “Stole Gate”. If you’ve missed the details, there is some hullabaloo around the choice of vestments Pope Benedict wore on his recent visit to Westminster Abbey. It turns out that clergy don’t just reach into the closet and grab the first thing they find. Especially not this pope. What looked like a slightly tacky stole that might have been on close-out in your local church goods supplier was actually a precious antique and a slap in the face of Anglicans. Maybe.
Understanding the subtleties of global diplomatic intrigue is way over my pay grade. Forget about grasping the nuances of papal messaging and attire. Don’t even start with the intricacies of papal head gear. But here’s what we know.
Benedict was to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury in the very epicenter of Anglicanism, Westminster Abbey. This had to be a big deal, even for the dude who runs the entire Roman Catholic church. So what did he put on for this occasion? A stole made as a gift for Pope Leo XIII. Who’s that, you say? Pope Leo is the one who ruled that all Anglican ordinations are “absolutely null and utterly void”, which means that all Anglican sacraments are worthless. Marriages, Eucharists, and Confessions ministered by Anglican priests all count for naught in the eyes of the papacy.
If you were going to be in Westminster Abbey trying to put on your “nice” face, maybe you’d shy away from a reminder of the guy who said that every service celebrated in Westminster Abbey is “absolutely null and utterly void”. You might reach out to your vestment palace (I assume the pope has at least a couple of those) and get something neutral.
So perhaps some minor functionary messed up. “Oh, here’s a nice one, and that Leo guy had something to do with the Anglicans — can’t remember what — so we’ll pack it for trip.” But of course, the people choosing vestments for a papal visit would know their recent papal history very, very well. “Ah, let’s see. How about if we send a shot across their bow by reminding them whose holy mojo counts and whose doesn’t.” And then there was a flash of brilliance: “Oh, and ring up the speech writer and have B16 mention how he is the only and true successor of St. Peter while he’s standing there in Westminster Abbey, dedicated to St. Peter. That’ll get ’em.”
I’d like to believe that the Vatican wasn’t sending the latter message, but any other possibility is hard to fathom. Of course, they wouldn’t have my flip tone, but I’m not so good at channeling bureaucratic Latin. You get my point. I continue to be puzzled by Episcopalians and Anglicans who worry about the “ecumenical consequences” of things we do, since we are talking about a church who shows so little respect for Anglicanism. We are not, in their eyes, even a church. We are only an “ecclesial community.”
Next time I’m in the Vatican, maybe I’ll wear my “fooey on you” stole. OK, I don’t have one. Yet. But I might get something just for that occasion with “Saepius Officio” embroidered on the front.